1,700 kilometers. 14 rides. 4 days. 1 road.
I opened my eyes. Complete darkness. Not a single light or sound. The chilling breeze lightly seeping out of the air conditioning panel forced me deeper under the covers. What time was it? Was the sun already out, or was it about to set? Would I stay another day? Opening my eyelids had become much easier, hinting that the persistent irritation that had developed in the Philippines was finally wearing away. Reaching over to feel my right arm, it seemed like the rash had cleared up as well. A sigh of relief. Turning onto my side in an effort to climb out of bed, I softly scratched the back of my head, noticing that the mysterious, unwelcome bump that once resided there had disappeared too. Bringing my other arm over and joining hands, I extended my body backwards, enjoying the deepening intensity of stretching that penetrated throughout my muscles. Then a pause. I took a moment to savor the sweet sensations of cleanliness, well-being and comfort.
There was no one else in the dorm room. It must have been sometime in the afternoon, which wouldn’t have been surprising, as during those five days in Kuala Lumpur, my sleep cycle mercilessly thrust me between 12 to 17 hour lengths of hibernation. It was a period of recovery. One month of extensive traveling throughout the Philippines, in mostly less-than-sanitary conditions, had taken it’s toll on my body, in the form of strange protuberances, aches and an overall fatigue. And it was in this haven of sanitation that I chose to regain my strength and energy.
As I slowly made my way down the stairs to the hostel lobby, I took a peek out of a window. The sun was beating down, and I could feel the humidity through the dusty glass. How could anyone bear to go out into that unforgiving equatorial heat? As my stomach interrupted my thoughts with a deep and gurgling reminder of roughly 20 hours of neglect, I had one answer. Would it be the Chinese noodle stand at the nearby street corner, or the Indian place two blocks away that was air conditioned and well worth the walk? I contemplated this choice for a bit, as I did every morning, appreciative that this was the most complicated decision in my life these days.
But as I entered the lobby, preparing to greet the same, friendly faces at the reception with another request to extend, a strange restlessness took a hold of me. Taking a look around the lounge area, I saw the same, unchanging profile of backpackers, hunched over on some sort of cushion, their noses practically glued to a mobile screen or Lonely Planet page. Who would it be today? With whom would I have the same exact conversation, about where they had been or how much better the Petronas Towers looked at night? For how much longer would I be a hostel bum? The travel bug that I had temporarily suppressed with the excuse of resting up was crawling back, ever so quickly, and the bites were itching. In that spontaneous burst of energy and drive, I bypassed the reception counter, opened the back door, tore apart a cardboard box that I pulled out of the pile of rubbish, found a marker and started writing the only major name I knew in the North of the Malay Peninsula.
There was an $18 flight from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok that very day. Eighteen US dollars. It’s almost difficult to believe..a cab ride to the airport would cost more than that. And there was another one for $20 the following day. And the day after. Needless to say it was a tough offer to pass up. But as I stepped off the metro in the Northern Kuala Lumpur neighborhood of Rawang, I remembered why turning that option down was the right move.
From the station, I began walking West…or roughly West, judging by where the sun was lingering in the sky. It was a little past noon, and the heat was kicking in. A few clouds were slowly drifting towards that merciless ball of fire, promising to block it out in a few minutes time. So I wandered in the shade around some noodle stands, admiring the colorful arrangements of ingredients to kill time. The motorway was somewhere to the West, maybe about 2 or 3 kilometers away, running South to North. There was a small tunnel somewhere that I would have to take to get to the correct side of the road, and I had a rough mental map of how to get there, but in the very worst case of not being able to find it, getting to the motorway wouldn’t be a problem. From there, I was sure some locals would be able to guide me. A sudden drop in the temperature turned my attention back to the road, which was now blanketed in a comfortable shade. And so the search began.
Walking down the small country road, I was gently reminded once again of why I wasn’t on that plane, which was probably somewhere above those clouds overhead at that very moment. I wasn’t exactly sure where I was, or where I was going, or even where I would end up that night (ideally somewhere a few hundred kilometers North). But it didn’t matter where I was. There was a lonely, empty road in front of me, cutting through tiny neighborhoods and some farmland. Elementary school children who had just gotten out of class were skipping home, falling over each other in the process of hugging and playing around. A few joined me on my walk, encouraging me with their tiny high fives and giggling when a brave one in the bunch came up to touch my beard. Somewhere in Malaysia at that moment, I found a small slice of local life. I found a length of road that was mine and mine alone for that moment. And with no direction, schedule, or purpose, I was happy.
