Hitchhike to India leg 61: Phuket to Khao Sok National Park

Wednesday 21 December

If it had been up to me, I’d probably have been sleeping in a bar in Phuket town instead of writing this somewhere close to completing a round trip from Bangkok to Singapore.  Currently, I’m not wearing the trousers.  Alex has a bee in her bonnet about a day visit to the Khao Sok National park – which is along our way (and a little to the right) to where we’re actually meant to be spending Christmas and New Year.  Who am I to argue?  My hitchhike has been hitchjacked.

Alex makes her first ever hitchhike sign.

Alex makes her first ever hitchhike sign.

So off we set at a moderate pace to try our luck at getting out of Phuket town without the need to take public transport to the city limits.  Hitchwiki and other sites of information are careful about confirming that this is a good idea – as there have been some horror stories of hitchers getting into what they think is a free ride only to be robbed blind by a taxi driver under threat of being taken to the police.  Still, odds were in favour of us attracting the sort of ride we need, and during our march towards a decent spot on the highway, our gamble pays off.

Cars are not supposed to stop on the red and white lines, apparently.

Cars are not supposed to stop on the red and white lines, apparently.

The first ride of the day is a lovely young lady who can’t take us far, but certainly out of the city build up and well on the road.  Once there it should be easy pickings, but not before being told a couple of times that we need to move away from the red and white painted curb – as it is illegal for vehicles to stop there and police will come down heavy.  That being said, our next ride takes the risk and can give us a lift almost to the airport.  We’re there by 11 am and we saved 8 bucks for our trouble.

Alex tries her luck.

Alex tries her luck.

We’re waiting only seconds before our third hitch swings in – and he’s an absolute hoot.  Addy was an engineer who used to build bridges.  He built the bridge across the Persian Gulf from Bahrain amongst others, but at around 55 years of age admits that he is slowing down in his quest to see the world.  A polyglot by nature of his travel and work, he’d lived in San Francisco for a long time as well as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and here he was giving us a ride before starting work at a local construction site. Certainly an entertaining character and one of my most interesting hitchhike drivers to date, Addy drops us just over the bridge outside Phuket on highway number 4.  Home straights already, cooking on gas.

Leave it to the pro...

Leave it to the pro…

About two minutes after we’re back by the side of the road following lunch at a nearby hawker stand, and we’re in the back of our fourth ride of the day.  And it looks like for the first time it’s the driver that hasn’t made the decision.  The young lady in the passenger seat is a business woman going to a meeting in Ranong (our destination in a couple of days’ time – it’s a shame she can’t pass by again) and has clearly told her driver to pick us up.  Not only that, but she commands him to drive us off the highway and at least 30 KM out of her way in order to get us to a good spot for our destination.  This is getting ridiculous – and Alex and I have not murdered each other as a result.

It’s a quieter road now as we’re off the main drag, deep into the jungle and into the national park.  There’s barely a whisper of traffic, and we’re also joined by a local woman who needs a ride to the next town.  Yet low and behold – round the bend comes one of those lovely 4x4s, and with the Thai lady in the cab and the two of us in the truck bed, we’re dropped right outside the entrance to the village.  It’s not even 4 pm.

Super.

Super.

Walking about a kilometer into the town we find comfortable dwellings amidst the backdrop of the jungle.  It’s here that the Raffelisia is to be found – the largest flower in the world.  It can grow up to three feet across and weigh up to 15 pounds.  Unfortunately, we’re a little too late to go off in search of it, as the national park is shutting its doors for the night, and hopefully shutting nasty things in.  Although I’m somewhat relieved, I’m less than a little excited about the amount of crawling and flying activity in and around our accommodation upon our return and wrap myself in the mosquito net just to be on the safe side.

5 rides, 5 hours, 176 KM.  It’s been an easy, leisurely hitch, taking our time and spending no more than a few moments actually on the side of the road with thumbs out.  Now to visit the beautiful Cheow Larn Lake, and take in a jungle trek with lots of things that can kill you.  I hope she’s happy.

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Phuket – overrun shit-hole. Mostly.

Monday 19 December

The province of Phuket is an interesting place, depending on who you are and what you’re looking for.  There is, as they say, something for everyone, but not necessarily everything for someone.  Or something.  Anyway, the highlight of my stay here is of course, reuniting with my Bishkek baby and partner in crime Alex, as she flies out to experience first-hand what it’s like to hitchhike with a crabby old misanthrope.  They say if you find the person you can travel with you must never let them go.  Maybe that’s why I’m still single.

Phuket old town. Easily the most charming thing about the place.

Phuket old town. Easily the most charming thing about the place.

We’re staying in Phuket town, which at first glance appears to be the land that time forgot.  There doesn’t appear to be much here, and I’m wondering why Alex booked it.  I’m considering the possibility it’s because I couldn’t get to the beach to find three Russian models to bring back to the hotel, and that tucking me safely out of harm’s way was the right course of action.  However there is certainly more here than meets the eye – and in the long run, we’re both very thankful that this is home base.

