View our location map in the Cameron Highlands
We perhaps should have taken our ‘interesting’ departure from Koh Lanta as an omen for the rest of the journey to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. We wouldn’t normally write about all the stuff that happens in transit, but this particular journey was just too crazy to not write about.
We were ready and waiting at our bungalow at the agreed 7.30am pick up time for our transfer to Trang on the mainland. At about 8am we started to wonder where our van was, and the lady at the reception phoned the company and told us it was pretty normal for the Trang transfers to be late. At 8.30am we had phoned both the company we booked through, and the transfer company, and still no van. Finally, about 10 minutes after that, it arrived! Little did we know arrival of the van didn’t mean much…he opened the back for us to put our luggage in, and there was no room at all, not even for a tiny daypack, and there was only one seat left in the van. Hmmm. We had booked the transfer 2 days previously so it wasn’t as if they didn’t know about our pick up. A couple of farang jumped out of the van and told us the driver had been over an hour late for all of their pick-ups as well, and he had also decided to take 2 of his Thai friends in the van also which was why there were not enough seats. The lady at reception at our bungalows started getting really angry at him, yelling and telling him it wasn’t good enough and that he needed to get his friends out of the van since we had all paid for the transfer and obviously his friends hadn’t. Basically the friends were not prepared to get out of the van, which meant we couldn’t get in, so the driver just walked off and for about half an hour just sat around smoking and ignoring everyone. We went up to him and tried to reason that as our visa ran out that day, we really did need the transfer otherwise we’d be overstaying our visa, and perhaps it wasn’t quite so important for his friends to get off the island that day.
Another half an hour later, our receptionist was still yelling at him, phoning his boss and thankfully trying to sort it out for us so that the van could leave. Other people in the van were going to miss their trains and flights but the driver was refusing to leave until we had all figured out how to all fit inside the van with our luggage. A number of the tourists now wanted to punch him (not us!). So basically he wasn’t prepared to leave without us, but he wasn’t going to help us fit in the van either. An interesting and quite hilarious situation to be in, we ended up telling our receptionist that we would pay for the Thai people to get out of the van, since they had told us they were not running any urgent errands, didn’t really need to leave Koh Lanta that day, they just wanted to. So the end result, after another 10 minutes or so of arguing, was that we paid for the Thai’s to get out of the van so that we could get in, the driver didn’t have to worry about fitting us all, in fact he made some extra cash by overbooking the van, so a good day for him. Pretty interesting since they hadn’t paid to be in the van, didn’t have tickets, but still we had to pay for their tuk tuk so that they would get out. Sometimes, it really doesn’t pay to be a farang… avoid “Lanta Transport company” like the plague. In any case, throughout the whole event, we could really see the funny side and thought that although it was a bit annoying, it was quite hilarious that such a situation could even exist.
So the next part was pretty uneventful, we got to Trang and got another bus to Hat Yai. Karen even prematurely made the comment that she loved it how it’s so easy to get around Asia, doesn’t even matter if you miss a connection, there is always another one a few minutes later. Once at Hat Yai, we looked for the bus to Ipoh (where you have to transfer to the Cameron Highlands) but found out that we had missed it for today (which we wouldn’t have if our van had left Koh Lanta on time!), but that was cool, all we really needed to make sure we did was leave Thailand that day so as not to overstay our visas. So we got on a bus to the border. The driver was really pleasant, talking to us a lot and he did a circuit of the town and explained to us that after the town circuit we would leave for the border. So, the town circuit completed, the driver parked up the bus, and proceeded to pour heaps of water into the radiator. Then we got going again, and 5 minutes later stopped and the driver jumped out to get something to eat. No biggie, pretty normal in Asia, so he sat there eating for 10 mins or so. Then we got going again, did another town circuit, and more than an hour later, actually left Hat Yai for the border. We finally made it and got stamped out of Thailand in the nick of time. We had to walk about 1km into Malaysia and when we got there, went to find the bus for Ipoh. No, apparently the buses stop running at 7pm so we had to stay the night at the border. OK, we found a nice guy who pointed out to us where the hotel was so we followed his instructions only to find ourselves still walking half an hour later. We met another guy who said ‘no, the hotel is this way’ pointing back where we had come from. After walking for more than an hour with our packs on, we met another guy who said ‘no, there is no hotel in town. But you can sleep at the train station!’ OK, which way is the train station? ‘Back this way and turn right’ pointing back to where we had just walked from. Despondently, as we still hadn’t had dinner, and there wasn’t a single restaurant or shop or even petrol station open in town, we sat down outside the 7/11 and Dre went inside to get us something to eat. As Karen was sitting outside, a lady pulled up on her motorbike and Karen smiled and said ‘Salamat Malam’ (good evening) to her. She looked at Karen sitting with all the luggage, went inside the 7/11, spoke to the shop assistants in Bahasa Malaysia and told them to tell us we could stay at her house for 60 ringits. Yippee! Finally someone in this town who can actually help us, instead of sending us on wild goose chases to random hotels that don’t exist. So we went with her into her house, she gave us a key, we paid for the room, and then we set out for the first time in the entire trip, to have dinner at the 7/11! We weren’t really looking forward to this prospect since the only thing 7/11 in Thailand has that Karen can eat is chips and icecream. Then we were introduced to the delight of 7/11 Malaysia!! Baked Beans and canned Tuna – which we haven’t seen for 9 months now – excitedly became our dinner. You have no idea how nice Baked Beans and tuna can be after so long! Then we spent ages trying to figure out why we couldn’t find the padlock to unlock the door of the lady’s house (it was a weird system where you put your hand through the hole in the door, feel around for the padlock, and somehow unlock the padlock through the hole…) and then finally realised we were at the wrong house! Once we went to the right door, the padlock was found. Funny that.