And yet again, another reminder jostled me, boosting my heart rate and stretching the corners of my lips up to my ears. An image of a dirt road, wrapping around the boundary of an orchard of some sort and ending at a tunnel, the very tunnel I was looking for, with tons of concrete and a stream of vehicles whizzing above. The whole journey was almost like a scavenger hunt, an obstacle course that defined itself based on spontaneous and arbitrary decisions.
Figuring out a path and discovering things along the way is a peculiarly rewarding process. It gives rise to a feeling of earning your way to the destination, carving out the path yourself and marking that journey with your footsteps and interactions. And every narrow street, collection of flowers, friendly face, and stray dog along the way becomes a unique part in a collage of memories, as opposed to a fleeting image that blurs in passing in the frame of a bus window.
So through the tunnel, along the motorway, under a fence, over a barrier and past a dried up stream, the obstacles led to a rest area, with the open road stretching ahead and a future ride somewhere nearby.
My first and last rides in Malaysia were incredibly, almost frighteningly similar, so I’ll share the stories together.
Out of Kuala Lumpur, I was picked up by a relatively new Toyota pickup, driven by a 56 year old Malay man named Amir; heading to Thailand, by a relatively new Mitsubishi pickup, driven by a 56 year old Thai man named Boom.
They both saw my sign, and were both going the entire way to the destinations written on my signs, 400 and 150 kilometers, respectively.
Amir – “Are you Muslim?”
Me – “No. Are you?”
Amir – “Yes.”
Me – “As-salaam alaikum..“
Amir, with a smile – “Wa alaikum salaam..”
Boom, who wasn’t as proficient in speaking English as Amir, pointed to the little Buddha figure resting on his dashboard, gave me a thumbs up, and smiled widely. Then, he pointed at me questioningly, as if to ask “How about you?”
I gave him a thumbs up back for the Buddha, and replied with a shaking of my head.
Boom smiled back and gave me a friendly nod.
Both rides were spent in almost nonstop conversation, although I was able to take away much more from my exchange with Amir. Amir told me a great deal about Malaysia, interesting places to visit during my time there, the history of the motorway we were driving on, the political situation in the country over the past decade, the areas we were passing, and on a more personal note, his life and family. Boom, with his 12 words of English (yes, I counted) remarkably conveyed a great deal about Thailand and himself as well.
Amir stopped at a rest stop to pray at the mosque, and then treated me to a coffee. Boom stopped at a rest stop and treated me to lunch.
Amir wasn’t actually going to the island of Penang, but rather somewhere nearby on the mainland. That didn’t stop him, however, from going 50 kilometers out of his way to cross one of the longest bridges in the world, take me to the island and drop me off at a local bus stop.
Boom, despite having the option of quickly crossing the border through the Thai citizen line at passport control, went out of his way and waited in line with me to ensure that my crossing was quick and trouble-free, after which he proceeded to drop me off at a bus stop as well.
Come to think of it, they both actually looked remarkably alike (although I didn’t have a chance to get a photo with Boom).
And, at the end of the day, both were full of life and smiles, happy to have company and selfless beyond words.
I didn’t know where to stand. It was my first time hitching from a toll booth. The taxi that I had just hitched a ride from dropped me off past the station, but it wasn’t the best spot. Walking back to the booth, I peered inside to find the attendant leaning back on his wooden chair, feet plopped comfortably on the table, watching some sort of Chinese soap. He glanced at me indifferently. Figuring it wouldn’t be a problem, I put my bag down in front, positioned myself between the two lanes and raised my Thailand sign.
A rickety Honda sedan pulled up a few minutes later, and through the poorly tinted windshield, I could make out a waving arm motion. I quickly grabbed my bags and jumped into the back seat. Behind the wheel sat Ali, a middle aged Malaysian man with a thin mustache and a colorful Hawaiian shirt. In the passenger seat, a much younger fellow who looked a little restless as he fidgeted in his seat.
“Thailand?” I asked.
“Yes, Yes” Ali said as he accelerated up the on-ramp and turned South, in the completely opposite direction. Ali and the younger guy exchanged some words in Malay and started laughing.
“Uhh..Thailand?” I asked again.
“Yes, Yes. Thai..” Ali exclaimed, picking up speed.
“But Thailand is that way,” I said, pointing behind us.
Ali didn’t seem to understand, or made it seem as if he didn’t understand, or didn’t want to understand, but after a few more attempts on my part, he managed to utter the following brilliant reply, while pointing backwards as well..
“Yes, Thailand. 5 minutes, we go.”
