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I take off towards Thasongyang the next day, passing through a National Park. The day is hot and my face is scorched like a lobster from the relentless sun. I cycle a bit and hitch rides in the back of lots of trucks which makes for a good adrenaline rush. I end up in some town of which I don’t remember the name and set up camp in the park. Camp involves only an inflatable mattress and a sleeping bag. Unexpectedly, there is a fan blowing at the gazebo so I keep it on through the night to rid the mosquitoes.
I dream about tomorrow, which will be more rigorous riding followed by more Thai food, followed by more rigorous riding. This is the life of a vagabond.
The next day I set out and find a giant golden Buddha statue that rests on top of a hill. It is posed so it is resting while lying down on the hill, overlooking the landscape with wonder. Curious, I cycle to the top and explored the small town and the people that surround it. It is early, and adults and kids alike are already up and cooking food.
I walk back down to the bottom of the cliff and once the road becomes too narrow for safe cycling, I opt to stick out the thumb. I am picked up by four college-age people, one of the girls on her way to the hospital to get paperwork for her new job. Before that, we end up at a coffee shop passing my guitar around and a few of them playing Western tunes. Why is Oasis so popular in Thailand? He starts strumming and singing Don’t’ Look Back In Anger.
The hospital is covered in wooden furniture and does not have the flawlessly clean, ultra-sanitized look hospitals in the US tend to have, which are clean enough to make one sick. I got the impression that all the patients waiting in that room are going to get the care that they need. There is no demand for endless red tape of paperwork, for proof of insurance, all of the mud that slows the American healthcare system down.
We venture into the National Park and walk through the river. They are kind enough to ask a monk if I can sleep in the temple for the night, which to my surprise, after looking over my sweaty, sun-baked presence over, actually says yes, I can sleep there. I feel like a guest of honor.
Anyways, the next day I am going to push on towards Thasongyang and should make it there before nightfall. I roll out a mat and sleep in a house by myself nearest the temple, on a cliff overlooking the river below. I go for a swim in the river and wash away my sweat before sleep.
I go to the local store and bought some fruit. Young to-be monks were pile into the back of a few pickup trucks and collect their food supplies. They all have freshly shaved heads, orange Buddhist robes, and bright smiles. It is magic.
I cycle as far as I can, granted the limits of my rickety-rackety single-speed bike. The two-wheeled machine thump and clank along, until I find myself along a dirt-stone jungle road that if attempted, will reduce my loyal stallion to a clump of horse shit. At one point, I pass a woman who is balancing a bowl of fruit on her head without using her hands—truly no small feat—and other than that, this is a lonely road.
Hot. Humid. My shirt clings to my back like old Scotch tape.
I can’t figure out if I am entering a jungle heaven or a jungle hell.
I stick out my thumb and accept a lift from the first truck that comes shaking on by and they motion for me to hop into the truck bed. The bed is rusty, full of dirt, tools, and wood. I help them unload at their village, the lines on their face revealing creases from hard work. What do they do to get by? Where does the wood come from? What do they say when I leave? What do they think of this Farang traveling alone on a bike on this jungle road?
There are so many things I wish to ask, to express, to communicate, but the language barrier is like a mortar wall. Instead, we just smile and nod. Khap kun khrap. A form of politeness and gratitude.
I pass kilometer after kilometer of sugar cane plantations. A kid pops out of nowhere and asks if he can ride my bike. Thinking light-heartedly, I say sure. As he rides off down the hill, I realize that he could easily take off with the thing, but that is just my fear of being taken advantage of getting the best of me. Being alone in a jungle can do that. The kid just laughs and smiles as he rides, his feet not quite long enough to reach the pedals.
Stopping at cafes to eat Thai food whenever I can, men laze around in hammocks while women cook. My appetite is always ravenous after having cycled many miles.
I walk into a 7/11 and try to practice my Thai with the locals. Sa wa dee, khap. Su bai dee mai? ( Hello, thanks. How are you?) I was the strange Farang, the barbarian on a bicycle that couldn’t speak the language properly. The Thai language is spoken with different tones and if the word is not pronounced exactly correct, the word can be misinterpreted into something completely different than what you are intending. The strange looks people sometimes give me says that I often don’t achieve the desired word. Sometimes a simple khap (thanks) and a wai go a long ways. In Thai culture, the Wai is a gesture of respect that is given by folding your hands together in a prayer-like way and with a slight bow. I buy a map of Thailand at the 7/11 for reference and move along.
I keep moving along a thickly forested area where a cattle herder moved his cattle with the aid of a black dog. The dog seems more interested in watching for and chasing birds than anything else. I learn the hard way not to accept a lift from a tuk-tuk, since they either don’t understand the concept of hitchhiking or don’t want to. They give me the “tourist rate” for two kilometers and I hop off, the driver nearly driving away with my bike still on top!
It is one more lift that got me into Thasongyang. The guy even drops me off in front of the hospital where I am to meet Kraisee, who is a doctor at the facility. He even alerts him to let him know that I have arrived.
Kraisee welcomes me into his home and I feel humbled, like a guest of honor. And here I am, just some lowly vagabond hitchhiker. His family lives in his house, including his wife, daughter, and his wife’s mother. When a man marries a woman in Thailand, he almost literally marries his wife’s mother at the same time. They also have a few miniature dogs running around. His wife makes a meal that is so explosive to the taste buds that I can’t possibly describe it. She is an expert at making microwaved bananas. The bananas in Thailand are typically much smaller and sweeter than I am used to as a Westerner.
