I Discovered Thailand By Bus Part 1
This story goes back to the start of the ‘80’s, when I first discovered Thailand. The first trip was nothing to shout about, but I did get to Samui Island when there was no airport (the ferry took ages back then) and remember paying all of twenty baht for a very basic beach bungalow on Bophut beach. No women back then. It was the following trip I’ll reminisce about, and was the last time I’ll ever do that trip by bus.
Our motley group worked at the time for an aviation company in Singapore. Now, when you work for a place like this, you tend to keep some rather odd hours and get some strange companions along the way. It’s also fairly difficult to maintain any sort of permanent relationship, so I was quite content with my single status.
Friday nights were usually the booze-up nights, and a lot of us tried not to work outside standard hours on that one particular day. Any other day or night we’d be working slave hours anyway, and I was used to working seven days a week back then.
Aahh, Friday evening, and time to turn our attention to our favourite beverage, Tiger beer. (It’s finally shown up here in Thailand :o)
So, out of our drunken Friday night ravings, we somehow formed an impromptu group of us single guys, and decided to make a week’s foray up to Hat Yai by bus. It ended up with four persons; myself, an Indian guy (from India), a local Malay guy, and an older single Bangkok Thai guy, who’d never been there either. What a group!
So the appointed day rolls up, and we’re all at Beach Road, which was where the tour buses to Malaysia / Thailand used to park. At about three in the afternoon, the bus finally moves out. First stop, over the causeway (the bridge that connects Singapore to Malaysia), is the Malaysian customs checkpoint. We have to leave our luggage on the bus, line up to get the passports stamped, and troop back up. Easier said than done, because there are crowds of people going through. But finally, after the second headcount, we’re back on board and on our way!
The first part of the trip was fairly uneventful, the only real problem being that the reclining seat of the person in front would basically be in your nose if it was adjusted for full travel. We passed by a lot of rubber plantations, and would see the occasional kampung (village) on the way. We stopped later in the evening for a light meal of rice porridge and some side dishes that were included in the price of the ticket.
So we’re back on the bus, making sure we’ve all been for a leak as the toilet on the bus didn’t work and had been locked. We’d also procured a bottle of whisky, first off to wile away the time, and also to warm us up a little as the air-conditioner was set at full freeze and the vents couldn’t be adjusted. Into the night we go, eventually dropping off into a half doze. Sometime around two in the morning, we make an unscheduled stop in one of the larger towns we’re passing through. The air-conditioner has broken down, the windows are sealed, so it’s become one big oven. It’s going to take at least an hour to fix, so here we are pacing up and down, cigarette in hand, running low on booze, and frustrated that it’s going to take that much longer to get there. Finally, it’s fixed and we’re on our way again.
It’s still dark outside, and I’m in a half doze. I sense the bus seeming to struggle up a hill, he’s changing down to a lower gear, oh, pleeeese…. What now? The bus finally stops, and most of us wake up. The lights come on. Then some ladies scurry out the front door. Oh. They needed a leak, what better place than a dark, deserted road?
Well, we’ve finally reached the Malaysian-Thai border. The bus parks at the side of the road and turns off his engine. I’m thinking, how many things can go wrong in just one journey? Well, it turns out that they’re waiting for the border to open, which at that time was six in the morning. The bus finally passes through the gates, and we’re in Thailand. You can see the difference from the way the buildings are built.
But, hang on a minute. The bus driver’s assistant is going around collecting money, two Malaysian dollars or the equivalent in Thai baht from every passenger. Apparently it’s the token fee that helps speed up things. Everyone pays up except two backpackers. The assistant shrugs. We get to immigration, passports are stamped without any hassles, except for the two backpackers. We ask the assistant, what happens to them? Oh, they’ll probably have to walk to town, we can’t wait that long. Well, it’s thirty kilometers through border country, not something I’d want to do.
The customs people pull everything out of our bags. We’ve been warned beforehand that if you bring in cigarettes, make sure you’ve opened the carton, so then they may only appropriate a pack or two. The cute Thai lady in front is being given a bit of a hard time. Thinking back about it, she was probably one of the many girls who came over to Singapore on a two week visa to hang around Clifford Pier’s infamous ‘Red Lantern’ beer garden…
So we’re on the final thirty kilometers to Hat Yai, yippie! We’re all in high spirits, even with the booze long finished. I look back to see my Malay friend popping something into his mouth. ‘Apa itu?’ (What’s that?) I ask. ‘Ubat.’ (Medicine) But there was this really big grin on his face…