You couldn’t find a more smelly, noisy, dirty place in George Town than the bus station (why is it always like that everywhere??? though actually in the rest of Malaysia it didn’t seem to be), nor a more squalid looking office than the travel place I’d booked my bus with (via online 12go Asia who are a great company for booking train or bus travel in Southeast Asia – thanks to “The man in seat 61” for all the detailed info online (and to Shiv for telling me about him; actually he writes about train travel elsewhere too with detailed local knowledge): https://www.seat61.com/index-mobile.htm )
So when I got on this bus I wondered whether it was truly the correct one. It looked a bit too…smart, somehow!
Also, the guys in the office didn’t come out to tell us our bus was here nor did the driver come out. He just parked about 20 yards away from the office on the dual carriageway under the bridge and waited. Thank God I noticed the time and also the Chinese guys who walked past me to go and investigate whether this was their bus. Most of the other waiting travellers were catatonic backpackers, sitting in a row on the random assortment of ex office furniture in a makeshift queue, staring into the middle distance in that kind of morning stupor of having got up too early and entering the traveller in between places zombie zone.
I showed the driver my paper ticket and he sighed and asked where I was going to. I said a destination that made sense to him, so he told me to put my luggage underneath and get on. After such attentive gentlemanly behaviour in George Town this was a bit of a shock! Still, on I got, and inside, the bus was so luxurious I again thought I’d made a mistake until I saw my seat numbered 4A (which seemed quite distinctive) was indeed vacant. I couldn’t actually reach the footrest it was so far away, but that didn’t matter because the seat had an inbuilt leg / footrest anyway. And approximately five times as much room as any bus I’ve ever been on before! And very effective air con and free WiFi, with the password printed in big bold lettering right at the front of the coach where everyone can see it.
Well, it’s an 8 hour journey from Penang down to the border with Singapore, so, just as well!
I wrote the rest of this as it was happening so switching tenses back to present, though it’s now past…:
Ah, a guy has just checked my ticket (an hour into the journey!) and ticked me off his list. So I’m definitely in the right place. (I was congratulating myself yesterday that I managed to fit in coming to the bus depot on my wandering, and the lady printed my ticket which I carefully put in my purse, only to find it had gone this morning! I have no idea how that happened. I even emptied out the bin in my hotel room and pieced back together the receipts that I’d ripped up, but no bus ticket. Well, in all my travelling this is the first ticket I’ve lost. I still had the email confirmation, so I went early to the depot (thanks Raj for driving me again!) and they printed me another voucher although it looked different this time, which made me nervous.)
To give a further insight into the anxiety of travelling, I’d taken a screenshot of the email booking, because I only have access to email when I can get WiFi (ie not at the smelly bus station). And I’ve taken so many photos and videos that despite going through and deleting a load, iCloud is completely deleting photos I delete instantly (though with a warning each time). I was so paranoid that my phone might somehow delete the screenshot of the confirmation, I took another two screenshots of it.
I will not miss this type of stress when I’m done.
I noticed the settlements along the Eastern side of Penang are better developed than George Town, in terms of roads, pavements, infrastructure etc. Because they are not a UNESCO world heritage site I guess. It really looks very western.
We drove on the incredibly long E28 bridge across to the mainland. Is this the longest bridge I’ve been on on this trip? I think it must be. It’s 24km (15 miles) long including 16.9km (10.5 miles) over water. Wow!…
…Well, so far on the mainland, the motorway has been extremely good road. And the greenery on either side pretty lush too. Full of palm tree plantations that I noticed flying over Kuala Lumpur, and plenty of green covered hills with occasional rivers running through.
Kuala Lumpur, about half way to our destination, looks from the viewpoint of the motorway pretty much like a western city with high rise apartment blocks, although they appear more spread out than they probably would be in England. And it has enormous concrete flyovers – in fact it looks like they’re just building either another huge road or a high tramline in sections near the road.
It’s noticeable that there are not so many urban areas down the length of Malaysia. But it’s entirely covered in greenery. The soil is an orangey colour, lending a brown/orange colour to the bigger rivers that I remember seeing some of from the plane.
We stopped at a rest stop around lunch time that had an outdoor canteen selling hot food and snacks. I’d stocked up on snacks the day before, but decided to brave the veggie area of the hot food and had a small plate of what I think was spinach, okra, aubergine and green pepper and fried tofu, which had all been cooked in oodles of oil with chilli and a bit of sweetness about it too. The tofu was particularly tasty and a bit less oily. Not bad for 3RM (56p!)
I’ve been teeming and ladling my Malaysian cash, trying to work out how much I’d need, but having done that for so long with Vietnamese currency, which is so tricky to handle because it’s mainly in tens of thousands of Dong, I got tired and over estimated what I’d need. Though I still don’t know how much it’ll cost me to get from Larkin terminal to Johor Bahru Sentral (JB) Terminal. Or to get from JB through passport control back to Singapore. I gave up trying to book that online and I’m glad because so far we’re half an hour later than publicised and also 1.25 hours away still! Hopefully I’ll have enough cash for whatever and it won’t all be terribly complicated or take too long. We shall see.
