Stranded in Singapore

Tioman Island, Malaysia.

February, 2011  Singapore

Anyone who has heard me talk about my travels in Asia already knows this, and are probably sick of hearing the tiresome details of the escape from Liuzhou that every trip we take  invariably begins with.  But that’s how it is, our little provincial town of just over 2 million is not on the way to anywhere, or near anywhere else particularly important.  Guangzhou and Shanghai are becoming to me not so much places in and of themselves as speed bumps in my itinerary where I must stop, kill time and then fly through on my way to somewhere else.  And, as all you who fly frequently out there already know, more stops means more chances for delays, bad weather, cancellations, missed flights, even stranding.

Stranding!  It’s probably the worst, since once you are stuck, you are left with such lovely choices as sleeping in the airport, or trying to navigate a city you don’t know and were not planning on getting to know, until you can figure out how to get unstuck.  I’ve only been stranded a few times (thank my lucky stars), but the great Singapore stranding of 2011 was the longest.

We got to Singapore fine, spent the night in a hotel near the airport in preparation for our a.m. flight to Tioman Island the next day.  Got there nice and early (9:30 am), to the “Budget Terminal” of Singapore’s international airport (the fact that it’s the Budget terminal and not the shiny new main terminal becomes important when you spend 3 consecutive days there).   Check in, clear immigration, and wait.  The usual.

About the time we were supposed to be taking off (11 a.m. or so), the board lists our flight as delayed.  Where is the plane?  How long of a delay?  Why is it delayed?   Will the flight be cancelled?  The shortest answer to all these questions is: Nobody knows. But, this is where that age old and infuriating (to westerners) Asian custom of “‘saving  face”  kicks in, as boldface lies will be calmly and easily offered in lieu of the unpleasant truth in order to save face.  So we were given a different story depending on who we talked to;  the plane was here waiting to take off, or the plane was in Kuala Lumpur, it was the weather here, it was the weather on the island, maybe the plane was on the island, the plane was circling the island and unable to land.  The plane was abducted by aliens!  Whatever.

I’m sure that a story about unpleasantness can be rendered even more unpleasant by a detailed telling of it, so let’s just say we spent the day in hopeful waiting for the plane that was not going to show up.  About 5:30 – 6:00 pm we were informed that there would be no flight as night landings are impossible on the island.  So a day wasted bumming around the Budget terminal of Singapore airport.  After about an hour of confusion of what to do with us, the airline arranged to get us re-immigrated back into Singapore so we could leave the airport, find our luggage and return it to us, line up transport and lodging at one of their hotels in Singapore.  A few brews in a pub commiserating with fellow travelers Andrew and Linn, some  decent dinner, and a good night’s sleep later, we were back in the Budget terminal waiting to try again and get to Tioman Island.



Where is this plane?


Day 2 was pretty much a “lather, rinse, repeat” of day one, except now we were more exasperated and had already eaten all the good food on offer in the Budget terminal the day before.  We harassed the airline employees mercilessly, peppered them with questions, demanded updates, called the home offices of the company in KL, and Singapore, we even threatened to call the media and begin a smear campaign against the airline.  We were so tired of getting 5 different versions of lame excuse, all we really wanted was someone to level with us about what was going on.  Gary managed to get the direct line phone number of the air control tower on the island, we asked the air traffic controllers on Tioman personally what the weather was like there, and if maybe THEY could tell us where the hell our plane was.  What a terrible group we were! bored, tired and angry, trapped in the airport with nothing but time on our hands.  We abused whoever we could get on the phone or was at the gate,  all day long until the flight was cancelled again at about 6:00 p.m.  Oh, and the other difference on day two:  the airline refused pay for or assist us in finding a hotel.

So we rounded up the other tired faces of people who we couldn’t help but notice had also been skulking about the terminal without actually boarding a plane all day, sullenly re-collected our luggage, re-immigrated into Singapore, shared the cost of a shuttle bus and miserably checked into a hotel nearby.

Day 3 I note in my travel notebook my suspicions that we are “completely masochistic to be here in this stupid airport for the 3rd time.”  We check in for the same flight for the third time, snipping at airline staff all the way, nodding a greeting to the now familiar immigration officers and security guards, watch as the gate attendant involuntarily jumps a few steps back at our approach, call the air tower on Tioman to chat with the controllers, get Tioman Tower’s version of the weather, and nonchalantly ask if they’ve seen any planes today.

Good news!  They have. The  Berjaya flight from Kuala Lumpur to Tioman landed a little while ago, and should be coming to Singapore for us next.  Hooting and hollering breaks out in our beddraggled group, someone has actually seen the plane we were beginning to think was a figment of our airport addled brains.


Party at gate eight! We can see the plane and we're really going this time!


So now after having made the turbo prop flight and the sketchy landing, I feel a little bad about beating on the airline about the delay, if it really was because of the weather, it was the right thing to do, as the Tioman landing is dangerous enough without windy or bad weather conditions. Tioman is basically the top bits of mountain sticking out of the ocean, with a small narrow fringe of land skirting it.  The airstrip consists of less that a kilometer (half mile) of asphalt sandwiched between two mountains on the largest flat part of the island.  Which isn’t very large, the only school and hospital are also squeezed next to the runway, if a plane were to crash, it could potentially take everything else out with it.  So you have to sharply bank the plane to avoid crashing into the first mountain, level it out and drop it down on the tarmack, and then stop before you crash into the other mountain at the immediate end of the runway.  To see what I mean, watch the video I took of the landing:  (You Tube :  )

Well, we did finally make it, and the airline was super helpful in changing our outbound flight to a few days later so we could make up the 3 we lost waiting in the airport.  Hopefully getting back off the island won’t be as messy as it was getting on!

02Feb2011  wanderlust wanderings – christystarfish

Plane dodging the mountain at the end of the runway



Filed under Asia

4 responses to “Stranded in Singapore

  1. Diane

    Wow! That video is really something!

  2. Can’t you at least catch a non-stop flight to Southeast Asia from Guilin? Or is the trek there not worth it, since Liuzhou has an airport too? I can at least relate to escaping the dregs of Chinese podunk metropolises.

    • Actually, I always check Guilin as well when planning a trip. More options for domestic China for sure, but not much help for international unless you’re going to HK. Guilin airport is not that much bigger than Liuzhou, I think. It never hurts to check though, even if it’s just to get more options as far as time! Sometimes also, Guilin can be cheaper than LZ.

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