Dateline: Malaysia. I’m traveling with a good buddy from Germany, and we’re on the bus from the colonial port city of Malacca en route to a European-style chalet in the verdant Cameron Highlands to meet up with the birthday gang from Bali. Suddenly, I get the bright idea to backtrack south to Singapore and get in a little city life after our Highlands adventure and before beaching it up in the Perhentian Islands.
So, we get to the chalet and do a little internet research. The flights to Singapore from Penang, the town with the nearest commercial airport, are more than what we were willing to pay and scheduled train departures were all full. What we hadn’t counted on was Eid (the end of Ramadan) taking place in Malaysia and the rest of the Muslim world that very weekend, during which thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people would be traveling around the country, making merry for themselves and making hell for all the luckless foreigners who hadn’t checked to see there was a holiday that weekend.
At the bus station in the Highlands, the ticket agents all warn that buses back to Kuala Lumpur are filling up and that buying tickets the next day would be virtually impossible. One company sold tickets from the Highlands to Singapore with a stop in KL, but at a steep holiday markup. Being cheap, we decide we’d pay the regular fare to KL, then get tickets on to Singapore from there. Oh, why in all the Creator’s great green hills and valleys did we do that?
We get to what used to be KL’s main bus terminal and it’s jammed with holiday travelers—mostly young men off from their construction jobs in the capital and heading somewhere else in the country to see their families. By the time we arrive, we’ve missed the few departures for Singapore and the remaining buses are either completely full or not leaving for another 9 or 10 hours. We take the metro (also jammed) to the new and improved bus terminal, from which almost all buses to the south of the country depart, and find out the few remaining seats to Singapore are on luxury buses and cost three times the normal fare. Figures.
What to do, what to do? Eureka: take the bus to Johor Bahru—the southernmost city in Malaysia, just across the causeway from Singapore—then take the commuter route into Sin City! There was a bus leaving within the hour and it cost not even half the price of the luxury bus. We snag a can of MSG-loaded Pringles knock-offs and a pack of bean-paste rolls (num!) from the 7-11 and we’re off to JB.
Along the way, however, we hit Spring-Break-in-Florida-style traffic as everybody, their mother, their grandmother, their great-grandmother, their grandkids, their dog, their neighbor, and their play-cousin Roscoe decides to take to the highway for the holiday. Soon, we realize that we’re in a race against time as the buses that cross the causeway from Malaysia into Singapore stop running just before midnight. With no contingency plan should we get stuck in JB, we chew our nails to the quick hoping the bus can sprout wings. And lo, we make it to the crowded, ramshackle bus terminal in enough time to run real, real fast across the parking lot just to wait in a long, long line of Malaysians, Singaporeans, and a sprinkling of cheap-ass Westerners (who didn’t want to ante up for the luxury bus) aiming to cross the border before it closes.
After two or three buses fill up and head off, we finally crowd onto one along with the daily commuters, packed and sealed tightly in a lumbering proletarian transporter with the a/c set on Arctic. First stop: the Malaysian customs and immigration office. We peel out of the bus, split up into lines based on national origin, get stamped out of Malaysia, then herded back onto a bus which may or may not be the one we departed moments earlier. We cross the causeway separating Peninsular Malaysia from the island of Singapore, but I don’t see much because it’s dark outside and my face is pressed into the back of someone’s head anyway. Sing’s customs and immigration office is next, and we peel out of the bus, split up into lines based on national origin, get stamped into Singapore, then herded back onto a bus which may or may not be the one we departed moments earlier.
The time is almost 1am and we’re tired and hungry and though we reach our destination safely and physically unharmed, we’re emotionally scarred by the figurative crush of holiday travel and the literal crush of some dude’s scalp pressed against my nose on a bus. Please be sure to remind me of this the next time I get one of my last-minute bright ideas. And make sure you know the date of Eid before traveling by bus in Malaysia.