As I shifted my weight between the stack of papers I was sitting on and the heaps of junk that cluttered the rest of the back seat, I realized that getting off in the middle of the motorway wasn’t an option, so I uneasily waited to see what would happen. A few minutes later, Ali screeched to a stop on the side of the road. He jumped out of the car, as did his friend, while motioning for me to wait inside. I watched as they both dangerously and carelessly dodged the oncoming traffic and zigzagged their way to the other side of the motorway. Once there, they talked for a bit, shook hands, and parted ways as his friend jumped into the back of a truck and Ali sprinted back across. Not something you come across everyday, or the most comforting scene to witness from someone who would be sitting behind the wheel.
Once I joined him in the front, Ali sped off, yet again in the wrong direction. He must have realized that I was a bit uneasy, and in a somewhat reassuring manner, he pointed to the other side of the road and said we would U-turn. Slightly more optimistic about the situation, I eased back into the torn fabric of my seat and decided to make some small talk.
“Why do you go to Thailand?”
“Hmm…Yes, but Thailand visit, or work?”
“Yes, work. I taxi you to Thai.”
Well…that wasn’t good. On the day that I got a free ride from a cab, it seemed ironic to to be demanded money from what I assumed would be a free ride. And it wasn’t particularly convenient to gain this minor piece of information after driving about 10 kilometers in the wrong direction, halfway back to where I had started that morning. Now…how best to explain the situation.
“I have no money,” I said.
Ali’s face dropped. He didn’t look too happy. He muttered some things in Malaysian and spat out the window.
“I should get out,” I said, but Ali just continued driving. He continued being a grump for a while, and it was difficult to predict what he would do..but I didn’t plan on sticking around long enough to find out. While thinking of ways to get this guy to pull over, a huge toll station materialized in front of us, forcing Ali to come to a stop. Without making matters any more complicated, I thanked him and quickly got out of the car.
Happy to be back on my two feet, and out of that god-forsaken car, I walked across the toll station to the other side of the motorway, got between two long lines of trucks, put on a smile and hoped for the best.
“Hi. Where do you go?”
“OK, I take to bus stop,” the young Thai man blurted out with a wide smile, excited to help as he pointed to his motorbike resting about 20 meters away.
“Kop-kun-krop,” I thanked in return, as I continued extending my left arm out at the exit of the customs station. “Book-rot, no bus for me” I tried to explain, most likely horribly mispronouncing the Thai words for ‘free ride.’
The young man gave me a perplexed look, the same confused expression I had seen on dozens of faces earlier in the day. He smiled, and ran back over to his friends, where they continued chatting happily and observing the strange actions of this foreign person.
Over the course of the roughly one hour walk from the Malaysian border, I had no luck thumbing. Walking backwards with a wide smile, making eye contact with every driver, switching between wiping the flood of sweat streaming off of my forehead and making my left thumb visible, I was met with a symphony of honks and cheers as most people waved and smiled back. It was motivating, to say the least, but no one seemed to have any intention of slowing down, let alone picking me up. A few people on the side of the road pointed back towards a bus stop, which seemed to be the go-to solution around here for my peculiar behavior. So I changed up my strategy by extending my left arm, with hand flat, palm facing down, repeating an oscillating up-down motion as if patting the surface of an invisible table, hoping this would communicate my intentions a little more clearly. And then I felt a tap on my shoulder..
“I call you a taxi to Hat Yai?” said my new Thai friend, back from his group of friends with a sparkle in his eyes, as if satisfied with himself for finding a solution to my problem.
“Kop-kun-krop, but I have no money” I lied, hoping to convey my desire to hitchhike through what I assumed would be a simple, straightforward explanation.
“Ooyayo” he let out with a lingering ‘ooo’ at the end, connecting what I hoped would be the right dots that would lead to a more useful exchange. He ran back to his friends and continued chatting away.
Hat Yai seemed to be the most reasonable goal for that night. Well, it was actually the only option, as there was just one main road from the border, with Hat Yai resting about 80 kilometers down at the end. Past the customs area, the long, barren ribbon of concrete sloped down into a dip, and slowly curved up, disappearing over a distant hill into a horizon of mountainous terrain. The surroundings, housing barely visible rice patty fields shielded by a countryside of tropical flora, was surprisingly inviting for a night of camping, but the slowly thickening layer of dust and dirt that encapsulated most of my body, interrupted only by narrow, winding strips where beads of sweat had slithered through, was begging for a clean room and shower. So, with the vision of white bed sheets, coupled with the joy of finally being in Southern Thailand, I straightened my back, raised my shoulders, held my head up high and patted the air with a freshly born energy…and then another tap.
I turned to see, unsurprisingly, my Thai friend, but this time he came equipped with a 100 Baht note.
“Here, my friend. Buy bus ticket!” he exclaimed, with the same genuine excitement as he pressed the money into my hitching hand. It seemed like my plan was backfiring.