The grandmother eats traditionally with her fingers and I am able to speak fluently with Kraisee, as his English is proficient. After going for a bike ride to a local café with him and his wife, we go riding with his daughter and he shows me the country of Myanmar, which is directly across the river, just a swim away. “Many people cross the river to work in Thailand illegally,” he tells me as we gaze at a young man using some kind of bicycle raft contraption to glide across the water.
Desperate people and opportunities call for desperate measures. The immigration problem with Mexico and the United States is not unique in the world. Later, Kraisee shows me refugee camps that surround areas near his village. “They were originally supposed to be temporary,” he tells me. Kraisee is a strikingly wise man that I immediately respect and grow a liking to his family.
In the living room later, I stumble across the Hotel California chords and play for his family upon request. The grandmother speaks only Thai, so she communicates with a radiant smile and teaches me the word “alloy” meaning “it’s delicious!” I say this after every meal the family insists on treating me to. To turn it down would simply be disrespectful.
Together, we explore Mae Usu Cave, which is an area surrounded by steep escarpments and caverns filled with stalagmites and stalactites. Water runs through the cave and it is filled with bats that aren’t timid to swoop low when tour groups come through. Cattle graze in the nearby area. His daughter takes to playing in the mud. Kraisee tells me that a bout of malaria has been a problem in the nearby area. I keep this in mind as I swat at the few mosquitoes.
After sleeping on a stone bench in Chang Mai one night, resting my head on a fluffy pillow in an air-conditioned home never felt better. For three days, I’m part of an ultra-hospitable and friendly, tight-knit Thai family.
The irony of staying with a great family away from home is that you do start missing your own family at home. It’s a feeling you learn to embrace and repress at the same time.
Kraisee tells me about his travels in Japan, where he mostly stayed in hostels along the way. Being a traveler of life himself has allowed him to open up his home for Couchsurfing.
I play a game of bad mitten with their young daughter, who is also a gifted math whiz. She has a program on her phone that is a sort-of math contest and she pumps out math solutions faster than I can whistle, melting my math brain into fried rice.
We drive to Tak, where Kraisee and his family have another home. Kraisee is hesitant at first, not sure that the quarters will suit his guest’s needs. Without telling him that I slept on a piece of stone one night, I tell him that I am not picky, and whatever the situation is, it will be fine with me.
I fall asleep that night to the sound of a rather large lizard crashing around in the ceiling. There is a picture of Kraisee at a college graduation ceremony, with the King of Thailand in the background. “That was in Bangkok,” he tells me. “All Thai people go to Bangkok for this ceremony when they graduate college.” He says this with a humble pride. Kraisee is a man of many accomplishments.
In Thailand, the King is highly respected and there are pictures of the king on billboards everywhere in the country. The King is never joked of or talked ill of. Thailand is an old country with a rich history and heritage and it’s best when visiting Thailand to be respectful and keep your opinions to yourself, especially regarding the King, unless you have an ambitious desire to end up in a jail cell.
Every half-hour or so, I’d hear the lizard go AGLOOOOOOK AGLOOOOOOOOOOOK in a long, guttural sound similar to the clucking of a chicken but more alien in presence. That night I dream of a knock at the door and when I open it, a seven-foot lizard creature stood on three feet and greets us.
After some reading with Kraisee in the brief coolness (and I mean brief) of the morning while the roosters crow I take the mountain bike down a dirt road where dogs bark at me and a man comes out and motions for me to not go any further. The grandmother gives me a memento of a miniature Buddhist statue, to which I reply “alloy” just to hear her laugh one last time. She says something to Kraisee in Thai and he tells me that she “wishes to have me back any time.”
They set me off along the main road and I hitch rides from about three different trucks to Koatchi and then return to Phitsanulok. It is more or less on the way so I figur why not—and I have to admit that want to meet back up with Matt and Chompoo and the cute girl at the Raw Milo ice dessert shop.
I get dropped off in the college area and find her at the same place. Somehow I am expecting something different, yet all is the same. All of what appears like chaos to me has a stillness. The same buzz of scooters and the clutter of eclectic Asian shops and food carts. In the middle of it all, there she was, her face bright red and a smile on her face. I meet some of her friends and answer their questions, aske some of my own and they all go home on their scooters. I invite her to dinner but it is at that moment she tells me she has two kids to go home to. I help her closer the shop. It is late, already a bit past two AM. A bit late to be getting a motel room.
I ride my bike to the college campus and lay my camping equipment onto the ground and check into the lovely Musquito Hell Hotel.
I end up moving after the initial torment by swarms of mosquitoes to a shelter in a slightly windier area, which keep the bugs mostly at bay. After waking, and amped up on a cup of local coffee, I cycle the ten kilometers or so back to Matt and Chompoo’s place.
We wind our way later in the day to the local herbal sauna and I found myself making small talk with the local monks. One was a middle-aged man, with a bald head (I guess all monks have bald heads) and joked with Alfeo and I that we should find Thai girlfriends. “Europeans have very large,” he assures us, making an exaggerated gesture with his hands. Some people played a game where the objective was to roll small heavy balls the size of tennis balls into a small circle and knock out your opponents’ balls. Others sit down and played chess, had conversation, or worked out. It’s all done with a lackadaisical, happy energy.
Alfeo and I go cycling through the village and at one point I somehow misjudge the trial bank and fall off, nearly rolling into the river. Alfeo asks if I am alright, but he can’t hold in his laughter. Maybe I should’ve bought one of the eels and released it into the river for life longevity after all!
We walk two buildings down to the café that sells fried chicken and rice. Thai soap operas play on a small TV inside; love affairs and melodramatic scripts. Matt tells me that it is too bad that I am leaving before April begins. Soon in Thailand there will be the Songkran Festival where the locals celebrate the wet season by throwing large buckets of water and water balloons at each other in the street. The cities go mad with excitement after suffering the months of dry season. I suppose I’ll have to save something for next time.
