Friday, August 26, 2011

(Travelogue) Oriental Outings Day 9: Journey to the High Ground

March 9, 2011

Goodbye Bali
Those six nights in Bali passed like a whiff of the cool ocean breeze; like an early morning dream which one wishes to come true, like a fairytale grandmother used to narrate before going to bed: “Aren’t you getting late?”, asked the soft Putu in an unusual louder tone, bringing us back to the reality. He had to wake up early too in order to drop us to the airport for the morning flight to Kuala Lumpur and was rightly worried by our casual attitude. “It’s Air Asia; and they don’t wait”, his words made Urooba sense the urgency who was preparing Misha’s food while I was trying to placate the little traveler who was livid on getting disturbed in the wee hours.

Murphy's Law
“I have lost my cell phone”, said Urooba. “When and where?” I asked; “It might have slipped under the bed”, she replied while ignoring my questions. Murphy’s Law started working! Putu – realizing our anxiety – used his experience and found that sooner to avert the infamous Murphy power and to stop us repeating the Singapore blunder where we forgot the cybershot and some other gerunds at Jeffery’s place!

It was already 6:30 when we finally managed to leave the guesthouse; a little late for the 8:30 flight keeping in view that we had to pass through the immigration also. Nevertheless, Putu made sure that we didn’t miss our flight; knowing that we were under Bali’s spell and could avail every opportunity to prolong our stay! Before making our way into the departure lounge, I paid Putu a modest gratuity which he might not be expecting from tightfisted us, frankly speaking!
Putu setting our luggage

Departure area of Denpasar Airport

"Hurry up! you are getting late"

Who Cares
A long queue was waiting for us in front of the Air Asia counter; that was the cost of getting late, and that too with a cheap ticket for a three hour flight. This time it was even cheaper than what we got earlier for Singapore-Bali flight: USD 123 (~ PKR 10,500) for the whole family! So, we didn’t mind standing few extra minutes in the queue, in fact who would?
Queue at Air Asia counter

More queue at Air Asia counter

Does it start from outside the airport !?
The Extortion!
In the normal course, you move to the immigration counter after getting your boarding passes. However, this is not the case in Bali, and in Indonesia for that matter, where one has to pass through a cash counter to pay a departure tax of IDR 150,000 per passport! This eerie practice shocks many travelers, and at times embarrasses them too as they usually had exhausted most of the local currency before taking exit. The Australian couple, standing before us in the queue, was also caught in surprise; they tried their best to do away with the “extortion”, in their own words, but to no avail. Finally, they had to pay 20$ each to compensate for that, significantly more than the equivalent of the actual tax when converted in the local currency. That resolved my curiosity as if why don’t they incorporate the tax in the ticket price? Bureaucracy knows how to feed itself, no matter where in the world!

Luckily, I was forewarned by a Virtual Tourist friend about this drama, so I made sure to keep IDR 450,000 handy with me without Urooba knowing about that who did not spare a single penny during last night’s shopping frenzy.

Encouraged by the Aussies’ experience, I haggled with the officer and to my surprise he happily waived off the toll for Misha’s passport! Hurray, we saved IDR 150,000!!

Finally we joined the unending queue again, this time the immigration one. Suddenly, Urooba spotted an officer contemplating to open a new counter; by the time others would have realized the development we ditched our queue and made it to the yellow line. Phew!

Shhh. Cameras are not allowed

Now, the immigiration queue
Rest was uneventful till we landed at Kuala Lumpur Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) except for some in-flight shopping thanks to the generous immigration officer!

Our Malaysia expedition has started!

Malaysia, Truly Asia! Really??
After landing at LCCT I wanted to make it to the Cameron Highlands the same day without actually knowing much about the logistics. I was under the influence of aggressive tourism marketing of the palm country, which ultimately proved disappointing especially from the perspective of an Independent Traveler. After clearing immigration, which was quick, I headed straight to the Tourist Information Center which was crap full of tourism guides, travel magazines, and marketing brochures. To my utter disbelief, both of the ladies at the counter were unaware of the transportation options to the Cameron Highlands.

The best they could do was to provide us with the telephone numbers of a few bus operators, none of which actually worked, from a handwritten register dumped deep in the cabinet. I later found out that the main intercity bus station of Kuala Lumpur – Puduraya – was closed for renovation; reason why those phone numbers were not working!

The Yoyo Experience
It took me more than one hour, a couple of changed decisions, and more than a couple of reprimands from Urooba that I finally figured out that it was better to first take a bus to Ipoh and then catch another to continue up the hills. The alternate, or actually the more conventional, way would have been to first make it to Kuala Lumpur Central bus station and then take a direct bus to Cameron Highland via Tapah. However, I was confused where to get the up-north bus so we decided to take the longer but more certain route.

