Travel woes and airport toilets in Bolehland

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If we had good governance in place, one of the more mundane things that might change is the state of our public lavatories. Ask Angeline Loh who, fingers ready to pinch her nose, ventures into a  local airport toilet and…. promptly loses her appetite. 


A couple of friends and I were one day having tea at our usual watering hole, our local ‘kopitiam’. In-between mouthfuls of crispy roti canai with dhal curry and spicy crunchy pasembur and slurpy ‘prawn mee’, we got talking about our airport adventures. My friends are also the foot-loose kind and love to travel to different places in the world. I was grumbling about my latest bad spat of flight cancellations, once on my return from Thailand and again when taking a domestic flight to KL.

When you’re in a foreign country and have no inkling that the flights have been cancelled, you’re likely to have a bit of a shock when you get to the airport. So, I was stranded at Bangkok airport, not knowing for how long, dragging my luggage around with me, as it couldn’t be checked in at any counter since I didn’t have a flight. Due to the cancellation, a few hundred other passengers on these flights to the same destination were also standing or sitting around on chairs or suitcases looking similarly lost or resigned to a long wait. That wait can sometimes be an overnight stay at the airport if more cancellations or delays happen.

Luckily, the airline I took was efficient enough to cater for such emergencies and did their best to alleviate the situation by trying to find alternative carriers to the relevant destinations that had seats for impromptu passengers. Still, you get shunted from counter to counter of different airlines until one agrees to take you on. I finally got a late-ish flight with the same airline to KL instead of to Penang, and ended up having to stay overnight in the grand five-star Pan Pacific Hotel at KLIA, hoping to catch a flight back to Penang reasonably early the next morning. I had been in this travel limbo from about 4.00pm (Thai time) in Bangkok and landed in KLIA around midnight. Thank goodness, all paid for by the good airline; otherwise I would probably be spending a night at Bangkok Airport or KLIA, sleeping on a few seats in the cold air-conditioning, as I’ve seen other people do.

Annoying surprise

Eventually after further hassle with our national carrier and two trips down to the third (by mistake) and fourth floors of KLIA in search of the office of our initial airline that we found it to be closed at 8.00 in the morning, we (i.e. a Japanese passenger who had been similarly stranded in Bangkok and I) eventually completed the circuitous route to Penang.

The cancellation of my domestic flight from Penang to KL was really a rather unfunny joke and a total waste of time. Having taken the trouble to wake up early to be at the airport at least one hour before departure time at 10.35am, it was another annoying surprise to be told that the flight was cancelled, and  the next one available would be at about 2.00pm. The carrier, was our wonderful national airline. The cancellation of one flight causes havoc with the backlog of a hundred-plus passengers having to be transferred to a later flight that could be already half-full. So, when the question of a meal provision by the airline arose, I requested lunch. Okay, I got my lunch voucher, after it had been changed to breakfast then back to lunch again.

We couldn’t help having a huge laugh at how things were so disorganised at Penang International Airport, and similarly at KLIA (as my friends tell me). Ooo…KLIA is another long story, from my experience as well. Anyway, it would be good to share this joke with you.

Havoc at the airport

You see, the airline had negotiated the lunch provision with only one food outlet in Penang International Airport to cater for a few hundred delayed passengers. This food outlet happens to be a small one with a limited number of tables in its space with extremely limited seating. The tables are small with single chairs. They have small roundtables and larger rectangular tables, but these are very restricted in number to fit the space allotted to this outlet.

From noon, the eatery, which was already a quarter full of customers, was over-run by a huge crowd of passengers, including those waiting to board the 2.00pm flight to KL. Each order was promised in “20 minutes”, that’s long enough to wait normally, but when I finally got my food after asking if it would be arriving soon, it was nearly 45 minutes later. Strangely, the very moment the food finally reached my table, the gate for my flight opened, so the food was gobbled down as fast as possible and I had a quick run through airport security to the gate to be in time to board the flight. Airports very often give you a work out, even using the ‘walkalators’, as it is usually a long walk to boarding gates.