There's some really cool street art to find here. I say street art - it's only because I can't spell grafititi.

There’s some really cool street art to find here. I say street art – it’s only because I can’t spell grafititi.

Phuket town is a charming wander, with interesting buildings and street art aplenty, and some wonderful places to chow down on street food, get an incredible Thai massage, or simply lie on the grass by a round-about, blind drunk and looking up at the stars.  It’s quiet here too – which serves me well considering how much I hate people.  But of course, the obligatory visit to other parts of the (kind of) island are warranted.

We don’t actually visit Patong beach – which by all accounts looks like – and is – a hole of a place.  This you can glean just from looking a map of it.  One long stretch of sand with garish, shitty joints and insalubrious establishments dotted along the front, geared towards speedo wearing, lard-bellied Europeans and Russians – of which there are more of here than in their own countries.  Perhaps finally learning my lessons from San Juan Del Sur, Kavos and Koh Samui – I’m happy to give this place a wide, WIDE berth.

It's alright I suppose.

It’s alright I suppose.

We opt instead for the (slightly) quieter region of Kata, which – as the sun goes down – is actually rather pleasant.  There’s still a significant Russian presence here, which is evident in waiters trying to tempt us in by bawling the language at us.  Of course, Alex is fluent and keen to show it outside her usual stomping ground of Kyrgyzstan – but I certainly don’t want to be confused for being from there.  It’s bad enough that people think I’m German.

I jest of course.  Or do I?  No, I do.  HAhAhAHAh.    HA. Hahaha.  Ha.  I’m running out of things to write about Phuket, aren’t I?  Oh, wait!  Taxis!  FUCKING EXTORTIONATE.  Buses don’t run after around 5 pm, which in itself is outrageous, and it’s clear that everyone is in cahoots to charge stupid money from tourists after hours.  Some kind of taxi mafia exists which is in league with local police too.  After leaving a late night showing of Rogue One (very good – but more like a Star Wars video game than a Star Wars film), we’re robbed about ten GPB just for the privilege to get home.  Taxi transport here is at London prices, so watch yourself if you’re caught out late.

I like this picture. It reminds me of Monet...

I like this picture. It reminds me of Monet…

Phuket is also the gateway to some of the most beautiful islands Thailand has to offer.  Or did have to offer.  This includes famous locales such as the ‘beach beach’ – which is the beach from the film of the same name; and ‘James Bond island’ which is taken from the finale of The Man with the Golden Gun.  Movie fan(s) that I am (we are) we didn’t go to either.

Alright, alright pipe down dear readers.  Of course, this might appear to be a little travel snobbery on my part – and perhaps it is – but I don’t care.  I’ve seen the pictures of these places – awash with a hoard of holiday makers, and you pay over the odds to be shoe-horned onto a boat, given a short time to explore a place you can’t see over the throng of sun-hatted-lobster-flaps, thong-sporting-skin-cancer wannahaves (melting with age and UV) and giant-camera-wielding-photo-envy-sauruses.  Then you get a distinctly average lunch menu, with a friendly English speaking guide who doesn’t speak English, before being shipped back with the masses.  Not my idea of a holiday, not my idea of traveling, and most certainly not my idea of fun.  We decide to save the expensive and overpriced ticket money for a rainy day – but to each their own.

A giant crayfish on the side of a building. Much more fun than a load of Russians in speedos.

A giant crayfish on the side of a building. Much more fun than a load of Russians in speedos.

And speaking for rainy days – there are lots of them.  We are in the season after all.  This I’m not too bothered about, as I prefer the rain to the sun, and so long as that shit is coming down – I ain’t getting burnt.

Buddhist temple in the old town.

Buddhist temple in the old town.

With the exception of the old town (places of its ilk I’d dearly like to see more of – but I keep getting dragged to party beaches), Phuket isn’t anything to write home about.  On the morrow will be my first hitch with a hitch buddy since my Australian friend Olivia and I gorged ourselves on Magnum ice creams while tearing through Turkey two years ago.  It’s also Alex’s first ever hitch hike.  Wish us luck – because I reckon the next time you see a picture one of us is going to have no hair.

Below is a small selection of the weird and wonderful you can find wandering around the old town. When I could be bothered to take a picture.

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Hitchhike to India leg 60: Trang to Phuket

Sunday 18 December

I sleep in.  This is because I’m still exhausted from yesterday’s hitch, and I know that if I surely can make the remaining 287 km to Phuket with relative ease.  But nothing ever comes that easy in the hitch world.  Or does it?

Last nights digs. I've stayed in worse.

Last nights digs. I’ve stayed in worse.

It’s 11 am and bright with sunshine as I hand my key over at the reception desk and bid them farewell.  It’s only a short walk to a road which will lead directly to my destination, and I have two signs made – both in English – one for Phuket and one for the closer town of Krabi.  I find a decent spot for cars to pull in and stick out my thumb.  This is going to be easy.