View Larger Map
The route we taken: LCCT-Ipoh-Tanah Rata

View Larger Map
The conventional route: LCCT-KL Sentral-Tanah Rata

Bus tickets are available at the end of the arrival area where the salespersons in the tiny kiosks try to make sure that you don’t go to their rival company. For Ipoh, we found two choices – Star Shuttle and Yoyo – of apparently similar service quality and fares. We chose the latter just because of its comparably early departure. After locating the Yoyo bus outside the arrival area, we headed to the food court to take care of our crying bellies!

Urooba was not ready to take any risk and quickly settled for the broasted chicken while I felt spoiled for choices for our first meal in the Malay land. After peeking into different stalls, I decided to start with the traditional Malay food right away, and I did not regret. The modus operandi was similar to what we found in the Bali Makaan, i.e. you first select rice and then add curries of your choice from the displayed range, and the price depends on how many and which type of curries you select. In a fix, what to select, I asked the vendor to make me a meal similar to what the lady before me chose for!

Of Buses and Bus Stations
Following the fulfilling meal, we boarded on the bus after reconfirming from the driver that they will drop us at the bus station where we could find the onward bus. Contrary to this reassurance, they dropped us in the city center – taking advantage of the language barrier – with the excuse that the bus is going to the different terminal, i.e. Medan Gopeng, and we should instead go to Medan Kidd. No surprise, after experiencing the response level of the Tourist Information Center, that we later came to know both the terminals serve the highlands! All these initial happening were confirming the observations of a friend, Junaid, who spent some time in Malaysia for work.

So, we had no choice but to take the taxi from the city center to Medan Kidd which gave us the opportunity to see the glimpse of the peaceful colonial city. The talkative taxi driver belonged to the South Indian descendents who have been living in the peninsula for quite some decades and in good numbers. He also tried to make us believe that the bus ride is not reliable and he could drive us all the way to Tanah Rata, the main town of Cameron Highlands, in just two hours!

With no mood of taking any more risks, I thanked the cabdriver, only after confirming that Kinta Omnibus is leaving within an hour. The bus station was worn down, so were we; people were sitting on rusty benches waiting for their transport to arrive, Indian oldies selling traditional snacks – nimco – on make shift stalls, a block of more settled shops selling items from fruits to mobile cards, an exhibition of a half a dozen decapitated buses in the adjacent junkyard, and most importantly a fragile public toilet! In short, the ambiance was similar to what it would have been at any intercity bus stations in Pakistan!

Since Misha was feeling uneasy, Urooba decided to change her nappy using the ladies portion of those antique toilets. After she came back, making incomprehensible faces, I recharged the Digi mobile SIM, which I borrowed from Junaid, from one of the shops to reconnect to the cellular network. That ended my electromagnetic liberty!

In general, we found intercity buses in Malaysia reliable, economical, and comfortable, especially for medium distances, say 4-5 hours. However, there is a range of services, from the simple economy class to the lavish exclusive class, depending upon how much you want to pay. For around 100 km Ipoh to Cameron Highland ride we paid approx USD 6 per person, which is quite reasonable, keeping in view the journey had to end up at a height of 5,000 feet.

In fact, bus is the transportation of choice among locals unless one wants to go the other part of Malaysia, called Borneo, across the sea. I found a good resource to plan bus trips.

On the other hand low cost airlines are gaining rapid popularity in the country which has now become a regional hub of the budget airlines. Air Asia, Fire Fly, and Tiger Airways – to name a few – are literally competing with bus companies in terms of fares. Book early, six to eight weeks, and you may get a fare as low as 5 USD! The traveling landscape has changed so much so that even for Kuala Lumpur to Penang, ~ 350 km, there is now a discussion whether it is better to fly!

The Scenic Journey
The journey to Tanah Rate, the main town of Cameron Highlands, was scenic and refreshing; hilly forests on both sides of the road, low altitude clouds, twisting roads with sharp turns, and slow cool breeze. Temperature also started falling down with the increasing height and then it started raining gently pushing the mercury further down. It was a welcome change after having a good course of tropical heat during the past few days!

We made it to Tanah Rata at around 9 in the evening completing the journey from the low lands to the high ones in 15 hours! It was the sense of achievement that made up for all the exhaustion of this long voyage. While the pick up from KRS Pines hotel had to arrive, I got some dinner packed from the nearby market, which we had after settling down in our room.

"It was a long journey, Abbu!"

A refreshing view from the lobby!
Good for us that Misha was in good shape, even after this long traveling; she could even recognize the change, both of the temperature and of the place, and started crawling excitedly on the bed. She was so thrilled that we had to put our luggage besides the bed, to avoid her from falling over, before going to a deep sleep!