It was raining when we left the hostel around 4 am and began looking for a taxi to take us to the train station. We stood under the awning of the strip mall hoping beyond hope that a taxi would drive by on the road which looped past the hostel to access the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple next door, but apparently the temple doesn’t receive many visitors at that time. An intoxicated man approached us and showed us various cuts on his legs in an attempt to get a handout from us. He began ranting at us upon our refusal to give him anything, so we decided to step out into the rain after all- hoping that would deter him from following us. It didn’t- he was still following and cursing at us when we flagged down a passing taxi and sped off into the pre-dawn darkness. (What follows is a personal message for Prime Minister Lee of Singapore: Mr. Lee, could you kindly “take care” of the man I just described. You have created a utopian society in which gum is illegal due to its propensity to show up on streets as well as under desks and tables. I’m sure that you don’t want the belligerent man I just described roaming the streets either. Thank you for your attention to this matter. JSG)
Since we arrived at the train station an hour before our train was due to leave, the officials there directed us to a “coffee shop”, aka hawker stalls, at the top of a hill across the street from the station. I ate a breakfast there consisting of noodles, steamed vegetables, and coffee and then we returned to the station to board our train. Part of the boarding process involved passing through customs and immigration- first for exiting Singapore and then for entering Malaysia (since the first stop the train would make was in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, or simply JB to the locals). The train was functional but nothing fancy, our Superior First Class tickets meant only that our particular car included air-conditioning. Since I tend to get motion sick easily, I was a bit dismayed that exactly half the seats in our train car faced forward while half faced backward and that we had been put in the latter category. I decided that I had to make the best of it, however, and settled in for the 7-hour ride. Our train has been nicknamed the “Jungle Train” since it branches off the main transportation corridor which stretches between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore about halfway through the trip and heads into the sparsely populated interior of peninsular Malaysia. In truth, there was very little jungle to be seen along the way as most of the area surrounding the track appeared to have been cleared for rubber tree cultivation. We did see a good amount of the Malaysian countryside that day, however, as well as a variety of small villages as we stopped in one every 20 minutes or so.
We pulled into Jerantut about 12:40 and quickly found the Hotel Sri Emas where I had made reservations. There, we discovered that we were actually housed in two hotels- a room with a fan in Sri Emas (for the guys) and one with air conditioning in NKS, their sister hotel across the street and a few blocks closer to the clock tower at the edge of town. The one thing that we still lacked at this point was any Malaysian ringgits to our name. We inquired about where we could find a bank and had soon walked downtown in search of it. When we arrived, I asked about changing U.S. dollars into Malaysian ringgits and was dumfounded to find out that they, in fact, did not. “Why not?” I inquired. “We have reached our limit,” the woman replied. “Oh, then you will exchange Singapore dollars?” “No” “Hong Kong dollars?” “No”. “Is there a money changer in town?” I asked. “No money changer,” she assured me. “Is there another bank in town?” I finally implored. “I don’t know,” she replied. “Now let’s get this strait,” I wanted to ask “you live in a town of 90,000 people and you are unaware of whether there are other banks in the vicinity?” I just left things as they were. Luckily, the students had all brought ATM cards that they were able to use to withdraw ringgits. I borrowed some money from one of them and we headed to a much-needed break for lunch.
We ate Japanese food at Lucky Bubbles nearby the bank. I had a bento box and some of the bubble tea that gives the restaurant its name. Back at the hotel, I was able to pay for our rooms and get more information on the existence of other banks. I would eventually visit three others and find that none of them would exchange money either. You have heard the expression “your money is no good here”, well that was quite literally true in Jerantut! The hotel did inform me that the NKS travel agency located in the hotel of the same name would exchange my $ for me, but they quoted such a bad exchange rate that it would have amounted to a $15 commission for them for every $100 exchanged. I finally resigned to borrowing money from the students until we could get somewhere where U.S. cash actually had some value. After getting cleaned up, I explored town for a bit while the students rested in their rooms. There was a beautiful blue and gold mosque as you left town in the direction of the clock tower and a Buddhist temple on top of a hill which overlooked downtown. As I walked past the Railroad Station Café, I noticed that they were one of the only restaurants in town which accepted credit cards. Later, I returned there with the students to have dinner where I feasted on Thai noodles and drank what amounted to a kiwi slush. The next day we would be heading into the jungle- I had to savor my cold drinks while I could.