Buddha at a Chiang Mai temple
Before I left for my vacation in Thailand, a few kind people expressed concern that I would travel so far away on my own—and this concern varied in nature, from the undeniable language barrier to questionable toilet facilities to was I traveling along sex slave routes?
Of course why worry about travel threats or inconveniences when seeking a peculiar cultural experience—that of being pleasurably discomfited? And so my travel dream came true in Thailand, when one of the world’s biggest transit hubs, Bangkok airport, completely shut down its operations. (Read my first post about the situation here.)
After the second cancellation of my flight home, with no flights expected for another week, I knew I had to find another means of escape, even though all public transport leaving Bangkok was booked solid for a week.
At the Bangkok train station, I did what the guidebooks strictly advise against: I went to a private tour company and bought a bus ticket to Butterworth, Malaysia, where I planned to pick up a train to Singapore, where I’d catch the first of three flights home to Cincinnati.
The man behind the tour desk pulled out a laminated flyer showing a double-decker VIP bus. “You take VIP bus, make bus switches, and be in Butterworth tomorrow night.” Estimated time to destination: 24 hours. (Imagine nonstop driving from Cincinnati to Phoenix.) The ticket was $70, a 10x markup. The man mused that perhaps in a few hours I could sell the ticket at a profit. Given the dozens of foreigners clamored around his desk, I had no doubt of that.
It was Sunday morning, and the bus left that evening at seven. I boarded with fifty others and collectively we reflected the exhausted look of uncertainty, to which a proper antidote would’ve been a little sleep, but no sooner was the bus engine running than we were subjected to Blood Diamond and The Last of the Mohicans in VIP stereo surround.
Just before midnight, the bus stopped at an abandoned amphitheater, which had become a makeshift market, supplemented by Thai women with propane tanks and woks, ready to take orders. A dozen double-decker coaches pulled up during the 30-minute break—more were racing by, some stopping at Thailand’s ubiquitous 7-Elevens—a massive caravan of farang headed south.
The man sitting next to me on the bus was a retired Canadian computer science professor who split his time between Thailand and Singapore. We promptly fell sleep after the Mohicans were eliminated and became less and less shy about sleeping against one another as the night wore on.
At 5 a.m. we all disembarked at a bus station in Surat. The station consisted of a concrete room with a few benches, a painted sign reflecting the bus schedule, and a squat toilet (bring your own TP) for 5 baht.
Surat bus schedule with "dairy" service
We waited for 10-passenger minibuses that would divide us by destination, as we all had slightly different tickets. The only evidence of our ticket purchase by this time was a small sticker with city initials.
My ticket to Butterworth
As you can see, I stuck it inside my Lonely Planet guide, and as the group sat on benches and luggage, stories were exchanged.
- Peter from the Smithsonian, who regularly visits southeast Asia to conduct ecological conservation research. Like me, he wasn’t willing to wait out the airport situation.
- A young backpacker traveling through southeast Asia after a two-year stint working in Japan. He was in Bangkok airport the night it shut down and missed flying home for his first Thanksgiving in years. He never tired of reiterating the ridiculousness of the airport scene—how a few thousand protesters with hand-clappers and barbed wire could completely overtake an enormous facility that handles 100,000 passengers daily.
- A Brit with oozing open sores covering his left leg, noticeably swollen with infection. Peter commented on the necessity of seeking medical attention. Another traveler gave him some antibiotic ointment.
Soon the minibuses appeared, and we were told to expect another bus exchange in the southern Thailand city of Hat Yai. I then read Lonely Planet’s description of Hat Yai:
Most travellers only visit Hat Yai while in transit to Malaysia, but since terrorists started targeting it for bombings within the last few years it’s seeing fewer and fewer folks passing through; many people are choosing to fly straight on to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore rather than do the traditional overland route through Thailand’s Deep South. Violence comes in spurts, however, so it might very well be quiet again by the time you read this. If you do visit, just be vigilant about your surroundings and stay away from large demonstrations or crowded spaces, which are more likely to be targets, but don’t worry too much.
Hat Yai turned out to be quiet that day, as it was completely overwhelmed by floodwaters due to rainy season (only affecting southern Thailand). Several feet of standing water overwhelmed intersections, forcing a long line of minibuses to form on the highway leading into the city. Thai bus drivers congregated outside in the rain with cell phones. We had no idea what was next; none of the drivers spoke English.
After an hour, the VIP double-decker buses reappeared to barrel us through the high waters. We were dropped off without further instruction at Hat Yai’s still-dry bus station.
No one knew how to identify the next fleet of buses that would complete the journey. People were pacing the road between the station and tour shops, hauling luggage behind them, asking anyone who would listen, “Where now? Where do we go?” It was the first time I saw the Thais completely lose it. One Thai woman actually told a foreigner to just go away, everything would be fine. I couldn’t recall (nor did I have a paper trail of) the private tour company name, and there were no tour guides to ask. The station was noticeably absent of the buses needed to evacuate the large number of foreigners now crowding under awnings to stay dry.
