The life of a backpacker is pretty wonderful. You visit exotic places, you don’t have to go to work, and at 10am on a Thursday morning you can sit at a café facing the South China Sea and write a blog. But, at some point you had to get yourself and your giant backpack to that remote island off the east coast of Malaysia, and that sure as shit didn’t happen by magic.
On Tuesday we checked out of our hostel in Kuala Lumpur at 11am with exactly 12 hours to waste until our overnight bus to Kota Bharu. I can’t explain our decision to catch an overnight bus (actually I can with Math, bus was $12 each, flying was $85 each, our daily budget is $35 each) but really we should have known better considering our past experiences.
The first overnight bus we caught was somewhere in Vietnam a couple of years ago. I don’t remember where we left from or where we going, but the ‘sleepers’ were about 30 inches too short to fit even Brad and I (in Bali we were widely celebrated as being ‘Indonesian size’) and our bus driver seemed to be using the horn to keep himself awake and entertained.
When we were in Europe last year we forced our doubts aside and said ‘yes, an overnight bus from Belgium to London sounds like a wonderful idea!’ It wasn’t. At 1am we arrived bleary-eyed at the French port from which we would be ferried to England, however first we had to go through British customs and witness first hand the royal wonder that is British bureaucracy. The Official Gate Opener was asleep, and it took half an hour for him to be roused and stumble out to press the Official Gate Opening button. We then donned our backpacks and wandered through the Official British Customs Building. The walls were layered with signs promising that the Royal Customs Officers would shoot us on the spot if we if we spoke ill of the Queen, or attempted to smuggle fruit into England. As the only non-EU citizen on the bus, I was interrogated for half an hour at knifepoint about the purposes of my visit to the Great Country that is England and forced to state on the record that Britain was still the Greatest Empire in the World and the Biggest Economic Powerhouse. Okay, I’m not sure how much of that I dreamed. Brad tells me that in reality I was interviewed for about 10 minutes but because of that we missed the 2am ferry and had to wait for the 4am one and as a result nobody was particularly pleased with me.
In hindsight our decision to catch an overnight bus across Malaysia was just asking for trouble. When we finally did leave we were tired and sweaty from walking around in the KL heat and I had the Worst Flu Ever (the kind that’s not a flu at all, but the sufferer feels the term ‘cold’ doesn’t accurately portray their agony). Our bus was chilled to about 8 degrees, the man next to me was wearing Bluetooth headphones that flashed a neon light in my face every 3 to 4 seconds, I was acutely aware that the bus contained no toilet and at 4am somebody got the farts so bad that breathing no longer became an option. Although, I did eventually pass out from holding my breath, so I suppose I should thank that person for what little sleep I got.
During any kind of period of transit time becomes warped. There is the arrival time and the departure time, and the period in between is nothing. On overnight buses that feeling becomes even more acute. While you’re bouncing around in time and space for what seems like an eternity to your own personal soundtrack of Cat Empire and Blue King Brown, it could be any year and anywhere outside. If anyone ever did figure out time travel I bet they’d be using a bus rather than a DeLorean or Tardis, and it’d be a 12-hour ordeal to get back to the 90s, and something mysterious would happen on board and The Doctor would appear and discover the engine was actually a big ol’ space whale. Or did parts of that ep already happen? Back in reality, it’s no surprise that a gallop poll last year found that buses are unanimously considered the worst form of long distance transport ever.1
Of course, our journey wasn’t over once we arrived at Kota Bharu. We still had to catch another bus to Kuala Besut and then a boat to the Perhentian Islands. Once we arrived we slept for 14 hours.