Waited here an age.

Waited here an age.

Except it isn’t.  There’s far too much local traffic, many vehicles are rammed with passengers and – worst of all – people keep stopping to offer to take me to the bus station.  Regular readers will understand this is one of my biggest pet peeves.  As much as I understand how kind and hospitable they’re trying to be, when you’re constantly politely declining ten to fifteen offers it gets grating – especially when it takes up time from actually getting a real ride.

Finally in the back of a truck.

Finally in the back of a truck.

And it isn’t only the road traffic that stops.  This is such a busy street and intersection, I’m getting a lot of unwanted attention from those bane-of-my-life scooters, who are all buzzing curiously around, barking suggestions and getting in the way of the vehicles I want.  With a forced perma-grin etched on my tiring face, I continually attempt to explain what I’m trying to do and that I don’t need a bus or a taxi – eventually struggling to maintain my courtesy and patience.  Nobody is doing anybody any favours.

This helped.

This helped.

About half an hour goes by (which is nothing in the grand hitch of things – but in places like Thailand it’s a lifetime), and so I opt to change my sign into Thai.  This is perhaps something I should have done already but I went for the benefit of the doubt.  Feeling like an artist at the Montmartre, several passers-by stop to peer over my shoulder at my handiwork.

This wasn't particularly nice to share the pickup with. No idea what it could have been.

This wasn’t particularly nice to share the pickup with. No idea what it could have been.

Thai roads are pretty damn decent.

Thai roads are pretty damn decent.

“Ahhhhh KRABI!” Someone exclaims when I’m nearly done copying the lettering from a signpost – as if they really had no idea that’s what my sign in English was alluding to.  This I find fascinating – but it works both ways – as I couldn’t even begin to guess what their beautiful (but squiggly) alphabet means just the same.  Gold and missing teeth are shown in a couple of grins around me and a clamour of chatter crescendos.  No sooner have I held up my new placard to a fresh torrent of traffic than one of those lovely pick-up trucks pulls over.

What I do when I overtake someone who should have picked me up. (They were far enough away to not cause offence...)

What I do when I overtake someone who should have picked me up. (They were far enough away to not cause offence…)

“KRABI! KRABI” WE GO KRABI!” exclaims the excited passenger as he exits the nearside and urges me into the truck bed.  It says a lot for making your hitch signs in the local language.

The main issue with riding in the back. And I'd put sunscreen on!

The main issue with riding in the back. And I’d put sunscreen on!

And so I’m finally off.  A little later than I thought or wanted to be – and didn’t imagine I’d run into that much (manageable) difficulty – but I’m off nonetheless.  I’ve originally envisioned a two ride trip – one to Krabi and then one to my destination of Phuket.  If you look at a map of that region of Thailand, you can see from my start point and home base of Trang, that Krabi is about half way to my goal.  So the sensible option would be a ride there and then a ride to Phuket.  Easy peasy once you’re on the road and ticking the boxes, inching closer to the final destination.  I was unprepared for quite how easy this would be.

Through the Thai countryside.

Through the Thai countryside.

Keeping track of my little blue dot on my now indispensable GPS smart phone, and I follow my progress all the way to Krabi, where the guys turn off the highway and start making for the town centre.  I tap on the cab roof to indicate I need to get off here, and as I jump out I explain to the passenger that I’m actually going to Phuket and I need to be back on the highway – thank you very much etc, etc.

“WE GO PHUKET!”  He beams, nodding enthusiastically.

“YOU GO PHUKET?!” I stammer, holding out and pointing to my Phuket sign.  This happens the obligatory average of seven times before we’re all in agreement that we’re all going to Phuket. I shriek for joy before frightening the life out of the laughing man by throwing my arms around him in a bear hug.  Elated, I heave myself back into the pickup and settle in for the remainder of the journey.

The only way to travel.

The only way to travel.

I honestly can’t believe my luck.  At first, I thought today was going to be tougher than anticipated, then the next thing I know I’m getting ONE RIDE all the way to my destination.  Those guys turned off the highway to drop me in Krabi town too – so they were obviously going out of their way to get me where they thought I needed to be.  This becomes more apparent when they stop just after crossing from the mainland into Phuket – ask where my hostel is – and then duly drop me right at the door of it.  Unbelievable.

Home for the week - door to door service.

Home for the week – door to door service.

This time the driver exits the cab too, and with the three of us grinning ear to ear, I warmly shake their hands before waving them off and briskly stride towards check in.  It’s taken me one ride and 5 hours to travel 287 KM – which on these winding roads is about the same time as estimated by google maps.  Probably the fastest and easiest hitchhike so far, and now to await the imminent arrival of partner in crime and the emperor herself – Alexandra Mentele.  I’d best cram a night of drinking in.