The silly thing about all this was, that right next to this food outlet was a McDonald’s eatery that had a large seating area with fair sized tables that could cater for a larger number of people and downstairs on the arrivals floor was a Kenny Rogers Roasters outlet that also had more than ample room to accommodate a large crowd of people. If the airline managers had thought a little more about it, they could have provided lunch vouchers that gave stranded passengers a choice of outlets where the vouches would be accepted. I feel really sorry for the staff of the little “Coffee Bean” outlet that had to stave off harassment from customers because it was impossible to cope with a sudden surge in orders that they were probably unprepared for.

Then we come to seating in the airport. The amount of seating provided before passengers go through security to boarding gates is amazingly limited to a long row of seats on one side near Air Asia check-in counters and a few seats sparsely scattered near some pillars a little further away. There are ‘massage chairs’ that were being used as ordinary chairs as people had to wait for some hours before going to boarding gates.

Delayed passengers had to stay in the area (although there are restaurants on the way to the boarding gates) because they couldn’t use the lunch vouchers in any food outlet other than the little “Coffee Bean”. Some people had no choice but to sit at tables in McDonalds although they were not McDonald’s customers. At least, McDonald’s staff understood the situation and allowed the spill-over from the “Coffee Bean” crowd to sit at tables in their space.

Earlier, I saw one smart guy, who got lunch from “Coffee Bean” and went to consume it in peace in the McDonald’s space. Since I’d come early to the airport, I had breakfast at McDonald’s and spent the rest of the time reading a newspaper and checking out the airport shops. Sadly, for those businesses, I didn’t buy anything. I’m generally a bad shopper tending to wonder if I really need something before I make a purchase. This goes for most things except books.

Then … one has to visit the toilet from time to time.

Bolehland toilets, an unforgettable experience

If you’ve been to foreign airports, you will unavoidably make comparisons between toilets you have used there and those in airports here. You know, referring to my earlier experience of being stranded in Bangkok Suvarna-bhumi Airport, I’d rather have been stranded there than in Penang International or KLIA. Toilets in Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport are perfumed, floors are dry and liquid hand-washing soap is always topped up regularly. A good supply of toilet paper and paper towels is always available. Air dryers are usually in good working order. The Thais are very clean.

My friends and I have also been to airports in Europe, Hong Kong, and Singapore to name a few places. In many of those foreign airports, you would not feel reluctant to have to leave your luggage on the floor, if you have no choice. The floors are dry and clean and don’t smell of urine or anything else unmentionable. The UK has some of the cleanest public toilets in the world, by my judgement.

With a grimace, my friend Linda said, “ Eee! So embarrassing-lah our airport toilets soooo dirty, compared to other countries!” Yes, it is embarrassing, because, toilets are the first thing a traveller encounters when they first set foot on our national soil at the airport, even before they get to immigration check-points. This gives the foreign tourist, business person, migrant worker or visitor, the first ‘flavour’ and impression of the country they have arrived in.

It’s best left to your imagination what kind of impression Malaysia makes on these visitors with dirty, smelly toilets where hand-washing liquid soap and toilet paper may be in short supply, paper towel dispensers are empty and air hand-dryers don’t work. Moreover, floors are wet and foul smelling where children may have peed, and one has to gingerly pick ones way through tissue litter to find a dry spot to stand on or even to put a bag if no strong hook or clean surface seems to exist in the cubicle. In the “Ladies”, sanitary bins are frequently full to overflowing with sanitary rubbish that appears not to have been regularly cleared. I dread to think what the “Gents” might be like.

If you were a tourist who has landed in this country for the very first time, a visit to our airport toilets might make you feel like taking the first flight home before going beyond Immigration. Fortunately for us but unfortunately for you, your return date will persuade you to continue your travel according to plan. In any case, we hope you will enjoy your ‘adventure’ in Malaysia and possibly forgive and forget the state of our toilets.

Well, Malaysia Airports Berhad, like many of our government departments and quangos (semi-government corporations) usually like to think they’re doing a wonderful job and like to be praised for it. Yet, I wonder, if the hype of ‘Visit Malaysia’ years and slogans of ‘Budi bahasa adalah kebudayaan kita’ will restore order and common sense when problems arise, and deodorise the toilet stink?

At any rate, all are welcome to this dear beloved “Bolehland” where the unexpected is expected and the unpredictable predicted. Malaysia is a truly amazing place with its first world façade and third world habits and mentality.

Aliran member Angeline is a regular contributor.

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