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Jul 05

The “Super Luxurious” Bus

When the time came to leave Kuala Lumpur and the genial company of Dave, who I must again say is an excellent host, I had several options. Taking a plane down to Singapore was relatively expensive and wouldn’t save that much time given KL International Airport is situated some distance from the city centre. Getting a bus was more desirable, giving me time to type up this post. Dave’s father suggested I try a new coach service which he kept insisting was “super luxurious”.

Transtar runs a bus route between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur which they’ve called a “First Class Express” service which the company’s brochures optimistically insist is better than taking a plane. The Transtar bus is actually a second hand coach, purchased from the United States and repainted in a gaudy browny-gold colour. The inside has been completely stripped and refurbished. As a result, the full-sized coach only carries 16 passengers, each with their own oversized Osim leather lounge chair with a built in massaging system, and electronic footrest and recliner. I was told that Osim chairs can cost as much as a car, with their flagship model going for tens of thousands of ringgit. The company brochure goes on to list the various features of the bus service. Each seat also has its own LCD screen with on-demand audio, video and computer games. The brochure displays a picture of a smiling Malay lady holding a tray of food, captioned with, “A stewardess on board a coach? Unheard of but true.” Finally, to cap things off, the coach proudly comes with the latest safety innovations, most notably, seatbelts.

I must admit, the coach was very comfortable. Unfortunately, the extravagant Osim massaging chairs turned out to be rather poor at massaging. The five massage modes alternated between various forms of spasming and intermittent vibration against my calves and lower back. This turned out to be more annoying than soothing. The stewardess also turned out to be an effeminate soft-talking Indian man who seemed to have an aversion towards eye contact.

The journey, although only 5 hours, including the time it takes to get processed at immigration, included not one, but two toilet stops. (I was told on arrival in Singapore that 5 hours was quite quick and the bus must have been speeding.) There is a toilet on board, but this was to be used only in the most direst of emergencies. Apparently if the diarrhoea struck while we were en route, I was to tell the steward, who would then tell the bus driver, who would then stop at the first available opportunity by the roadside. Until then, passengers were encouraged to “hold on” as best as possible.

No one used the seatbelts.

Even the overnight bus services in Australia don’t come this extravagant, so I was trying it out of curiousity more than a desire for comfort. You can catch a regular coach down to Singapore for less than half the price I was paying, but even then, the trip only cost RM86. Of course, when I say “only”, I say that being someone who earns their money in Australia.

Salaries in Malaysia are quoted in terms of a monthly amount and are low. A graduate at PricewaterhouseCoopers gets about RM2100. A graduate lawyer undergoing chambering (or a pupillage – there is no real equivalent for this in Australia as far as I know) earns about RM3000. Converted into Australian dollars, these amounts are barely much more than dole payments in Australia (indeed, the Malaysian minimum wage is a mere RM700 per month). Naturally, the cost of living – especially food – is proportionately lower, but not everything is so. Purchasing power is generally on a dollar for dollar basis. A Malaysian spending RM1000 would feel roughly the same amount of hip-pocket pain as an Australian spending A$1000. However, the purchasing power of the Ringgit, once you start to move beyond food and other basic necessities, rapidly diminishes.

Corruption is still visibly prevalent. Bribes are paid routinely to avoid traffic infringements – saying “Boss, help?” with a bit of money passed behind an Identity Card and fines are literally waved away by the policeman. It is more or less the norm to bribe driving instructors around RM200 in order to ensure a pass in driving tests (short of someone crashing the car). And that’s just at the street level.

Road rules are more like guidelines, and it’s a common sight to see motorbikes and cars running red lights if there isn’t any traffic around.

I don’t have many pictures of KL. The downside of bringing a digital SLR camera is that you don’t exactly want to lug it around when you’re out for drinks at night. We went to Sunway Lagoon one day, which is a combined amusement and water park. Lots of middle-easterners visit there, and it is an odd sight to see middle-eastern women in full veils (head coverings and all) running around trying to manage their kids in the water park. We also went up to Genting (again) where we got fleeced at the restaurant we had dinner at as well as on the Pontoon tables. The drive up there was interesting – with heavy fog, drizzle, steep inclines and with Justin taking racing lines through the curves in complete disregard of the lane markings. Caught up with Ananda at La Bordega, a nice joint in Bangsar with a wall full of board games which patrons can bring to their tables and play. Eight of us played a few rounds of Taboo. Despite my atrocious run at games in KL, losing badly at snooker, pool and Warcraft, this was a rare occasion of Justin, Patricia, Viv and myself triumphing over Alex, Victor, Dave and Ananda. Note to self: there is a better way of describing the word “blink” than saying “a method of cleaning your ocular sensors”.

On most nights, it was just enjoying a good chat at one of the multitude of mamak stalls around the town – something Sydney is sorely lacking when it comes to doing things at night and really the most memorable of experiences in KL.