May 29, 2007

On the Road
Hat Yai, Thailand

The decision to part ways with my Canadian friends and leave Thailand in search of a keyboard replacement had been made. Hugs were given, well wishes exchanged (until our next meeting). Then, the sensation of jumping on a bus leaving town, catching it just moments before it lurches away from the terminal—the perfection of timing—I love it.

I love traveling on long-haul buses when it's raining outside. The air in the bus is cold, the grey sky and droplets of rain muting the environment as it blurs past. Sitting there, deep in thought, the view from the window is like a movie humming away on a television in the background that you're only partially paying attention to. It's times like these that I'm so comfortable that I almost wish to not reach my destination, as the chaos of the outside world washes over you as soon as you step out of the bus.

Past Phag-Nha, Krabi, Trang, and countless villages I bused, arriving in Hat Yai, the unquestioned hub of southern Thailand. With five different border crossings in to Malaysia within striking distance of the city, arranging simple transit to across the frontier can make your head spin.

Given the hundreds of thousands of travelers that pass through this bus station every year, I'm amazed that there isn't better signage for people headed south. The problem is that most backpackers aren't trying to catch a minibus to othe border (like I was), instead selecting their destination in Malaysia (or Singapore) and jumping on a long-haul bus in Hat Yai (that takes them across the border and beyond).

The afternoon was growing late, and I was getting concerned about getting across the best border that would take me onward to Kuala Lumpur before immigration offices closed (even though locals told me it wasn't for several more hours). Ultimately, I decided to become a Lemming, sparing myself the ordeal of getting transport across the unknown border and onward to KL by booking in Hat Yai.

The bus ticket from Hat Yai to Kuala Lumpur was B$550; B$269 from Phuket Town to Hat Yai; and B$20 from Patong to Phuket Town. Even with the slightly overcharged rate from Thailand to KL, manually jumping between cities cost only two-thirds the price of a "direct" ticket from Phuket (that would have had me changing buses in the same town anyway).

On The Defensive

With nearly two hours to kill before my overnight bus to the capital of Malaysia, I sought out a little food and Internet access. I'd just finished up an FYI e-mail to dad when, less than 15 minutes into my session, the man who vended me my bus ticket tapped me on the shoulder.

"Bus leaving now! You go now," the man quietly exclaimed.

It was still well over an hour before the departure time, and I was really taken off guard. Rather confused, I rapidly packed my things up, paid, and walked outside to find the man idling on a motorbike, motioning for me to get on.

I had walked less than 100 meters away from his agency/restaurant in front of the bus terminal, and was hesitant to get on, making sure he wasn't going to try and charge me for something (and still rather surprised, and somewhat suspicious, that he'd found me tucked away in the back of the Internet café in the first place).

We motored for all of seven seconds before getting back to his shop. I saw no idling bus waiting for me to board. Instead, a man was waiting on another motorbike, which I was told to get on.

"Where's the bus," I asked, "You said it would be here in one hour."

"No, bus leaving now, from another place in the city," the man hurriedly asserted.

Red flags are going up, and I'm getting defensive. Time had been made an issue, compressing decision making and removing control. Getting pushed and rushed around, especially by people you don't trust, isn't something I'm in the business of passively letting happen.

On the back of this man's motorbike, zooming through questionable streets in an unfamiliar city, en route to an unknown destination, I couldn't help but sit there like a coiled spring, scanning for threats, ready to disable the driver. It would be all too easy for someone to come up, stick a Taser in my side, and disappear an anonymous backpacker in a border town.

My overprotective sense of self preservation aside, we arrived at another travel agency, where a bus was actually waiting… and a nice one at that.

The agency filled out my immigration paperwork—a new one for me—while I half-listened to a tourist blabber on behind me. Rented a car when you flew into Buenos Aires from Brazil, did you? Revealing.

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