Today we will take the high-speed ferry from Malaysia to Sumatra, Indonesia across the Straits of Malacca. It is supposed to be a 4-hour trip, leaving at 9:00 AM. We had not planned to go across to Indonesia (not that much of this trip has been really planned!), but we met ‘Papa Denmark’ in Sangkhlaburi, Thailand and he convinced us that we had to visit Sumatra where he lives. He claimed that one should visit every other country before going to Sumatra, because after that, you won’t want to go anywhere else.
The north-west coast of Sumatra was badly damaged during the 2004 earthquake and tsunami, where 220,000 people in Banda Aceh lost their lives. We are going to Bukit Lawang, a village in the interior, next to the Gunung Leuser National Park and the Bohorok Orang-Utan Viewing Centre. This village also suffered a disaster in 2003 when a flash flood destroyed much of the village and killed 280 people.
We are down at the 24-hour restaurant along the main road through Teluk Bahang by a little after 6:00. Rice, deep-fried eggs, and cooked greens have become a standard breakfast in this town. And strong coffee with milk and sugar. After we eat, we walk a block down the street to the bus stop. The bus doesn’t come by until almost 7:00.
It takes close to an hour for the bus to get to the jetty. The ferry waiting area is busy with people rushing to get on the 8:00 ferry to Pulau Langkawi, a series of islands about 30 km off the coast. The ticket counter announces “Last call, Langkawi” so many times that one wonders if they will actually leave before we do.
Our high-speed passenger ferry starts boarding just before 9:00. We make our way through all the construction to the waiting boat, the Kenangan 3. I wonder what happened to the first two.
We manage to get down the narrow walkway with our luggage, then stow them in a luggage area near the canteen. I chose a window seat – not that one can see through the cloudy windows. Not that there is much to see once the boats get out into the strait.
Once we are underway, a steward comes by with bottles of water and a packaged pound cake for everyone and then with the Indonesian arrival and departure cards for us to fill in. There isn’t much wind, but the swells are quite large. The high-speed ferry cuts through the water quite smoothly. A DVD is showing on the tv at the front – fortunately the sound is turned low as it is in English with Malaysian subtitles.
After about an hour and a half, the captain suddenly cuts the engines back and we come to a stop. Now one can really feel the large swells as the boats starts to roll a bit. It appears that something/someone has gone overboard, as several stewards go out the door at the rear. Now we are going in reverse. Now we are going forward, but making a large circle. No one seems to know what is happening. I wonder what the procedure would be if someone did fall overboard. Would we stay out here until they were found? Or until a search and rescue crew came?
After about a 20-minute delay, we are once again heading south-west toward Sumatra. Galen goes to the rear to see if he can find out what happened. He comes back 20 minutes later, saying that he thinks someone dropped something overboard. Meanwhile, he found that there is a stairway at the rear to an upper deck that is really quite pleasant. I was wondering where all the people were going who went out the back door – the little deck at the back didn’t look big enough to hold everyone.
We have now been on board for over 5 hours and I keep peering through the window for signs of land. We are in the middle of the third movie – Blood Diamonds. Now I wish I could hear the sound, although I have seen the movie before – about illicit diamonds financing the armed struggle in Sierra Leone.
Occassionally we pass a big ship or see a fishing boat in the distance. Finally, after 6 hours, we are coming into the Berawan port. The water is crowded with ships and fishing boats.
We go up to the upper deck to take photos and see what we are coming in to.
Wooden fishing boats go past us on their way out to sea. It looks like a lot of these people live and work on their boats. Container ships are being loaded and we pass oil tankers.
Once on land again, we are herded through the immigration area. All foreigners without visas are directed to one corner, where you pay your $25 US each, and then to an area where your passport is scanned and stamped. And then by another desk where they check your documents again and finally to the luggage scanning station, where disinterested employees ignore your bag as it goes through the scanner.
Through all this waiting, the touts are already at you, wanting to know where you are going and offering ‘great’ deals if you go with them. The ferry service has a shuttle bus that takes passengers into Medan, which is about 30 minutes away, but the touts try to convice foreigners to go with them instead. For only $3 US each, they will take us to the Baris bus station to catch a bus to Bukit Lawang.
We manage to get by the ‘feeding frenzy’ and load our bags onto the bus and climb on. It is amazing to me that immigration allows these guys to get so far into the building, and that the ferry employees don’t try to assist one to get on the bus. We are the only foreigners on the bus. The rest are being hauled away by the touts.
Indonesia feels a lot like India, without the extreme poverty. The vehicles are battered and the traffic is rather chaotic. The people generally look poorer than in the other SE Asia countries we have come through.
Once at the ferry office downtown, we are surrounded again by more touts, eager to take us to a hotel. After studying the map in our guidebook and determining where we are, we try to convince the touts to leave us alone. One man follows us down the street, pointing out hotels and trying to get us to follow him. Only after we look at several places that are either full, windowless, or otherwise unacceptable, and decide to cross the street to look there do we manage to get rid of the guy. I guess the hotels on the other side of the street don’t pay him a commission.
We end up staying at the Wisma Yuli, paying an outrageous 100,000 Rupiahs ($10) for a little room with a squat toilet and bucket shower. But it has a spring mattress, something we haven’t seen for months.
Now we have to get used to new money. The rupiah is about 10,000 to 1 CAD. It’s confusing, as people will quote prices by dropping the last 2 or 3 zeros, so you’re never quite sure what the price actually is. We find ourselves converting it to dollars and then to Malaysian ringgits for comparison.
Speaking of money – we need to get some. An ATM is around the corner at the Yuki Plaza, a shopping centre with a bowling alley and billiards in the basement and a McDonalds. After we get some cash, we stop by the McDonalds. We have been craving a hamburger for a while now, so we splurge and get a burger, drink, and fries.
The burger tastes like a McDonald’s hamburger (I forgot how bad they are), but the fries are great. The ketchup turns out to be chili sauce, but it tastes pretty good on the fries.
After we eat, we cross the street to the park that is kitty-corner from the shopping centre. There is a big pond in the middle, with tables set up on the walkway around it. A few food vendors vie for fewer customers. One woman has glasses stacked in the window and a display of fruit, so we assume she is serving fruit drinks. We order two lime drinks and are escorted to a small table with plastic beach chairs.
It is a lovely place to sit – we can still hear the traffic roaring by, but the pond and the twinkly lights in the trees make it feel rather festive. When we go to pay, they want 20,000. We try to figure out how much 20,000 really is. Let’s see, that would be like $2.00, which is the equivalent of 6 ringgit or 60 bahts or 80 rupees. Rather pricey, but I guess that’s what you get in a big city.
Since we will be leaving tomorrow morning for no-man’s land (Bukit Lawang), we go back to the shopping centre to use the internet cafe to send emails to family, letting them know where we will be.