Mobile phones
Getting around

Part 3: Mersing, Seribuat archipelago, Johor Bahru

08.06: Dubai -> Kuala Lumpur
09.06: Kuala Lumpur
10.06: Kuala Lumpur
11.06: Kuala Lumpur -> Bali
21.06: Surabaya -> Johor Bahru -> Mersing
22.06: Seribuat archipelago
23.06: Mersing -> Johor Bahru -> Kuching
24.06: Kuching -> Sematan

25.06: Gunung Gading NP
26.06: Tanjung Datu NP
27.06: Sematan -> Teluk Intan
28.06: Teluk Intan
29.06: Teluk Intan -> LCCT
30.06: LCCT -> Similajau NP
01.07: Similajau NP -> KL
02.07: KL
03.07-04.07: KL -> Munich

21.06: Surabaya -> Johor Bahru -> Mersing
Hotel Embassy, Mersing. RM 55 for a basic, but functional room. It has A/C, a small TV, two tables, bed, mirror, clothes hanger, basic toilet with shower not much more else. Very basic, but in a good location in the city centre and sufficient for my needs. Finally an A/C whose thermostat works.
Weather: sunny, blue sky, but quite hazy in Surabaya. Overcast to heavy rain in Johor Bahru, more fresh. Sunny and warm in Mersing.

The AirAsia flight to Johor Bahru surprisingly leaves 10 minutes early at 9:15am (scheduled departure time is 9:25am) and lands early in Johor Bahru at 12:15pm local time. Then it takes quite a long time to get through the new swine flu check. Not sure if I chose the wrong queue or if people simply were jumping queue, in any case I'm one of the last to pass this health checkpoint but wasn't one of the last to leave the plane.

At the passport control the officer checks my passport and seeing many Malaysian chops asks if I come and go to see my Malaysian girlfriends. Well no I explain, I'm happily married with kids.

It's 1pm when I finally retrieve the luggage. Then I head towards the exit and am stopped at the customs. Here they tell me to send my suitcase through the X-ray scanner and then they tell me to open the suitcase. I have to open the suitcase, pull out all my stuff, explain what every item is. Dirty underwer and clothes, shower gel, slippers... what are they looking for..?? I have been going in and out of Malaysia every year multiple times since 1999 and this is the first time there is this screening. Maybe it's because the route Surabaya-Johor Bahru is a bit unconventional.

Never mind, I finally exit and stop at a restaurant for lunch. I check if there is a WLAN network, yes there is, but you have to buy an access code, sold somewhere in the airport.

After lunch I walk towards the exit. The airport is quite big, with many shops which implies that it receives many passengers with good purchasing power. Lots of other restaurants, one with free Internet (should have had lunch there instead of taking the first restaurant after the exit).

The bus station is quite far away. I get a ticket to JB (RM 8) for the 1:45pm bus. The bus leaves on time and arrives at the Larkin bus station in JB at 2:20pm. There I'm erroneously told by the driver to get out at the next bus station, and once there I have to take a taxi (RM 10, 3km) to get back to the Larkin bus station. This is because the bus to Mersing leaves from Larkin, and I want to check the departure times.

Larkin is a huge bus terminal, with buses to all Malaysian destinations. Hot, smelly and dirty, although not as bad as the Puduraya bus station.

After some effort I manage to find the counter for the buses to Mersing. There are two daily buses, one at 11:30am and the other one at 7pm. Duration of the trip: 2:30 hours according to the staff. Right now it's 2:45pm.

7pm is too late, is there any way to leave earlier? One of the guys in the counter says, yes sir, a taxi is leaving at 3:30pm. Cost is RM 100. Hmmm.... is it possible to leave at 5pm? Would like to visit JB for a couple of hours first. Well no, this is a guy who is going back at 3:30pm.

After that I call Omar Bakcpacker's Hostel in Mersing to check the situation there. Are daytrips to the islands possible? To Endau Rompin? According to the rough guide Omar organises such trips. The person I talk to tells me, no, too few people are interested in such tours, I would have to charter a boat, very expensive he says.

By the way, while I'm there talking on the mobile phone opposite the ticket counter, one of the taxi drivers of the stand near the bus counter is next to me and listens to my conversation. He has stopped on purpose next to me to listen to what I am saying. I even wonder if I should walk away to a more private spot. This driver has actually been offering his services for a while, but I have just ignored him. A very pushy person.

I think about the situation a bit, then decide to go to Mersing early thereby skipping JB, and see what trips can be organised in Mersing. My planning was based on the assumption that daytrips can be organised in Mersing, but if this isn't possible, I don't know what to do over the next few days.

