When planning a trip I usually dream about all the beautiful places, interesting people, fascinating cultures and exotic dishes that I’ll encounter along the way. I know that travelling can be hard and places disappointing but those thoughts barely come up during the planning stages of a trip. And most of the time these things are minor. You find yourself on the tourist bus, which takes longer and stops at all kinds of stores and restaurants but still gets you to where you want to go eventually. The hostel you booked for the first night in a new place turns out to be a mess and you have to find a new one the next day. All of these little things don’t really matter and make for good stories. The point in time when these stories become funny seems to be correlated to the frustration of the event, i.e. the more it sucks the longer it will take until you can laugh about it. I’m curious when we’ll be able to laugh about our visit to Malaysia.
The idea was to fly to Kuala Lumpur when our Thailand visa expired and then make our way down to Singapore from where I had booked a flight to Zurich for the interview. The first surprise upon arrival was that most signs, advertisements and TV shows in Malaysia seemed to be in English. The whole infrastructure of streets, stores, electrical installations and plumbing seemed more sophisticated and comfortable than in Thailand. However, this didn’t transfer into feeling more comfortable. Instead the parts of Malaysia that I got to see couldn’t live up to the high expectations that Thailand had set. We explored Kuala Lumpur for a few days and then decided to go to Tioman Island. We had heard good things about northern Malaysia but we had to make our way towards Singapore and therefore decided to check out this beautiful island on the southeast coast of the country.
The trip started with a bus ride across the country which took us through endless palm tree plantations as Malaysia is the second largest producer of palm oil. This devastation of rainforest in exchange for mono-cultures didn’t improve my opinion of Malaysia. But at least we were not on the tourist bus. This meant that we only did one quick lunch stop and didn’t have to tour any gems and souvenir stores. Upon our arrival in Mersing, the port for Tioman, we were welcomed by a man who runs the local travel office which sells the tickets for the ferry to the island. This was quite the change compared to the troops of salesmen that we had encountered everywhere in Thailand. Apparently there was an accident a few years ago and this company is the only one that is still allowed to operate ferry rides to Tioman. The travel office is also affiliated with most of the hotels on the island and the man offered to also arrange our accommodation. It seemed like we were getting a great deal for the ferry and four nights in a bungalow. Just like the trip to Chiang Rai it turned out that what seems to be too good to be true usually isn’t true. I’m starting to see a pattern…
We got to the island when it was already dark and went on a search for our resort. When we finally opened the door to our little bungalow we were welcomed by a swarm of mosquitos. Luckily we were carrying a mosquito net with us. Even if we don’t need it again on this trip it was totally worth carrying it around with us. Unfortunately the bed had seen better and most likely cleaner days but our inlay sleeping bags made this bearable, too. We ended the day with a delicious curry dish that was recommended to us by the waiter with the words ‘this isn’t spicy’. It tasted very good but we double checked with him because for us who both like spicy food it was definitely on the spicy side. He just laughed and said that they give it to children.
The next day we found out that the rest of the island wasn’t much cleaner than our bungalow and from there things went downhill fast. I got a fever, despite the mosquito net we still got plenty of bug bites and J got eaten by sand flies. Long story short we ditched the island after two nights and made a run for the border.
However this turned out to be more complicated than we imagined. As in many places in Southeast Asia the ferry that takes you from Tioman Island to Mersing is also timed such that it arrives after the last public transport option has departed. That usually leaves you with the options to take an overpriced cab or start looking for a room. We opted for the latter and managed to find a decent room as well as a tasty dinner. I was curious about the boar dishes on the menu but as expected this was just a way to sell pork in a country where most people are Muslims.
The next morning we got on a bus to Johor Bahru (JB) which is the town on the Malaysian side across the bridge from Singapore. This trip led us again through endless Palm Oil plantations but this time the road was much busier. Our bus had two drivers and not enough power for the overtaking maneuvers that they tried to pull off. This was compensated by honking at the trucks they were trying to overtake and followed by sometimes happy, sometimes angry discussions between the two.
But we made it to JB and got on another bus to the border. At the Malaysian side we had to get off the bus and clear customs. Then the same bus took us over to the Singapore side where we had to clear customs again. From there the bus took us into Singapore and all of a sudden people were using the lanes and leaving space in-between vehicles. At least the bus dropped us off at a tiny bus station without a map or any other way of orientation. Thus we knew that we were still in Asia. But one of the street signs sounded familiar and with the map that I had loaded on my computer we found the hostel quickly.