Although I prefer to normally write things in a sort of chronological order when I write about travelling, this particular tale is best related while still fresh in the mind. Over the weekend, and in need of checking out of Tune (they were actually full anyway), we decided to make the most of the Hari Raya celebrations by nipping up to Penang for the weekend. Anna bought the tickets for the way up – 50 Ringgit for ‘Super VIP’ comfort. Now, I don’t know what the story is with the coaches over here, but they have this weird setup whereby every coach you travel on across the country carries some sort of luxury branding (that generally doesn’t make sense if considered for more than a moment or two) like it’ll have say, ‘Extra-Platinum’ or, as I say, ‘Super VIP’ plastered all over the outside of it. And they really are very nice – generally three seats across, personal TV’s like on a plane, and a few other little extras; on the way up for example, our chairs had a pretty ridiculous massage feature built-in so you could have the chair massage you as you journeyed across the Malaysian countryside. The flipside though, seems to be that half the time most of the buses are technically not very new, well-maintained, or speedy. So, buoyed by the success of our journey up to Penang, I opted to save a few bucks and went for the lesser (probably only normal ‘VIP’ I imagine) 35 Ringgit ticket. What an incredibly bad move. First up, the bus wasn’t half as nice as the previous one and as we attempted to make good our exit from the bus station, the second problem presented itself in the form of a faulty gearbox that mandated overusing the first gear or two, followed by letting the bus roll gently along for however long it took until the latter gears could be used.
So for example, we rolled out of the bus station, turned left onto the main road and began driving forward, speeding up (gently) until such time as the bus was roaring as if it was about to rocket down a runway; but then, we stopped accelerating and coasted along the next few hundred meters to the sound of a slipping clutch, before finally getting going again, only to turn around another corner onto the bridge off Penang and join our place in the traffic chaos that was what seemed like every single Malaysian trying to get off Penang having spent the weekend there. We rolled forward gently, with our driver having obviously familiarised himself with how useless the bus was and thus not pushing it to keep up with the traffic in front continuously, preferring instead to let a half-mile gap develop and then take one drive forward (presuming no other cars pulled into our lane in the mean time, which they all did). Overall, the bridge took an hour to get across – not a bother I thought, one hour done, instead of arriving at 9:30, let’s just make it half ten and what’s an hour amongst friends? So we rolled on and when the traffic finally dissipated at the other side of the bridge, we were confronted by obstacle number 2 – a gentle incline. This proved extremely challenging to our antique vehicle and the bus more or less shook violently the whole way up the slipway, while moving at a rate of about 1km/h. It was so slow in fact that I joked with Anna that, as we approached a toll bridge at the end of the incline, one of us would be much better off getting out, walking up to the toll plaza and paying the toll and walking back to the bus again, so that the bus itself wouldn’t need to risk stopping and restarting again.
But the breaking point came no more than about 50km’s from Penang when we rounded a corner on the motorway and came face to face with a string of red taillights as far as the eye could see – literally, the entire road up ahead looked like someone had dragged out the Christmas lights early. We spent an hour in the traffic crawling along at walking pace (most of the time slower, because the bus didn’t permit faster speeds), then another hour, then another hour – indeed, at one point Kuala Lumpur was 265km’s away, and after nearly an hour and 15 minutes later, it was still 253km’s away – an outstanding record of just 12 kilometre’s in a whole hour, unbelievable! After four hours, not only was the journey itself taking the piss, but most of us needed to as well, including one unfortunate gent sitting roughly opposite us across the aisle. Having looked particularly uncomfortable for the previous hour or two, he eventually racked up the courage to get up and request a comfort stop – only to be promptly dispatched back to his seat, where he proceeded to sit for the following half an hour looking like both a scolded child…and someone who could wait for the toilet no longer. So, after half an hour was done, it came as no surprise that he hopped back up and asked once again. This time unfortunately, we couldn’t actually hear what was said nor ascertain the guts of the response, but I can tell you now with the benefit of hindsight that his request was once again turned down. Because after his latest dismissal, he returned to his seat, took out his coat from the overhead rack and an empty bottle.
It may be necessary for me to repeat that part for you to think about it for a moment – he needed the toilet, was sent back to his seat, took a coat and an empty bottle. And put the coat over himself – and we didn’t see the bottle ever again. So we can all take a good guess what happened. Finally, after about 6 hours of straight travelling, we took a 15 minute break at a petrol station – and the weirdest thing, while we were in the petrol station (actually to say myself and Anna were IN the petrol station would be slightly economical with the truth), the traffic jam somehow cleared completely. So much so, that when we got back on the road, having spent a whole four hours moving at next to nothing, the road ahead was empty. But alas, problem number two came back to haunt us even with our empty road – the inability of the gearbox to work meant that most of our journey was spent sitting in second gear by the sound (and speed) of the bus. But the main thing was, we were moving at some sort of speed; except for the last two hours of the journey when the driver, starting to look shattered and a bit dazed, kept having to stop roughly every half an hour to pour cold water over himself outside. Truly, this was not Super VIP. In the closing minutes of our herculean journey, the driver actually scrubbed the bus off a kerb, before getting lost and having to call for directions. Finally, having left Penang at 5:30 in the evening on Sunday, we arrived in KL at 3:30 on Monday morning, having spent roughly 10 hours sitting on the bus. From there, we got a taxi to our newest guesthouse, a place right downtown that (on a map) looked too convenient to pass up, which combined with being extremely cheap, made it too much to pass up.
Ok first things first, it seems to have been located above a ‘massage parlour’ and I’m quite certain that a majority of the massages being given came with a happy ending shall we say. Second, it was raining outside and as a result, there was an ominous wet patch in the ‘living room’ (let’s just call it that for the moment) on the carpet. But third and fourth, and these are quite important ones, the air conditioning came without any controls so if you didn’t fancy air conditioning then tough, and if you didn’t fancy having it set at 25 degrees, then also tough and aside from that, on the corner of the Bukit Bintang intersection, there’s a large billboard that normally shows ads for McDonalds – things like the Egg McMuffin and that. Well, basically, our room stared into the back of the billboard, i.e. when I opened the curtains, the first thing I saw was a large metal sheet covering the other side of the window. But then, after that I saw a workman with his headlamp turned on more or less staring back at me. And then another two sitting on top of a gantry slightly further up. And then the arm of a crane about to lift part of the billboard out. And that was that for the next couple of hours until it was time to get up – electric drilling, bits of glass and wall being smashed and torn out, supports being hammered into place and all to the comforting ambience of spotlighting that’d put Croke Park to shame shining in through our window. As it turned out, they were working on installing a new advertising billboard and had been at it the previous couple of nights too. Not only that, but as an aside, the bathrooms (shared) stank, the guy down at reception didn’t give a toss about the noise since he was downstairs and was actually so deep in sleep that I had to give him a shove to wake him up to complain about it and to top it off, there was a resident beetle (or something) about the size of my fist wandering around the corridors that we all managed to spot at least once – as I say, it was a night that was definitely not consisting of ‘Super VIP’.
We checked out the next day and I doubt I’ll ever look at an ad for the Egg McMuffin the same way again…or an empty bottle…