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  • Writer's pictureRick

West Malaysia Day 1: A Long Journey to Kluang, Johor

1st April 2024. April Fool’s Day. Monday. One day after Good Friday long weekend in both Singapore and Malaysia. The day I began my 3rd backpacking journey in West Malaysia without much of a plan — a last-minute decision to do a loop around Peninsular Malaysia using the 30 days period for Singaporeans with free visa. I would return before the 1st May holiday.

The last time I did such unplanned travelling was almost 11 years ago in Yunnan, China. I needed this journey to get back some backpacking senses which might have gone rusty.

I started the day early but at a more leisurely pace than usual. I had neither flight nor train to catch, no need to go and return within the day, and no schedule to follow whatsoever, except to be in Kluang by end of the day since I had reserved 2 nights’ accommodation there.

I was lugging my big backpack for long-travel use with unknown weight until I could find a weighing machine. I estimated 5~6Kg since I had left all heavy things behind, including my DSLR camera. But I packed more sets of clothings.

The weather for April? Ultra-hot and humid. It was either the sun or the rain when travelling in Malaysia. This period was the transition between the rainy northeast and southwest monsoons, so I would expect to return ultra-tanned.

8:45am, at Kranji MRT Station, the queue for Service 170X was rather long. I crossed the road to the opposite bus stop for other services to Woodlands Checkpoint, but the waiting time for Service 170 was 16 minutes and Service 160 was 23 minutes. Just as I was about to turn back to queue for Service 170X, Service 178 arrived. Another possible route surfaced from the depth of my rusty brain and I quickly hopped on the bus before it headed towards Woodlands Train Checkpoint.

I did a quick check on train ticket status via the KTMB app, and without doubts, all train tickets before 4pm to JB Sentral had already been sold out. But I had no intention to take Shuttle Tebrau to Johor Bahru, which cost S$5 from Singapore. My intention was to walk from the train checkpoint to Woodlands Checkpoint, clear immigrations and take a bus from there to cross the border.

It was a breeze clearing both checkpoints on a Monday morning. At 9:45am, I exited JB CIQ. There is a certain wine store that I found online and thought of checking it out before heading to Kluang. Meanwhile, I would go for breakfast at Padi Kopitiam, along Jalan Trus, before searching for the wine store in its vicinity.

9.50am, both City Square and KOMTAR malls were not opened yet, so I used a path between the two malls to get to Jalan Wong Ah Fook and crossed the road to Zenith Lifestyle Centre. Few minutes to go before 10am, but I decided to skirt around Zenith too, walked past Fives Hotel, turned left… and stumbled upon the wine store. It was a toddy, tuak or coconut wine, shop. I believed the shop name was Air Nira.

A sign outside the gate indicated the opening time as 10:30am to 3pm. It was still early. I continued walking to Padi Kopitiam where I had fried “mouse” vermicelli (炒老鼠粉), an egg tart and kopi-o kosong. Did the egg tart shrink in size? But nevertheless, it still had a wonderful taste and not too sweet.

After breakfast, I went back to the toddy shop but it was still closed at 10:45am. Disappointed. Was it still in business? Anyway, I would come back again to check it out some other day.

Instead of heading to Larkin Sentral for the long distance bus directly to Kluang (1.5 hours), which I normally did, I was thinking of using local buses from JB Sentral to Kulai to Ayer Hitam to Kluang — this would be my adventure for the day. I headed to the bus terminal below JB Sentral by cutting through KOMTAR, which was already opened.

When I walked past the money changers in CIQ and JB Sentral earlier at around 9:45am, the exchange rate was RM345 for S$100. The money changer at KOMTAR was buying at 348 at around 10:50am. Back at JB Sentral at close to 11am, the changers’ rate had changed to 347. Seemed like the exchange rate for the day was updated at around 10am. Those who exchanged a lot of ringgits before the rate change were probably banging their heads against any walls they could find.

A simple calculation on the rate used by YouTrip, which I used to pay for the breakfast at Padi Kopitiam, worked out to be better at 349.3. Anyway, I would be using cards for payment to reduce expending my limited ringgits.

At 10:58, I saw the tail of the 11am myBAS T30 leaving the bus terminal. Seriously, bus drivers should stop looking at their own watches and use mobile devices that could synchronise with standard time. I took the next service at 11:20am to Kulai (RM4.10). It took about 40 minutes before I dropped off at the nearest bus stop to Mok Gao Restaurant.

