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April 29, 2010
Butterworth, Malaysia

I’m writing this in a rustbucket town called Butterworth on Malaysia’s west coast, the mainland counterpart to the old British colonial island of Penang. This is not a place we ever intended to be, but the grim realities of travel forced our hand.

Let’s back up a little.

The last day in Perth sucked. Leaving was hard. Saying goodbye to everyone was hard. Combining the anxiety of a major life change with the anguish of effectively splitting up with my girlfriend was really really hard. But after we said our teary farewells to everyone and entered the departure gate, things started to look up.

Then we got on the plane. Jesus Christ. I’d never been on a budget airline before, and while I wasn’t expecting the perks of Qantas or Cathay Pacific, neither was I expecting the seats to be crammed so far together as to leave literally less than 30 cm of leg room, a hundred people shoved into this torturous position for five hours. For the sake of a few extra rows of seats they put you in a position that is pure anguish. They even cover up the emergency exits for fuck’s sake.

In addition to being crammed into this squeezed L-shape, the food and drink is incredibly expensive. I shelled out four dollars for a bottle of water that couldn’t have been more than 50 mils. The corpulent bastard to my left ordered all kinds of stuff for himself and the aroma was agonising. Sleep, in those stress positions, was impossible. We alternated between sitting straight up and leaning forward on our dinner trays, neither of which were tolerable. “This is basically hell on earth,” I said to Chris, who agreed. When we finally did land, it was hungry, thirsty, tired and full of a bitter loathing for that fucking plane.

And the fun of our first day didn’t stop there! I was under the impression that Changi International Airport was one of the finest in the world, featuring sofas and reclining chairs and rentable beds and an in-built hotel. These illusions were shattered when our battery cage plane rolled to a halt and we gratefully spilled down the stairway directly onto the tarmac (a practice I’d assumed was discontinued about fifty years ago). Then we entered the Budget Terminal, a tacky and unappealing shed quarantined and separated from the real terminal complex.

After managing to find a bus and get to the proper terminals, we discovered that
a) There were no reclining chairs or rentable beds, or if there were, they were in arrival areas forbidden to filthy budget arrrivals such as we
b) The airport hotel was both booked out and and way beyond our price range
c) There is nothing fantastic about Changi Airport. It is just another fucking airport, with the same restaurants and bars and cafes as the others, the same chairs designed to be hard to sleep in, the same soul-draining tedium.

It also had no free wifi, in a fine display of Singaporean entrepreneurial spirit. We tried to nap on some booths at a cafe, and eventually I went to McDonalds to use their public terminals to try to find a hostel. With a shortlist in hand, we took the MRT line into the city in desperate search of an elusive bed. Both of us wanted so badly, more than than anything else, to be back home asleep in our beds with our girlfriends – or failing that, any bed. Any bed at all.

Singapore is only a few kilometres from the equator, and the sun rises quickly – it went from pitch black to broad daylight in less than an hour. It’s also hot and humid and no fun at all to be lugging 15kg backpacks around in. I’d assumed it would be a gleaming, pristine city-state of technological marvels, as I’ve been told, but it actually reminded me a lot of Seoul – first-world, strictly speaking, but covered in filth and stinking.

We made it to a hostel only to find that it was booked out, but the owner was happy to direct us to another hostel – which didn’t even answer the door. We passed a hotel and asked how much a room would be, and were both unsurrpised and disappointed to learn that a twin room would be $272 per night (roughly $200 AUD). Again, though, the desk clerk was happy to direct us to another hotel which he said was cheaper – it wasn’t, but the desk clerk there circled a few hotels on our map she thought might be more feasible…

This went on for hours – in sweltering humidity, on 24 hours of no sleep, with muscles screaming from bearing the weight of our backpacks – until we took shelter in a McDonalds, drank some coffee and came up with a new plan: get the fuck out of Singapore.

This plan was bold and decisive. It gave us hope and strangth. We struck out to the south, towards the old railway station on Keppel Road, and spent some time talking to the stationmaster and trying to figure out timetables. We decided to take the 1.30 train out of Singapore, which gave us three hours to kill.

And we had learned a valuable lesson, the hard way. Not planning things in advance may be daring and exciting and adventurous, but it leads to being tired and miserable and sweaty. So we went and found an Internet cafe, looked up some hostels in Kuala Lumpur, rang them from a payphone and made a booking for that night. And soon we were on a rickety, staggering train winding its way up the Malayan Peninsula, well into the heart of Malaysia, leaving behind that wretched, sweat-soaked, expensive hellhole of a city-state far behind us.

We were still longing for beds. Chris hadn’t slept at all in the last few days, and was almost delirious. It was another scenario – like the Osaka bar at 5 am, or the Cathay Pacific Flight during my escape from Korea – where my body wanted so badly to go to sleep, but noise and light kept waking me up every time I nodded off.

We arrived in Kuala Lumpur after nightfall. Apart from being louder and brighter, it was the same as Singapore – stinking and humid. Both cities reminded me of Seoul, and I hate things that remind me of Seoul.

We took the monorail out to the Golden Triangle district to search for one of the hostels we’d called, and chose the Pondok Lodge, which was Lonely Planet’s top pick. It was along a busy street of restaurants, above a bar, but as we hiked up those stairs we could almost taste the beds.

