It’s been a while since I’ve penned anything of late, so I thought it high time I tell the horrendous tale of the return to Bangkok and Bishkek. Eventually – if you bare with me -I will finally get up to date and bring you into my current world. Jump on in – the water is warm. Even though I refuse to get in because I’ve got a shocking farmers tan and man boobs.
I’ll begin by taking you back to the wee small hours of a Thursday morning, circa late February, dateline Cambodia. I was anxiously waiting for a transfer to take me to where the bus to Bangkok would depart, somewhere in the eternal shit hole of Siem Reap. It couldn’t come quick enough, but as the time ticked closer to departure it was nowhere to be seen. I bothered the deaf owner of the Blue Lizard hostel on more than one occasion, as he furiously scribbled responses convincing me that it would be on its way soon. Finally, some twenty minutes late, a tuk tuk arrives and grinds me to the coach station. I wasn’t close to being the last one to arrive before we depart.
Why am I not hitching? Well friends, the hitch – at least for now – is over. Although I already held my Vietnam visa in my passport, and three countries to go before I achieved my five-year hitchhike to India, circumstances have forced my hand to abandon my quest and go where I feel happiest. But if you’d been reading the blog you would know that wouldn’t you?
And so I lean my head against a rattling window as we speed on into the night, thankful that it’s all over and I’m getting ferried back to those I love the dearest. For the moment, the gremlins of disappointment are buried deep inside and aren’t going to rear their ugly heads until fed and watered. I think even after I’m back to where I belong and in the arms of who I belong with, regret will eventually pullulate like a cancer, and I’ll be smashing my head off a brick wall wondering why I didn’t finish this adventure when I was so close. But that can wait.
I needed to get back first, and the first problems begin when the bus slows to a halt with the Thai border in sight – the same Las Vegas frontier I crossed a few drug fueled weeks previous. It appeared we were taking a break, but as the night wore on, I realised with horror that we were sleeping here. I had anticipated arrival in Bangkok faster than it took me to hitch to Siem Reap, but that plan went out the window as we’re all settling down with blankets provided by the driver. Through snatches of sleep, the darkness turns to day, and we groggily pile off the coach and stagger to customs. We had left so late, we had arrived at the border after it had closed. Incompetent isn’t the word.
It was already scorching hot and barely dawn as I lead the way to the passport control. I’ve been here before – I know what I’m doing – trust me. It’s not until we’re approaching the booths that the true consternation set in: it was Chinese New Year, and we were trying to cross a border in south east Asia.
FUCK. MY. LIFE.
The hordes. Oh my god. The hordes. I’ve been to festivals with less of a throng. It was utter chaos as we queued in baking heat while thousands of people crushed to get to the front and spill over the border. You had to feel sorry for those queuing for hours and then turned away at the grill, lacking the correct documents, not having filled out the customs form properly or some other such nonsense. It was a mess. The very definition of a mess. Messier than a night out in Newcastle with a bunch of coked up hookers. It took around two hours to get OUT of Cambodia.
The nightmare didn’t end there either – it was only just beginning. For some reason, the crowds to get INTO Thailand were even worse. I was holding on to some hope that the Thais – boasting a richer infrastructure and tourist economy – would have a better system in place to deal with such an eventuality. I remember crossing a few weeks back and remarking on the quality of what was clearly new passport booths. Surely they would be able to cope with the thousands of people who’d all decided to cross the border today? It could not have been further from the truth.
It’s a riot. Literally. The queue snakes round at a snail pace, with no air con, bodies shoulder to shoulder and crotch to arse. Scuffles break out regularly, as impatient types (basically anyone who isn’t British) attempt to force themselves to the front. Shouting erupts as morons leapfrog the idiotic ankle height chain that’s apparently in place to keep people from doing just that. There’s a constant pushing and shoving, waves upon waves like fans at a football match. Some arsehole continuously stands on my backpack straps in spite of my ever increasingly heated protestations. I swear this is coming to blows. Then, in a moment of abject despair, I realise I’ve left my INDIA hitchhike board back in no man’s land – somewhere I picked up one of those bureaucratic bullshit custom sheets. I’ve rarely felt such devastation.
For a moment, I consider abandoning it – but not on my watch. That board has been with me since I left Germany all those years ago. It has been my friend, companion and comfort at every step of the way – at every hitch spot in over 32 countries. It has the names and places of nearly everyone who picked me up – and although I didn’t make it to my final destination this time, it will still be framed proudly on my wall when I eventually stop living in hostels. NEVER LEAVE A MAN BEHIND!! I lose my place and barge my way back outside, and find my precious sign, lost and lonely where I left it. Scooping it into my arms, I manage to get a spot in line from a kind traveler who had my back. There’s a moment of temporary relief, before a sudden surge forward puts paid to that.
