Overland from Singapore to Malaysia – A Race Against Time

The Perhentians: Malaysia’s postcard islands. We’d heard about them from our Malaysian friend who we’d met in Seoul and crossed paths with in Singapore… she’s awesome. She said if we were looking for relaxing on an island whilst in Malaysia, the Perhentians were it.

So we decide to take a night bus up the coast (the Perhentians are on the northeast part of Malaysia, way up near the border with Thailand). To get there, we have to cross the Singapore/Malaysia border. Our bus is at 9pm and we have all day to get there. No problem, right?

We pack our bags and leave our Beary Good Hostel. We head for the Singapore Zoo, because we hear that this zoo is one of the best in the world (most of the animals get free roam, and a couple of times we were walking the pathways and had monkeys jumping around the trees over our heads, rather nonchalantly). I, myself, had a few heart palpitations… that Balinese ape from Indonesia has made me rather skeptical of monkeys of late.

Anyway. We finish at the zoo, and we sort of sluggishly decide to start making our way to Malaysia. So we leave and board a bus for the Malaysian border (Bus 950 from Woodlands on the Singapore MRT – yes, the abbreviation for this is S-M-R-T, and no, it doesn’t get much more awesome than that). We’re given these tissue-paper thin Blue Tickets that I’m pretty certain I immediately throw away because nothing that insubstantial can be worth anything substantial, right? By the time we get to Woodlands, it’s about 6:30pm. We’re already worried we’re running a little tight on time.

We get off 950 at the border. Upstairs to customs. Wait in line, passport stamp, we depart Singapore successfully. Back downstairs to find a bus, the place is a zoo, we stand in the Yellow Bus line bound for Johor Bahtu for awhile because it looks like it’s the line that most people have chosen to stand in, and to be honest we have no idea whatsoever where we’re supposed to be, so we may as well wait somewhere and at least look like we know what we’re doing.

Melis leaves her bag and goes to ask someone, comes back 15 minutes later and tells us we’re in the wrong line and we better find those flimsy blue tissue-paper-thin tickets we were given on the Singapore side of the border, because we’ll need those Blue Tickets again to board the 950 bus, which apparently we have to do one more time. We leave the Yellow Bus line that we’ve now spent almost ½ hour waiting in, and when the 950 bus comes, Jo and I have to pay again, because obviously we threw away those stupid tickets, while Blue Ticket Bus Queen walks on for free… smart bitch.

On the 950 for 10 minutes as it brings us to the Malaysian side of the border. We go upstairs again and get in line for immigration (there are 2 sides to this border crossing, and it’s cutting into our time rather unpleasantly, thank you very much). This line is moving slower than the Singapore one did, and when we finally get to the front, the immigration officer asks us, “where is white paper?” And points back to where we came from.

Out of line again. Off to fill out our white papers. Running now. Sweating almost.

Complete the papers. Back in line. Stamped successfully. Downstairs to find a bus that will take us to Laikan, which is where we’re supposed to catch another bus to Kota Bahtu (which will take us to the Perhentians, or at least we hope). It’s an overnight bus and we’re seriously running out of time now.

Ask a nice lady we pass while running down the escalator what bus we’re supposed to take. She directs us to Bus 170. We need to pay the bus driver in Malaysian Ringgit, AWESOME, all we have are Singaporean Dollars.

It’s 8:15pm. We have 45 minutes to get all the way to Laikan, find the bus we want, buy a ticket, and board. And to do each of these things, we’re going to need Malaysian Ringgit.

I drop my backpack and leave it with the girls, then book it as fast as I can towards somewhere, anywhere, away from here that might have an ATM.

I’m told there are NO ATM’s anywhere nearby. Only money changers, who are still far away, but I don’t have a choice and I’m running again, all the way back to where we came from, back to the passport stamping area and down to “City Centre”, past tons of slow-walking Muslims who I’m sure are judging me because I’m wearing a tank top, showing my shoulders and probably far too much cleavage than is appropriate, considering I’m running and sweating and at the best of times it’s hard to keep those things under control. Really wishing I was wearing a normal t-shirt about now, but there’s no time for wishful thinking. We need to catch this bus.

Here I am, Totally Inappropriate, and I get lost. I have no idea where I’m going, but I’ve been sprinting now for 10 minutes and where I am is starting to look less and less like an immigration control and more and more like a Muslim city. Then I end up in a huge mall, escalators everywhere, bright lights, people staring.

