The purpose of the journey was simple, really. I’d recently been hired by my fifth employer in two years, and needed to get out of Thailand, ditching the bike for twenty thousand baht and grabbing what few belongings I had to hop the train to the border.
In the greater scheme of things, I suppose it wasn’t so bad to end up in a place like Kota Baru. Some considered the town to be rich in culture and history, the Islamic epicenter of Malaysia. Just a few hours away were the crystalline waters of the South China Sea. Travelers from all over the world visited the Perhentian Islands, and many came back satisfied.
But things had gone south at the consulate where I’d been applying for a non-immigrant visa to get back into Thailand, and I ended up at a guesthouse in the center of Kota Baru. It was a dirty business, obtaining a work visa. Bribes and documentation varied consulate to consulate. There was but one certainty: without the proper documentation, or money to bribe the immigration official, you could expect to be rejected at most consulates in the world. So, things being what they were, I hunkered down in the guesthouse and waited for the next thing to come my way.
Once again, I was stuck.
The wind flagellated the sand in the road which was unpaved and near the station where the buses departed. Women in long black burkas did their shopping in the street markets at midday in the sweltering ninety degree heat and men walked the streets in long white dishdashas or tailor made suits. There was an A&W restaurant near the bus station, a rarity for SE Asia.
Buses of patched together rusted panels fumed exhaust idling at the station while people paid for tickets in long lines at windows with metal bars obscuring ticket clerks from view. Migrant workers from across the border bought tickets at the ticket counter to take the buses over the border when the workday was finished, beginning the long journey to the poor villages whence they came.
I had been to places like this many times before. The fumes of the exhaust of diesel tainted the air, and much of the station was composed of mom and pop shops, or benches and tables for eating bowls of noodles, or else tables with old men reading newspapers. The old men hung out at bus stations throughout SE Asia, not knowing any place else to go in a region devoid of retirement homes. The station was equipped with florescent lights installed high in the aluminum corrugated shingles that composed the station roof. There were concrete slabs and metal girders giving the bus station an industrial feel.
In Malaysia, a diverse mix of ethnic Chinese and Malay, most people spoke English as a native language. In some ways this made it easier to do the basic things you needed to do while traveling, like ordering food, or asking where the restroom was, or else asking a passerby for directions.
Speaking the same language as the natives cut both ways.
When I arrived in Kota Bharu central, I noticed a number of mosques on street corners, between buildings, in squares. I found a roti canai shop near one of the mosques. Inside, a Malay man with a dirty smock, apparently the proprietor, waved to me and called me over to try some of the famous Malaysian egg pancake.
Before I could respond, he elbowed me in the gut and asked me if I knew what ‘KGB’ meant.
“You mean the Committee for State Security in the former Soviet Union? That KGB?”
He nodded and put his finger to his lip and whispered, ‘shhhhhh’, then led me to the bar where they served roti canai. There were several other patrons in the bar which I took as a good sign because I was tired of hustlers and people eating in the shop told me the shop was legit even if the proprietor was not.
Fuck it, I thought, why not.
It was a pious city, this Kota Baru. Prayer was adhered to six times a day in Kota Baru and we were on the doorstep of Ramadan. They didn’t serve alcohol except in the Chinese restaurants which were across town and people hung out in places like the roti canai shop and smoked tobacco and drank chai. Come Ramadan the entire city shut down during the daylight hours.
“Hey, Putin,” I called out to the proprietor of the shop. “How about some chai.”
The proprietor brought me some chai and sat next to me. He said, “Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro, 1961,” in rapid succession. He didn’t wait for a reply.
I sat in the roti canai shop and drank my chai and wanted for the man to come back to serve me roti canai. Soon, he returned, still babbling on about the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro, 1961,” he repeated.
“Did you study American History?” I asked him.
“John F. Kennedy,” he enunciated. “Assassinated November 22, 1963.”
He went back to the fryer to cook the roti canai. There were other patrons in the bar, men in white dishdashas, but none paid any attention to our conversation. The cook worked manically, flipping the pancakes in the frying pan and from time to time stirred some curry he was heating over a gas flame.
While cooking the roti and curry, he continued to speak with me over the other patrons in the shop. It wasn’t a conversation. He was reciting facts.
“Hotel California,” he pontificated, “1969.”