I get back to the bus counter and ask for the guy with whom I spoke before. After a while he arrives and brings me to the guy with the car. While I'm about to board the car, one of the taxi drivers of the taxi stand near the Mersing bus ticket counter shows up and asks where I am going. Nowhere, thanks, I already have transportation. Again he asks where I am going. None of your business.

What then happens over the next few minutes is disgusting. The taxi driver starts shouting at my driver and apparently threatens him with something. I tell the driver to just go, but the driver says that I cannot go anymore with him and have to go with the taxi driver. Incredible. I tell the taxi driver that I will not go with him.

I go back to the bus ticket counter and tell the guy I spoke before with that there are some problems. At this point the situation degenerates. Three taxi drivers of that stand are there and shout at the bus counter staff. They the glass window with their fists - a miracle that it does not break. Open, very aggressive intimidation. Have never experienced anything like this in Malaysia. 

The situation looks dangerous and I decide to get away from there as soon as possible. I walk away, even check if anybody is following me, then walk to the other end of the bus station to another taxi stand. There I negotiate with another taxi driver a trip to Mersing for RM 150. This driver is a young guy, friendly and quiet. We finally leave at 3:35pm.

We reach Mersing two hours later at 5:35pm. The drive was quite speedy, the road while not being a motorway is quite good, not so much traffic. In the meantime it has stopped raining and the sun is shining. In Mersing we look for a while for the tourist office,  but can't find it because the road to it is closed for road works. So I just ask the driver to drop me off in one of the hotels.

Mersing is a small, pleasant, laid back place at the mouth of the Mersing river. Many hotels, most a bit old and run down, shops, restaurants, many travel agencies, overall good tourist infrastructure. Not so much traffic in the streets.

In the evening I check a bit the city. Almost all travel agencies are closed, in one which is open the people tell me that chartering a boat costs RM 350 for one day. Some agencies offer island hopping trips for RM 900 (minimum 12 people). Will check tomorrow what trips are possible.

In the evening after dinner I check my emails in an Internet cafe. Cheapest Internet access so far at RM 1.50/hour.

22.06: Mersing -> Seribuat archipelago -> Mersing
Hotel Embassy, Mersing.
Weather: sunny, very hot in Mersing. Blue sky, but thin clouds layer which gets thicker in the afternoon, then thinner again.

At 8am I get up and leave the room at 9am. To save time I skip the breakfast and instead buy some food and drinks in a convenience store.

I walk to the tourist office and enquire about things to do and see in and around Mersing.

The impression I get by talking with the lady working there is that tourism in the area is not well developed and has in fact become less. She mentions that it is possible to charter a boat (slow boat) for a full day for RM 200. Boats however need to be booked one day in advance. Trips to the Endau Rompin national park are best organised as multiple day trips, because getting from Mersing to the park takes a lot of time (last part of the road is a mud road).

Then I walk towards the jetty and stop at the travel agency with whom I spoke yesterday. The price is still the same, RM 350, and I only get a slow boat. Perhaps I should have shopped around a bit, but it's already late (9:40am) so I just accept the offer.

While we wait for the boatsman to arrive I have a conversation with the travel agent. He can do daytrips to the Endau Rompin national park for RM 400 - quite expensive if you can't share the cost.

Finally at 10:15am the boatsman has arrived and I walk to the boat. The boat is an oldish wooden boat with a diesel engine. Sitting is a bit uncomfortable, especially if you have to sit a long time. I probably won't take a boat like this again for a day trip.

So we proceed towards the islands. We reach the first one, Pulau Hujong, at 11:30am. This island is covered with dense forest, has a longish beach on its west side with some buildings on it, but no jetty.

We make a round around the island then proceed to the next island, Pulau Tengah which we reach at 12pm. Pulau Tengah is very close to Hujong and has nice beaches. There are some buildings on one beach and I can spot some people on it, but no tourists. One beach seems to have an abandoned resort. It's strange that there are no tourists, because Tengah has good beaches.

Then we proceed to another island, Pulau Rawa, arriving there at 12:30pm. Pulau Rawa has a resort on it and one beautiful beach with white coral sand, coconut trees and crystal clear water. The only problem is that the resort consists of a large number of bungalows (and I see that they are building new ones) and there is just this one beach, which is not too long, perhaps 200m. The rest of Pulau Rawa is inaccessible: dense rainforest, almost vertical walls of rock plunging into the sea. The beach of Pulau Rawa is indeed beautiful but is the only beach of the island and is quite short.

Pulau Rawa has a (private) jetty, where we dock. I get out and explore a bit the island. All bungalows are air-conditioned. They look a bit old however.

