Beer, Bacon and Bargirls: SAPTCO bus to King Fahd International Airport, Dammam

Public transport in Saudi Arabia is about as developed as you’d expect in a country where oil costs $0.10 a litre, so it was with no small astonishment that I spied the sign for an airport shuttle service at Dammam‘s little SAPTCO bus terminal. We were at the terminal already and the next hourly departure was in 20 minutes, so why not give it a shot? After all, it was Friday afternoon and the noon prayers were droning on outside, meaning that absolutely nothing was open.

Of course, this wouldn’t be Saudi if life was that easy. Nobody seemed to know anything about the service except that it was “out there”, accompanied with a dismissive wave of the hand towards the sign sitting forlornly in the middle of a broiling parking lot at high noon. The appointed time came and went with no sign of the bus and we were already figuring that we’d take the taxi instead if it didn’t show up soon… but, some 15 min behind schedule, one of the guards waved to us and, lo and behold, there was a big gray bus with a “DAMMAM-AIRPORT” sign, disgorging a load of passengers.

To the mild astonishment of the conductor, we hopped aboard the bus, and so did a Filipino guy (who, as it turned out, worked in Saudia catering at the airport). We set off almost immediately, only to stop again almost immediately as the conductor got off at a market for no obvious reason. He came back in a few minutes and another guy boarded the bus, riding along for a few city blocks until he requested to be dropped off.

We zigzagged our way through Dammam’s suburbs, and then again, for no immediately apparent reason, the conductor stopped the bus, collected our 12 riyals each for the ticket, then beckoned us outside, pointing at the restaurant and saying “Safari! Safari!” I knew the word musafir, “traveler”, and as soon as I remembered “triconsonantal root” I understood what he meant: he proposed that we get some lunch to travel (to go) from the restaurant, so why not? Odds are it would beat airport food. The appearance of two khawagas was obviously the social event of the week for the restaurant staff, who crowded around us with queries of ameriki? and murmured with satisfaction on heading finlandi in response. Another 12 riyals later, half a chicken with a ginourmous vat of rice and the fixings had been procured, and we headed back on board.

We finally got on the highway and proceeded to zoom through vast expanses of honest-to-goodness desert, complete with sand dunes, Bedouin tents and herds of camel munching on shrubs in the fierce heat. The first sign we saw said “AIRPORT 20 KM”, and Trsqr wondered just what was so wrong with this particular chunk of flat, featureless desert that they had to build it so much further on.


Beer, Bacon and Bargirls: Saudi-Bahraini Transport Company, Khobar to Manama

Up at 10 AM the next morning, we demolished the complimentary fruit basket in lieu of breakfast and had the hotel drop us off at the SABTCO station. We were in luck: there are only six buses a day, but the very next one had free seats at SR50 a pop (~US$12) and was leaving in half an hour. Although it wasn’t exactly a bus: the Khobar-Bahrain service uses little minibuses seating perhaps 20 and pulling along a dinky little trailer for luggage. As we waited, a very flash Ferrari in full racing regalia drove up and dropped off a lady clad in an expensive-looking abaya, who joined us onboard.

Bahrain, literally “the seas”, being an archipelago, we had to avail ourselves of one of the greatest feats of Saudi-financed engineering, the 20-km King Fahd Causeway. It really is quite an impressive piece of work, and thanks to turgid immigration procedures, we had plenty of time to enjoy it. First Saudi exit immigration, with a single bored-looking officer stamping passports; then Saudi exit customs, who waved us through; then Bahrain entry immigration, where we forked over another SR50 a pop for visas and my officer would have forgotten to actually stamp me in if I hadn’t reminded him; and then Bahrain customs, which X-rayed our bags just in case we were, say, importing porn, alcohol or drugs from Saudi.

And, after the better part of two hours spend on Passport Island, we were free to go. The Ferrari was waiting on the Bahraini side, and the girl in the abaya, now freed from her veil, climbed into her beau’s car, and they zoomed off for a weekend of debauchery. Our driver also gunned it down the highway and in no time flat we’d been dropped off at Manama’s Lulu Centre, where we tested out exchanging Saudi riyals for lunch and got back a spray of funny Bahraini coinage in return.

SIN-JHB-XKL-SIN in F: A little tale of first-class travel, Asian style

I rarely if ever travel in F, but as it happened a friend and I had to go from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur with 2 days notice, and everything else was booked up. Due to a quirk of international relations, KTMB’s tickets are charged in ringgit from Malaysia but in Sing dollars from Singapore, meaning that it’s effectively half price to leave from across the border in Johor Bahru (JHB). So that’s what we did, and the total price for two one-way tickets in F came to all of RM230 (~$60).

It being the Friday before a 3-day weekend in Malaysia, the Causeway connecting SIN and JHB was even more jammed up than usual. We were aware of this and hit the road at 20:30 (almost 3 hours before departure), but as it turned out the queues started at Kranji MRT station for the buses to the border! We took a taxi to Woodlands Immigration instead, but getting within striking distance even there proved tough, with our cabbie eventually depositing us at a shopping mall from which we could trek across the parking lot to the checkpoint. The queues for leaving Sing weren’t too bad, everything operating with typical Singaporean efficiency, but there was another bus queue & traffic jam on the Causeway itself; fortunately, we had only a little luggage, so we opted for the cheapest option and walked the 2 km across. On the Malaysian side it finally paid off to be a furriner — the “Other Passports” line was much shorter than the Sing and Malaysian lines and we were through in a jiffy. Another little jog to the terminal, and it was time to board…

KTMB 12 JHB-XKL F “Ekspres Senandung Malam” 23:15

We’d scored seats 1A and 1B, right up front, which in KTMB’s “Deluxe ADNF” are configured as a private little suite, complete with shower and toilet! A little cramped, to be sure, but what was the last time you saw that in First? The seats had already been converted to beds by the time we boarded; and yes, they are truly flat, but the rather unorthodox bunk bed layout with two vertically layered beds leaves a little to be desired, and the bed was just a little short for a tall guy like me. For IFE we had a personal TV screen with two channels, but alas, we got nothing except static out of either one and we didn’t get headphones for the audio either. Tut tut.