“Kop-kun-krop, Kop-kun-krop” I repeated thankfully as I pulled my hand away, bowing and smiling to show my appreciation as I kindly refused the money. Now, this fellow was truly puzzled. He insisted for a bit and finally gave up, scratching his head and slouching in a seemingly defeated manner as he made his way back over to his friends.
The sun slowly settled over the low canopies of durian trees behind me, with warm rays breaking their way through the foliage, releasing tinges of orange and yellow that softly danced on the soil beneath my feet. Sizzling chunks of fat on the charcoal grills of the vendors down the street gently swayed my attention. The tiny neighborhood, a stone’s throw from the border town, was just coming to life with the end of the day, as locals and vendors blocked off the main road in intimate and colorful gathering. Warmth sung from their voices, joy from their laughter. A welcoming mood descended on the block, distracting me completely from the stream of vehicles flowing right by. My back turned to the traffic, I watched from a distance.
Stepping forward to join the crowds, my path was suddenly blocked by a braking motorcycle. The man on the bike asked, in a high-pitched voice, “Where are you going?” jolting me back to reality.
“OK, follow me”
I hurried behind as he sped into the customs station. About 100 meters in, he hopped off the bike, revealed a stack of papers he had wedged under his left arm, punched it with a large, bright red stamp, and handed it to a man who was waiting in front of a semi truck. When I caught up, he pointed up at the elevated door of the passenger side and said “You go in, go to Hat Yai.” I peered over at the truck driver, a young Thai fellow by the name of Gamon who seemed happy to have some company. Without much thought, I thanked the man on the motorcycle and climbed in.
As we slowly rolled out onto the highway, I tried making some small talk with Gamon as he rolled a cigarette, but our conversation only reached a level of mutual understanding when Gamon pointed first at himself, then at me and exclaimed “I…Thailand. You…?” Surprised by his creativity, and appreciative of his effort, I replied “America.” After a nod of approval from Gamon, I assumed that would be the end of our conversation.
He cracked the window, lit his cigarette, and turned on some soft Thai rock. Settling into my seat, I admired the view from above as the dimly burning, orange sun sank into the distance. My thoughts slowed down, and I slowly dozed off into a quiet slumber under the deep rumbling of the engine.
A bead of sweat materialized on the edge of my hairline. Dragging down the center of my forehead like hot candle wax, it slowed to a stop on the tip of my nose, playfully dawdled, and dropped as if with tremendous weight to the bright yellow dirt, vanishing instantly. The sun beat down relentlessly, spawning a cascade of perspiration that would rival the result of five minutes in a sauna. Well, it was pretty much a sauna at this point. And the preceding workout was the 90 minutes of lost wandering in the neighborhoods of Hat Yai. I had been aiming for the general southerly direction, where the motorway was, but random rivers, railway tracks, slums and dead ends made it very difficult to get out of the city. The straps of my backpack had been cutting into my shoulders with a startling sharpness, and the blisters that had formed underneath my feet the previous day forced me to waddle like a penguin through that dreadful maze of a city.
But I had made it. Much later in the day than I would have liked, but there nonetheless. And it looked like a good spot…an on ramp to the only motorway heading North, with three different streams of traffic flowing in. If I could get one ride to the next town over, Phatthalung, then I could switch to the motorway heading West, and it would be a straight 200 kilometer shot to Krabi.
Before my shirt become completely drenched, I heard a faint, distant voice coming from somewhere behind me. I turned to find that about 50 meters up the ramp, a car that had slowly eased by several minutes ago had pulled over, and the driver was shouting my way. He was waving for me to come, so I grabbed my bag and walked over. Taking a seat on the passenger side, I took a second to let the refreshingly chilling air conditioning hit me, savoring the feeling of escaping the cruel heat.
“Hot, very hot…whooaa”
I turned and smiled at Teerayut, acknowledging his words with a nod and sigh of relief.
“Where do you go?”
“I want to go to Phatthalung”
Teerayut’s eyes widened.
“Whooaa…very far! Bus station in Hat Yai”
“Ahh..yes, right..I actually don’t want to take the bus. I want book-rot *showing my thumb, naively thinking that would make it any clearer*. Where are you going?”
Teerayut let all of that sink in for a few seconds while staring out of the window, after which he replied “I’m go to airport.”
“Any distance will help,” I responded, happy to make any progress and hoping to get dropped off in a spot with some shade.
Teerayut stared out again. I could see from his gaze that the juices were flowing. After some thought, he smiled and said “OK. Wait 5 minutes. I take you 4 kilometers.”
