29 November 2011

What's the Catch? [Kota Bharu, Malaysia]

Malaysia was like a breath of fresh air after coming from Thailand. Relaxed, the locals smile at you genuinely and are not all out to take your money, there are hardly any tourists around, and the food; amazing! I can't really comment on the nature yet, as we have not seen a lot, but I am sure that is awesome too.

Let's back up a bit. In my last blog we were just leaving Krabi heading South toward Malaysia. We organised a bus through the hotel we were staying at (for way too much money), and left just after 10am. After a change of bus in town and a 30 minute wait we set off for Sungai Kolok in the south of Thailand. We had been told that the bus would arrive at around 3 or 4pm, giving us plenty of time to cross the border and get out of harms way.

Harms way? OK, let's back up some more. We had decided to travel down the east coast of Thailand. According to Lonely Planet, this area of Thailand is not safe to pass through as there have been a lot of violence, attacks and just general unrest. But it sounded like an adventure, and it was a much more direct route for where we wanted to head in Malaysia. The plan was to pass straight through the area in one day and cross straight over the border, but it didn't quite work out that way.

We didn't arrive in Hat Yai (half way) until after 3pm. Another bus change and a short wait and we were off again. We traveled through some wild weather; torrential rain, thunder and lightening. There were trees all over the road. It was kinda scary.

We finally arrived in Sungai Kolok at just after 10pm. We wandered around looking for a hotel, but many were full.  We finally found one that was run down and still quite expensive, but we weren't really in the mood to argue. The room had such a thick smell of smoke that you could taste it. Everything seemed greasy and unclean. The furniture was run down and broken. Then I saw it; mirrors on the roof. Ahhh, so this is one of those hotels where they charge by the hour.

The following morning we crossed the border into Malaysia (still in one piece). As soon as we got to the other side we noticed goats and cows just wandering around on the side of the road. Kinda awesome! That and the flooding. It was really bad in places, and one bridge we crossed was almost submerged. And I am not surprised; we witnessed several torrential downpours. The one good thing is that they only last about 15 minutes then it clears up. The not so good thing is that there will be another downpour in 30 minutes time.

We found ourselves a bus to Wakaf Bharu (WB from now on), which actually took us to Kota Bharu (KB), so we had to find another bus to WB. It was there that we bought our train ticket on the 'jungle rail' (apparently a beautiful rail line that snakes through the thick jungle, ending in Jerantut) for the following day. We tried to find a guest house in WB but had no luck. So we made our way back to KB and found a cheapish guest house for the night.

I actually spent most of the day on the phone to my bank in England. Why? Lets back up a little... in Ko Phangan there was a strange occurrence. I received an email saying the direct debit for my credit card had bounced. Strange, there should have been more than enough money... so I went to log on to my internet banking (for which I needed my bank card). That is when I noticed a couple of things missing. Firstly my two spare bank cards. Then some US and Mongolian currency that I hadn't yet converted. Then my shoes! I wasn't sure if I had been robbed or just lost them somewhere along the way. It seemed a random collection of things to take, especially when there were other valuables in the bag. And the fact that I am always so careful and lock my bag, even when just leaving the room for a short time, and nothing was taken from Julias bag which was open.

We didn't have any access to the internet for the following few days, but when we got to the guest house in KB, the first thing I did was call my bank to cancel the cards. I spent the next couple of hours bouncing between departments, from everyday banking to service desk to internet banking to credit card to fraud. At the end of it I found out that there was about £1,000 of fraudulent transactions on the account! I think that is when I realised; yup, I was robbed for the second time on this trip. At least I still had my passport.

Once we had that semi-sorted, we went out to enjoy the rest of the afternoon. And I discovered the country that I described in my introduction. Although KB is light on attractions, it is just a nice city to be in. The people are inquisitive in a friendly way, with lots of smiles. It felt as though we were the first tourists to ever visit. And we were the only foreigners that we saw the whole time we were there. Malaysia is heavily Muslim, which means lots of head-scarves and skull-caps, but people seem very open to other cultures and enjoy trying to have a conversation. And the food? So freakin' good. I had an amazing curry and fried noodles. Plus they have bakeries selling pastries, cakes and delicious bread all over the place. Maybe my bad luck was changing?

We had asked the woman at the guest house what time the bus started for WB, so we could catch our 7:15am jungle train. She said they did not start early enough, but she would happily organise a taxi for MYR 20 (about $7). We decided it would be a good idea to check at the bus station. Lo and behold, there was a bus at 6:45am. It would be close, but if it was on time, we would make it. So the following morning we rose early and got down to the bus station by 6:20. Sure enough at 6:40 a bus rolls in. We board, but it just sits there with the motor running. It gets to 6:50 and we decide we need to do something, so we grab our bags, jump off the bus and grab a cab.

I bargained the guy down to MYR 15 and we were off. About 5 minutes in to the ride I glanced at the clock on the dash... 7:55am. I grabbed the cabbies wrist watch; again 7:55. SHIT! Julia quickly checked the Lonely Planet and found out that Malaysia is one hour ahead of Thailand. We had already missed the train by an hour! Stupid time zones. Devastated, I told the cabbie to head back to the bus station.

Once there he had the cheek to demand MYR 10 for the short ride. We jumped on a bus to WB (for MYR 3.20, meaning returning to the bus station saved us a whole 1.80!) and about 15 minutes later we were at the train station. I tried the sad, please help us face and showed the guy our ticket. I started asking if he could put us on the next train before he erupted with -
Burn it!
Uhhh, what?
BURN IT! I don't want to see it. It is no good.
OK... So when is the next train for Jerantut?
7pm or 9pm
After a bit of umming and ahhing, we decided to take the train that night, but when I went to the counter all the tickets were mysteriously sold out, for BOTH trains.  As were the tickets to the closest town, Kuala Lipis. The constellation prize - we could wait around the station until 1pm that afternoon as they might put on an extra carriage. This guy was really starting to grind my gears. It was like 'who pee'd in your porridge, buddy?'. Plus he was just plain unhelpful. The next train out (that we could actually buy tickets for) wasn't until the following morning. I knew direct buses weren't available, so we did not have a lot of choice.

Defeated, we purchased the tickets for the following morning. Meaning we had to hang out in Kota Bharu for another day. Not huge deal, but we have less than a month left on the trip and every day counts. Maybe our good luck was running out...

Dragging our feet, we flung on our backpacks and made our way back toward the bus to KB. But just as we reached the end of the road a car pulls up, window open. There were two guys in there and they started asking about where we were heading. Back to KB! We explained that we just missed our train, and the next one wasn't until tomorrow. That is when they said they were heading directly to Taman Negara (the national park, which was or actual destination, we were only transiting through Jerantut) in about 15 minutes, and could take us along for free. OK... a little suspicious. What's the catch?

It turns out that one of the guys was contracted by Tourism Malaysia to make a promotional video. The other guy was a guide he had hired. They were looking for foreigners to be in the video, but couldn't find any. You might think after all the lies we were spun in Thailand that we would be a little cynical and not trust this 'too good to be true' offer. But they seemed legit, the guide showing us his website etc. So it looked as though our luck was changing once again.

We were able to return our tickets for a 50% cancellation fee, then we were off! In the back of a random guys car who we had just met, for our next adventure.

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