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Hitchhike to India leg 59: Kuala Lumpur to as close as I can get to Phuket

Saturday 17 December

It was with more than a little trepidation that I set out this morning on what was potentially a very lengthy and difficult hitchhike.  After the events of the previous few days – namely myself cocking everything right up – I was very nervous to get back on the road.  Making a series of in exhaustive, brain-dead errors recently did not bode well for my attempt to get back into Thailand; but nonetheless out I foolhardily strode in the early morning sun to see just how close I could possibly get to complete ineptitude.

7 am and not a sinner on the roads.  This could be a long day.

7 am and not a sinner on the roads. This could be a long day.

 It didn’t start well.  I opted for breakfast on the go, selecting what I hoped was something edible in a grocery store you couldn’t swing a cat in.  With no apparent fridge to speak of (and thusly a distinctly obnoxious lack of sandwiches) I selected a chocolate muffin thing – which turned out to be truly horrible.  Still, I forced it down in the knowledge I had little idea when I was going to eat again, and hoped it wouldn’t come back to say hello in some poor chaps expensive Honda.

It was looking decidedly bleak for all of two minutes.  Although traffic was near non-existent at this ungodly time, of the few vehicles that did drive by, one of them picked me up.  I was less than a quarter of an hour out the door, fed and watered, and already on my way.  Things were looking peachy.

First ride of the day - I hope I don't puke.

First ride of the day – I hope I don’t throw up.

My first host, an oil engineer, can take me about 100 km up the road, which I’m more than happy with to get me underway.  And it was to become the first of several rides where the conversation flowed freely, a constant back and forth of banter and camaraderie.  In fact – from here to the Thai border – everyone who picked me up spoke near native English, and although that meant me repeating my story around five times for the duration, it didn’t bother me one bit. The astonishing thing was just how fast I managed to make it to customs.

Change my shorts

Change my shorts

But it wasn’t without its hair-raising moments.  The road from the capital all the way into Thailand is pretty much highway the whole stretch – unless you choose to take the toll-free roads (which you may recall I did in an 18 wheeler on the way down to KL – seeing a lot of Malaysia at the pace of a snail).  So if you’re being dropped at a service station, this can be squeaky bum time when abandoned on the hard shoulder where traffic blazes past at 150 mph, and the resulting draft threatens to whip your hitch sign under tyres, the glasses off your face, the hat off your head and your head off with it.  It also makes it difficult for anyone to stop – which if I was anywhere else but Malaysia it might have been a problem.  Perhaps it was a combination of the kindness of Malays, the dangerous locale I found myself in, or just the absurdity of spotting a flustered, sweaty, sunburnt white guy with a large backpack and an INDIA sign that made people pull in to give me a lift.  Either way, I’m liking this country more and more.

Henry and colleague rescued me from the hostile highway.

Henry and colleague rescued me from the hostile highway.

And they dropped me here - much more beneficial for my anxiety problems - the coveted motorway service station.

And they dropped me here – much more beneficial for my anxiety problems – the coveted motorway service station.

Which is awesome because I can feed myself pot noodles - or try to bribe truckers with them.

Which is awesome because I can feed myself pot noodles – or try to bribe truckers with them.

As always with my beloved rest stops, I can visit the little boy’s room, have something to eat, and be back on the road in no time.  You have a captive audience for every vehicle that trundles by, and you can make accusing/pleading contact while seeing the whites of the driver’s eyes.  This means that waiting times are at a minimum, and you’re not going to get spread over a mile stretch of tarmac by a tanker.

This is Saridan. He is very cool.

This is Saridan. He is very cool.

And sure enough, I’ve barely wolfed down my noodles before I’m whisked into the next leg by Saridan, a university lecturer taking his boys on holiday.  We’re gassing non-stop for the next couple of hours, covering a wide range of topics, and with never a dull moment – and it’s a crying shame to see his taillights disappear round the junction he leaves me on. But the hospitality doesn’t stop there.

Once more unto the breach dear friends!

Once more unto the breach dear friends!

 I’m dropped at the beginnings of a toll road, but traffic is still coming too fast and I’d rather be anywhere but here.  Yet again Malaysia delivers as I’m in the passenger seat of another ride within moments, and yet again the hours fly by in conversation – this time with a charming nappy salesman.  That’s diaper salesman to you heathens over the pond.  I’ve certainly been meeting folk from all walks of life thus far, and he edges me closer to my destination by dropping me some 80 km south of the Thai border – but alas – on another motorway hard shoulder.

One observation regarding hitchhiking great distances is that invariably it’s the traffic in the fast lane that you really want to attract – but ain’t nobody stopping for nothing at those sorts of speeds. Folks crawling up on the nearside, on the other hand, are more likely to be able to safely pull to a halt – but the chances of them breaking 200 km are slim – unless they’re in the big rigs – and then you’re never making anywhere with any pace.  Both are as rare as the other, but on this occasion, I get a wonderful stroke of luck.

