“What’s your name?” I asked from the back seat, squeezed in among our backpacks.
“Angel,” said Angel from somewhere in the front, I’m presuming from the driver’s side of the car.
Baz and I had just hitched a ride on the E1 highway that leads out of Kuala Lumapar to Butterworth and onwards to Thailand. We had spent 40 minutes at the toll booth with our thumbs out before the tenth car had stopped and managed to explain to us that we were on the wrong road (which might explain why every driver of the nine previous cars offered to take us to the bus station).
Angel, a blessing not just by name, drove us to the nearest truck stop and no sooner had I rolled out of the back seat with all our packs when a truck driver offered to take us to Ipoh (pronounced, surprisingly, ‘E-po’), a 4-hour drive, 2-hours south of Butterworth.
We packed our gear onto the bunk behind the seats and climbed into the cabin of a 59-ton oil tanker. Dean, our driver, demonstrated how 23 years of being a truck driver gave you the skills to use legs to steer the rig.
We managed to communicate with hand gestures as Dean’s English was just slightly better than that of George Dubya Bush. A few hours down the road we passed another hitcher, a local Malaysian with very dark skin.
“Negro no good,” Dean said bluntly. “Make trouble.”
I stared at him in disbelief. Not because of the racial slur, although that was enough to raise both eyebrows, but because Dean had darker skin than the man trying to hitch a ride.
“You’re kidding, right?” I asked, forgetting momentarily that his English was below certain White House levels.
He seemed to understand as he continued to explain that the fella would mean trouble purely based on his skin colour. We had been informed by a few locals that Malaysia was a very racist country, forcing the indigenous communities to convert to Islam or be killed.
Even in the 21st century these medieval threats were still being used and practiced.
Just before Ipoh, Dean dropped us off at another truck stop. We barely had written up a new sign and stuck out a thumb by the exit ramp when a sleek 3-door black Mercedes Kompressor pulled over and popped its boot.
No way, I thought as Baz conversed with the driver. “Come on, bro. He’s going to Alor Setar!” which was 40 minutes south of the Thai border – a 4-hour drive from where were.
We packed what we could into the small booth and I hopped into the back seat while Baz sat up front.
“I am Nagin,” Nagin introduced himself as we vice versed and shook hands. “I have a doctor’s appointment in Ipoh so if you don’t mind waiting, we will go Alor Setar from there.”
“No problem,” Baz said as we kicked back in the leather seats.
This car had it all. It even had a shoulder-tapping arm that pushed out the seatbelt and nudged Baz to click it in, making him jump.
We told Nagin of our journey and after we had lunch at the hospital canteen and he finished up his appointment we hit the road for the 4-hour drive to Alor Setar at 140 K’s an hour.
By the time we stopped for tea in a small town, Nagin had not only shouted us the tea and savoury roti but had invited us to crash at his house for the night.
“In the morning I will take you to Hat Yai (pronounced ‘Hat-i’), 40 minutes into Thailand. I need a holiday,” he offered.
Baz and I were taken aback.
“Thank you so much!” we both exclaimed.
We hit Alor Setar by 19:30 already dark. Nagin pulled into a local eatery where he shouted us dinner and we shared 13 beers between us. He further explained the racial backlash the Malaysian government was enforcing.
“I am second generation Malaysian from India but I’m still regarded Indo-Malay and defined as a second class citizen,” he said. “Too get into university, Malaysian students need only two A’s in Year 11 and their education is free. For my daughters -” who would be third generation Malaysians (but still classed as Indo-Malay) – “they need 8 A’s and I have to pay for their education.”
“How many A’s did they get?” Baz asked.
“12,” Nagin said proudly with a grin as more beers kept arriving, Carlsburgs in long neck bottles, two in each round.
After dinner, Nagin carefully drove us to his home where his mother-in-law and sister-in-law reside (he lives in Kuala Lumpar) where we shared three more beers and I brought out the guitar at his request. I stared in awe at the Hindu alter in his house. Nagin explained the meaning of the various Gods and the ceremonies conducted.
By 01:00 he and Baz shared the bed while I slept on a mattress on the floor.
Nagin provided us with blankets for the night (the aircon was at an nipple erecting temperature) and towels for the morning bucket shower. After we insisted on paying for his breakfast, we hit the road in his beat up Proton.
“It’s too risky to take the Mercedes to the border,” he explained. He parked and ordered a taxi. “You will come with me in the taxi to Hat Yai. I will pay, don’t worry about anything.”
Baz and I were blown away by this man’s generosity who, only 15 hours prior was a complete stranger as we crossed the border into Thailand – country number 5.
At a truck stop on the outskirts of Hat Yai, we parted ways. Nagin had given me an Indian white shirt that turned me Bollywood and in return for his generosity, on behalf of Baz and myself, I scarved him with a scarf I had received at the Sail Komodo gala dinner in Indonesia.