I catch the bus to Bangkok just to try something different early one morning. The cheaper bus for tourists runs early and crack of dawn early– meaning five AM. I reason the justification of not hitchhiking for once on the novelty of riding the train in Thailand. I want to have that experience. Alfeo and I ride together in a crowded, sweaty train, passed a village of ancient ruins where monkeys climb on ancient Thai ruins. The train whistle blows and we chug through the backyards of villages.
People walk up and down the aisles at every stop selling different kinds of Thai food. I buy some kind of treat that tastes like cotton candy but is in the form of a hot tamale, yet it’s not tamale, it’s just pure cane sugar essentially. I eat a bit and give the rest to a kid’s mother sitting next to us.
Eventually, we arrive in Bangkok and part ways. This is the plight of the traveler. You get used to greetings and goodbyes, flow like a river. Somehow, I wind up again at the protest area by the twitch of my nose and meet a local man who tells me about his hitchhiking on the east coast of the United States in the seventies. “One American that picked me up spoke Thai and had learned some of the language during Vietnam. That was pretty cool,” he says. “I just recently retired from working for the airlines for thirty years.” He gives me a small vile of formula for my mosquito bites on my legs.
It is raining in Bangkok and as I make my way around the city on the bike, I am drenched with wet.
A friend of a friend is playing at a local bar that night, so I meet up with Olga and her boyfriend, both musicians that are from Russian and Ukraine and have hitchhiked together the entire way to Bangkok. That night they are playing a gig, so I make my way to the bar to hear them, getting lost in the city for a few hours before finding them.
Despite Annan being out of the city and at a friend’s wedding in Los Angeles, he offers for me to sleep at his flat that night while he is away. In the morning, my plan is to make it out of Bangkok. At this point, I have to start making tracks south—I have over 1,800 kilometers to cover by hitchhiking and just over a week to do it. My flight from Singapore to Darwin, Australia will be on April second.
I get lost in Bangkok and my plan is to make it as far south as I can and get rid of the bike, which in some ways is dragging me down. I get sucker-punched into going to a professional Thai boxing match after watching an advertising truck ride up and down the streets calling out “come see prooooofessional Thai boxing! Tonight! Starts… eight o’clock!”
The technical term for the style of boxing I watch later that night is Muay Thai, and it known as the “art of eight limbs” , combining the use of shins, knees, elbows, and fists to battle opponents. Really, it should be known as the “art of beating the pulp out of someone” because that is what basically goes on in the ring.
People are gathered in a busy touristy bar scene with the ring front and center. The boxers proceed to beat the living crap out of each other. Young Thai women try to drag me into the bars, but I am not interested in being viewed as a bank on two legs. I have to gently pull away from one woman’s grip after kindly trying to tell her that I have to get going. There is a darker side to Bangkok, one of prostitution and sex tourism; I can feel that it is prevalent in the area.
Escaping Bangkok is like getting out of a tornado while trapped in the center—it just isn’t an easy thing to do. Traffic is packed into every inch of street and every vehicle spews black smoke out of its’ exhaust. I get directions from a few handfuls of locals, but even they aren’t sure how to get out. Nobody fully understands Bangkok, not even the locals, so there is no chance the traveler will ever be able to wrap his or her head around it. Once you’re in Bangkok, there is a tendency to get trapped and stay there.
“You turn left,” they told me, pointing to their immediate right.
That night, somehow I managed to make it to the bus station alive on the outskirts of the city, sell my bike to a tuk tuk driver for the cost of a ticket, and jump on a bus to the next town south, which happens to be the town of Chompon.
The bus rolls into Chompon at about three in the morning, where I avoid the initial bombardment of “where you go?!” and “hello!” and “you want texi?” offers from tuk tuks and I wander around the town in the late hours. The food they have fed us on the bus has upset my stomach and given me a case of diarrhea. I find a hotel and sneak inside when nobody is looking, as nobody usually does when it’s two in the morning.
I keep walking to the end of town and even at four in the morning; the town is already coming alive. Families chop vegetables outside their homes, women sweep with their home-crafted brooms, kids play in the small yards. If it weren’t for the fact that it is pitch black outside, you would have thought it was already midday. I admire the work ethic and friendly demeanor of the Thai people.
I get directions from a man that is out for a morning walk as we move right passed a minorly disassembled electrical cable that sparks over our heads. I walk around it and the man is not afraid to walk directly underneath it—this is normal scenery for him. I wonder how long the cable has been dangling and sparking.
The sun is rising over the train tracks that move underneath the bridge that we walk over, painting a surreal photographic style image. Hitchhiking, a beastly Nissan truck pulls over (it’s always a truck in Thailand) and I hop in the front. He insists on taking me to meet his wife at his house and we have a breakfast together. There is a pile of cracked coconuts in his front yard, if you can call it a yard, which is really just an open patch of dirt. His wife is pregnant and they seem to have a happy life.
I say goodbye and begin walking along the main road in a southern direction and with my luck the first car that drives by happens to be the police. There are two of them together and my experience tells me that they’re going to tell me what I’m doing is illegal, and I’m going to play the ignorant tourist and have to find another way to get to Malaysia. To my surprise, that’s not what happens.
The police are almost too happy to see me out here on this empty road with my thumb sticking in the air and my dusty backpack. They are excited to get photographs in all sorts of cheesy ways and it becomes some kind of photography contest and I’m grinning so wide that they can’t seem to get that real serious shot out of me that they must want. I imagine them posting the photograph on the wall back at the station, bragging to the boys that they have done their good deed in the tourist department helping a Farang get to his destination safely.
