Big Question Marks

Monday, July 6, 2009

Running on Malaysian Time

We're on the go again! A few days ago-- night of July 3rd-- we made it to Indonesia, but not without a bit of trouble first. Although we consider ourselves pretty good planners, careful travellers, and things usually work out along the way. Our quick jaunt through Malaysia proved us otherwise...

We left the bliss of the Thai islands on July 1st and took a very comfy night train across the border. By noon the next day, we'd had a seamless crossing over to Malaysia (receiving a three-month visa, free of charge-- why aren't more travellers taking advantage??) and soon ended up in a town called Butterworth. Now, although we quite enjoyed the name Butterworth, our research said there wasn't much of interest there; however, it was right on the west coast and the train station was walking distance to the ferry to Penang, an island with a lot of history that DID indeed sound interesting. For 1.20 Ringgit (about 30 cents), we scored round-trip ferry tickets and we were heading back out to sea for the night. We figured we'd do some sightseeing, absorb a bit of a new country in a scenic environment, and then the next morning we'd hop the bus to Kuala Lumpur, five hours away, as several bus companies told us. Our flight to Jakarta wasn't til 7pm so we figured we had oodles of time!

The city of Georgetown in Penang was pretty scenic-- old English colonial buildings, a fort, lots of old shophouses in Chinatown, grand mosques, and a CRAZY Little India district (chock full of flamboyant salesmen, loud music, sari shops, and even bottled cow urine in one grocery store, filed under "religious items"). Penang-- and possibly Malaysia as a whole-- had a very multicultural flavour. Our guesthouse was a bit of a slumhole: dark hallways, our walls didn't quite reach the floor, ripped-out pages of Playboy in a drawer, and the staff graciously allowed us one towel to share. But it was cheap, and we were really tired from the long haul across the border!

The next morning we hopped the ferry back to the mainland and got on an "ekspres" bus due to leave at 9:45am. Plenty of time, we thought, to get to KL. We settled back into our massive (we're talking movie-theatre-size!) reclining seats and got ready to head further south... except the bus kept sitting there until, oh, about 11am. Apparently it seems 9:45 means something else in Malaysian time! And then we hit construction on the mega-highway south. And then a traffic jam, and another. And then our driver decided to stop and wait for more passengers for what felt like an eternity at Ipoh and a few other stops along the way. We arrived in downtown Kuala Lumpur around 5pm, getting a bit panicked, as Air Asia requires customers to check in at least 60 minutes before.

We sprinted a few blocks through terrible traffic to the subway that would whisk us to KL Sentral station, where we could catch a super-fast airport "ekspres" train, that arrives in 28 minutes from the station to the airport (74km away!). Now that's efficiency! The panic dissipated a tiny bit...

We arrived at the airport at exactly 6:55pm, dashed up five floors of escalators to find a giant lobby of airline check-in counters. We just made it! we thought. Turns out we celebrated too soon. The only Air Asia desk around had two uniformed ladies sitting under a "customer service" sign. Sorry, they said, but check-in is at another terminal. OK, where is this other terminal? we asked. They ask us what time our flight is and then shake their heads. "It's 28 minutes away by taxi," they tell us. (Why is everything 28 minutes away in KL??) Check-in's nearly closed and there aren't any refunds for you either, boo hoo. Pleading did nothing.

But lucky us, we were still able to buy a plane ticket to Jakarta on the next flight out-- the last flight of the day at 8:50pm. Of course, it cost twice as much as our original one, and we couldn't transfer or buy the extra 5kg of luggage allowance that we had for our original flight (had to buy it 6 hours before, aha, more wasted money!), so somehow we had to shrink our usual 20kg each into 15kg, unless we wanted excess baggage charges. Lovely!

Pissed off with the contradictory attitudes towards transport schedules and then the bureaucratic rules where WE needed to be early, but no one else needed to run on time, we hopped in a taxi to the other terminal and asked our driver to drive extra fast. He was all too happy, and we rewarded him with a few presents-- a raincoat, drinks, books, whatever might have put us over the weight limit-- as we put on layer upon layer of clothing and our heaviest shoes, layered purses inside purses, and stuffed anything weighty into the carry-ons. We arrived in about 15 minutes, and dashed to the check-in desk like we were contenders on the Amazing Race. A smiling girl greeted us, weighed our bags-- 14.1 kg for Adrian and 15.7kg for Dayle-- and we cheered like we'd just won first place! A small victory... we treated ourselves to a leisurely McDonalds' snack and slowly made our way through security, and arrived in our departure lounge to find quite a lot of people hanging out. Later on, as we were fighting with our computer, trying to connect to the free wifi, we hear the announcement: "Flight AK392, we are now ready for boarding..." Yup, that's right, our 7pm flight, with its first boarding call just after 9pm. (pictured left) ARRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The morals of this story:
1. Murphy's Law can strike anytime.
2. You too, can shave 5kg off your baggage by wearing a lot of clothing and sneaking more stuff into your carry-on bag (which they never weigh) and oversized "purse". Just try not to sweat too much and make sure to pick up the 20kg carry-on like it weighs nothing at all.
3. Don't trust Malaysian bus companies to get you anywhere on time, even though Malaysia appears to be much more organized and modern than Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Burma put together.
4. Despite the similarities in spelling, "Ekspres" doesn't really translate to "Express" in Malaysia. It probably actually means "Silly tourist! We'll get there whenever we feel like getting there."