I'm on the way to Sabah now, for a week of diving, meeting new people, and learning about new developments in the area. It's been a while since I've spent any significant time in Sabah, so it'll almost be like visiting for the first time.
Specifically, I'll be visiting Sipadan, Mabul and Mataking...all of which are well known in the diving community...as well as spending some time in less well known areas (I hope). As is the case with all adventures, I have a general idea of what's going to happen, but I'm also certain that what actually takes place will be different from what I think will happen. It's only a question of how different.
That's part of the fun (and sometimes the hassle) of travelling.
An Early Start
The alarm went off at 03:15 this morning. I woke up (sort of), sorted myself out (sort of) and got in a taxi at 03:50 with my two travelling companions for this journey...Aey and Mean, the Associate Publisher and Graphic Designer of FiNS Magazine.
The ride to the airport was a haze of darkness punctuated by streaks of neon. The Man U/ Chelsea game was on the radio (in Thai of course). The occasional cheers and groans of the commentators let me know when something significant happened, at which point I'd have to ask "What happened?", despite being too groggy to comprehend what anyone said.
We reached the airport when game time drew to a close, with Man U and Chelsea tied 1-1, meaning penalty kicks to decide the outcome. Dragging ourselves into the airport just after 04:20, we saw an amazing number of people already at the Air Asia counter, and we heard an even larger number of people cheering on the football (that's "soccer" for US people) match.
We stood zombie-like near the check-in counters for a while, not asleep, but not entirely awake yet either. A crowd coalesced at the check-in lanes, and a loud roar that echoed through the airport indicated that someone had won the match (Man U as I later learned). We lined up with everyone else.
The earlier confusion about baggage allowance was a concern. We had packed bags based on the ability to check-in our diving gear as "sports equipment" for a minimum fee, despite being told by Air Asia Bangkok that there is no allowance for sports equipment (in direct contradiction to what Air Asia HQ in Malaysia told us).
When our turn to check in finally came, I started up my video camera just in case we had a problem. Fortunately, the woman checking us in was friendly. Initially, she told us we'd need to pay some ridiculous excess baggage charge, but when we explained Air Asia's corporate policy of allowing sports equipment allowance at a fixed charge, she cooperated. We paid Baht 350 per bag for two bags of 15kg each with diving gear, which was perfectly reasonable. Hurray!
I'm not sure if having a video camera aimed at the check-in counter during the entire discussion helped or not, but I think I'm going to make a habit of it. And I'm still an un-fan of Air Asia.
A note for travellers passing through Bangkok's new airport: If you're hungry and don't feel like paying the exorbitant prices inside the terminal, then after you check-in, don't go through immigration, and instead head to Level 1. Hidden in one corner is the amusingly named "Magic Food Point".
It's a 24-hour food court that few people seem to know about. Baht 100 will buy you plenty of food, Like many other food courts in Thailand, you need to purchase coupons or tickets first and use those to pay for food. Return any unused tickets to the cashier counter after you're done and they'll refund you the balance.
I got some khao tom pla (fish porridge) and chicken rice for Baht 75. Not the best I've ever had, but decent enough at 05:00.
KL Budget Terminal
So I'm sitting at the Kuala Lumpur airport budget terminal now, enduring a five-hour layover until the next flight. At times like this, having travelling companions around is a big help. When you're alone, with tonnes of baggage, and you need to go to the toilet, you either gotta drag everything in with you (usually impractical) or just grin and bear it. Few things are as unpleasant as grinning and bearing it.
Travelling companions can also be good for conversation to pass time, though my young friends seem more preoccupied with watching a movie on their iPhone than with talking to me. Not only is this anti-social, but it's also being insensitive to the fact that I don't have an iPhone, even though I really want one. Young people these days. Sheesh.
Something worth mentioning is that going through the immigration process this morning was paperless. Yup, no forms to fill out. Conditioned as I am to fill out forms ad nauseum to please bureaucrats the world over, I frantically looked for forms as we got off the plane, experiencing a mild sensation of panic when I couldn't find any.
Even as I looked around and saw that no one else had forms, it was difficult for me to accept that bureaucrats would forego an opportunity to present hapless travellers with pointless forms, and the tingling in my gut remained until I cleared immigration without even so much as being asked for my signature.
I have no idea whether this is a permanent change, or perhaps they just ran out of forms, but I hope the entire world moves to going paperless. Not only would this be a helluva lot better for the environment (no paper, no ink), but it would save countless (and pointless) hours of labour (filling out, sorting, processing, throwing away forms that quite possibly no one ever looks at).
As impressed as I was with the efficient paperless bureaucracy however, I was quickly brought back to reality when I read the Customs notice at the luggage conveyer belt. The board spells out a list of dutiable and non-dutiable items. Pretty standard and unexciting fare, unless you take the time to read the list.
Among the more amusing points:
- Golf clubs are not dutiable. Golf balls are dutiable. (Why the balls, but not the clubs?)
- All other types of balls are not dutiable. (Why pick on golf balls?)
- Gold Coins and gold bars are not dutiable. Jewellery and imitation jewellery is. (What happens if you have jewellery made of gold coins?)
- All musical instruments are not dutiable. Upright pianos are. (I suppose grand pianos are exempt from duty then?)
- Fountain pens are not dutiable. Ball point pens made of artificial plastic are dutiable (which begs the question, "What is natural plastic?")
- Calendars are dutiable. (huh?)
- Playing cards are dutiable. (huh?)
- Footwear is dutiable (including the shoes you're wearing?).
I'm sure there are reasons for all of these and the other items listed, but reading the list did re-affirm my faith in bungling bureaucracy.
That's it for now. Only three more hours to go...