Look carefully under the bridge in the distance for the yellow car - those reversing lights are for me.

Look carefully under the bridge in the distance for the yellow car – those reversing lights are for me.

After another flurry of traffic screams by, I squint my eyes to see the unmistakable white of reversing lights twinkling for afar, slowly backing up to my position.  I’ve been standing here for a minute.

Dr Azman was flying past in the far lane when he spotted me, and then sensibly waited until it was safe to cross three lanes to pick me up.  Although reversing up the hard shoulder of a motorway would get you in some deep shit in the UK, lucky for me it seems it’s all right here, and he’s come back maybe 100 yards for my benefit.  Very soon, much like every ride I’ve had so far today, we’re chatting away, with his cute-as-a-button niece striking a confused small figure in the back seat.  ‘Who is this strange man talking at my uncle?!’  ‘Why is he taking advantage of my uncle being a doctor and asking him all kinds of questions about things that are going wrong with him?’  ‘What a strange man!’

I only asked him if he knew what this odd pulse feeling I kept getting in my legs was. Asking him about any other ailment in the circumstances would have been very embarrassing.

I only asked him if he knew what this odd pulse feeling I kept getting in my legs was. Asking him about any other ailment in the circumstances would have been very embarrassing.

And not only did the good doctor assist me in my current, end-of-the-world-as-I-know-it health problem (muscle spasms due to walking/traveling far on days such as this – I’m clearly getting old), he decided to take me considerably out of his way to drop me right on the border!  I was astounded.  Thanking him and his niece profusely, I marched confidently towards customs.  Leaving at 8 ish this morning it had taken me around five hours and five awesome rides to travel 478 km.  I’d made it to the border faster than public transport, and with a much better experience to boot. I sure am going to miss Malaysia – but I wasn’t prepared for how quick that yearning was to come.

Approaching customs - Malay side. Probably get in trouble for this.

Approaching customs – Malay side. Probably get in trouble for this.

As ever, when hitchhiking to and across borders, I always forget to factor in how just how much time it’s going to take to get out of one country and into the next.  This particularly rings true when it comes to shit-show crossings (of which it appears there are many in SE Asia). I’m standing in the queue in what I hope is the right line to enter the country, when I realise I don’t have one of those little immigration slips everyone appears to be clutching.  There’s a possible 5000 Baht fine ($150) should I not comply, but nor do I have a pen to fill one out when I eventually locate the office they distribute them from.  A kind lady volunteers hers, and then I’m still standing out of the shade and in baking heat for a considerable length of time while they sort their shit out.

Sneaky shot of the chaotic Thai passport control. An hour plus waiting here.

Sneaky shot of the chaotic Thai passport control. An hour plus waiting here.

I’m nearly run over by a bus, several trucks, and a chicken.  The cigarette smoke of several, well-charred Thai border dwellers constantly wafts among the crowd as everyone shifts their standing feet.  It’s so hot my eyes are stinging with the perspiration I’ve produced in not moving.  A tussle breaks out.  Dogs bark.  Children cry.  My balls are stuck to my legs and my crotch is riding up my sweaty crack.  I want to murder everyone.

What beggar’s belief is that there are actually no baggage check points I can see.  Once up to the passport counter (eventually), one quick look is all they need to stamp me through.  Nobody looks at my stuff.  I could have been packing several pounds of cocaine in my shorts alone and they’d be none the wiser.  Quite why it’s taken this long to cross is flabbergasting.  But unperturbed and still with high morale, I put my best foot forward and daylight between me and the frontier.  Then cave in spectacularly at the first sight of a MacDonald’s.

Alright, I’m not proud of it dearest readers – but just occasionally I crave a Big Mac and draught Coke.  Especially as my clothes have become a second skin, I’m dying for the loo and my only sustenance has been instant noodles 4 hours ago that were too spicey. Aside from this, I need to change my hitch signage, and manage to negotiate some cardboard boxes from store owners, which I dutifully carve up and fashion a new sign.  Signs for Thai locations should be written in Thai to maximise the chance of a pickup – and this often means a doodling session at the side of a road.

Border towns. Messy. Here I sat by some dumpsters drawing squiggles on cardboard.

Border towns. Messy. Here I sat by some dumpsters drawing squiggles on cardboard.

I’m losing light and it begins to rain, and I desperately need to push on.  While Thailand is a wonderful place to hitchhike – it’s clearly got nothing on Malaysia.  I’m waiting for the longest I’ve waited (so far) before this fabulous chick magnet pulls in.

Hello Kitty car! One of the strangest rides I've had!

Hello Kitty car! One of the strangest rides I’ve had!

I’ve never been in one of these themed cars before – but to be in a Hello Kitty one is rather bizarre, considering it is being driven by a local business man who is going to pick his son up from school.  Quite what he does for a living I don’t particularly want to enquire about.

Hello Kitty dashboard.

Hello Kitty dashboard.

