Never a dull moment when you board the local bus...
24.09.2009 - 24.09.2009 25 °C
To tell you about the time we’ve spent in the Cameron Highlands (a Malaysian hill town known for its tea plantations and strawberry farms), I have to begin with the journey.
Originally, we’d read that we could get a bus from Melaka to a town called Tapah, then transfer to a local bus to bring us to Tanah Rata, the main tourist town here in the Cameron Highlands. That turned out to be old information; the bus had been cancelled. Instead we would have to take a bus to Kuala Lumpur (which we’d hoped to bypass altogether), and change buses at the station for one that would go directly to Tanah Rata. Altogether this was going to take about seven hours.
I should mention here that virtually every bus we’d ever seen in Malaysia so far has been large, clean—even shiny—and mechanically sound, even the local buses, so we had no reason to suspect that we needed to be particularly choosy about the company we bought our tickets from. There are dozens of bus companies here, incidentally.
We arrived at the Melaka bus station just before 10 a.m. after a warm send-off from Teng, the owner of Discovery Café, who gave us a free bottle of water and surprise gifts for both kids. That wasn’t enough time to grab the 10 a.m. bus, so we bought tickets for 10:30 instead. The plan was to arrive in KL by 12:30 in order to get seats on the 1:30 “Super VIP” bus to Tanah Rata. The trip from Melaka to KL is two hours. That would be cutting it a little bit close, but as always, I assumed it would all run pretty smoothly. right?
Of course, our 10:30 a.m. bus didn’t actually leave until 11 a.m., and as we approached KL, we ran into heavy traffic. We didn’t arrive until 1:15, and the bus dropped us off not at the bus station, which would have been logical, but right smack in the middle of a busy street several blocks away from the bus station. We were the last people off since Chloe’s backpack got snagged in the overhead rack, and by the time we were ready to go, there was nobody left to follow, the bus driver had disappeared, and we had no idea where the bus station was. So off we headed in a big rush, hoping to find our way there in time to board the 1:30 bus while wondering how we were going to fit lunch in (since the trip to Tanah Rata from KL is 4.5 hours).
Running and sewer-dodging down the hot busy street with our packs and asking passersby for information, we did manage to find the station after some initial confusion. We settled all the bags on a bench and then I went running to look for the counter to book our next batch of tickets. There were, get this, no fewer than something like 89 different counters. Each counter sells tickets on behalf of different bus companies, and only to particular destinations. The system was completely unintelligible to me, so I was depending on touts at every corner wanting to direct me to the window they were associated with. There were 3 counters selling tickets to Tanah Rata, and at two of them I was told there were no more seats available today, and certainly none for the 1:30 VIP bus.
At the third counter, I got lucky—there were still tickets for the 3:30 bus. That would get us there after dark, on a local bus, but at least it would get us there that day, sparing us the need to go looking for accommodation in KL. So I bought them.
That accomplished, it was time to find some lunch and bathrooms. Finding them gave us the opportunity to have a good look around the grimy KL bus station. Outside the filthy women’s bathroom, there was a frail little man crouched in a corner gagging. The food court was a repellent display of whole barbecued ducks hanging by their necks (and other delicacies), and Chloe would have no part of it (not that I really wanted any either). The toilets were the usual mess of watery floors, disagreeable odors, squat toilets, stained, soapless sinks and people clearing their throats and spitting. There were also people wandering around wearing face masks, which made me wonder if there was something I should know; maybe it was just ordinary H1N1 fear.
The kids and I decided to look out on the street for better food choices while Mark waited with the bags. At the end of the ramp from the bus station we narrowly avoided stepping in a puddle of vomit. The whole experience left me desperately wanting a shower, but I settled for some Purell, coated everyone in it liberally, and found a KFC across the street. I’m all for sticking with the local cuisine and avoiding American chains, but no matter how hard I try, I just plain don’t like authentic Cantonese food, especially the kind that is sitting out in display cases in the tropical heat for hours before you eat it, especially when the choices are dominated by stewed chicken feet and other unappealing parts. Just not a big fan of lukewarm organ meats, I suppose.
Getting back on the bus was just as eventful as getting off. Despite the profusion of bus platforms in and near the station, we were told to cross the street, head right, and wait at a DiGicellular phone shop for our bus to Tanah Rata. Wondering if we’d been tricked into buying tickets for a ghost bus, we dutifully crossed the street and waited—and sure enough, the bus did come; in fact, it left on time.
That was the good part. We boarded what has got to be the only nasty, dirty, squeaky rattletrap bus in all Malaysia. The entire inside was coated in a layer of soot. There was a hatch in the roof near our seats that leaked when it rained. It made ominous noises every time it rounded a corner sharply or went over a bump. Actually, to be honest, it was still a much, much nicer bus than many we’ve been on in other countries—for example, India. It wasn’t overcrowded. It just wasn’t up to what we expected of a typical Malaysian bus.
Nonetheless, the ride was uneventful until about an hour or two in, when all of a sudden, as we were tearing down the highway, there was a sharp, loud, sudden cracking noise like a gunshot and I felt a strange vibrating impact on my left elbow. I turned and saw a smash mark on the window I was sitting at, with long cracks reaching out from its centre in several directions. Half of the passengers stood up to see what had happened, murmuring and chatting, while the bus driver pulled over to the side of the road. There was some shattered glass along the edge of the window by my arm, but I didn’t seem to be hurt. I got out of the seat, along with Mark, and we moved one seat behind. The driver got out of the bus to see what had happened while all the passengers continued standing and speculating.
It turns out the hole in the window was made by a rock flung by a slingshot—and apparently this has happened before, because there were similar marks elsewhere on the side of the bus (although this was the first to hit a window). We drove on, and an hour later, at Tapah, the driver pulled into a repair depot, where mechanics inspected the damage and temporarily taped the window up with a sheet of black sticky paper to cover the cracked spot. Mark took photos of the window, which I'm in the midst of uploading; check the gallery later for that one and a batch of others, including one of the giant swimming lizard of Melaka.
The rest of the trip went relatively smoothly; we did arrive in the dark, but were able to pay a tout 5 ringgits to bring us to the hotel of our choice, where there was a family room available. More news about our stay here in the Cameron Highlands in a subsequent post!