The main road outside the Arwana Hotel in Tok Bali is busy through the night and day. Youngsters use it to test out their bikes at high speed and owners of high end cars race on it. This morning I woke up to the sounds of a couple of cars revving on the road at 4 am. They kept going up and down the road many times and finally left after an hour. Kelantan is rich in oil and fuel here is cheap; remember that fuel oil is one of the items smuggled across to Thailand via the Rantau Panjang border. Yesterday, I paid RM 1.94 per litre in Kota Bharu, approximately Rs.34! The cheapest diesel I have had on my international travels was in Kazakhstan at Rs. 37; but Malaysia has topped that.
While researching the drive from Tok Bali to Gambang, where I was to halt the night, I did not anticipate a drive of more than four hours with a couple of stoppages. The distance was less than 350 km. I did not imagine at all that it would be done in three and a half! The roads were fantastic. Movement of freight trucks on two way roads slowed me down in the earlier part of the drive, before I got to the motorway and the expressway. Road infrastructure in Thailand and Malaysia has to be experienced to appreciate it. And most of the roads, even the expressways, are not tolled. Today, for instance, to use nearly 300 km of motorway and expressway I paid one toll of RM 4.30 – Rs. 75! The Eastern Expressway E8 is flawless with low mountains and rubber and oil palm plantation along the way. Drains have been provided even on hillocks and low mountains and small trees and grass have been planted so that soil erosion is prevented. Wherever slippages are anticipated gabion mats have been pitched to avoid it. The 400 plus km expressway, which takes one to Kuala Lumpur, is fenced all the way through and provided with medians and service roads. Well planned exits provide access to the smaller towns on the way. The maximum permissible speed on the expressway is 110 kph. The Endeavour was steady on it at 160 kph. I wondered why in nearly 7 decades of being an independent nation we have not been able to design roads for the needs of our vehicular traffic. Most importantly, even in the lesser developed nations like Laos and Cambodia, drivers do not honk unless it is an emergency. Why are we such boorish and arrogant road users?
I was booked to stay in the Caribbean Bay Resort of Bukit Gambang Resort City (BGRC) for the last two days of my stay in Malaysia in the drive towards Indonesia. When I reached BGRC I was told that I have been upgraded to the Arabian Bay Resort. My own observation was that they were low on occupation and hence, had accommodated visitors in the three towers of the Arabian Bay Resort to cut overheads. The room tariff at over RM 250 per night is a bit stiff for Malaysian standards. Of course, if you consider it as a resort facility the tariff would be reasonable. But that is not the way I would see it as a budget traveller, who has no need of the water and safari parks. While checking in, the international credit card of HDFC was declined, the reason for which I have to investigate with the bank. Fortunately, I had cash on me to substitute.
The BGRC is an integrated 730 acre resort situated in what is classified as ‘secondary jungle’. Being a weekend the resort was a bit busy, even though I found the facilities highly underused. The water theme park is listed as one of the biggest in Malaysia offering many contemporary rides and amusement. Cabanas are available for rental. I thought that the water park would be available free to residents of the resort. But no, RM 28 is charged for an adult entrance. There is a large souvenir shop, which does not require a ticket to access, if one has money to throw around. The Safari Park, to where trams ply at frequent intervals, is promoted as the largest Zoo Safari Park in Malaysia. It occupies over 130 acres of BGRC and has the only white lion in the whole of the country. I have decided to spend some time there tomorrow.
I went down to the restaurant of the resort, where a buffet lunch was in progress. The buffet is normally a part of group package tours. At RM 37 I did not find it worth a try. I learnt from the reception that the shopping lot just across BGRC offered a wide variety of restaurants, if I wanted to sample local fare. In blazing heat I drove to the lot and, on impulse, walked into the Mama & Nana restaurant. Many items were on display and I was told to help myself. I took a plateful of jasmine rice and a large portion of beef curry, which smelt delicious. I was not wrong - the rice and curry were superb. It was all the more so because it cost me only RM 4. Of course, it was cold, but what the heck, I would have had it straight from the refrigerator for that price! And cold water was free too.
After laundry and a brief snooze I received detailed instructions from Sreekanth Nair, my host in Singapore. He had been processing papers for entry of the car into Singapore. It is through him that I found out the rather detailed and costly process of driving into Singapore. Besides the Carnet, registration papers of the car and the International Driving Permit one has to obtain an insurance, which costs nearly $200 for 8 days (!), an International Circulation Permit and an Auto Pass. The three have to be obtained from different offices, which Sreekanth told me may occupy the better part of a day. However, he had already established rapport with crucial contacts in the offices and that was a great help. Thus, unlike with other countries, one cannot drive to the border and get papers stamped and drive into the country.
I have travelled this far without the support of a mobile phone connection. I bought a sim card in Thailand and that never worked! I have relied on free WiFi and WhatsApp for communication. However, with the procedures I have to go through in Singapore and the contact I have to maintain with Sreekanth and his friend, Pranoy, I thought that time has come to invest in a prepaid Malaysian sim card. I knew I would be able to source it from one of the shops opposite BGRC. Sure enough I did. The young man at the counter helped me activate a sim purchased at RM 10, for which I could not produce any proof of identity. He accepted my passport number without verification and in 10 minutes I was live! Since entering Malaysia I have not had my customary beer since I have been travelling through the conservative parts of the country where liquor is not sold openly. The heat and the deprivation felt by the mind must have made me do what I did – I asked the young man where I could buy a couple of bottles of beer. He told me in a low voice that he could give me chilled cans of Carlsberg beer for RM 6 each; the price was steep, but I did not dwell too much on it as I had to slake my thirst.
I emptied a couple of cans of chilled beer in the car and ordered chicken tomyam soup in the Tomyam Seafood Restaurant. I sat outside and watched the night market getting busy around the shopping lot. The spicy tomyam soup was just about alright. Thereafter I walked around the small night market that principally had clothes, footwear, toys and lots of food. After a thorough examination I bought a half portion of egg and sausage bun, a peanut pancake and a tall glass of chilled coconut water. The lively couple vending pancakes told me that the night market is only on Saturdays. The hot peanut pancake was delicious and I regretted not having picked up the pancake stuffed with black rice, which reminded me of going in search of black rice in Manipur during the Swift Bharat Yathra.