July 3rd, 2010
Twenty-four hours of traveling since Tioman, and only thirty minutes after boarding the mini-bus to Thailand, we pulled off without explanation into a random street-side cafeteria/mobile phone store/random crap market. Without a word of English for anyone to speak to me, the other passengers began exiting the van and handing their passports to the driver. Pointing at the passports of a group of Thai girls sharing the ride, then at me, I could only assume the driver wanted me to do the same. But I knew we weren’t at the border yet. Giving your passport to anyone when you are traveling is something of which I am always skeptical, and much more so to a person with whom you can’t even communicate. After hesitantly handing the most valuable paper I owned to an utter stranger, he motioned that I need pay him $1 as well for whatever it was he was about to do. After already giving him my passport, a dollar seemed like nary a sacrifice and I handed it over without question. How would I have argued with him anyway?
While the large group of giggling Thai girls, and other random locals, milled about the strange little shopping center (that I would soon learn to be ubiquitous) I ran quickly to the bathroom then immediately back to wait by the van. For more than twenty minutes I stood chain smoking cigarettes despite my desire to peruse what this market had to offer. While constantly scanning the crowd for the man with the passports, stone fear that either the van would leave without me, or I would leave without my only form of identification, kept me posted next to my only way out.
Luckily, as I later learned was usually the case, the man came back with my passport, and my exit form for Malaysian customs, before even the giggling Thai girls returned. Not sure what exactly the dollar had been for, I accepted the passport with welcome relief and offered a quiet, “kop khun kha” to thank him, the one Thai phrase I knew at this point.
Soon at the border, I made it through customs without issue. Each time I lost sight of the unmarked white vehicle I was petrified of being abandoned, but my fears were again unfounded. The driver, though brusque and a bit rough around the edges, so far took care of his lone, lost American. My first great excursion on my own and without anyone to assuage my wariness I felt nothing but vulnerable each time my trust was challenged.
Passing my first three hours in Thailand with my head against the window, humming with the vibration of the shaky seats and my own strange blend of excitement and curious apprehension, I hopelessly tried to decipher the passing signs. Other than a red cross for a pharmacy, a picture of the king requiring your praise, or the strange familiarity of a 7-11, I had no idea at what I was looking. Despite the uncertainty ahead, I tried to harden my fear-boiled nerves into determined excitement.
Eventually, the van began to stop periodically and high-pitches of Thai chatter floated past me. One by one each passenger took his or her leave and I was suddenly alone save for the driver and his shotgun companion.Thirty confused minutes passed alone in the back of the van, until we stopped on a street as indiscriminate as any of the other we had seen. We had to be in Hat Yai, but what would I know?
As both the driver and front seat passenger got out I looked around searching desperately for any indication of our location. When the back of the van opened, the driver began yelling “Hat Yai” and as I saw him grab my backpack I felt the relief of ending another leg twist with the immediacy of starting the next. Asking, without hope of an answer, if he could tell me how to catch the bus to Krabi; he pointed straight up.
Apparently the bus station was no more than four walls and a desk on this standard city strip. And luckily enough there was a mobile phone store and a money exchange right next store. What a surprise. I purchased my six hour ticket from Hat Yai to Krabi for five hundred baht, emptied of the energy to negotiate the fare after more than thirty hours of non-stop travel. The mini-bus was to leave just two hours later that afternoon, and so I left my backpack in the pile of others strewn by their owners to wander the city without the weight of their worlds in tow.
Hat Yai, though one of the largest metropolises in Thailand, offers surprisingly little to see. As the second to last piece of this epic journey from Tioman, to Mersing, to KL, to Butterworth, to Hat Yai, to Krabi and, (hopefully) to Koh Phi Phi, I took the hours I had to kill and went immediately to find, and chug, as many beers as possible before the six hour trip. I had four. And brought two for the road. I needed each and every one.
When the blissfully uneventful six hour trip ended in the center of Krabi my bag was once again tossed to the street, and I to the wolfpack of moto drivers eager to vie for my fare. Without a travel guide to tell me what to do in the popular port town I looked around, confused and desperate to find a hostel, and felt unnervingly like a discarded piece of bait. But each moto driver I asked seemed to understand me less than the one before. Surely someone would understand the word hostel? Finally, after much repetitive and broken inquisition, I took one man’s incessant nodding as a sign he was to take me to a guest house that had a bed and would sell me a ticket on the ferry to the supposedly idyllic island of Koh Phi Phi.
I got on the back of his motorbike with the weight of my pack pulling me towards the pavement behind, and my arms wrapped tight around his waist towards anywhere but. I paid close attention to each turn he made in the hope I would be able to find my way back to the city once I was robbed and left for dead.
Despite all my unwarranted fears, a part of me knew everything was going to be fine. Because it always is. I was excited, everything around me was new in every way and everything was my own. For the first time in two exhausted days I let air whip through my lungs and hair. For the first time in two days, I breathed. Forget everything that binds you and you are free as long as you let yourself be. For the first time since Tioman I would explore a city, I would sleep in a bed, I would meet a fellow wanderer, I would let the fear subside, I would remember why I love this so much.
The ineffable trepidation of the unknown has pervaded every plan-less foreign excursion upon which I have embarked so far. More often than not there ended up a not-so-stranger along the way to ease those shaky doubts: someone to share the fast friendship of knowing you are not the only one that has no idea where you are going, or how to get there. And with the weathering of a wandered soul you learn the inevitable sways of encounter: that most people are good, that some of them will never be, and that there are exceptionally few things you don’t make it out of alright.
When the moto finally pulled up in front of a beautiful, tile-floored guest house with free wi-fi, fans, tvs, private bathrooms, and double beds for just three hundred baht a night, I laughed once again at all my worthless worry, and was more than happy to get ripped off on the ride over.
And with a charming young Irish lad skyping on the computers in the lobby to his friends back home, I decided maybe Krabi wasn’t such a bad place to end up after all…