First time I … missed a flight

“Where is your visa?” the staff behind the Malaysia Airlines check-in counter at the KL International Airport asks, flipping over the pages of my passport.

“Visa? What visa?” I ask back foolishly, a hint of panic in my voice.

“Malaysians need a visa to travel to Myanmar, sir,” the staff replies calmly.

A numbing sensation begins to creep over my body. You know how sometimes on a group holiday, all travel arrangements are done by the tour leader and your role is just to show up?

In this case, the leader of our year-end family holiday to Yangon has been my dad. In my idleness, I – a tech-savvy millennial travel writer – hadn’t bothered to do any online research prior to the trip.

A simple Google search would have revealed that the Malaysian passport offers visa-free access for up to 30 days to all Asean countries – except Myanmar.

But the damage is done, and our family – my mum, dad, two aunties from Penang and myself – is forced to miss our 9.15am flight to the Land of the Golden Pagodas.

Malaysian passport

The Malaysian passport offers visa-free access for up to 30 days to all Asean countries – except Myanmar.

This is the first time we have ever missed an international flight.

“What now?” my mum asks an hour later, as we recover from our shock over breakfast at the KLIA McDonald’s. Our bags are stacked at the corner on two trolleys – a taunting reminder of the holiday we missed.

We could take any next available flight and travel to nearby places such as Bangkok or Brunei, my dad suggests. Or perhaps a staycation at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, my Aunt Lan Yook chips in.

But it’s the busy Christmas weekend travel season. A quick online search reveals that most flights and hotels are either fully booked or ridiculously expensive.

Unlike our flight tickets, we are able to get partial refund for our cancelled accommodation. Money aside, we are all packed and emotionally ready for a holiday. Surely there’s somewhere we can go in Malaysia?

“How about we drive to Bentong for some durians?” my mum asks. The idea is sold – we will take a Malaysian road trip to Pahang, with some durians in tow!

The next morning, we hop in the car – pick up my younger brother from his apartment – and brave the Christmas “balik kampung” traffic on the Karak Expressway.

Our first stop is the Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Centre. With many elephants roaming freely in the green enclave and a crowd of international tourists, the place looks like a place you could find in Myanmar.

The Japanese Village looks just like it could be located in Kyoto, except it’s situated on the chilly hills of Bukit Tinggi, Pahang.

That’s when my Aunt Mary jokingly comments that the elephant sanctuary feels like a foreign destination. She does have a point – it’s easy to overlook our own country’s charm sometimes in our eagerness to travel overseas.

Of course, no vacation these days is complete without a social media post. And that’s how our family gleefully “faked” an overseas holiday.

We take photos against the backdrop of the elephants – all the while carefully avoiding any Bahasa Malaysia signage – and send them to family members in Penang. The photos are then captioned with the names of the elephants, which happened to be Burmese!

Our next few stops are equally “exotic”: A picturesque French-themed resort that’s modelled after a medieval village (Colmar Tropicale, Bukit Tinggi), an idyllic Japanese garden (Japanese Village, Bukit Tinggi) and an old coffee shop that sells homemade ice cream (Kow Po Coffee Shop, Bentong).

All those places look as if they could easily be taken overseas in photos. For a while, we keep up our ruse.

Can’t afford a European Christmas holiday? No worries, you can live out that fantasy at Colmar Tropicale in Pahang.

Along the way, we shop for the renowned Bentong ginger and other local produce. When in Bentong, you would be remiss to not dine at one of the many Chinese restaurants.

Of course, the highlight of the trip for my family is the durians. Not a fan of the King of the Fruits, I suffer the stink in the car on the drive back home. Now, that’s lesson learned for not helping dad out with the travel arrangements!

Note: The writer and his family finally went on their holiday to Yangon, Myanmar, last week – after successfully applying for a visa, of course.