I began to wonder if the cook was the product of some 60’s Malay love child. A lost soul in a forgotten generation. He then began to sing Hotel California in its entirety. I could only assume that the cook subjected his patrons to this kind of behavior on a daily basis because they did not react, just sat there drinking chai and smoking tobacco from a hookah.
Another minute, I thought to myself, and I walk. This lunatic cook was something else. When I arrived in Malaysia I hadn’t expected running into someone like him. He was regurgitating facts like a human encyclopedia. I sat in the stool at the roti canai shop and waited for my pancake. It was a sight to behold.
“Welcome to the Hotel Caaaalllliffffooorrrrniiiaaaa,” he sang.
Finally, the roti canai was served. The cook who claimed to be a KGB operative came and sat next to me and watched me while I ate the roti canai. I had to admit the stuff was damn good.
“This is good stuff,” I complimented the cook. “What do you call the curry?”
“Don’t worry about Mr. Doll,” the cook replied cryptically.
Borders in Asia aren’t like you see in western countries. It’s not like back in the States, where you got a two thousand mile border stretching from San Diego to Texas that’s partly walled off and patrolled by immigration officers. In Asia, many of the borders were unmarked and invisible to the naked eye except in the few places where they had controlled immigration points. Sometimes they had immigration on these small islands in the gulf which existed for the sole purpose of stamping passports.
I had worked all kinds of jobs for a living, from teaching in Asia to selling vacuums door to door in Boulder, Colorado. There was always something out there for someone who needed to make ends meet. I was never any good at laying down any roots, and never stayed in one place for too long. Borders were something I was used to crossing.
I had once been to an island near Ranong in Thailand that was supposed to be a part of Burma. They had these tour groups that would bring you there on long boats with diesel engines that went slow and acerbic through a sea of debris and garbage. You landed at a port off some small island with an immigration office and several other tourists who were all there for the same reason you were. There was a town on the island, too. It had several shops that sold whiskey, rum, and Viagra. Touts, short dark Burmese boys, met the incoming boats and hawked goods to tourists who came for the immigration stamp.
“Whiskey, Viagra, boom boom?” they asked the backpackers.
Borders were something you better know a little about before you decided to cross one. Borders opened doorways to new worlds, not all of them pleasant.
For the better part of a decade, an insurgency had raged on in southern Thailand. Throughout the three provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, masked gunmen from extremist Islamic organizations indiscriminately killed government workers, teachers, and NGOs. So while it was safe to travel northern Malaysia the same could not be said of southern Thailand.
There was also reporting of tourists also being killed in the south of Thailand. The extremists wanted to make of point of executing people who broke the laws of fundamental Islam. They’d kill you if they caught you drinking in the bars. And they’d definitely kill you if they caught you whoring. Relatively speaking, if you were a westerner traveling in Asia, chances were you’d be engaged in one of the two activities when they killed you.
It’s true that I had intimate knowledge of most of the SE Asian borders, but thirty minutes into the trip to the Thai-Malay border, I came to the realization that I was on the wrong bus. The bus was taking unpopulated back roads, places there was little traffic, and unpaved roads, and little civilization. I had traveled the route to the border many times before, and it was a straight shot – one highway all the way north to the border. The Malay Thai border closed early, at 4 sharp, and if you weren’t present you could expect to spend another day in Malaysia. I had no plans to do that.
My companion, a Thai migrant worker, a man I’d just met on the bus, assured me that this was the bus and we would make it to the Malay Thai border. I trusted no one when I traveled, but I had no choice in the present situation. The passengers of the bus were mostly day laborers, men with dark, scarred faces. They knew what it meant to work to support a family.
“Last stop,” the bus driver called out. I assumed he was talking to me and me alone. When the bus rolled to a stop the passengers got off single file, leaving me and my companion as the lone passengers.
“Are you sure this is the last stop?” I asked.
“Yes, yes,” my companion nodded.
The bus driver confirmed this by waving us off the bus. When I stepped off the bus, I watched the other passengers disappear at the end of the road.
The bus station was no more than a family restaurant. A dark Malay man with a butchers smock and a cleaver stood near a cutting board under the shade of hanging chicken carcasses. There were a few houses but nothing more. A dead end, I reasoned.
My companion pointed to the end of the road as if it were some kind of beginning. All I saw was underbrush, litter, and mud. There was no immigration office, none that I could see anyway. It looked like no border I had ever crossed.
“You sure it’s here,” I asked.