Although they do speak English, it is broken and hard for me to understand at times but they suggest that I get into the back of the cruiser, which I do and they begin riding down the road at speeds that are well over the posted speed limit. At this rate, we’ll be at the Malaysian border before any of us can ask for a pit stop!
They jet up next to a family van while riding in the right lane and motion for them to pull over. Oh my God, oh my Buddah, I’m thinking. What is going on here?
“You wait here,” they tell me. “No show passport to anyone. We find you ride. You wait here friend.”
They hop out of the car and talk to the family for a few minutes, while I wait in the car somehow wishing that I was on the road by myself without their assistance, despite their desire to help and be friendly.
In moments, they return with stretched smiles on their faces. The smiles say, mission accomplished! We have found the hitchhiker a ride!
“Ok, you go with them now,” they tell me. “We find you ride. You go to Hatyai.”
I can’t be reluctant in this case. I am in the trusted hands of the Thailand police. So I agree to ride with this family, although it goes against my hitchhiking etiquette, which is that someone should willingly pull over for a ride. This ride feels pressured, forced by the police, even though they are helping out. You can’t do anything but laugh at yourself and the predicament.
Why didn’t I just stay at home and just work a regular job like everyone else? Only because this was possible; I can’t make this stuff up.
I sit with the family dog in the backseat and after some small talk in English I ask them where they are headed. “ We go to Hatyai,” they tell me.
“Yes, but is that where you were going originally?,” I ask.
“ We go to Hatyai.”
“ Is that where you planned to go? Or were you not going that far south?”
“We were going to our home. It is twenty kilometers north of Hatyai.”
“Ok, you can drop me off there.”
Now that the police are gone, there is no way I’m letting this family drive out of their way to give me a ride—that’s got to be bad karma for the rest of my trip if I allow it. So they drop me off near their intended turnoff and I thank them for the lift.
I get my first lift from a guy traveling on a scooter but with the added weight of myself backpack we’re traveling at the light-speed of 5 kilometers an hour for three kilometers. I could have walked faster but the entertainment and break in monotony are much appreciated.
I stumble into a café and meet a friendly lady and her kids who offers me bananas and I give her daughter my Grinch shirt, which I had been waiting to give to the right person and the right moment anyways. She laughs and runs off to show it off to her friends. On the road, the lesser possessions you have, the freer you are to travel.
I also get a lift from a truck driver who is more than happy to have me as company. I feel like a spectacle that he shows off to his friends. When I go to pay for the meal at the local café they refuse my offer no matter how hard I try. The trailer of the truck is wrapped in a dirty green canvas like a military vehicle. The cab is an off-white.
A few short rides later, I make it to Hatyai and wander around the streets trying as much local dish as I possibly can. I even try fried grasshopper at once; not that I find it appealing, if only for the novelty. It tastes like grease, with a grasshoppy aftertaste—I can’t say that I’d make a go for it again.
While walking, some kids drive by on their scooters and throw a hard bar of soap that hits me in the leg with a solid THWACK. I’ve been wandering around for hours, am exhausted from carrying the weight of my pack, and am not really sure what I am looking for. Everything is so exotic to me that I can’t make any sense of it. Nobody speaks English. The stinging pain of getting pelted with a hard bar of soap in the shin makes me feel alive though not in a good way.
Finding my way back to the bus station, I run into some tuk tuk drivers who are calling it quits for the night and have spread out blankets and are sharing some laughs. I am walking passed them, uninvited; when I hear one of them call over to me to join them in English. Maybe it is the guitar that catches their attention or maybe the downcast look on my face at the time.
Minutes after introduction, we’re passing the guitar around and they’re offering me shots of Thai whisky and forcing me to sing back the lyrics of traditional Thai songs. I have no idea what the words mean, for all I know they could be having me sing the anthem to Stupid Foreigners. After little time we’re laughing and some of them are falling over in the grass. We must have been quite a sight, except it’s past two in the morning and nobody’s awake, nobody else cares.
An hour or so later, I decide that I need to get some sleep and suddenly we’ve all become great friends. It’s amazing what music, Thai whisky and a sense of humor can do to a group of people. “I take you to bus station, you can sleep there, my friend,” one of the guys offers. Drunkenly, he puts the keys into the tuk tuk and I’m gracious for not only the ride but the fact that the train station is only a few feet from where we are.
He talks to the security at the bus station, and while this is happening, his tuk tuk starts to roll away down the hill. He’s forgot to set the parking brake! I jump in and stop the tuk tuk from its ultimate demise of crashing into the nearby trash can.
The giant fan hanging above the tiny bus terminal is a saving grace from a cascade of mosquitoes that are flying in for the evening feed from the local stagnate stream. I curl up on a bench and get ready to fall asleep. The less you own, the less you have to worry about. A group of Thai people in front of me have gathered around the TV to talk politics, pointing at one of the leaders speaking in front of a microphone. I stop and stare and I can relate, yet I can’t speak.
I wake to the sound of passengers and commuters shuffling around early in the morning. One of the drivers offers to give me a ride to the Malaysian border for another special rate, so I opt to walk out of town and find the road to hitchhike out of there. What fun is riding in a contained bus anyways? The hitchhiker finds his or herself in a situation that is completely spontaneous and there is an instant opening for conversation. On buses, we sit and read our books, we listen to music on our gadgets, we become comfortable, just like at home.