By this time, Peter the Smithsonian and I had become travel acquaintances, and I started tagging behind him. He had a working cell phone and was fairly calm, yet also aggressive and motivated to leave. When a minibus headed to Butterworth abruptly appeared, he got us both on. There was so much luggage between the 10 passengers that it was shoved in between us and beneath our legs. But at least we were headed south; many whom I never saw again were left waiting, including the backpacker.
Our new non-English speaking driver had a cheery demeanor, and we all clapped our appreciation when we crossed into Malaysia, after clearing immigration on foot. We stopped for gas, during which the driver kept the engine running and pumped the fuel himself while smoking a cigarette. People started drifting off to sleep. I wondered then at the wisdom of traveling alone, but realized, especially when looking around me, that even though I was traveling solo, I had never been alone.
We arrived in Butterworth around 8 p.m. at the central transit hub. The area was filled with hawkers and food stalls, crowded with Muslims and Indians, but the train station was a ghost town. I bought a ticket to Singapore departing the next morning at 7 a.m, then claimed a bench inside the terminal where I envisioned a reading snooze for 12 hours. I didn’t have any Malay money, there was no ATM in sight, and I wasn’t in the best part of town to start scouting for a hotel after dark.
I was soon informed by two Stanford students, also buying tickets for the 7 a.m., that the station closed at midnight, and perhaps we should look together for a place to stay. The station attendant said there was a hotel five minutes away, next to a bank with ATMs.
The hotel turned out to be a Chinese hotel (about 25% of the Malaysian population is Chinese), which are mentioned in the guidebooks as very cheap, if dismal, places to stay. My room was a concrete cell, no windows, but did have air conditioning and a private bath. Shower functionality was typical of a cheap room outside of the United States: a water tank mounted on the wall with a spray nozzle attached, right next to the toilet. (At least there was a real toilet.) The mattress was in good shape; it was complemented by clean sheets and an oversized towel serving as a blanket.
I had an alarm, so I agreed to wake the students at 5:30 a.m. When I knocked on their door, they were up and ready to go; apparently the Chinese proprietors had woken them an hour earlier. Then suddenly, at 5:55 a.m., they screamed, “Do YOU know what TIME it is?”
The time had changed when we crossed the border into Malaysia. It was 6:55 a.m. and we were about to miss our train. I had a light case and was ready to make a mad dash to the station; the students had multiple bags, one without wheels. As we scrambled out of the hotel, one of the students screamed to no one in particular: “Can someone drive us to the train station? PLEASE! WE NEED A RIDE TO THE TRAIN STATION!” A group of Indians at a food stall looked on curiously. It seemed such a hopeless gesture. I sprinted for the station without a word.
The train departed ten minutes late—we all made it (and the students found a ride). In the train, as I swallowed a delayed nervous breakdown, I found my seat—right across from the Smithsonian. During the 15-hour ride, we chatted, ate fishy noodles and pink cake, and dozed with iPods. He smiled as I read New Yorker after New Yorker, a seemingly endless supply in my bag, since I had packed seven months’ worth and was now down to one month (four issues).
At Singapore it was time for border control once again. I was hopeful there would be a tourist desk at the arrival station to help with accommodation, but nothing. The Smithsonian had stayed nearby as we moved through immigration, so he called the hotel he had already booked to check availability. There were still vacancies, so we cabbed over, checked in, and said good-bye after exchanging cards. His flight left early the next morning; mine did not leave for another thirty hours.
The Singapore room with bad air conditioning made me nostalgic for the Chinese hotel. But I remained in that room until the very last second before check-out time, then headed to the airport for an eighteen-hour stay.
By the time I settled in at the airport, I had been out of touch with everyone at home for two days. I had briefly caught a wireless signal at the Surat bus station, but once I crossed the Malaysian border, the power outlets changed, and my laptop ran out of power. I knew the silence was building anxiety for The Conductor, who was the only reason I was able to depart from Singapore on such short notice. (The Conductor, aggrieved at my indefinitely extended vacation without his presence, decided to get cozy on the phone with Delta until they agreed to get me on a flight home for no added cost.)
We both knew there would be a communication blackout on my way to Singapore, and I was also aware of the Conductor’s pledge that, should something go horribly wrong with Operation Singapore, then he would resort to Operation Bangkok Belle, involving him going Rambo on Bangkok, with a coalition of tough-guy, Australian financiers, Christian Bale, and Mel Gibson, and Russell Crowe, and Hugh Jackman and Schwarzeneggar (not Australian, but close enough). This would be in addition, of course, to a gastronomical boycott—which continues today. For the good of world peace, I did eventually find Internet access at the airport so I could send an update, and Operation Bangkok Belle did not deploy.
The rest of the story is like any story of airport travel, except that Singapore’s airport is considered best in the world, so I had plenty to occupy my time while waiting. I ate Chinese buns, enjoyed a drink from every cafe, shopped the boutiques, and paid $30 to spend time in a luxury lounge where I stretched out for a nap and took a shower.
You know you’ve traveled well when your home—and the people there—take on a different light. And that was the case here, not just in the details relating to Cincinnati, but in the presence of all the people I encounter everyday who resonated all the more dearly after my return. So thanks to you all, for your well wishes and lovely notes via blogs and social networks. It is like a discovering a new universe in your own backyard.