The bank machine? Level B2.” Where the fuck is level B2?

Booking it down the escalators because I have to choose a direction and ‘down’ seems appropriate. Top speed, elbowing people out of my way as I run blindly down the escalators, literally blind for the sweat in my eyes.

At the bottom level, ask another random stranger “where the hell is the bank machine!?” and he tells Totally Inappropriate to go straight, all the way to the end, past the elevators and down a small corridor, out on the other side and you’ll find a Maybank, he starts to spell it for me but I don’t have time, I hear him yelling after me, “yellow colour!”.

Through the hallway of elevators and down a narrow passage I never would have seen, I find Maybank.

What a huge relief.

I get to the machine, throw my card in…

And realize I have no idea how much a Malaysian Ringgit is.

Do I take out 5 Ringgit, or 50,000 Ringgit?

I ask the guy next to me and he’s a Quiet Talker and I don’t understand a thing he’s trying to say, I’m about to punch him in the face.

I settle on 1,000 Ringgit. Hit enter. And a massive wad of cash is dispensed into my shaking fingers. I try and stuff my huge stack of money into my wallet but it barely fits, and there are a ton of Malaysians staring at me and my money and now I’m not only Totally Inappropriate, I’m also Totally Rich and Totally Freaked Out.

So I turn on my heel and sprint out of the bank. Now it’s a race against time as I try to navigate my way back… running as fast as I can, back up through the mall, up to the top floor by accident, back down, past the cab drivers, back to the immigration building that looks like a casino, and all of a sudden, a lineup with a baggage scanner and a sign:

Welcome to Singapore”

Awesome! Ahh!

I try to bypass. I’m yelled at. I’m definitely panting at this point, and I can’t see at all now for the sweat in my eyes. Not sure what words manage to escape my mouth, but it probably sounded something like this:

I.. with the.. needed money.. bank machine.. bus! (tap my invisible watch) – no time! already here.. ahh!”

I suppose I was able to communicate some level of panic because they saw my passport briefly and let me go –

Back up the escalators on the immigration side, another official-looking lady is trying to stop me, in retrospect she was probably trying to help me but I DON’T HAVE TIME, doesn’t she understand I’m out of time?!

She lets me go, back to Bus 170, the girls are waiting, there’s a nice Malaysian man standing with them – when I tell them where I went he can’t believe it – shakes his head a bit, there are no bank machines anywhere nearby, haha.

Apparently we’d missed 3 buses while I ran.

It’s 8:40pm.

Nice Saviour of a Man says he can drive us to Laikan!

And we’re off, dodging cars and bikes over 8 lane highways and busy overpasses, walking on the shoulder of the road as vehicles rip by, inches from our feet.. Saviour says “wait here, I’ll get the car and meet you – I can run faster. You rest.”

And he’s off, and he shows up in his little car and we pile in, he’s driving fast and we’re there! 8:55pm and we’re at Laikan! He parks and we run, some officials are trying to yell at us as we run to where the tickets are, but Saviour Man redirects us and tells the men to be quiet, says to us “not that way, this way safer”.

And we’re running to the Transsnational Bus Ticket window and a million men are trying to sell us tickets, and Saviour Man tells them in Bahasa Malay to shut up, we’re not interested! They leave us alone.

At the ticket window, Saviour gets our tickets for us (the lady doesn’t speak any English, it’s a miracle we have Saviour there to help).. he pays an extra few Ringgit out of his own pocket in order to give the lady exact change..

The ticket printer “is broken”, it’s 9pm now.. we have no choice but to wait.. Saviour heads with Melis and Jo to the bathroom – it’s Jo’s first squatter toilet experience and she’s got her giant backpack on and she’s on her rag, doesn’t know what to do, can’t balance, we’re in a hurry, ha!

Meanwhile I’m standing with the bags, am approached while waiting by guys trying to sell me tickets, Saviour shows up and tells them to get lost.

Finally the printer works, we have our tickets, and now we’re sprinting to our bus, it’s well after 9pm. The bus is still there! Bus driver looks at our tickets and shakes his head, we have no idea what he’s saying because he’s speaking Malay.. Saviour to the rescue – “you have to get off bus before destination stop – you must alight at Jertes after 10 hours”. Hugs for Saviour and he won’t accept money – we wanted to show our appreciation! – more hugs for Saviour – on the bus, wave goodbye.

We made it.

We fucking made it.

Welcome to Malaysia.