I get picked up by a semi-truck driver just on the outskirts of the central business area. He doesn’t speak a lick of English, but I play him a tune on my guitar and that breaks the ice. The driver stops for another hitchhiker who was is an English guy, also heading for the Malaysian border. He gives me a great deal of insight into traveling Australia. He is a long-term world traveler who has traveled to many parts of the the world and finds work wherever he goes.
He drops us off right before the border, as the driver doesn’t seem to want to deal with customs and explain to them who we are. “This border is seedy,” Joe, the English traveler tells me. “A lot of Malaysians come to southern Thailand for semi-legal activity and to do things that aren’t accepted in the popular culture, if you know what I mean.” Brothels are on every corner here, he tells me. The hotels are run-down and it’s impossible to not get approached for “services.”
It is a liberating feeling to have the freedom to cross with ease into another country, but borders are only glorifications of our false senses of security. The overwhelming feeling of paranoia and tightened borders is worldwide. The border officials are stern and without personality but they give us no hassle in crossing into Malaysia.
We decide to hitchhike together and it takes about ten minutes to secure our first ride. He is going about 50 kilometers south into Malaysia. The roads are larger, wider here, with less potholes and the lack of roadside vendors on every road is a change in pace. Part of me is sad to leave Thailand, content to be in Malaysia.
Just recently, on March 8, 2014, the Malaysian plane, a Boeing 777 carrying 227 unfortunate travelers had seemingly disappeared into thin air and was all over the news. The airline had left Kuala Lumpur after midnight and lost contact with air traffic controllers around 1:22 a.m. Since I am writing this, billions of dollars have been spent in search of the plane to no avail, and the whereabouts of the plane remain unknown, with plenty plausible theories and conspiracy gossip in its’ wake.
The man that picks us up wears a taqiyah, which is a cap that most Muslims wear. His name is Fawaz, and he is just returning from Thailand after giving a speech at one of the colleges. I am riding in the back, so it is hard to make conversation other than the occasional comment or two. Joe asks Fawaz what his theories are on the downed Malaysian plane.
His response is interesting. I’m not sure if he’s serious or if he’s just pulling my leg because he knows I’m an American. “I think the Americans hijacked the plane,” he says. He waits for some kind of expected response from me—I’m only listening. “You see, I know the Americans have access to this island near the Philippine Islands and they could have stashed it there…”
It’s either the biggest outrage or the most inflated conspiracy theory I’ve ever heard. Propaganda is dispersed on all sides, always. He drops us off and we continue our journey south. My goal is to make it Ipoh, Malaysia by nightfall, where I have a host for the evening.
We get dropped off at the tollbooth along the expressway and continue along. One man stops and Joe went to talk to him. I overhear the driver saying, “you see, I am texi…” as he points to a clipboard. Nope, not interested, he tells him. The car speeds off.
We’re eventually picked up by a woman from Myanmar who is heading to Butterworth for a nursing job she has been hired for. She gives us a ride a good portion of the way until it is time for us to go our separate ways. Joe is heading for the Malaysian islands in the opposite direction.
The third and final ride for the day comes from a group of Pakastani construction workers piled in the bed of the pickup truck. The boss man comes and talks to me. “I can give you ride to Ipoh,” he says. “But first I must go to pick up the human, and then we will go.” The human? What is this guy involved in? Some kind of human trafficking? Then it becomes apparent he is only talking about picking up another employee, only that his word for it is human.
The guys take turns strumming at my guitar and talking obscenities. One guy flexes his muscles. “ We like to do pumping, PUMPING,” he says. He makes pelvic thrusting motions and laughs.They pull a tarp over the truck to keep the hot sun from burning holes through our skulls. The driver insists on buying me a meal at lunch time. I pull out my wallet to pay for my meal but he refuses. “I take care of you,” he says. “I am Muslim man, my job to help you.”
The truck blasts on through the mountains and limestone caves. I imagine elephants and monkeys roaming freely on the outskirts of town. Azzam meets me near the local water park where they drop me off; in a place as sweltering hot as Malaysia; a water park is a considerable business investment. I jump into the car and head to his place near the University. There is an English guy who has been in Ipoh for about a month already and we will be dropping him and his Muslim girlfriend off at the train station in the morning.
In my notebook the next morning, I scribble in the distances I have to cover in order to reach Singapore for my flight out of the country on April the second:
Ipoh to Kuala Lumpur- 201 kilometers
Kuala Lumpur to Melaka- 136 kilometers
Melaka to Singapore- 232 kilometers
To me, all these distances seem doable in a days’ time, granted I can actually get rides. Azzam is a great host and takes me out to the local cafes. The food cuisine in Malaysia is tasty and diverse, since the country is a melting pot of cultures, mainly Chinese, Muslim, and some Thai. From his home in the morning, we can hear the morning Muslim prayer that is heard across the soccer field.
Azzam tells me a story about a friend of his who had spent some time teaching in Singapore. “My friend’s wife was a stay-at-home wife while he worked as a teacher during the day at the university,” he says. “ All day long she was writing her friends back home, saying that she missed them, that she was all alone, especially that she hated the country of Singapore…one day there was a knock at the door. It was the Singaporean police and they ordered them twenty-four hours to pack up and leave the country.”
One evening, Azzam and I sit outside a café and taste some authentic Indian cuisine. Nam bread and the spicy sauce they serve it with along with a fruit drink becomes my favorite meal combo. He also introduces me to satay, which is chicken dipped in peanut butter sauce and tossed over a thick flame for about ten minutes. It’s just as bad for you and delicious as it sounds. The taste is crisp, sweet and indescribable. We take a tour through the Sultan’s palace and we are the only two people walking the tour that day. I can’t help but feel that the attendant’s eyes follow us through this blatant showcase of immense wealth. A black and white picture shows of one of the former sultans playing field hockey. The description claims that hockey originated in India.