Hello Kitty passenger side.

Hello Kitty passenger side.

Hello Kitty seats.

Hello Kitty seats.

Hello Kitty rear view mirror.

Hello Kitty rear view mirror.

Apparently, it belongs to his wife, and I’m sure he thought me very strange for jumping about like a bee in a bonnet taking pictures of it all.  As fun as it was, it still served a purpose, and I’m dropped at a busy intersection at Hat Yai – not too far from a potential base for the night – but it’s getting dark fast.

I’m waiting for what seems like an age when a pick-up truck pulls in.  Its driver doesn’t speak a word of English, but it seems legit, right up until the point he’s dropped me at a bus station.  At least it was a few kilometres down the road, but when he doesn’t speak my language and I don’t speak his, it’s almost impossible to make him understand “I don’t want to pay for travel”.

Me: (Pointing at the driver) YOU GO (Pointing at my hitch sign) PHATALLUNG?!

Driver:  (smiling and nodding) ILILILILILililILILIliLILililliLILILILILIHIHhHHHGGGggGGGGGLLLHHHJJJjjjLLLLOoooOOHHHHH Phatallung!

(As close to Thai as I could make the Roman alphabet).

Me: (Pointing at driver) YOU GO (pointing at my hitch sign) PHATALLUNG?!

Driver:  (smiling and nodding) ILILILILILililILILIliLILililliLILILILILIHIHhHHHGGGggGGGGGLLLHHHJJJjjjLLLLOoooOOHHHHH Phatallung!

Rinse and repeat, but regardless they’ll still drop you at the bus station for the public transport to Phatallung.  I just can’t get it across that this isn’t what I want.

Bless his cotton socks though he helps me a little way with the best will in the world, but with the sun totally gone I’m still many miles from a potential base for the night. I distance myself from the bus stop and get lucky with two rides in quick succession to the cross roads between Phatallung and Trang.  One of those rides is with a very attractive girl, who surprises me by picking up a foreign stranger as darkness falls.  Since the border, my hosts have spoken little or no English, and the gulf between Malaysia and Thailand in that respect has been enormous.  But with a little coaxing, the hospitality and hitching have been every bit as good.

90 kilometres to safety. Or was it...?

90 kilometres to safety. Or was it…?

Now there’s a dilemma.  It’s only around 7 pm, but night has taken hold, and if experience is anything to go by, hitching when it’s dark isn’t the best idea.  I could turn right for Phatallung and find cheap digs, or I could throw caution to the wind and turn left in the direction of Trang, Krabi and my ultimate destination of Phuket.  Have a guess what I did?

Standing for 7 hours in the dark by the side of a Polish road just outside of Krakow all those years ago gives me comfort.  It dropped well below zero that night at around 1 am, but here I’ve got time and temperature on my side.  And the gamble pays off.  I’ve literally just made the decision to turn left and push on when a parked trucker notices my Krabi sign.  In seconds I’m in the cab with his partner getting a ride to Trang – X km from target base.

Once again my company doesn’t speak any English, but trying to communicate is humorous and it passes the time.  They drop me at a police check point in what I can only assume is Trang, and as it’s so early I decide to push my luck even further.  But this is where it appears to run out.  Even after plying my trade under a brightly lit street lamp in plain view, and then returning to stand by and ask the police to barter me a ride – I’m coming up short. This is made more disappointing considering there’s still a decent amount of traffic to snare.

Police check point. This time it was useless.

Police check point. This time it was useless.

But the minutes tick on and this soon slows to a trickle. Two or three vehicles every twenty minutes.   It isn’t looking good.  Forlorn, I try once more.  A pick-up pulls in ahead, and I elatedly dash to the side door and throw it wide – whereupon I’m greeted with woman’s high pitched, blood-curdling scream.  She shocks the life out of me, but I realise they must have just been coincidentally pulling over and not stopping for me.

“Why the fuck did you pull over then?!” I shout aggressively, my voice shaking with confusion.  “For fuck’s sake!” I turn away angry and embarrassed and wearily approach the police once again to ask the officers for the nearest guesthouse or hotel.  I’m still elated I made it this far, but I’m then informed the nearest bed is 7 km away, and it’s now around 9 pm at night.

No luck here at all.  After dark everyone hitching is an escaped serial killer.

No luck here at all. After dark everyone hitching is an escaped serial killer.

I remember after my dad’s funeral I drunkenly staggered home 7 km’s in the pitch dark, down the middle of a country road in Scotland, not a light in the sky or along the way, and meeting nobody in either direction.  I would have cut a strange figure wearing a suit and my ageing dress shoes, which were worn through to the sole by the time I arrived home.  Could I try this again – only now with a backpack, guitar, hiking shoes and in a tropical country I know little of? Whereas I might startle a badger in the UK, what demons lurk in the shadows here?  I slowly traipse out of town, lowering my hitch signs dejectedly and wondering where it all went wrong.  For a laugh I sarcastically throw out my thumb at a passing pick up.  It stops immediately.