There was actually a shortcut between the bus stop and Mok Gao which I had not noticed before. Seeing that there were very few diners in the restaurant on a Monday noon, I went in right away and ordered their seafood kway teow soup and (another) kopi-o kosong — my third cup of coffee for the day.

After lunch at 12:30pm, instead of going back to the same bus stop for CityBus 2 to Ayer Hitam. I did a short walk around the area, under the hot sun, and noted a few eating places and cafes that I had not tried yet. Cafe Jufei was closed for the day, beside it was a shop selling wanton noodle, the Hainanese chicken rice shop opposite had moved across another road to a bigger shop, the closed char kway teow shop that opened only from Friday to Sunday, and a cafe with an interesting name. All of them were added to my target list for subsequent visits. Then, I made my way to Kulai Bus Terminal, which had free washroom and hopefully some ventilation to alleviate the afternoon heat.

12:55pm, Kulai Bus Terminal. I used the gents, bought a pack of candy for RM2.50 to get small notes for the bus fare, and waited in the waiting area under fans that could not move the air at all. The heat was the same regardless of whether I was under the sun or in the bus terminal.

CityBus 2 arrived at 1:30pm from Larkin Sentral. Finally, I was getting out of the heat into the aircon bus. The fare was RM7.50 to Ayer Hitam Bus Terminal and the bus driver did provide change.

At Ayer Hitam Bus Terminal, one hour and 20 minutes later, a Johore Motor Bus 56 was already waiting. I walked up to the bus and was told by the driver it was bounded for Batu Pahat.

I had to wait again. There was no schedule information about the bus service, so I could not wander about while waiting. Then, I read an article online about the bus and realised I did not have enough small notes for the RM2.50 fare. I bought a bottled water (RM1.50) at the bazaar next to the terminal to get small notes again. 20 minutes later, another Johore Motor Bus turned up but it was going off-work.

A CausewayLink Service 8 also turned up at the terminal. It served the route between Batu Pahat and Ayer Hitam. I learnt later that a GTL bus also plied between Batu Pahat and Ayer Hitam but using a different route from CWL 8.

Finally, a Johore Motor Bus 56 bounded for Kluang arrived at 3:30pm. I paid the fare, got a ticket, took a seat, looked up and saw the tapping machines that accepted payment by cards — ManjaLink card could be used on the bus. My eyes rolled!

The Johore Motor Bus reached Kluang Bus Terminal at 4:05pm, taking slightly less than 30 minutes. Milano Hotel was just 10 minutes' walk from the terminal.

At check-in, I was informed by the staff that a tax of RM10 was applicable for foreigners. And RM10 was collected from me separately, as the staff said that Agoda, the booking platform that I used, had not collected the tax.

(I did not realised was amiss until I was browsing for accommodations in Batu Pahat that night and read about the Malaysia Tourism Tax. It was supposed to be RM10 per room per night. The staff should be collecting RM20 from me. However, Agoda did declare on its website that they would include the tax in the payment amount. I clarified with front desk the following day regarding the tourism tax and was told that I had to show the tax receipt from Agoda as proof of payment, which I found in the email and forwarded it to them. They would refund the RM10 to me on check-out.)

However, the main issue for me was that I would be paying RM290 (~S$83) in total tax if I maxed out the 30-day free visa! I should perhaps keep the trip short…

After getting a windowless single room on the 3rd floor, I took a quick shower. The water was warm even without turning on the heater. While resting in the room, a heavy downpour started at around 5:30pm, I heard the rain playing piano on the roof from my room — but it was not very loud. The rain stopped at slightly after 6pm and I headed out to hunt for food. The air outside was cooled but quite humid.

Most of the shops and eating places that opened for business in the morning were all closed by this time. There was a pasar malam with many food stalls but I did not want to eat on foot.

After going one round around the town centre, I came to a restaurant named Yi Jian Xiao Mian (壹見小麵).

I thought the restaurant was a noodle house from its name but other than noodle dishes, they served dim sums, traditional toasts and fried rice dishes too. It was actually a Hong Kong-style tea cafe (港式茶餐厅). I tried their Penang char kway teow and steamed spare ribs from the dim sum category.

With not much to do after dinner, I did some window-shopping at Kluang Parade Shopping Mall before heading back to the hotel to shower again and rest.

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