We try some fresh mango from a food stall and I can honestly say that if eating a fresh mango meant that I would lose one day of my life, I would gladly take this exchange. It tastes heavenly compared to processed candy bars.
We went to a Chinese temple where the monkeys hang from trees and swing off the power lines. I hope that I’m never reincarnated as a monkey because their lives seem to be a constant miserable struggle. There is not a moment when some other monkey is not taunting another monkey, pulling at each other’s hair, or fighting to become or remain alpha monkey. It’s maybe similar to the human rat race, except arguments erupt over much more petty things such as food, water, shelter and survival, on a superficial scale.
Azzam says that he enjoys his teaching career and it has been a constant positive challenge for him. “It requires incredible dedication,” he tells me over Indian food one night. “In a way, you are responsible for the rest of their lives.” One of the best moments during his career was when he was transferred to a different school and while he was walking off during the ceremony, he overheard someone whisper “there goes another good one.”
One night I drive the car back to the house because his leg has poor circulation and is acting up. I take this as an opportunity to take driving lessons in Malaysia. To drive on the wrong side of the road in Malaysia (in my American perception) is to drive on the correct side. The driver’s side is where the passenger’s side usually is and everything is a mirror image of what I’m used to. You have to dodge crazy scooterists and motorcyclists all the time. Every second on the road could very well be your last.
Ok, so it’s really not that crazy. But it’s a lot of fun.
Even the blinkers are a splitting mirror image of what I’m used to. To signal a left turn, you flick the blinker downwards. Nonetheless, we manage to make it home alive with my host making only a few gasping sounds and there are no heart attacks along the voyage.
Azzan has given me an outstanding introduction to Malaysian food, culture, and hospitality. For the most part, Malaysia seem to be a corner of the world where different ethnic groups have learned to tolerate each other without building gigantic mortar walls or blowing each other to bits. Geographically, Malaysia’s strategic position attracted trade and influence in its’ history. Hinduism and Indian people dominated the early timeline, Muslims entering the country as early as the tenth century and a colonization of the Portuguese (here come the Europeans) in Melaka during 1511. Remnants of former kingdoms and the way in which they have transformed into modern society are scattered everywhere.
It’s time to leave Ipoh and in the morning, I’ll be hitchhiking to Kuala Lumpur. I tell Azzam that I plan to go for a jog around the park near his house. “Oh, you don’t want to do that,” he says.
“There are wild boars around here.”
“Oh, that’s ok,” I say, I’d like to see one from a distance.”
“Yes, but there are wild boars.”
“I’ll take you to a park tomorrow morning,” he suggests.
Running into a wild boar or being charged by one doesn’t sound like bad travel adventure credibility but I decide to take a rain check on that one and head to sleep.
We hop in Azzam’s old red car and he drops me off at a convenient spot for hitching just passed a toll booth. The traffic is slow enough where they can get a good look at me and hopefully form a quick conclusion that I am not entirely crazy, although maybe only partially.
Like a good vagabond, I have crafted a cardboard sign that reads in bold letters “KL” and it works wonders. Within five minutes, a non-compatriot has pulled over to offer a ride. Lucky me, he is going all the way to Kuala Lumpur. I share my bananas with a middle-aged man dressed in semi-casual business attire. He is from the mother country of India and a devote Hindu. His job involves selling medical equipment all over Malaysia.
The conversation moves to the topic of the “education crisis” in America and also, evidently in Malaysia. “In Malaysia, one big problem is there are too many medical universities and aspiring doctors and not enough demand for the profession. Too many degrees, not enough jobs for many…”
We are driving by jungle terrain in the distance, green cliffs that shoot out of Earth in sudden and unpredictable shapes. “Hands-on training becomes difficult with that many applicants—37 medical universities, thirty-seven!—have sprouted up in the last five years. It’s just gotten out of hand, this model of universities working as a business.”
We pass by one of the Sultan’s palaces as we gain distance to KL. As far as I know, there are currently eleven sultans in Malaysia and it is an integral part of their history. That’s why his humored comment surprises me. “Just another large home where some giant idiot lives,” he says. A moment of pure truth.
We scoot on by endless rows of palm tree plantations. Large sections of jungle have been wiped out to make way for this huge part of the Malaysian economy. I’m not one to wave a finger and say “shame on you” here; it just is what it is. “The economy used to be based on rubber tree plantations, but they changed it when the demand for palm oil went up around the world,” he says.
Palm oil is used in many worldwide products that most people would not expect, such as toothpaste, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, many shampoos, women’s makeup, moisturizing lotion, chocolate bars, Ritz crackers, and Pringles chips just to name a few. The issue with palm oil is that it can lead to heavy deforestation, climate change, and indigenous rights abuses. Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil; hence it’s worldwide appeal in cooking.
My driver continues his rant. “Anyways, now the rubber trees are back in high demand but the government went ahead and changed it to palm oil trees too soon.” Rubber trees or palm oil trees, they form a fortress of foliage surrounding the entire freeway. There is no telling how far into the jungle these plantations stretch; the consumerist culture of the world is the limit.
I thank him for his conversation and the lift and he just turns it around and thanks me. So starts my exploring of KL at the main bus terminal where he drops me off. There is the bustle of traffic, honking of horns, spewing of exhaust, people yapping on cell phones, hydraulic pressure releasing on buses.
I venture my way into the Indian market. There is a distinct smell of fish rising above the overwhelming smell of diesel gas amongst massive amounts of food being cooked.