With grey-black clouds making their way like the ‘Nothing’ in The Never-ending Story, swallowing up everything blue, a Toyota Hilux stopped for us.
The driver, Jep, spoke little English but we managed to figure out that he was heading express to Baz’s stop, Surat Thani, arriving just as the sun set leaving Baz with 30 minutes to catch the ferry to Koh Phangang.
I continued with Jep all the way to Prachaup Khiri Khan, a further 4 hours up the road, just shy three hours of my final destination, Bangkok, where I was hoping to catch my cousin before she left for Chiang Mai.
After saying ‘goodbye’ to Baz who I wouldn’t be seeing until the full moon party mid-October, Jep drove on without stopping. I was lacking Thai Bhat and had 35 Malaysian Ringgits to my name. Jep was generous enough to shout me my first Thai meal, a pork noodle soup with crushed peanuts.
On the way we stopped by a roadside market where every stall was selling bananas. He bought a bunch and while he smoked a cigarette, I hang out in the elephant temple, covered with statues of elephants, royalty white and standard grey.
A few hours later, after I politely declined Jep’s offer to take me a bus or train terminal and pay for my ticket, we pulled into the truck stop just before Prachaup Khiri Khan. I bid him ‘farewell’ and he split his banana bunch, giving me half and throwing in a water bottle.
We shook hands and he asked that I contact him when I get to my couch host on Sunday.
I walked to the 7-11 where a local sitting outside ushered me over.
“Where you from?” he asked in the miniscule amount of English he spoke (still, it was better than George Dubya Bush).
I managed to explain that I was an Aussie, hitch hiking for the experience. He promptly got up and went to hassle the truck drivers resting. He came back empty-handed and offered to buy me dinner.
I patted my stomach. “Very full but thank you.”
He pointed to the empty lot that was being built as the place I could stash my gear and roll out my sleeping mattress (courtesy of Baz) and sleeping bag. I tried not to breathe in the cement dust and kept swiping at the little mozzies that were using my exposed arms as fueling docks.
I stirred to wake an hour later by the same local who placed a packet of butter bread in my hand. “Good luck,” he said.
“Kharp-Khun-krap,” I murmured sleepily as I tried to return to cloud 9.
I kept lapsing in and out sleep until the sun started breaking up the darkness. I washed my face in the bathroom and hit the exit ramp with my sign. Five minutes had barely passed when a Triton Ute pulled over.
“Where you go, Mister?” asked the passenger.
“Bangkok,” I pointed to my sign, grinning. “Where you go?”
“Bangkok but otherside,” he replied. He hopped out and showed me on a road map that they were going around the city to some other town but could drop me on the outskirts where I could grab a bus in.
“No problem,” I grinned, not believing my luck. “How far?”
“Three hours,” he said. “But cabin full. You mind sitting in tray?” he pointed to the back of the ute.
“Mai-pen-lye,” I shook his hand. “No problem.”
I threw my gear in and sat back, unsheathing my guitar and playing some songs at about 120 K’s an hour until I could smell rain.
About 50 K’s south of Bangkok we pulled into a rest stop. The passenger surprised me when he came back with a bag of food.
“Corn-flour pancake,” he said handing over a box of 12 along with a small water.
“Wow,” I said, taken aback. “Kharp-un-khap.”
The driver then appeared with a bag of rice and pork skewers. Thanking them again, I devoured the pork and used the skewers as chopsticks to eat the rice before polishing off the mini-pancakes that were so sweet even though they were with corn and the last two with spring onions.
An hour later I was dropped off at the bus stop. Thanking them vigorously, we took photos and bid ‘farewell’.
I headed into the 7-11 to ask which bus I needed to take to get to Kho San Road.
“68,” a customer helped out.
Thanking him, I headed off to await the bus. No sooner had I placed my pack on the ground than the 68 pulled up.
“Kho San Road?” I asked the ticket collector.
She shook her head. “140,” she said.
Oh. I headed to the 140 that had just pulled up behind the 68.
“Kho San Road?” I asked the ticket collector.
She shook her head. “76.”
Seems I was suffering a bout of de ja vu.
I waited on the sidewalk and the 76 pulled up. I managed to squeeze my gear through the tiny doors and sat behind an African national. The ticket collector came by.
“Kho San Road?” I asked, the bus already on the highway.
She shook her head. “68.”
What? “What?” I stared at her, perplexed.
“This bus does not go to Kho San Road,” the African national offered some assistance and translation. “You need the 68.”
“But,” and I ran through the numbers I was told. “Now you’re saying I need the 68?” He nodded. “And that’s for certain?” He nodded again. I shook his hand, thanked him and got off at the next stop.
Sure enough the 68 pulled up but didn’t come to a complete stop. With the vehicle still rolling and people alighting and jumping off like it was a regular thing to perform a movie stunt to use the public bus in Thailand, I managed to get on, confirm that this was the bus I needed and sat down, dozing off until the last stop at Kho San Road.