The next morning we set off to find the bus station, and luckily had the forethought to leave our packs at the lady’s house. Yet another hour was spent asking ‘where is the bus station’ and getting responses ‘this way, behind this building/after the intersection/turn left at the junction/ turn right at the junction/ wait on the side of the road’ etc etc. Finally we found a young boy who was actually about to catch the bus, and it turns out the ‘bus station’ was a small seat on the side of the road, behind a tree. No wonder we couldn’t find it! The boy said we could get the bus to Ipoh at 10am. So not wanting to take any chances and be stuck in the border town, we arrived at 9.30am and when the bus came at 10, talked to the driver who was only going to Kandar (half an hour from the border). He said there are no buses to Ipoh from there apart from the one that comes from Thailand once a day, which had already been that day, so we had to go to Kandar and then get the bus to Ipoh from there.
On arrival at Kandar, we reminded the bus driver we needed to get the bus to Ipoh, and he told us to go to the other bus station which was for long distance buses, he said we didn’t need a taxi, it was a very easy walk of about 5 minutes, in a straight line, and pointed us the direction to go. After 10 minutes of walking in a straight line, we found some policemen and asked them which way to go. All 3 of them pointed in a different direction. After some debate between them, one guy took us to the corner of the street and showed us the way to go. So in the hot Malaysian sun, we walked around, asking locals and shop assistants, ‘where is the bus station?’ for another half an hour. Everyone pointed a different direction, and eventually we found a Nasi Goreng place with tables so we stopped to eat. After that Dre went out to find the bus station while Karen waited with our luggage. Half an hour later, he returned, soaked with sweat, and despite talking to many well-meaning people, still had no idea where the bus station was, and also hadn’t found a single taxi in town. So, we were left with the only option: walk back to the bus station we got dropped off at, where we had seen taxi’s waiting. So we got a taxi to the long distance bus station, which turned out to be straight ahead and left and right and round a roundabout and right and left again. And ironically, Dre says not a single person he asked, actually pointed in the direction where the bus station actually was.
So finally, we are at the bus station for the buses to Ipoh. It had only taken us about 16 hours (incl the night we had to stay at the border) since crossing the border to get here. (and it is half an hour from the border). We went to book our ticket for the ‘regular bus service’ to Ipoh and found that regular means 3 times a day. Let’s just say that Malaysian public transport is not even close to the same league as super-efficient Thailand’s!!! We had to wait 2 hours (2 hours!!! We have never waited longer than about 15 minutes for the next bus in Thailand!) for the next bus to Ipoh.
This meant that instead of getting the bus from Hat Yai in Thailand, which we would have done if our van had left Koh Lanta on time, and arriving in Ipoh at about 11pm the same day we left Lanta, we only left for Ipoh at 2.30pm the following day.
An hour or so into the trip to Ipoh we were going through exceedingly beautiful primary forest and the trip was really enjoyable. When we got to Ipoh, our luck changed for the better. Although we had missed the last bus of the day, there was a French couple who also wanted to get to Cameron Highlands the same night, so we all shared a taxi up to Tanah Rata.
After all of that, was it worth it? Absolutely! The Cameron Highlands are amazing with so many mountains, tea plantations, strawberry fields and forest. We intend to spend the next few days exploring here before going to KL to get another Thai visa.