Thursday, 24 March 2011

Malaysian Adventure Week: the Forgotten Bus

They thought they were in for a comfortable night. Little did they know...

Our tickets said something along these lines:
Bus Departs Penang 9:00PM Wednesday, March 16, Arrives Kota Bharu 5:00AM Thursday, March 17.
Train leaves Wakaf Bharu (7 km from Kota Bharu) 7:15AM Thursday, arrives Singapore 10:00PM.

You'll notice that, like good travelers, we gave ourselves 2 hours leeway between the bus arrival and the train departure. The 5AM arrival in Kota Bharu would be our third early-morning arrival in a new city: over the previous week, we had taken a train and taxi in to Malacca at 5AM, and a train and ferry to Penang arriving at 5AM. Only Kuala Lumpur was saved the sleepiness of a 5AM arrival: we arrived there, for a change, in early afternoon. We had seen our share of sunrises over sleepy towns.

Nevertheless, we had decided it would be nice to head back a day early, and had gotten tickets for the 7:15AM train (the "Jungle Train"!) from Wakaf Bharu on Thursday, back home to Singapore. So, we bought our tickets a day or two before, and showed up at the bus stop at 8:15 as planned. At around nine, we nestled ourselves into the bus' wide faux-leather seats (The seats' ergonomics had some major issues, but at least they looked comfy...) and settled down for the night, talking for a short while with a German tourist who's seat was nearby.
one of our nicer-looking places to spend the night ;)
The bus departed, and crossed the impressive, iconic bridge from Penang to the mainland. It drove. And drove. We slept fitfully, but we slept. The bus interior was dark except for a large, bright digital clock at the front. I awoke a few times to find the bus stopped in different locations. The clock read 10:03, then 1:13 (with my first "Happy birthday" from a sleepy Rose), then 3:50, then 4:36. Almost there. I stayed awake this time as we pulled into a gas station.

The clock read 5:00, then 5:15. There was some discussion going on between the crew members at the front (there were at least two, a driver and a ticket-taker, though I could never sort out who was who). A few people got out and walked around, or smoked, and I managed to learn from one of them that something was wrong with the engine.

Hmm. Bad news, but I was glad that somebody knew enough English to tell me that. I tried more. How far was Khota Bharu? 50km? 100km? I couldn't get an answer.
A car pulled up and one of the bus' passengers got into it, and drove away.

5:45. I started to get worried, and showed a crew member our train tickets, with the 7:15 departure time. He understood and began to be worried with me. Taxi, he said. I asked him if he could get somebody to call a taxi. He seemed to like the idea and went to talk to the driver. Next thing I knew, everyone had boarded again and the bus was moving. 6:00. This could still work.
I should've known better. After driving for a while, the bus stopped again, this time in front of a mosque. The crew left the bus purposefully. Were they going to ask for help? Did they arrange to meet a mechanic here?

My questions were answered as an Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, began to project from the minarets.

Hmm. 6:15.
The prayer continued for some time, and the driver was gone for the duration. I showed the tickets to the same person as before, and they told me no. Too late. Time for one more...

Hmm. What would you have been thinking?
Ah well. 6:25. The next train  to Singapore was in 24 1/2 hours and thanks to our 10-day rail passes, I already had tickets for that train in my pocket. Plan B it was to be. I was fairly certain the bus would arrive in Kota Bharu by then. I stopped worrying, got out my camera and played around for a while, enjoying the foreign landscape and taking lots of blurry pictures in the dark, until we all piled back in the bus for another leg of driving.

Daylight found us stopped, again, for as it turned out, our bus had busted (teehee) a fan belt and could only travel for a few minutes at a time before the temperature gauge went up and the driver had to stop. The driver had called the dispatcher to report his situation, and offered to continue driving like this until Khota Bahru, which at this point was only a few hops away. No, his boss told him, don't drive; it's dangerous for the bus. We'll send a mechanic by 9 o'clock.
The local cow.

We learned all this because we had met a new friend and source of information, in the form of a kindly passenger who spoke both English and Malay fluently.
Thankfully, the bus had stopped this time at a food store/restaurant with tables outside, on the edge of a very small town, and not the middle of nowhere. As we waited, we read our books, were treated to a drink (hot "milo" -- the strange, southeast-asian version of chocolate milk powder! delicious because of the pool of condensed milk at the bottom!) by our friend, and met the local cow. As the food shop opened for the day, cars commuted by on the road, and trucks came in to start construction on a nearby building, we witnessed Malaysian daily life from an unplanned perspective.

One of the trucks driving in grazed a small palm tree, then backed up to get a better approach angle, and knocked the tree over on the second round.

Daily life.
Poor tree.

As we sat, more of our fellow passengers were rescued by their families or friends. Our German friend tried "autostop," (hitchhiking), but drivers asked for steep prices and drove away at attempts to bargain. Meanwhile we waited. And waited. 9:00 went by, and 10:00 and 11. No mechanic ever materialized, and the driver would not entertain attempts to jury-rig a fan belt. At around 11:00, we started to try to get a taxi, and at length our Malay-speaking friend managed to wave one down and got us a remarkably cheap fare of 3 ringgits each (1USD) to the nearest town.
Minutes later, the taxi dropped us off at a station where we could hop a bus for Kota Bharu. As I rummaged for our 3-ringgit fares, our driver consulted with another nearby taxi driver, who approached us and held up four fingers. "Four Ringgit," he said.

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