Around 1:10pm we leave Pulau Rawa for the next island, Pulau Gual. This lies very close to Rawa, around 10 minutes by boat. It is uninhabited, has no jetty, almost no trees and just one short beach. I briefly swim to the beach (the boat can't go ashore) then swim back to the boat.

The next island in the program is Pulau Mensirip. We arrive there at 2:25pm. Also here I swim to the beach and investigate a bit the island. Mensirip is densely forested and has just one beach, around 200m long. No buildings, no accommodation.

The last island of today is Pulau Harimau. This is inhabited and has just one beach. There are almost no trees on the island. On its highest point there is an observation platform and a radio beacon accessible via a staircase.

I spend some more time swimming in the sea, then at 3 something pm we turn back to Mersing, arriving there at 5pm.

23.06: Mersing -> Johor Bahru -> Kuching
Hotel Telang Usun, Kuching (approx. a 20 minutes walk from the waterfront). Sort of a middle class hotel. RM 100 for a room with pleasant furniture, a bed which is not hard as stone, small TV, phone, tea making equipment, A/C with no thermostat, fridge, bathroom with shower. Breakfast included. Good shower. Free WLAN internet access in the room through the deConneXion hotspot of Danawa.
Weather: sunny, blue sky, very hot in Mersing. More fresh and heavy rain in Johor Bahru, which only stops in the evening. Not hot in Kuching in the evening.

I get up at 8am, and get ready. I make several phone calls to Sarawak, enquiring about travel to the Gunung Gading and Tanjung Datu national parks. There is currently no blooming rafflesia in the Gunung Gading national park. The Sematan Palm Beach resort in Sematan has rooms for RM 153 (breakfast included). Getting from Sematan to Tanjung Datu with the boat of the hotel is expensive (RM 700). The lady suggests that I try with a fishermen boat. And their reception close in the evening at 10pm, so I can't check in after that. In Teluk Melano, a village near the park, there are no hotels (you can only stay with private people, sharing their food).

I'm still a bit sunburnt from yesterday, so I decide not to do again a trip to the islands. I'll instead take the evening flight to Kuching (20:15) and visit a bit Johor Bahru in the afternoon.

After that I pack my stuff and at 10:40am I leave the hotel. I walk a bit around Mersing, briefly visiting the mosque on the hill. It is brutally hot in Mersing and there is barely any wind. While walking under the sun, my T-shirt gets wet of sweat.

At 11:50am I'm back in the hotel, check out and ask about a taxi to the airport. I'm told that a taxi to Johor Bahru airport will cost RM 160. I accept and at 12:10pm I'm in a taxi on the way to Johor Bahru airport.

We reach the airport at 2:20pm. There I buy a ticket to Kuching with AirAsia at the AirAsia ticketing counter (could not make the booking online because AirAsia does not accept bookings less than 24 hours before the flight). I discover that Malaysian Airlines (MAS) offers flights Johor Bahru-Kuching for RM 99, but the MAS flight already left at 12:45pm.

After that I leave my bags in a locker at the airport (RM 10, tokens to be purchased at the information counter). The Johor Bahru airport is in Senai, a town 28km north of Johor Bahru. It is currently being modernised, i.e. a new airport which will be opened in July 2009 is being built.

Then I head to the taxi counter. By 3pm I'm in a taxi (RM 40, coupon system) on the way to Johor Bahru city. At 3:45pm we arrive at the former royal palace, Istana Besar, which is now converted to a museum. It is raining heavily.

For the next two hours I walk around Johor Bahru. It's not the terrible city as described in the Rough Guide. In fact it has a few pretty sights (Istana Besar, the Abu Bakar mosque etc.) and is otherwise relatively clean and pleasant to explore. It's worth to spend a few hours to visit it.

Shortly before 6pm I'm in a taxi back to the airport (RM 40, this brings the total spent on taxis today to RM 240). The trip takes again around 40 minutes.

At the airport I check in, then have a dinner in a restaurant offering wireless Internet access for free. I check my emails, the proceed to the gate. The flight takes off a few minutes early.

It looks like AirAsia is making an effort to improve their service. Flights are now mostly on time, they assign a seat to you (previously you received no reserved seat and had to rush to the plane to get a good seat). At the same time, Malaysian Airlines is reducing its prices, so the two airlines are now converging.

In Kuching I buy again a coupon for a taxi (RM 30). When I walk towards the car with the driver, I realise that the Kuching airport does not use a coupon system for the taxis. I bought the services of an expensive taxi operator. Could have spent less simply walking outside and fetching a taxi.

I'm in the hotel at 10pm and don't do much in the evening.

Copyright 2009 Alfred Molon