After being led to a cramped room by the brusque desk attendent, and receiving a stolen Emirates Airline blanket (which didn’t come close to covering the bed) rather than sheets, and turning a crank to take a cold-water shower with about three pressure jets working, and observing that our room was just as hot after an hour of air con, I began to reflect on the title of our guidebook. Pondok Lodge was, after all, the top pick in Lonely Planet; Southeast Asia On A Shoestring.

We went out to buy dinner with what little ringgit we had, and sat sullenly in plastic chairs at the edge of the street with shitty satay chicken sticks. “I just want to get out of this part of the world,” Chris said through bleary eyes. I couldn’t agree more.

We went back to the hostel. We asked to change rooms, since our air conditioner wasn’t working for shit. I stole a thinner pillow from another room. Despite the raging noise from the busy street outside,we fell asleep.

I woke up in the morning with some disappointment, as I was still in South-East Asia, but with a good night’s sleep things were better. Not “good,” certainly, and the fun level was still at 0 per cent, but all the shitty things were back to being funny, rather than making me want to blow my head off. We ate the Pondok Lodge’s meagre complimentary breakfast, and then set out onto the street. Having accomplished our Escape From Singapore, we now needed to effect an Escape From Kuala Lumpur.

Our first set of bad news was that sleeper trains were booked out till Saturday. Fuck waiting in Kuala Lumpur for another three days. After spending some time in an Internet cafe, annd talking to a friendly travel agent, and eating a decent lunch, we decided to take a bus to Butterworth and then figure out some way to get across the border the next day.

The central train station in KL was closed for renovation, so we took a taxi out to the temporary station, set up in a car park outside a stadium. As we got our bags out of the boot a man emerged from the bushes and started mumbling at us. We ignored him for a moment, assumin he was some kind of street crazy, before realising that he was trying to ask us which bus we wanted. I’ve already learned to ignore touts, which is annoying, because I confuse them with people who are just trying to help.

We’d arrived at a good time, as our bus took off about five minutes later. It was air-conditioned and comfortable, but there’d been an accident of  some kind on the northern highway, so we weren’t making good time. The entire nation of Malaysia, from what I could see out the window, appears to be a palm plantation with a highway and a rail line running through it. Cities and towns had identical concrete apartment blocks rising out of rioutous green foliage, giving me more Korea flashbacks.

I dozed off about an hour away from Butterworth, but Chris woke me up. This was at about 10.30 pm. The bus tooled along a few streets, and the dude at the front called out “Bawah.”

A woman a few seats ahead of us got up. “What’s he want?” Chris asked.
“I think he’s asking if we want to get off.”
“What? No. This bus stops at Butterworth.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because it says Butterworth on the side.”
“That means it goes to Butterworth, not that it stops there.”
“Is this… Butterworth?” Chris called out.
“Bahwah,” the man agreed.

We got off the bus, retrieved our bags from the luggage compartment and watched it drive off down the road. “How the fuck were we supposed to know to get off?” Chris asked.

By coincidence, it had dropped us off directly outside one off the hotels/hostels we’d looked up back in KL, the Garden Beach Hotel. It was a decrepit concrete block with a ditch of fetid water encircling it, which I nearly fell in. We didn’t like the look of it, which proved to be a moot point when nobody answered the doorbell anyway.

The train station was nearby, so we hoofed it over there to see if any sleeper trains left tonight. They didn’t, so we asked a taxi driver sitting at a nearby cafe to drive us to the Butterworth Travel Lodge, which we’d rung earlier in the day. They had a twin room for us, so they took my passport details and a 100 ringgit deposit, and we took the elevator up to our room.

It was a proper hotel, but a pretty shabby one. We were fine with that, but both our laptops were dead and Chris really wanted Internet. I would have been content with an adaptor, just so I could type our ordeals up. We went across the road to a service station and bought some food. On the way back, we stopped in at the very nice Palm Inn Hotel to ask if we could buy or borrow a power adaptor.

The guy at the desk was nice enough to fetch his own travel adaptor to lend us, and while we were waiting for him I browsed through a pamphlet. It was 105 ringgit for a twin room; the Travel Lodge was 78. The Palm Inn had wifi and a free breakfast. Chris was giving me a look.

“Can we change?” he asked.
“We already put down a deposit…”
“Can’t we just get it back?”
“Well. I want to. But I can’t go over there and break that poor man’s heart.”
“We’ll just make up a story. Say we found a train leaving tonight.”
“Yes! That’s fantastic!”

We went up the road, back to the Travel Lodge. Chris “explained” our “situation” and asked if we could leave and get our deposit back. The clerk agreed. It was only when we were in the elevator that I realised I’d been holding a Palm Inn pamphlet the whole time, idly tapping it on the desk, and we both cracked up.

And now we’re at the Palm Inn, which for an extra 9 AUD, split between the two of us, has granted the miracle of wireless Internet. And it’s only 35 AUD all up. We also have our own bathroom and good beds and a good free breakfast. By comparison, the Pondok Lodge, which had none of those things, cost 20 AUD between us. You can squeeze every penny if you want, but why bother? What will you get, another few months of travelling  time? I’d rather travel in relative comfort for less time than travel in shitty shoestring accommodation for more time.

Curiously, the one thing this hotel doesn’t have is toilet paper – just one of those spray hoses for your ass. I don’t understand those. Doesn’t it just spray the shit everywhere? Even if it did get your ass clean, it would be soaking wet when you pulled your pants on. No, I don’t get it at all.

Luckily I brought a roll of toilet paper in my bag. But I sure didn’t expect to be using it in a hotel.

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