Monday, January 25, 2010

Kuala Terengganu Tales v.01 – On Causing Flight Delay and Arriving at Sultan Mahmud Airport

Kuala Terengganu had been beckoning me for a visit for the last 3 years. When the opportunity finally came, I booked a flight. To be honest about it, I didn’t come prepared, not the way I usually do with other places, but if you check out your Lonely Planet, it doesn’t really offer much; just a few pages easily readable in 15 minutes.

Terengganu or KT is Malaysia’s East Coast, the bailiwick of the country’s opposition, and is the capital of the oil producing state of Malaysia. My friend Irene is from Terengganu, but is now based in London. I met her while on a bus in Chiangmai and we’ve since kept in touch.

KT is 455 kilometers from KL, thus a day out from the capital is not possible. There are flights from air carriers like Air Asia, Malaysia Air (the first Boeing 747 to land at the Sultan Mahmud Airport was last October 11, 2008) and Firefly (to and from places like Singapore, Penang, Johor Bahru, Langkawi, but no Kuala Lumpur). Air travel takes just 50 minutes. Air Asia usually leaves KL at 7AM. Return trip to KL departs at 4PM but this is unfortunately hobbled by frequent changes of schedule. Mine was moved from 4PM to 10 PM. Air Asia is starting to crumble with frequent sked changes that inform you from either your mobile (my KT flight) or by email (my March trip to Penang).

When to visit? As I would realize later, December isn’t the best time to find ones self in KT. The rains during the monsoon season (November to February/March) don’t let up. And I would be there at its wettest!

Causing Delay

I woke up at 4:30 AM, then took a 15 ringgit taxi to KL Sentral to catch the Skybus to LCCT. I had a lot of time, so I was relaxed waiting for my boarding call. I was seated across Gate 9 where I was supposed to board. LCCT was buzzing with activity. The last 2 years have transformed this once sleepy no-frills airport into a busy one. It was 6:40 (departure at 7) and still, Gate 9 was shut! Ten minutes later, I heard my name being called. They were waiting for me. I froze and realized they transferred the boarding gate to Gate 1 – at the other side of the hall! I jumped and made a dash to Gate 1 which was already closed. I told the attendant that I heard my name. She scrambled and reached for her card key. As the door opened, I sprinted to the nearby Air Asia plane, breathless and anxious.

I climbed the stairs leading to the plane, only to realize once I was inside that it was empty! Oh for Pete’s sake. The day was starting out wrong! I went down. A tarmac personnel pointed me to the other plane. With backpack flopping behind me, I finally made it inside my plane. I half expected people throwing scornful glances, but they were unmindful of my entry. I took my pre-booked seat and relaxed. I’ve never been a cause of delay and it unnerved me. There is no such thing as Filipino-time, only undisciplined people.

The flight was half full and uneventful. The very few Caucasians on board were headed to Pulau Redang, one of Malaysia’s most beautiful beaches (their Boracay), just a boat away from Marang (a town 45 minutes from KT). I retrieved a photocopy of the Kuala Terengganu (KT) entry from my Lonely Planet (Asia on Shoestring). It was too thick and I didn’t want to carry that edition as I already had 2 other LP’s with me – Nepal and the thick Indian Lonely Planet. I re-read it and felt it was inadequate. Oh well. It was too late for regrets. I called for my pre-booked meal – Chicken Rice, which was braised chicken and steamed rice. It was my favorite from the available choices – their chicken foccacia was horrible and is only good as a tummy-filling snack.

Fifty minutes later, we landed on drizzling Terengganu. Sultan Mahmud Airport was medium-sized. The exteriors depicted local influences. The sophisticated gleam benefitted from the 200 million ringgit ($59 million or a staggering PhP3.2 billion) poured by the government to upgrade it into an international airport. Malaysia Airline has seasonal flights that will take passengers to the Mecca Holy land via Jeddah and Medina. Firefly has flights to Singapore and even Subang. 

Though the airport feels small for a 3 billion peso make-over, the interiors are tastefully decorated. It boasts of a hotel-style lobby with cascading water dripping from a series of dark panels; huge round lighting fixtures, mini- ponds by the entrance, and delicate wood carvings hanging down the ceiling.

I was unsure if I had to submit my baggage for inspection as I headed out. This must have been obvious because the bemoustached inspector called my attention. Damn! “Yes?” I said. “What’s your nationality,” he asked. I said, “Filipino!” this time gaining my self-assured voice that belied how knackered I was. I had 2 hours of sleep and had a month of constant mobility behind me. To my surprise, he waved his hand and I was on my way out. I decided to observe the movement outside. No hurry there.

The drizzle started to turn to rain. I ventured into the covered walkway that lead to the road in front, but there weren’t any buses. I went back and sat by the benches in front. A mixed film crew of Caucasians and Chinese guys scurried around, getting their rides out of Sultan Mahmud. The atmosphere was bereft of anxiety. People enjoy a languorous pace and smile around here, I should too, I thought. I went back inside and finally gave in to the prepaid taxi counter (Counter 1, the first booth by the entrance).

I told the lady I wanted to go to TK Travellers Inn located along Sultan Sulayman Street. She nodded, and I paid 25 ringgit. Most locations at the city center will cost you 25 ringgit ($7.40/PhP340). I marveled at how uncongested, how clean the place was. As the scenery slid past before me, I soaked at how rural Terengganu looked. There were very few vehicles plying the streets. There was a laidback demeanor, with few people walking outside. I don’t see a lot of taxis - nor trishaws that the LP or wikitravel mentioned. The airport is located 15 minutes from the town center. It felt longer.

There was a stack of cumulo-nimbus clouds hanging low. I was worried about the rains which have reverted back into seductive trickles.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

The elegant lobby of Sultan Mahmud Airport. This photo only courtesy of flickr's chee.hong &

Waiting hall just outside the airport entrance. Prepaid taxis queue for their turn just in front of this hall.

Covered hallway leading to the main road.

White sand beaches of Kuala Terengganu, the East Coast! This photo only courtesy of www.tripadvisor's fozzie58.

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