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Journey – Malaysia to Thai border

I hate taking the easy way around. It is a hop and a skip by luxury sleeper bus from the southern-most tip, Johor Bahru, to one of the three Thai borders up north. The Malaysian buses and trains are depressingly regular and efficient.

 Don’t get me wrong. I like excellent transportation networks. They facilitate trade, better standards of living and excise a little prejudice in a horribly biased world. But it is bad travelling. Travelling should be eventful; travelling should be insightful. But most of all, travelling must show you a life that isn’t yours.

That is why I will take the long way up.  

I’ll start out from Jertih and cut horizontally across northern Malaysia into Pasir Puteh; Machang; Tanah Merah; Jeli; Gerik; last stop in Malaysia: Keroh. Then I’ll head upwards through the mountains of southern Thailand and into Betong.

Instead of hiking, as I’ve done along the east coast, I decide to travel on public buses. I’ll eat just one square meal. It comes, partly, from wanting to see how much I can handle but mostly, my funds are quickly disappearing. I need to make every Malaysian Ringgit count. The rules are set. I leave Jertih in the morning and expect to enter Thailand later on same evening.  

It doesn’t quite happen that way.

***  

I’m on the bus to Machang now.

It plunges along one of the many tar veins in Malaysia. Rubber trees and wild undergrowth wall us in while unruly branches scritch-scratch at the bus’s metal skin. The bus stops here and there for passengers to get on and off. I’m surprised that there’s civilization here; brick houses with satellite dishes and beat-up cars. I spy a section of the Jungle Railway – a slow mail train that chugs through the jungles – hidden behind some shrubbery.

The bus finally pulls into Machang and plugs a gap in the phalanx of buses. The driver pulls several levers and pushes some buttons. The bus shudders orgasmically and goes dead. I get off and make on unsteady legs for the ticketing office.  

Malay women in tudungs (traditional Islamic headgear) mill around politely in Machang’s bus terminal. There’s a big board tacked outside the office that displays bus schedules. The next bus leaves in five minutes.

I arrive at its entrance dry-mouthed and red-faced. My backpack is skewed to one side. I climb hand over foot into another metal monster.  

“Pergi Mana?” says the Malay driver kindly.

“Pergi Tanah Merah.” I drop the appropriate levy into his hand. He returns me a wisp of paper with badly printed numbers.  

I take a seat somewhere in the middle and pull the window open. I like the roaring wind; it sounds like women screaming loud abuse. Too long in the wind and my face feels covered by spider webs. It’s a rare, wonderful sensation.

It takes me more than an hour to get to Tanah Merah. I look at the passengers around me in between states of fugue. They’re never the same from one moment to the next.  

They start off as a gaggle of ditzy young girls. All dressed in modern clothes and sporting long shiny, black hair. They laugh at my attempts to get directions from them. It turns out that none of them speak any English. My Malay is too primitive to ask directions with. They laugh beautifully and it annoys me. Don’t they have school? I turn away from them and look out of the same-same landscape of rubber tree plantations.

The next time I look back, halfway to Tanah Merah, they’ve morphed into an old woman clutching overly full plastic bags. There are boxes and boxes of unknown stuff in those bags. There are bright green vegetables crammed together with cylinders of brown Dodol (Durian sweet cakes). She is sleeping soundly. Her mouth droops open and I see strong yellow teeth. It complements her lacy white tudung. I turn away from her and re-enter my fugue.  

There is loud talking behind me. It sounds much too young to belong to the old woman, and the schoolgirls have alit from the bus. I’m curious to whom the talking belongs to. I look back once more.

The old woman has turned into a gang of surly teenagers. They look like month-old zombies: stringy muscle show up clearly against their uniforms of tight Che Guevera t-shirts and pipe jeans; hunger is evident in their smiles, the ends of which point downwards and something nasty glints in their eyes. I look away quickly.  

The passengers behind me are never the same when I look back. But the wind never changes. It howls horribly into my face like warrior women roaring for blood.

***  

Gerik. 10 am.

That’s what the notice board at the bus terminal says. No more buses for the day. I have to stay the night in Jeli; an absurdly dead town. It’s Friday – Sabbath for Moslems in this state. No wonder none of the shops will open for business.  