I walk for miles and miles in the city by myself, viewing some of the tallest twin towers in the world. Post 9/11, there is something about the word Twin Towers that holds a sour aftertaste. Still, there it is, at night time shining and in all its’ beacon-to-big-business-glory.
Later after dark, I meet a couple backpackers staying in hostels from Sweden who are traveling with another guy from England. The busy markets are closing—no more people selling homemade whistles on bicycle carts, no fried food, just the soft shwww shwwww sound of workers sweeping the leftover mess into a pile in the middle of the street. Nobody would have heard them over the high-decibel commotion of the day. This is all in preparation to repeat the markets again tomorrow.
Westerners aren’t hard to pick out, especially in a foreign country when they’re loud and staggering on two feet. I decide that I can’t have a fully functional conversation with them and walk away somewhat disappointed. Maybe I should get drunk with them? Or maybe I should just go to sleep for now since I’ve been walking all day.
I take a walking tour through a Hindu temple and am completely perplexed and ignorant to what I am seeing. Hinduism is a polytheistic religion with many different Gods and ways of worshiping. The temple is decorated with all sorts of animals and artwork. Outside, people smash coconuts as an offering to the Gods.
As I pass by a massage parlor, an attractive woman tries to sell me a massage. No thanks, I say. She then grabs my arm in an erotic sort-of way and smiles, suggests with a whisper a “special” massage. It doesn’t take a massage specialist to gather what that means. I wish her a good night for now and stagger half-asleep into an Internet café and fall asleep in the chair until daylight, my hour time-limit long since up. The shop owner doesn’t seem to care.
I wake to the sound of shuffling feet, people already bargaining roadside prices in the early AM fog of customers. I walk some more, searching for a good location to hitch. This proves a struggle and quite possibly futile—people seem to make more effort to run me over than anything else.
The static white noise of the big city.
Half-limping with the small elephant pack on my backside, I enjoy a Malay breakfast at a café called Zhing Kong. Eventually, I opt for the more accepted way to travel, at least to get to the outskirts of KL. I purchase a bus ticket for a short ride to Sungai Besi where I walk for a mile in the wrong direction until I get to a highway roundabout where there is less convoluted traffic. Sweltering, scorching sun and zero trees for shade are my options.
My first lift comes from a young man who has work for the day installing cables outside of KL. This is a short lift that puts me at a more open, engaging spot for hitchhiking.
The second lift comes from an older guy who served in the military during the 1960s. He was a parajumper. “We had to jump from a plane that was at minimum, 10,000 feet high so that the enemy could not hear the plane. This often meant that you’d have to gauge your jump in the dark.” His eyes become reminiscent and with a hint of wetness, fondness for the past.
The topic easily transitions to the mysteriously disappeared Malaysian Being 777 airplane. In KL, I had seen locals gathered around small TVs in cafes and speaking energetically about their thoughts on the planes’ whereabouts. Being that I don’t understand the Malay language, it was impossible to know what they were saying, yet you could hear the passion in the voices.
He was sure that the US could intervene and eventually discover the plane’s whereabouts or final demise. “They have technology that can view kids from the sky above, playing cards miles below,” he says. “Surely, the satellite images should be able to pick something up.”
He tells me about his adventures taking a bus all around the United States. “Maybe I’ve seen more of the country than you!,” he says, laughs. It’s a truism that often times travelers have seen more of any given country than the native born; there is a tendency to make roots and stay in one spot. The traveler moves freely, in between and through local boundaries and borders, both blissfully ignorant and open-minded to the next outsider town on the horizon.
The driver is old and stubborn, and being so, when we get stuck in a traffic jam he blocks people trying to pass us illegally on the shoulder. Cars and trucks honk at us; impatient ones floor it through the grass median throw us dirty looks that could melt the devil to sidewalk ice cream.
The last lift on the way into Melaka comes from an Indian man who kindly invites me to stay for a few days at his home in Muah. I gracefully-enough decline his offer, as I already have a host in Melaka for the evening. Every corner I turn I find myself showered with hospitality.
My host accepts me into her home, despite being behind my intended date of arrival by a landslide of three days. She is a caring, classy lady who goes by the exquisite and deserving title of Miss Melaka. She is a representative of this entire city! Her home is full of travelers: a girl from England, a girl from Italy, and a couple from Canada. She also has five small dogs that roam the house like giants and greet everyone enthusiastically with long, flappy, salivated tongue caresses.
That evening, we all share company at an Indian outdoor café. Miss Melaka knows the man that works there and makes our food. Nam bread and carrot and watermelon fruit drinks are my favorite.
At one point, the road has me so side-tailed and exhausted that I start doing the head bob thing and nearly fall asleep and crash onto the table. This has us all laughing and to my non-verbal request, we head home through narrow city streets, barking dogs, and closing shops but not before stopping at a bar called Me and Mr. Jones. The blues music drifting into the streets sparks my interest and pulls us in.
We slide into the bar for a few drinks and I jam with the owner, classic Clapton tunes. When we leave, there is silence, with the gentle brush of the swaying river nearby.
There was a break in the peacefulness and serene as we passed a yellow dog that bore its’ fangs and barked wildly and viciously at us from a balcony. Somewhere in Melaka, there was a peaceful beastly dog who enjoyed yapping at strangers that passed by. Maybe all the cuddly demon wanted was a treat. Anyways, we kept walking, laughing, lost in the streets, the conversation.
So it goes.
Miss Melaka takes us to a private access pool overlooking the ocean the next day. There is some type of irony in the fact that we are in a pool of water when we could be swimming in the actual ocean, but it has its’ quaintness and novelty. Earlier I had tried to go for a jog alongside the ocean in the neighborhood, only to find a sign posted showing some military figure with a gun at a citizen running away in fright. It was both comical and terrifying at the same time—I decided not to jog there.