Palm oil must be a major industry for Malaysia, judging by the vast swathes of palm forests I’ve seen travelling down the country. The controversy from Europe and USA about it has been regarding its sustainability because of links to deforestation and recent widespread forest fires (and the subsequent impact on animal life/the ecosystem of while swathes of forested area). But there is a question of whether the negative publicity is partly motivated by alternative vegetable oil producers losing out to palm oil. I don’t think other vegetable oils will ever be able to compete with palm oil because of how easy it is to produce and how versatile it is. But the industry in Indonesia and Asia is complaining about the amount of regulation because although the big producers can afford to and should improve processes and sustainability, millions of much poorer people produce palm oil in these areas, and can ill afford to make the same improvements.
In some ways this trip has been one long geography lesson!
At various points along the way I’ve seen MacDonalds and KFC but not half as frequently as you would in the UK and certainly not at every stopping point.
Well, we’re two and a quarter hours later than advertised and now stuck in rush hour at 7:15pm coming into Larkin Terminal, JB, with thunder and lightning going on outside….
…Through asking people proactively (and constantly double and triple checking with several different people), I have transferred successfully to another bus driven by a toothless older guy who speaks very little if any English, that apparently will take me to Woodlands checkpoint for the princely sum of 1.90RM (35p). Then I guess there might be some passport control? Or maybe en route somewhere?? Who knows? Then I just have to get myself on the MRT (Singapore tube system) and I can find my way back ok.
The man in seat 61 did outline how this happens, but I found it difficult to nail down exactly which bus or train I should get at any point and why my bus was stopping at Larkin and not the JB Sentral place.
It’s dark now but I’m hoping to see the causeway and understand exactly how this works. Nothing quite like experiencing it! (Googling or Maps Me-ing public transport routes across this border was just confusing and both state their information is not up to date.)
So long Malaysia…
…Ah ok hello again Malaysia! Nobody has explained this properly. And there’s nobody official looking to ask either. So you get the shuttle bus from Larkin to JB Sentral. You get off still in Malaysia. You go through passport control. You walk down to bus platform A and find bus no 170 or 160 at area 4 or 3 down the escalator (how do people know all this??). You pay 1.50RM (the bus driver only takes small change and 5RM was not small enough for him. Thank God for Monzo. And contactless. Again.) Then he drives over the causeway to Woodlands. Then who knows what happens.
Why take one bus when three will do eh? There’s standing room only and I must admit my patience is wearing thin.
So now we go through Singapore passport control…where they also scan your luggage and do the metal detector thing.
We’re back to thumb prints not index finger prints here. It looks like I might have a half hour walk to get to the nearest MRT station once I’ve got through all this. It’s 20:18. I’ve been on the road for 12 hours.
I am unclear what the hold up is here. The passport control lady has just stopped sending people to the baggage people. Not enough baggage check machines I guess? Nor enough queuing room in that area.
Oh hang on no I think this is an MRT station as well. Thank God for that. So I should be able to get straight on and be there pretty quickly. I may just collapse into bed on arrival. After a nice cup of tea.
After 30 mins of waiting both the lady in front and I were turned away to go fill out another disembarkation card. Singapore are so slick at everything but are really bad at making it clear you need to do this and signposting you to where the blank cards are. And the pens don’t work either. Can’t believe I got caught twice by that. (Once at Changi airport too.) I needed the loo about half an hour ago but I daren’t go and lose my place in this infernal queue again! The trouble with travelling solo.
Carrying this backpack for an hour will probably have undone all the good work that masseuse did😱
Oh my goodness a shouty man is telling me there’s only one bus to the MRT (tube system) now. It’s 21:33. It took me a lot of walking following signs for taxis to find the bus stop. After about 10 minutes following random corridors suddenly there was a sign for “bus transfer to MRT”. No one I asked could tell me how to get to the MRT back where we all came out of passport control.
The shouty official is now saying I should get the 911 that just arrived to Woodlands MRT. It’s 21:45. Through a process of deduction and using screenshots of the MRT map I took earlier when I had WiFi, I have located Woodlands MRT stop on Maps Me. I’m watching the bus’s progress towards it like a hawk so I know when to get off. It’s confusingly a long way from the Woodlands checkpoint where I went through passport control.
Once I was in the MRT I was fine (having experienced it when I first arrived in Singapore before my Vietnamese and Malaysian Trip). I finally reached Shiv’s at 22:45. Oh my goodness. They’ve got my room all prepared for me, inc cooled jug of water. I collapse gratefully into bed.
This is why people book package holidays and tours isn’t it? It was great being immersed in with ordinary local people, as well as other travellers, though. And people tried to be helpful though they mostly didn’t have the information to be able to answer my questions.
Here endeth the blow by blow account of my return to Singapore!