As our final echoing chorus drew to an end, our voices gradually petered out and looks of bewilderment from our fellow detainees turned into somber, steely glares.
We were stuck. Distressed human traffic in the dismal no-man’s land of underground bus bays between the end of Malaysia and the beginning of Singapore – the final stop on a journey through South East Asia.
Night had descended a few hours earlier, and with it our panicked footsteps into this travellers’ purgatory. We waited. For what, we weren’t sure. Our herd of disregarded travellers had steadily gathered as time wore on and I’ll never know why the others were there. Were they in the same predicament as us, or merely awaiting the next bus?
A mêlée of battered rucksacks, smart designer suitcases and general home wares littered the hard tiles. A few bright sparks had chosen to sit on their possessions, creating a padded resting place to await their fate, which was being decided upstairs. Not the metaphorical ‘upstairs’ of course, but in the pristine, modern office building above us, where serious officials marched furiously down glass corridors, with stern expressions that would bring fear to the most well-behaved of immigrants.
Until then, we had been anything but stuck. In fact, it were as if a giant hand had greased us up and bowled us southwards down the entire west coast of Malaysia. We had whistle-stopped from Langkawi to Melaka without a care in the world, unaware of the impending doom that awaited us…
Crossing the sea border with Thailand several days perviously, we had begun our adventures on Langkawi Island, shortly afterward moving south to Penang and then onwards into the Cameron Highlands and the capital – Kuala Lumpur. Days were filled with frenzied photography, gas-bagging with friendly locals and devouring our body weight in curries. Oh the curries! Often laid out on a banana leaf; copious amounts of dhal, chutneys and various spiced meats had filled our bellies with pleasure and contentment. Sustaining our rapid movement and daylong wanderings through a vast array of landscapes and postcard perfect views.
I can’t fault Malaysia. The people were welcoming, the food excellent and the eccentricities top notch. We bathed in waterfalls with monkeys, made friends in flower gardens, overnighted in derelict buildings masquerading as hostels, got very wet in tiny chariots and delighted in afternoon tea with a view, but we weren’t prepared for the final twist in our travellers’ tale.
Our final Malaysian sojourn was the small multi-cultural town of Melaka. Despite the rain, we kept ourselves busy with, what by now had become a good habit of eating our way from restaurant to stall. We had no time to digress on the nitty-gritty of procedures and paperwork.
We were there, and as most adventurers will agree, that was enough. This country had welcomingly thrown us into its rhythm of eating and exploring at leisure, and our discussions focused on the myriad cultures, languages and food.
As our air-conditioned coach pulled into the border parking lot, we optimistically sauntered towards Malaysia’s check out point with what can only be described as blissful but ugly ignorance. Our passports were scoured, glances exchanged, and words whispered. The officials appeared confused and if they weren’t sure of their protocol there was certainly nothing we could add to assist them. The eventual fault, however, didn’t lie with anyone in that room.
The sickening realisation dawned as we were ushered into a tiny white room, that all was not well. In the minutes that followed, our problem was unveiled: The mutual relationship that we had entered into with this wonderful country and its people had never been legalised. Unbeknown to us, our unstamped, clandestine explorations had led us steadily into the path of border control. Our fun came to an abrupt end as the next hour was passed in vague explanatory murmurs and erratic international sign language.
So, there we were. Not at a backpacker’s haven but a hot, dark bus depot, happily employing our British stiff upper lip by indulging in a haphazard version of “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands” The immortal words of Monty Python swept through my conscience and as much as it may not seem like it, there was a bright side:
Our pause, if frustrating, was only temporary. One more round of hand clapping and several angry phone calls later, our passports were branded in arrears and we were released into the metropolitan wilderness of outer Singapore, eager for the final part of our adventure.