‘Welcome home’: First VTL travellers arriving in Johor by bus look forward to family reunions, long-awaited time off
JOHOR BAHRU: From a Woodlands bus interchange to Johor Bahru, two hours was all it took for me to set foot across the border - quarantine-free - thanks to the land vaccinated travel lane (VTL) between Malaysia and Singapore that was launched on Monday (Nov 29).
I was worried about the trip – it took five hours to secure a bus ticket last week, then I spent more time fruitlessly navigating Malaysia’s MySafeTravel website over the weekend.
However, my anxieties were unfounded. Despite some minor teething issues, the journey was smoother and quicker than expected and entirely doable for the average traveller, as long as you do your homework.
Here’s what to expect:
I joined several dozen other travellers at Woodlands Temporary Bus Interchange for the first bus out, which was scheduled to depart at 8am. The interchange was buzzing with activity and members of the media were out in full force.
Prior to boarding, I was asked to show my bus ticket, passport, valid COVID-19 pre-departure test result and my MySejahtera app which reflected my vaccination status.
Some travellers were unsure about the testing requirements and had opted for a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to err on the side of caution.
This is not mandatory as antigen rapid tests (ART) are also accepted for travel via the land VTL, but they must be done at an approved clinic where health workers should be informed that you require a notarised results certificate with a QR code for travel. Remember to do this two days before travelling.
Once checks were done, we were each given a sticker emblazoned with “VTL SG-MY” in red font as well as our bus and seat number. This must be worn throughout the journey and is used to help verify passengers when they board the bus again after immigration checks.
Overpackers also need not worry - bulky luggage is stowed under the bus.
The Transtar coach was laid out in a typical two-by-two format and there were no empty seats blocked off for safe distancing. Instead, passengers were reminded to keep their masks on at all times and to strictly stick to their assigned seats as indicated on their stickers.
REUNITED AFTER MORE THAN 600 DAYS
A fellow traveller who wanted to be identified as Mr Danesh told CNA that he was last in Johor Bahru in March 2020, on the very day the COVID-19 lockdown was announced. That was also the last time he saw his baby daughter who was just 20 days old. More than 600 days have since passed, he said.
“It is kind of emotional when you can only see your daughter growing up on the phone. Even though she has not seen you for quite some time, she still can know that you are her father and she recognises your voice … it is a very new experience for me and heart touching moment. I hope that it goes well and she doesn’t cry when I go back home!” added the 32-year-old.
He will spend four days in Johor Bahru as the trip was arranged on short notice, and said it would be his wife’s turn to head home soon.
Mr Danesh added that securing VTL bus tickets was still a “hassle” and expressed concern for elderly travellers.
“There should be a better way. Those who are not so tech-savvy could maybe buy the tickets manually but that would cause a very large queue which also gives another problem with the social distancing measures so I think the authorities should work on that.”
KEEP SPIRITS UP
It was a short trip from the bus interchange to Woodlands Checkpoint where we were swiftly directed to the automated gantries for a face and thumb scan. All you need here is your passport and there was no baggage check. Barely 10 minutes later, I was back at the bus bay which was cordoned off into VTL and non-VTL sections.
The coach arrived soon after and the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) officer overseeing the boarding wished us a safe trip.
“You all wait very long already, we also want this to happen,” he said.
During the trip, a healthcare worker who wanted to be known only as Ms Cheong said this is her first trip back to Malaysia since the start of the pandemic.
As a frontline worker, it had been difficult for her to take leave as there were many other foreign workers in the medical line.
“We have to take turns. It’s just nice that this week is my (turn to take) leave so I could go back. Very good timing,” said the 31-year-old.
“It’s just that the process was very tiring … you don’t know who to ask. There’s a hiccup here and there … my heart is still not settled yet until I step foot in JB.”
Ms Cheong elaborated that it had taken her five hours to purchase a ticket back to Johor Bahru. Her final destination will be Kuala Lumpur where she will spend a week with her family.
“I need to go back home … to keep my spirits up”
As we crossed the empty Causeway, the skyline of Johor Bahru came into view along with a large “welcome home” sign and familiar sights such as City Square shopping mall.