Could be worse, I thought, and appreciated the quick dropping of my body temperature as we waited. What were we waiting for? I wasn’t quite sure. We were parked behind a truck which Teerayut kept looking at, and I briefly entertained a few different scenarios in my mind, ranging from him negotiating a ride for me in the truck to waking up a few hours later in the back of that truck with a few missing organs. My wild speculations and daydreams subsided as Teerayut and I began to talk. A 20 year old student at Songkhla University, he had a passion for improving his English and was very interested in talking with me. So we talked about many things. At first, the conversation mainly revolved around what on earth I was doing on this motorway outside of town in this part of Thailand, but it gradually evolved into sports, cars, studies and much more. And we were having a great time.
After what was definitely longer than 5 minutes, Teerayut ran to the truck, exchanged a few words with who I later learned was his father, came back, and was ready to go. Soon, we were speeding down the road and back to talking.
“And that means hello?”
The tonal nuances reminded me of Chinese, and foreshadowed many certain misunderstandings to come. But I was interested and keen on learning, so we continued.
“How about ‘how are you’?”
“Pen-yang-rrr…OK let’s leave that one for later”
As we laughed over my failed pronunciations, I took a look around and realized we had come pretty far. There were no more buildings around, just a countryside of trees.
“Is the airport this far out?”
“No, airport is behind, I take you to Phatthalung”
Uh-oh. As my brain processed those words, I didn’t know what to think. This was great for me, but there was no way I was comfortable with putting Teerayut so far out of his way.
“No, please, stop the car. It’s too far, you can’t go that whole way..I’ll get another ride, just drop me off right up there.”
“It’s no problem. You are my friend, I take you to Phatthalung.”
“What about the airport? You will be late, please turn back.”
“It’s no problem, my brother comes in three hours. You are my friend, I will take you”
I think of myself as a persuasive person in certain circumstances, but there was no convincing Teerayut. He held his ground, and held it firmly. There was something in his behavior – the genuineness of his words, the excitement in his eyes, the sincerity of his intentions, the pride with which he took me under his wing and lent me a helping hand, and the selflessness and care with which he acted – that was truly heartwarming. So, rather unwillingly, I accepted this kind gesture and had a wonderful ride with my new friend.
Following the ride with Teerayut, a little luck and a very long ride carried me all the way to the shores of Aonang, just in time for sunset.
It was fortunate that I made it all the way to Aonang, because it was there that I met up with a Swedish fellow named Kim. Kim and I had connected on a hitchhiking group on Facebook a few weeks back, and after learning that we were both working our way to Bangkok, decided it would be fun to cover that ground with some company. The only problem was I was always a few hitching days behind. But the speed I had gained in Thailand allowed me to close the gap, and there we were, ready to tackle the remaining route together. So after a relaxing night of drinks, we crashed at his friend’s bar, and were ready to hit the road the following morning.
800 kilometers. That was the distance to Bangkok, and considering we were a pretty significant distance away from the main North-South motorway, Kim and I agreed that it would probably take a few days to get there. So the plan was to take our time, enjoy the countryside, and camp along the way.
But then plans changed.
First we got one ride. Then another. And another. Almost every single time, as we were walking to a good spot to wait, or as we stuck our thumbs out, or even as we stepped away from a ride that had just dropped us off, a car would come to a halt beside us.
Did we need help? Could they take us to a bus stop? Oh, book-rot? Where were we going? Hop on in!
We ended up spending more time in the back of vehicles than inside..all the better to enjoy the surroundings.
An before we knew it, following a few short and two long rides, we were on the main North-South motorway.
Hopping our way up North, we were making incredible time. After our 6th ride of the day, we were 300 kilometers in and it was only 3 p.m. A grey pickup pulled over a little ahead of us, and we hoped we could make it to the next town over with this ride, where we would be able to call it a day and look for a place to crash for the night while it was still bright out.
“Sa-WAT-dee-krop. Are you by chance going to Chumpon?”
“Sa-WAT-dee-krop. Yes. Where are you going?”
“We would like to go to Chumpon, but we are actually trying to get to Bangkok.”
“Well, we are actually going to Bangkok”
“Really! .. Can we come along?”
“Sure, hop in the back!”
..And that we did!
It seemed too good to be true. For the next 7 hours, Kim and I made ourselves comfortable in the back of the pickup, soaked in the sunshine, and watched the sun slowly set over the remarkably green and expansive countryside.
Soon thereafter, a crystal clear, starry canvas draped across the sky. As I laid down and stared up in wonder at the night, I imagined Bangkok, a mere thought, a vague and distant goal just days ago in Kuala Lumpur, quickly approaching. I have never felt more excited to be alive than I did at that moment.