We went to a bar that ran alongside the river and an interesting Indian man came and sat beside us. Miss Melaka fills me in later that he was a well-educated man and read widely. He drinks his beer and likes to talk about governments. “I have no fear of the government and it is racist,” he says. He is a well-practiced doctor. Later, he sets down his beer. “I’ve got to be going now. Nice to meet you. There is a line of miserable people waiting for my help tomorrow.” The lines on the man’s face are deep.
We eat more Nam bread. The Italian girl, Aria tells me about her plans to travel to Sydney, Australia after Southeast Asia to be with her boyfriend. We eat some more Nam bread, mix the carrot fruit drink with watermelon. Not bad. The carrot with the banana? Ok. All three together are almost amazing.
So it goes.
That night we travel to an area of the city that is a Portuguese port where they still sell Portuguese food and the culture is vibrant. As we get out of the car near the port, I have quite possibly the strangest encounter with the tourist poachers I ever encounter. They come at us in groups, trying to sell us tickets to a museum before we even get out of the car. It is like a movie scene, a proper title quite possibly being Invasion of the Tourist Zombies the Sequel: At the Portuguese Port in Melaka.
The Canadian couple brings out a tiny IPod and speakers and a green ball that glows in the night air. We walk along the ocean dock and she twirls and dances with her magic ball. The night air and waves crashing passed the full moon is magical. Not to mention the kids that do tricks on their bikes along the dock and the Portuguese mango drink that tastes like paradises’ liquid with a sour plum at the bottom.
The Canadian girl loses her ball at one point and I am already swimming out in the ocean by myself, the waves tossing me from side to side. It’s an entirely vulnerable feeling being swept by the ocean in the pitch dark, in depths that you can’t understand. A giant tub of moving salt water stretching over seventy percent of our planet. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around.
I swim out to retrieve the glowing green dance ball and couldn’t keep my imagination from drifting to the thought of being pulled under by a shark out for a midnight cruise in search of something good to munch on, maybe my flapping legs that resemble something of an injured seal.
These thoughts are easily washed away with the water. If it’s your turn to go, you will surely die. If it’s not, you won’t. The ocean is no more dangerous at night time than it is during the day; it only appears that way. It reminds us of how small we are in the spectrum of everything, larger and beyond our limited perceptions.
Miss Melaka gives me a ride to the toll booth on the outskirts of town in the morning to begin my hitchhiking to Singapore, my final destination for this trip in Southeast Asia. Miss Melaka tells me that her family used to have to drive to Singapore to buy clothes when she was a kid. Much of the land we are driving on used to be just ocean, the concrete being developed on unsolid ground. “The current mayor is doing an OK job,” she says. “Some people don’t think so, but we have access to a lot more resources in Melaka than we used to have.”
I receive lifts from two truck drivers after being dropped off, both who say they have families in KL, shipping anything and everything back to KL from the ports. The third driver that swooped me up was heading all the way to the Singapore border. He is a Muslim man who invites me for coffee and insists on paying for it and goes off for ten minutes to perform one of his daily ritual prayers towards the holy site of Mecca. I develop a high level of respect for Muslim people while in Malaysia. Prayer five times a day, regardless of your busy schedule and months of fasting are a required part of the religion.
Over sips of coffee, he talks about life. “I want a simple life, for my family,” he says. “Life is short, maybe only 50 or 60 years long.” He puts in a CD that was a mix of Malay prog-rock and American country. I am beginning to like this guy more and more.
The checkpoints at the Singapore border have a high-tech feel. Masses of people are herded like cattle into air-conditioned buses. One bus driver tells me that it is “seven ringgit” for the bus to the city but I smell a foreigner rip-off special and get a better deal from another local. Hitchhiking in Singapore would be a bit like trying to hitchhike in a massive cosmopolitan city like New York—not really a feasible option.
Really, I could’ve jogged into the city faster than we moved through the snail-paced traffic jam across the bridge into Singapore. What was the point of all this technology and transportation if it just created headaches and slowed us down? This city must make George Orwell roll over in his grave. Technically, gum is not allowed in Singapore and you can get a hefty and the possibility of jail time for smuggling it in. Gum is illegal, but other things—such as prostitution—are completely legal. Singapore is a place I’d like to return to in the future to try and grasp it a bit more; it was just a bit too big to wrap my head around in one day of exploring.
“I think that Singapore is the center of finance for the world market,” a business man tells an associate as they pass by. Commerce is at every corner and not an inch of land is not developed with business real estate or high rise establishments.
I will say the food in Singapore is truly amazing. It is a unique mix of food unlike anywhere else on the planet. The architecture is as modern as it can get without looking like something straight out of the Jetsons and it has been called the modern finance capital of the world. To me, it was just a giant cage filled with endless shopping malls and I wasn’t able to meet up with my host while in Singapore as she was out of town.
So, after walking around the place for hours and having satisfied my curiosity, I take the metro to the airport and book into my flight for Australia. I am heading to the Outback, the Land Down-Under, the only country that is actually a continent, the largest island in the world. First I have to get some sleep, and that takes some careful airport location planning as there are cameras everywhere (and I mean everywhere, they point at you at every corner) in Singapore and it is hard to sleep without being bothered by security.
Finally, I find a place to bed down on the carpet floor and call it a night, happy not to waste any more funds in Singapore.
Australia is waiting on the other side of the ocean. As well as sting rays, salt water crocodiles, a multitude of poisonous snakes, and other things that could potentially kill you.