Jeli’s bus terminal is tiny – three rows of ten plastic chairs occupy half the terminal. There are never enough people to fill up a quarter of the seats. The bus terminal has a fleet of six buses that leave and return like clockwork.

Where will I stay? I don’t see any hotels nearby. Besides, I do not have enough money for a hotel room. I curse and swear under my breath. I plonk my backpack on one of the seats. My stomach sinks and I don’t know what to do now.  

“Kau balik Tanah Merah,” says one of the bus drivers.  

“Tak mau. Aku pergi Gerik.” I will not retrace my route. He shrugs and disappears into the ticketing office. I had stayed overnight in Jerantut bus terminal while waiting for the bus to Taman Negara National Park earlier in my trip. I could do the same here.

I sidle up to the ticketing office. There is a door inside that leads to a room which should be the drivers’ resting place. There are two people in the ticketing office. One of them has kind, crinkly eyes. The other has a curly black beard.

“Hello. Can I sleep in bus office tonight?” I say as clearly as I can through the window.  

“No. I’m sorry but my boss cannot allow people to sleep in the office. You can put your bag here because I will lock the room tonight and you can get it tomorrow morning. You can sleep on the chairs outside.” says the man with kind, crinkly eyes.

“Oh. Is it safe here?”  

“Yes. I think so.” He looks at me as if I had asked if the sun would rise tomorrow. “It’s not a big city.”

Afternoon. I try to hitch-hike my way out to Gerik. No one stops for me; a bald guy in a ratty singlet displaying outstretched up-turned thumb and a wooden board with “GERIK” in bold, black lettering. All the drivers stare at me with huge disbelieving eyes as they zoom past.  

My best hope comes in the form of a middle-aged couple who are waking up from a short nap in their car. The car looks lived-in. There is a small mountain of junk in their back seat.

“Excuse me, abang. Pergi Gerik?”

The portly man looks at me and nods his head. He’s smiling for some strange reason.  

“Can I…”

“No.” cuts in the woman, “We are not going to Gerik.”  

I stand there awkwardly. The man whimpers obedience. He never looks me in the eye afterwards. Mumbling apologies, I step away and pray fervently that she becomes a nubile virgin for the endless pleasure of those who died for the Jihad. Bitch.

Evening. Fine sand skitters across the concrete floor as prayers blare from a nearby mosque. The few people disappear. Far-away lights illuminating someplace else tease out long shadows from nearby buildings. The man with kind, crinkly eyes locks the door to the ticketing office. He winds a length of chain around the handles and fastens them together with a sturdy padlock. I sullenly watch him.

“I am sorry that I cannot bring you to my house to sleep but my father, my brothers, their families, my wife and my child live in my house. There is no space. Good night. I will see you tomorrow.” and he roars off in his red, flat Proton.  

Then I’m alone.

I unroll my sleeping bag onto a bench and wait. It’s too early for sleep. I eat my dinner – a packet of rice bought for me by the man with kind, crinkly eyes. The call for Allah’s faithful to prayer echoes in the deadness. I leave my bench to throw away the packet and wash my hands.  

I find, on returning, that a frumpled old woman has hijacked my bench.

“Get up!”  

“Grrr… Urmph…” she babbles something else that I don’t understand. Her fleshy arms hang loosely over the bench.

“Bench. Aku! Go away! You take those seats!” I draw myself up. I outweigh her at least by half. She mutters darkly under her breath but gets up from the bench. I see a little fear in her wide eyes and feel pleased at myself. I have won my bench back. I snuggle into my sleeping bag; my eyes squeeze tight. Hopefully nothing comes crawling out from the deeply black spots.  

I snap awake!

Ominous chanting. It grows louder. It’s broken by snorts and gurgles. The chanting restarts. It grows louder. It’s broken by snorts and gurgles. The chanting runs on eternal-repeat mode – chant, snort, gurgle, chant, snort, gurgle.  

I cannot move. I don’t dare to look up. Please, please, don’t let there be something else here. Something just touched my leg! Chanting, chanting. Calling Malayan demons to worship: blood-loving pregnant women; waddling blue-veined foetuses; flying heads dangling intestines; lechers lathered with black oil.

