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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.