Bodies are everywhere. It was as close to a terrorist attack I hope I will ever come. Shocking crowd control – and nobody was doing anything about it. Someone had dismantled one of the chain posts (as if they actually needed to) and an alleyway had opened up down one side. As if a mighty school of fish, the masses thrust forward as one, desperately striving for the gap. Once more unto the breach, once more. The shouting crescendoed into yelling, as backpackers got involved in a meagre attempt to police the situation. And you know me dear readers – I was getting particularly vocal – turning the air blue with my abuse of the animals that couldn’t wait in line like everyone else. I was aching for a fight such was the near Armageddon levels of frustration.
The heat was taking its toll. Sweat dripped from every pore and water was the stuff of memory. I wasn’t the only one either – shortly before turning the corner of the home stretch, a middle aged woman immediately to my left starts to swim. Family members bellow for assistance as she keels forward and into my arms, several others getting involved in trying to support her. Someone produces smelling salts, as the whole group is escorted to the end of the line and out into fresh air on the Thai side. For several minutes, I’m convinced it was a ruse – and a smart one at that.
It’s taken another two hours to cross a space the size of a large school classroom – and it’s felt like an eternity. It’s shortly after midday, and the sun is grinding down. In my 6 years of traveling this planet, this was up there with my worst ever experience, ironically enough coming right at the end of it. It would have tried the patience of a saint.
The bus is delayed once I stumbled over the other side and back into Thailand. I have now entered and left this country twice this year – so I can’t do it again for some time. Woe is me – how will I ever fucking cope? Some people adore this place – but I am extremely unlikely to ever return. Maybe ten years ago it was the jewel in the crown of travel, but not anymore. I’d rather cut my own balls off.
It’s taken nearly 24 hours to travel the relatively short distance between Siem Reap and Bangkok, in the process leaving one girl behind at the border because the driver refused to wait. In spite of several passenger protests, he sped away, furious himself that it’s taken this long for us all to cross the border. It was with great relief when I’m dropped at a taxi rank a stone throw from the airport, and I hand over my remaining Bhat to a driver to take me to my hostel. The last hostel I will stay in on this journey. The last hostel. Saying it like that really brings it home.
For the sake of flying anxiety and not wanting to risk missing my flight, I force myself to stay awake all night so I can crash out on the plane. In between watching porn and munching on instant noodles, I contemplate the last six years of my consistent traveling life, now drawing rapidly to a close with a return to stability. It’s during this moment that I’ve longed to discover the ultimate inspirational quote that couple possibly draw my future book to a close. Something so beautiful that it would make glassy eyes of any reader, powerfully life affirming and spiritual, the ultimate justification for all these years of running. Instead, I have a wank and watch Bojack Horseman for five hours. Genius takes time.
I pass out on the plane and wake up in freezing cold Almaty, Kazakstan. It’s late afternoon, but I believe I can make it in good time across another border and back to Bishkek. Little did I realise that I should know better by now, and this travel debacle takes another turn for the worst. I’m shown the wrong bus, it takes hours to get into town and it’s dark by the time I’m staggering around trying to find transport to Kyrgyzstan, shocked at the cold contrast compared to Thailand. Snow flicks at my face as my breath is lit from the headlights of passing cars. I just need to get in one.
And in one I do, with the help of a rather large, burly Russian man, who speaks no English, but understands where I need to be and manages to barter us a ride from a random driver who decides to take us all the way to the border. Such is the way here – for the right price and providing they’ve got nothing else to do, people will drive you anywhere.
Except for the lady who is already in the front of this car. Granted she did look like something of a drug riddled prostitute, but I’m utterly astonished as an argument breaks out between the driver and her, culminating in him pulling over to the side of the road and violently removing her from the passenger seat. She clung on for dear life until the burly man got involved, and the two of them yanked the poor sot out and onto the side of the road. Quite what that relationship was I will never know – but I was just thankful to be finally getting closer to home. This nightmare was sure to end soon.
I don’t hang around with this border. It’s now after midnight, and I’ve done this crossing multiple times, so I sail over at pace, not waiting for this large Russian that was more than a little intimidating. I’m over charged on the other side for a taxi to take me to my door, but I’m beyond caring at that point, and half an hour later I’m in the arms of the human and the paws of the dog I love. She’s so excited she can’t bark and she pees herself.
The dog – not the human.
So that’s it. Six years of travel. Six long years. What an adventure it has been. But this is not the end of lookingforstu, as I will continue to regale you with tall tales for some time to come, all while I pool everything together in the process of writing my book. For every door that closes, another one opens, and the next door that opens for me – is going to be home.