“Where you go?” beams a smiling face from the passenger side, while the driver is shrouded in darkness.

“Guest house…hotel…bed…sleep…sleep” I plead, making the universally recognised charade of closing my eyes with my head on my hands.

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” “In! In!” He fires back, and without a second thought I heave myself into the truck bed and we leave the safety of the police check point lights.

I really hoped this was a good idea,

Maybe I should make a will.

Now ordinarily this would be a very stupid idea – and perhaps it is a very stupid idea.  But in my 5 years of hitchhiking round the world, I like to think I’m a pretty good judge of character.  I trust these guys, especially since they’ve both just passed through and picked me up right at a police check point, complete with a large wall of wanted posters and cops armed to the teeth.  A risk it may be, but I’ve got my CS gas spray to hand just in case, and I’m confident they’ll take me exactly where I need to go.

And they don’t disappoint.  The problem was that my previous ride had not actually dropped me anywhere near Trang itself – I was just on the very outskirts of it.  These guys drop me in what’s more like a town centre – surrounded by lively bars and restaurants, as well as late night grocery stores and massage parlours.  (Not as dodgy as some would have you believe). In fact, after I lavish thanks and praise on my pick-up heroes, I ask one of the girls where I might find a hotel – only to find I’ve been deposited right outside a very comfortable establishment, which costs me all of ten quid for the night.

So there you have it dearest readers – probably one of the most amazing and memorable hitchhike days to date.  11 rides, 14 hours, 677 km. Particularly with Malaysia, I’ve been astounded by the minimal waiting times between rides.  I think the maximum was about 5 minutes – even on extremely fast highways. Picked up – dropped off – picked up – dropped off – picked up – dropped off. Who would pay for public transport?!  Although I didn’t quite make Phuket – which was a bridge a little too far – I’m near as damn it – and I’ve got a full day tomorrow to get a measly and leisurely 287 km.  And would you can believe it – the hitch was to be almost as astonishing as it was today.

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Liverpool FC world – Kuala Lumpur event catastrophes

Friday 16 December

Bear with me dearest readers, as the following three stories are all somewhat connected, but to include them in a single post would – in this fast paced, impatient world – make anyone ‘X’ out in haste an horror at the mere thought of attempting the read.  Look upon this chapter as the first in a trilogy – but a standalone entry in its own right.  I’ll get writing the other two when I’m good and ready.

Our tale begins – like so many do – with heartbreak and disappointment.  With a young boy forced to live under the stairs, subject to abuse and detriment by his cruel guardians.  Or maybe that’s Harry Potter.  Anyway, what followed over the next few days might well make you choke emotionally on your tea.

A few weeks ago I discovered that Liverpool FC were running a world road show that began in Singapore and was moving up to Kuala Lumpur.  Coincidentally enough – this was to be around the same time I was going to be there. Indeed I decided to alter my plans slightly in order to attend, dumbfounded at this stroke of luck, and in postponing my return to Thailand I hung around Malaysia a little longer.  I contacted the club directly, regaling my story and charity details, and asking if it was possible to get a 5 minute photoshoot with some former Liverpool players (including Bruce Grobbelaar and Robbie Fowler – boyhood/teenage heroes), while holding my hitchhike to India sign and Liverpool FC flag.  Who knows – maybe I’d get my shirt signed and a couple quid towards a good cause from some multi-millionaires?  I received a response a little too late – but don’t begrudge them this because perhaps I didn’t contact them in time.

Honestly I did enjoy bits of it...

Honestly I did enjoy bits of it…

However that wasn’t the biggest bone of contention.  There I was ready to just attend the event anyway – and approach the players myself, when I discovered that none of them were turning up until the weekend (by that time I needed to be long gone) – and they were all attending on different days at different time slots anyway.  Now this was news to me!  It was not stipulated in previous advertisements, and until I checked the website for further details I was fully under the impression they’d all be there to “meet the fans” from day one.  I wasn’t even going to get to see the mascot, and I felt I had hung around for nothing and was very short changed.  I was heartbroken.

...and it was kinda nice to see this.  The European Cup.  We've won this 5 times so we get to keep it.  And by 'we' I mean I didn't do a thing to help.

…and it was kinda nice to see this – the European Cup. We’ve won this 5 times so we get to keep it. And by ‘we’ I mean I didn’t do a single thing to help.

This happened to coincide with a two day run of shitty luck – all in an effort to attend this event.  I was directed to the wrong place on the first day – crossing KL for an age only to discover it was at another mall with the same name but in another part of the city. It was too late to even attempt to make the right location – with taxi drivers quoting me stupid amounts of money for the privilege.  It took me HOURS to get home – including stepping off at the wrong spot and having to bite the bullet and spend about 10 quid on a cab.  I cancelled my hitchhike for the following day – because in spite of everything – I still really wanted to attend this event!

