I left the island of Tioman, Malaysia carrying an empty space from the ones I had left so soon and loved even sooner. But three weeks on one island was too long for this trip, and forced to skip the rest of Malaysia from the simultaneous blessing and curse of a particular sea urchin, I set my compass to head north to Thailand. The journey from Tioman to the Thai border isn’t very long in terms of Southeast Asia, and relatively comfortable on the train. Without a doubt, Seat 61 is the go-to site with the best information for buses and trains throughout Asia. So with advance tickets purchased (a truly rare occurrence for me) I made the six hour bus ride backtracking west from Tioman to Kuala Lumpur to catch the train up north.
Unfortunately, yet predictably, I arrived at KL Sentral (the Grand Central Station of Malaysia) unprepared. The ticket I thought I had purchased from Kuala Lumpur to Hat Yai, Thailand was nowhere to be found. And the train was full. Seat61 may provide useful information, but apparently their reservation system of random email messages isn’t one to always be trusted. Who knew? I would have to spend another night in KL and catch the train the following evening.
I didn’t have the time, or the money, to waste another day in the pressing over-development of another Asian city trying its best to be Western. And I couldn’t face the overwhelming prospect of finding a hostel in the intimidating dark of the foreign, urban night. KL is a massive, formidable metropolis in which I had been accosted once before in the brightest of day. The thought of taking map-less to the winding midnight streets on my own once again petrified me. But where was I supposed to go?
At almost ten p.m., the train on which I was supposed to be had departed and I collapsed into the small plastic chairs of the waiting area. Flustered tears began welling in my eyes. Would I even once in my life buy a ticket, get on whatever it was that was taking me, and get where I was going without a hitch, a trip, a minor disaster? On the brink of my frustration hurling me over the edge, I took a deep breath, and let determination strengthen the shaky sobs of surrender. I was getting on a train tonight, no matter where it was headed.
The same helpful and courteous woman with surprisingly strong English who had pleasantly denied me before remained seated behind the bright IKEA blue of the shiny, plastic ticket counter. I returned to the desk with renewed resolve and asked her how far north I could go tonight.
“There is train to Butterworth that leave in one hour and arrive six in morning. Then you take day and wait for train to Hat Yai.”
Sold. I bought the ticket and boarded the overnight train to Butterworth, the moniker a reminder of the British colonization still in place just fifty years before. As I found my place on the relatively empty train goosebumps rose across my limbs in an unforgiving wave. A hundred degrees outside and probably sixty on the train, I covered my bare legs in the only hoodie I had left of the three I brought with me, and tried to find sleep in the awkward seat, uncomfortable even with my tiny stature.
After seven frozen, fitful hours we arrived in Butterworth and passengers alighted from the train in the slow, zombied haze of overnight travel. I exhaled a quick laugh thinking even Malaysian trains are more reliable than Amtrak. But our on-time train was too early, and while the station was open, the ticket windows were closed. I collapsed exhausted onto my rucksack trying unsuccessfully to translate the conversation of the French couple in my same position. They decided to explore the town and catch the afternoon train to Hat Yai. I think.
But there was no way I could stay in Butterworth for a day. I had barely enough Malaysian ringgit to buy my way into Thailand and needed to find a bed after what was already twenty-four straight hours of travel. And even Hat Yai was another five hours from my destination of Krabi, the port town to Koh Phi Phi. Sometime around seven a.m., the ticket windows opened and I tried to sieve some information from the garbled slop of English I was offered.
Certain it was the best I was going to do, but unsure of what exactly I had just purchased, and from whom, I walked away from the counter with a slip of paper for a private minibus to take me to Hat Yai. This type of travel the most common, and most common way to get ripped off, I remained hopeful that this was truly my ticket to Thailand. Before I knew it I was being directed to a parking lot down the road. A man I had never seen before plucked my ticket from my hand and pointed straight forward. Without question I followed his instruction. The fact that in the five minutes spent in the bus station waiting to board the van I was offered some weed by a group of smiling, leather-faced men presumably chatting about me in Thai, bode well for the trip I thought. They even gave me a needle-thin joint for the road.
With my roadie spliff in hand, all four rows of the over-sized cargo van were packed in, four people per row. No one on the minibus spoke a word of English save for myself. I had been pushed and prodded like the last straggling head of diseased cattle to get on. I was thankful to finally be settled with music in my ears as the strange Malaysian mix of enterprise and countryside zipped, slowed, and zipped again past me the only way landscapes know how to do. None of this was the plan, none of it ever is. We build a thousand miles of tracks and end up hitching in the other direction. But despite all the things that ever go wrong, the worry, and the robbery, racing on a cramped minibus to a place that was never even my destination, you have no choice but to let it come. When we reached Hat Yai I would again be swallowed by the uncertainty of every step I had to take. But for now the only certainty I needed was that I was going forward. I turned my eyes ahead, let every other plan disappear with the country behind me, and waited to see just exactly where I would end up this time.