Departure was a couple of minutes late, but no big shakes; soon afterward the steward came to bring us amenity kits and take our meal order, our choices tonight being: Fried Rice, Fried Noodles (Mee), Fried Bee Hoon, Tuna Sandwich, Anchovy Sandwich.

Plus a selection of fruit juices. No alcoholic drinks available, but then again, this is a Muslim country. All in all, not quite a match for SQ, but then again, I wasn’t expecting even this for such a short hop and late departure; the poor slobs in J and Y got nothing at all. I took the bee hoon, which was mostly edible; the lady opted for the mee, which wasn’t too bad. Given that the F cabin was less than 25% full, our orders took a rather unreasonable 45 minutes to arrive though, during which time I sampled the joys of the shower. Quite nice, although the hot water took a while to get started.

After the meal was cleared we settled down to sleep. The ride was slightly turbulent and the engines were a tad noisy at times, but there was a rhythm to it all and soon enough we drifted off to dreamland.

A rude awakening came at 5:30 AM when the steward came around to bring breakfast. I’d been hoping for some decent nasi lemak, but no such luck, our choices were limited to the rather un-Malaysian selection of Chicken Burger, Tuna Sandwich and the undoubtedly ever-popular Anchovy Sandwich.

Plus the usual choice of warm and cold drinks. Neither Chicken Burger nor Tuna Sandwich were noteworthy, and my hot Milo was poorly mixed. Grumble.

At 6:10 AM on the dot — we’d obviously made up for lost time at night — we touched down at KL Sentral (XKL). Unfortunately for getting from XKL to our hotel we missed the 6:14 train and, it being a public holiday, the next one only came at 7:03. This, however, did not stop both signboards and staff from announcing non-existent trains that would usually have run if only it hadn’t been a holiday…!

But by 8 AM we had checked into our opulent Oriental Suite (RM168++) at the Heritage Hotel, and it was time to get down to some serious shopping. A veteran of KL, I started my day in authentic style with a Currywurst at Muller’s Imbiss in downtown Bukit Bintang, and then plunged into the murky depths of Sungei Wang…

So yes, KTMB = Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad = Malayan Railways Company, and the Ekspres Senandung Malam is the sole night train plying the SIN-XKL route. Yes, the KL Sentral train station really does have its own IATA code!

A legacy of the British era privatized some time ago, KTMB’s services are much better than they used to be thanks to the introduction of the new sleeper trains and nifty services like e-ticketing (which worked without a hitch), but as a whole the service remains a bit of a quaint relic. Most passengers are people for whom getting there is half the fun, as even the “express” takes 7 hours (compared to 4-5 hours by bus, 3 in your own car and 35 min by plane!)… or people for whom 18 RM (2nd class train seat) vs 20 RM (bus) for the trip actually makes a difference, still a not inconsiderable number in Malaysia.

Anyway, I was going to write more tongue-in-cheek tales of decadent luxury about our return journey by bus, but our plans were rudely interrupted by the realization that all NiCE tickets for KUL-SIN departing on 02 May were sold out

So we put on our thinking caps and booked a Plusliner to JHB instead, still leaving at an uncomfortably early 10:30 AM, but beggars can’t be choosers as the next available seats were at 8:30 (meaning arrival in JHB past midnight).

The NiCE Executive Express buses are the F class of bus travel in Malaysia, with 24 seats in the entire bus (built for twice that), meal service and direct connection into Singapore across the Second Link, all for a price of 50-70 RM from KL (and S$38+ IIRC if departing from Sing). By comparison, the same company’s Plusliners to JHB are C-class on a bad airline; plenty of leg room (at least 50 inches) but no other amenities, period. There are of course plenty of other companies plying the same legs from KL to both Johor Bahru and Singapore, but many are rather dodgy and your bus may leave late if at all, while NiCE/Plus are known for their punctuality. Also, while NiCE buses leave from the genteel charm of the quiet old Kuala Lumpur railway station (not to be confused with the new KL Sentral!), Plusliners and everybody else leave from the festering pit of chaos known as Puduraya deep in heart of Chinatown. The plus side to this (hee hee!) is that if you have a moment to spare you can saunter over to the food markets to sample some of KL’s famous bak kut teh, lit. pork bone tea, which despite the name doesn’t contain a drop of the stuff, but is instead basically a soup containing nothing except meat. 

To make a long story, the trip from KL to Singapore via JHB by bus ended up taking the better part of 7 hours, partly thanks to a traffic jam on the expressway (unusual), partly thanks to the bus stopping for snacks and to fill up. The bus dumped us at JB’s Larkin terminal, several km to the north of the city, where we changed to the Causeway Link buses crawling across the border in the omnipresent and interminable traffic jam between the two cities… sigh. The good thing is that all this cost a grand total of RM 20.20 + 1.30 = RM 21.50 (~$5); but I will still gladly pay the full RM 60 next time to go straight into Singapore next time.