The next day was even worse.  I got on wrong trains, wrong carriages, going wrong directions, all spending far too much time and money for something that ultimately wasn’t worth it at all.  At one point my train departed a station and I realised I was going the wrong way.  No problem thought I – I’ll just disembark at the next platform, and switch back.  Except the next platform was so far away I felt I was going to another city. At the same time I noticed people were staring at me.  Some were frowning, others were giggling.  The one thing that these people all had in common was – they were all women.

Have a guess which carriage I got on?

Have a guess which coach I got on?

Mile after humiliating mile, back turned to the carriage, hiding my face in the gap between the doors and the seat you’re meant to give up for old people, hoping they wouldn’t notice my pathetic ginger beard; until I finally stepped off onto a platform in the middle of nowhere.  I offered my apologies to a guard that I’d traveled the wrong direction by mistake and asked how I could go back, only to be told I needed to pay the fare again.  I was alright with this until I realised if I’d kept my mouth shut I could just have found the other platform myself and saved the money.  I went into a cafe to have a bite to eat and their dodgy Wifi corrupted my phone.

Trainspotting.  That's the platform I should have been on.

Trainspotting. That’s the platform I should have been on.

As small as these trivialities seem, they do tend to add up in a concerted effort to give you a mental breakdown.  Throw in the unsympathetic heat, the sheer amount of time it takes to get around, the length of ticket queues, and the fact that the train line colours on your map don’t match the ones in the station – and you’ve a recipe for going postal.  It wasn’t about to get any better.

"Robokeeper".  I didn't get a chance to have a go - lucky for everyone watching.  And my pride.

“Robokeeper”. I didn’t get a chance to have a go – lucky for everyone watching – and my pride.

Wearing my Liverpool shirt and draped in my Liverpool flag I spent an hour or so at the event with very little contact with anyone.  Local lads were hogging the “robokeeper” game  (where you have to try and beat a robotic goalkeeper) and the staff from Liverpool seemed all too preoccupied with media and other more important looking types.  Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t want some kind of prodigal-son-returns-red-carpet-welcome-home bonanza, but a “Hello, how are you, what are you doing in Kuala Lumpur?” would have been nice. Especially from the pains I’d taken to even get here for this.  Dejected, I turned away to continue my hitchhike – but it was well into the afternoon – and the chances of me getting far were looking slimmer by the minute.  Especially as I totally cocked up the times of the public transport to return from the mall to the metro station.  I sat utterly bemused on cold tarmac for three quarters of an hour getting beaten by my chess app on one of the simplest levels.

It's lonely going to the last stop.

About half an hour previous, this carriage was rammed. It’s lonely going to the last stop.

Time isn’t on my side so I opt to take the metro to the last stop going north and hitch from there. But with all the debacle getting to and from the LFC event – back to my hostel to pick up my stuff and get out – by the time I’m even coming close to the end of the line it’s pitch dark.  A taxi driver at the station overcharges me to find a hotel, and I’m overcharged again to spend the night somewhere I should maybe block the door with the wardrobe.  Honestly I felt like crying.  Maybe I did a bit.  I don’t know – I couldn’t see – there was something in my eye.

I've stayed in worse I suppose.

I’ve stayed in worse I suppose.

I know!  I’m gonna have a Domino’s pizza to cheer myself up!  This was the smallest pizza I’ve ever seen for around the cost of a three course meal.  I think I ate it in three bites.

Upon returning to my hovel for some reason I decide to peruse the Liverpool FC website – just to see if there’s been any news from the day.  Imagine my distress when I see that today ALL FOUR former Liverpool players attending had in fact turned up moments after I had left.  ALL FOUR OF THEM!  They were scheduled to come individually from Friday onwards, but there they all were – “meeting fans” and “signing shirts”.  Staff at the event even told me they weren’t coming until the weekend – and I think it was a hush-hush media tactic just for a quick photoshoot and website propaganda.  Rarely have I felt so let down by something I hold so dear.

I’d not felt this low in a long time my friends.  I know it’s all first world problems – but y’know how it goes – straw that broke the camel’s back and all that.  The thing is – I don’t understand how or why I was making all these bad decisions.  Awful choices.  Shocking thought processes.  Mistake after glaring mistake.  It was like all my instinct and experience traveling had somehow vacated the premises, compounded by one hell of a let down.  I’d been given some mind-numbingly potent elixir that turned me into a gawping 17-year-old-vodka-swilling-dentist-chair-Ibiza fucktard. Maybe once again someone was trying to tell me something.

I knew that the only cure for this was to get back on the road ASAP – but recent events had turned me into a bag of nerves, and I was half expecting my luck to have properly run out and be found chained to a wall under a motorway service station.  And yet what was to come during my next hitchhike found my faith in humanity restored, and just tonic for both my idiocy and the disappointment suffered in attending Liverpool FC World.

And fuck it – we still beat Everton.

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