SINGAPORE - Biotechnologist Kelvin Teo, 35, has not been back home since March 18 last year, when Malaysia imposed a partial lockdown as the Covid-19 pandemic situation deteriorated.
Excited to see their family and friends in Johor Baru, he and his wife Christine Poh, 34, turned up at Woodlands Temporary Bus Interchange at 5.30am on Monday morning (Nov 29) - 2½ hours before the first bus under the Singapore-Malaysia land vaccinated travel lane (VTL) was due to depart at 8am.
Ms Poh, an interior designer, told The Straits Times: "When Malaysia announced the lockdown, we decided to come to Singapore for two weeks because my husband works here. But then, two weeks became two years."
Mr Teo said: "Our parents don't know we are coming. They've been calling us every night to ask us if we've booked tickets. We are planning to surprise them."
The couple had with them a suitcase of snacks, including titbits from Don Don Donki for Ms Poh's three nieces.
The couple are among about 1,440 people expected to leave Singapore via the VTL, which started smoothly on Monday. The only hiccup was when a woman was denied boarding because she is not a Malaysia long-term pass holder. Only citizens, permanent residents and long-term pass holders of the country they are entering can travel under the first phase of the land VTL.
Two other passengers did not show up.
Malaysian waitress Woo Pey Fen, 41, and her two children were also waiting in line. The family spent eight hours last Thursday and used four devices before they managed to book the bus tickets.
Twelve-year-old Zhan Hua said he is looking forward to eating his grandmother's home-cooked chicken chop.
He said: "We are very close to my grandmother. Our family keep our own chickens and you can't find such crispy and juicy chicken chop here."
His only regret: "My father can't go back with us because he's busy. But he told us to help him hug his parents."
By 6.30am, there were 15 people in the queue as bus operator Transtar Travel checked the essential documents that travellers must have with them. These include vaccination certificates and pre-departure Covid-19 test results.
At around 9.10am, the Transtar Travel bus pulled into Larkin Sentral Bus Terminal in Johor Baru.
About 1,440 Singapore citizens, permanent residents and Singapore long-term pass holders are also expected to cross the Causeway into the Republic on Monday.
The land VTL currently prioritises workers in Singapore or Malaysia who have not been able to return home since the land border was shut in March last year.
Travellers no longer have to serve quarantine upon arrival, unlike those returning home via the Periodic Commuting Arrangement, which requires a seven-day quarantine at designated facilities or hotels upon arrival in Malaysia or Singapore.
Instead, they must test negative in a pre-departure polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test or professionally administered antigen rapid test (ART) - done within two days before departure. On arrival, they will also be required to take an ART test.
In preparation for its first trip, Transtar Travel has thoroughly disinfected and sterilised its buses.
In a video posted on Facebook, the Singapore bus company detailed the thorough disinfection process its buses go through, which includes the wiping down of passenger seats and high-touch points with hospital-grade disinfectant.
An electrostatic fogging machine provides a second layer of protection against Covid-19, which can spread via airborne transmission.
Transtar Travel is one of two appointed bus operators that will run 64 daily VTL bus trips between Malaysia and Singapore. Up to 45 seated passengers are allowed per trip.
The other bus operator is Malaysian bus company Handal Indah, also known as Causeway Link.
At Queen Street Terminal, solo travellers and families were buzzing with excitement before the first two VTL buses run by Handal Indah were set to leave at 9am.
Both buses left about half an hour later because of a delay in the buses arriving from JB, and Causeway Link had to deploy two extra buses. Two passengers in each bus departing Queen Street Bus Terminal did not show up, which caused further delays.
The first in line was teacher Tan Hui Yang, who will be celebrating her 33rd birthday today with her family in Johor Baru for the first time since 2019.
"I couldn't sleep last night. I was too excited and counting down the hours," Ms Tan said.
She woke up at 4am and started queueing at 6.50am.
"Before Covid-19, I would go back every weekend. I miss my family, especially my niece and nephew, but with video calls, it's not so bad," she added.
"I can't wait to see my grandma, who is 83 years old. Every week, she would video-call me, and she would tell me not to be upset (that I can't come back) and that I'll be coming home soon."
Ms Tan had booked a VTL flight to Kuala Lumpur, and another flight from the Malaysian capital to Johor Baru, but cancelled them once the VTL land was announced.
Another passenger, Ms Moon Chong, is expecting to travel for more than 12 hours to her home town in Perak to see her two sons, aged five and seven. Her bus is expected to depart at 9.45am.
"I have to take a bus from JB to KL, and another one from KL to Perak, but I didn't manage to book any. I think I'll reach home at 10pm tonight, hopefully," the 30-year-old administrator said.
"I can't wait to see my two kids, whom I haven't seen since Chinese New Year last year," she added. "It's tough because I missed the first time my seven-year-old son entered primary school, and I missed both their birthdays for two years. My husband didn't manage to take leave, so he is not coming back with me."
The first buses from Malaysia arrived at Queen Street Terminal at about 9.50am.
Upon arrival, passengers will proceed to a cordoned-off area where they will take an ART at a temporary swabbing centre. If travellers test positive for Covid-19, they will have to take a confirmatory PCR test at the centre.
Those whose PCR test is positive will be placed on a 10-day isolation order and go through the home recovery programme.
While announcing details of the land VTL last Wednesday, Minister for Trade and Industry Gan Kim Yong said that the daily quota of travellers allowed to cross the Causeway under the travel arrangement will be reviewed on a weekly basis.
The authorities are studying whether train journeys can be part of the land VTL scheme, but it will take some time before private vehicles are allowed under the land VTL, and there would need to be a booking or registration system in place so that the authorities can track the number of travellers crossing the border.
In a statement last Wednesday, the Prime Minister's Office said both countries will take into account the public health situation and will aim to progressively expand the VTL to include general travellers, as well as to restore travel through the Tuas Second Link.