Slowly, I crane my neck upwards. My spine creaks too loudly. I open my eyes. There is nothing around me. Maybe the monstrous faithful are invisible. Chanting, chanting. I must find out who’s that chanting. I crane my neck further upwards and see a baggy silhouette at the edges of the terminal.  

Harsh tobacco stinks up the terminal. A red dot flares. Chanting, chanting. It’s coming from the frumpled old lady whom I forced off the bench. She’s at the other end of the terminal and points accusingly at some dark corner. Oh god. She’s pointing at the clump of banana trees just hidden around the corner. Is she calling to beautiful blood-spirits living in those trees?

She swears loudly, snorts then goes quiet. She takes the time to light a cigarette. Its harsh incense fills the terminal. Oh god. I’m alone with this mad woman. What will she do to me?

Chanting, chanting again. Maybe if I ignore her, she’ll ignore me. I slouch far into my sleeping bag. Again, my eyes are shut tight. It’s silent once more. I drift off to sleep.

She screams! I’m jolted awake. Then it’s quiet. I sleep again, chanting my own curse on her, “Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.” She scolds that dark corner. She mutters darkly under her voice and waves her arms around. She rants and rants meaningless messages. She walks up and down beside me while doing all those things.  

I do not sleep for the rest of the night.

“Was last night ok?” inquires the man with kind, crinkly eyes.  

***

I shiver while seating on a hard rock. My fellow passengers hug their jackets closer as they eat breakfast at the rest station: Nasi Lemak (coconut rice) and sweet coffee. I am dizzy. My last meal was in Jeli and it is now early afternoon. But I cannot afford any more food. There might not be enough money for the bus to Thailand.

I want to go now; get out of the cold.  

But we’ll be here for a while. The bus-driver is dragging plastic bag after plastic bag of burger buns out from the bus’s storage bins. He deposits each bag in front of a smiling man who, in turn, calls his boy to carry them into a room.

This is a rest-stop on the highest point of the East-West highway. It took us the whole morning to get here: 150 kilometres from Jeli by my reckoning. The engine made far too much noise as the bus crawled up the mountains. I was worried that it’ll sputter, smoke then die on us. But it didn’t.  

It has to go faster from here on. After all, we can only go downhill.

Time to go. I get back into the bus and take my place. As the bus chugs downhill, I sway between a bony man and a petulant young punk. My backpack is squashed against someone’s leg and mine. It’s cold in here as well. Iron-tasting air chugs out from the air vents. It eddies down to my feet.

The way to Gerik is bounded on one side by tree-tops which almost touch the asphalt road. I cannot see where they begin. It’s just shadow underneath. Flicker. Flicker. The leaves blur into a moving picture mottled sunlight and shadows. We cross over an azure reservoir with brown sticks impaled into the water. There are chalets sprawling on the hillside. Why will someone come out here to stay the weekend?  

It takes us another one and a half hours to get into Gerik. The bus station is a massive construction of concrete, tile and people. It looks prosperous as compared to the dinky towns that I’ve passed by earlier. Eventually, I board another bus, this time dimmer and much stuffier. It is helmed by a surly young driver who doesn’t much care for questions.

I alight at Keroh, a mere 6 kilometres from the Malaysian-Thai border. There is a bus to the border but I’ll have to wait for it to arrive. I trudge into a bus office. A pretty girl in clinging yet flowing clothes sits in there. She’s unsure what to make of me.

“Excuse me! Have bus to Thailand?”  

She rattles off a string of words. I have no idea what’s she saying but I understand the shake of her head. No bus for today. Not again!

“Terimah Kasih.”  

I trudge back out of the office and sit on the steps. I’m almost at the end. So close that I could hotfoot it.

The past 25 hours had me at the mercy of mismatched bus schedules, wild bus rides; showed me a crazy woman; starved me until a man with kind, crinkly eyes gave me charity; taught me that people fear strangers; exposed me for the bully that I am; uncovered towns bypassed by everyone except for satellite TV and and now… well, now what?

I hail an old taxi helmed by an old man with fake teeth. It turns out I have just enough for the ride to the border.

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