We then disembarked at Bangunan Sultan Iskandar for our final immigration checks – this was when teething issues surfaced.
After grabbing our luggage, we were clustered around the foot of two escalators which had yet to be turned on, while cleaners swept the bus platform. Amid the confusion, several travellers started taking the stairs and making a detour for the lift, only for all of us to be eventually shepherded back into a group. After some waiting, the Malaysian immigration officers performed a headcount by reading out our names from the passenger manifest, before allowing us to take the now functional escalator to the arrival hall.
Land VTL travel tips
- Pack light: Although you can stow any heavy baggage in the bus, you'll have to carry it with you during the final leg of your journey and be subject to manual bag checks upon arrival in Malaysia.
- Wear good shoes: You never know when you'll encounter a broken escalator.
- Hard copies: Although soft copies are permitted, printed documents smoothen the journey and help you avoid handing your phone to others for checks.
- Verify information: To avoid confusion over testing requirements and document submissions, seek information from official sources and do not rely on word-of-mouth anecdotes.
- Taxes: Your baggage may be inspected upon arrival in Malaysia and certain items may be taxed - keep receipts for such things handy, especially if they are meant to be gifts.
- Mask up: It goes without saying that masks are mandatory - but as you'll be in close proximity with others for an extended period of time, consider an N95 mask or even double-masking.
The immigration hall was clearly split into VTL and non-VTL zones. Passport checks were relatively uneventful, although Malaysian citizens who are also Singapore permanent residents were asked to show their Singapore identification cards. I thankfully had mine on hand but another person had to double back to collect it from his travel partner.
The immigration officer asked for my passport and also looked at hard copies of my bus ticket, ART results and vaccination certificate. I also flashed my MySejahtera app for good measure.
Although soft copies of documents are permitted, the journey seems to be smoother if you have hardcopies on hand. Another plus – it minimises having to hand your mobile phone to others.
After this was baggage check, where those with “large bags” were stopped. I unzipped my oversized duffel and was let through quickly after I explained what I had packed. To my right, a man was held up after the Customs officer unearthed a few boxes of what looked like children’s toys. The officer then informed the man that he may have to pay a tax on the items. Another tip – keep receipts for any gifts handy.
The escalator leading back down to the bus bay was not working, leaving us to slowly descend with our heavy bags. One more tip – wear good shoes.
FREE GIFTS AND BUBBLE TEA
We were given a celebrity welcome as our bus pulled into Larkin Station, with a dozen cameras clicking and flashing away. A banner saying “Selamat pulang ke tanah air” (Welcome home) hung over the arrival doors as we entered the holding area for our mandatory on-arrival ART.
Safe distancing was an issue as there seemed to be more people than available seats, with limited floor space for adequate safe distancing.
We first filled out an online form via QR code, where we provided our contact details and selected our preferred payment method, and then waited to be called on. There was no particular order to this but the health workers tried their best to manage the crowd and remained friendly and cheerful.
When it was my turn, I paid RM60 (S$19) in cash for my test and was ushered behind a screen where a nurse said I had to wait for my result before I could leave the holding area. Although only one nostril was swabbed, this was easily the most invasive ART I have ever experienced, almost on par with a PCR swab, prompting tears and sneezes.
That said, testing was quick and we were then asked to wait on the other side of the room for our results email. Others received theirs as quickly as 10 minutes after their test while I had to wait about 25 minutes. I flashed my negative result to a health official and just like that – I was free.
As I left the holding area, I was greeted by another media scrum. An attendant handed out gift bags containing face masks, face shields and a bottle of hand sanitiser, while someone else handed us small cups of bubble tea, decorated with “Welcome back to Malaysia” stickers.
However, my euphoria was short-lived.
A COVID-19 case was detected at the Johor Causeway on Monday morning via an on-arrival ART.
Further confirmatory PCR tests are under way and I am keeping my fingers crossed that my bus was not affected. Such speed bumps will likely become the norm as the world tries to re-establish travel amid the ever-evolving COVID-19 situation.