“Yes, yes,” my companion reassured me.
He was of slight build, with a very dark complexion and indiscernible facial features. He spoke no English and his eyes were dark and flighty when he spoke and nodded his head.
I was hesitant to follow my companion into the jungle. I had only met him fifteen minutes ago on the bus. After several years in SE Asia trust didn’t come easily to me. You had to earn it.
Although it had already begun to drizzle, dark clouds on the horizon portended something worse. The restaurant offered a reasonable shelter for a short time. It had these bamboo chairs and tables, a wood fire stove, gas fed burners and chickens hung from threads of line.
“Maybe we can eat something here,” I suggested.
My companion shook his head, no.
Moments later the Malay man in the bloodied smock pulled down a corrugated aluminum door signifying he was closed for business. Maybe it was coincidental, but I had an odd feeling that I was being set up. A little paranoia went a long way in SE Asia.
It was twilight, and soon it would be dark. The town of Kota Baru lay some twenty kilometers back the other way. There were no hotels and the only restaurant just shut its doors for the evening. I had but two choices: press on with my new companion, or else hump twenty kilometers back to the town.
“Okay,” I nodded. “We go.”
I followed my companion through the underbrush to a clearing with a river set forth before us. At its edge men in pontoon boats wearing rain ponchos waved us aboard. My companion motioned for me to join him on one of the boats.
“Jesus,” I said. “Where are they taking us?”
He pointed to the mist gathering about 800 meters across the river. I squinted my eyes but couldn’t make out any land through the mist. Once again, I had to put my faith in my newfound companion.
The boat chugged along at a slow rate and it didn’t take long for us to arrive at the opposite shore, a platform of rows of raised concrete with a set of steps leading down to the water’s edge. My companion motioned for me to pay the boatman. I gave him one hundred baht and stepped off the boat onto the concrete stairs.
“Okay,” my companion said, “I go home now.”
He climbed the stairs and disappeared down the road, leaving me without a guide in this new place. The town was disheveled, trash and debris on the roads. Many of the buildings looked to be abandoned or at the very least without power. I’d seen warzones before, and this place resembled one. The buildings were dilapidated and without power. It was a narrow road the steps led up to, not a person or vehicle in sight. There were several more laborers coming off the boats and they disappeared down the road too. A lone cow lazily ambled down the road and passed by.
I looked back to find that the boats had already disappeared into the mist. My companion had left me, too, somewhere at the edge of some border town that I could only assume was Southern Thailand.
I saw no border crossing with immigration officials stamping visas. No immigration office. No fences, no security. I had just crossed a river on a pontoon boat, and I was beginning to believe that it wasn’t just any river.
I did the one thing I learned to do in situations like these a long time ago: I humped. My rucksack and me, we started up the road towards the town to try and make sense of what just happened.
Soon, I came across a man walking in the opposite direction with a donkey in tow. He wore farmers clothes and was smoking a cigarette.
“Pi krup!” I called to him. “U nee loo jak mai?”
He didn’t respond.
“Pi, u nee province arrai???”
He gave me a quizzical look before replying, “Narathiwat.”
So it was true. That river I had just crossed marked the border between Malaysia and Thailand. It was one thing to cross a border illegally, after all, my companion had done so every day, but it was another thing to land in Narathiwat with the onset of dusk.
Things were looking grim indeed. The extremists hunted government teachers with impunity, often killing them in public leaving a trail of corpses on the provincial roads. You didn’t want to become a statistic. No one does.
I asked the man with the donkey where the nearest immigration office was. He pointed down the road to a nondescript building down the road, a squat three story concrete building with a fence on its perimeter, a Thai flag fluttering on its steps.
The immigration officer came outside and lit a cigarette.
The immigration officer turned to me.
“I think I took a wrong turn somewhere. I’m looking for the closest immigration point into Thailand,” I said in English.
Then I stood there waiting for the anvil to drop, remembering the horrible memoirs I read about Thai prisons. It was an ugly compromise, and I knew it was all my fault – it was I whom walked the precipice, so to speak, tempted by the devil in me. And now the gig was up.
“Many famous books have been written about the Thai prison system,” I mumbled.
He puffed on his cigarette for a moment. I didn’t know if he was thinking about the answer. I wondered if he could even speak English.
“No,” he replied. “You must go back the way you came.”
“You mean, to Malaysia?”
“You must pass border customs before you pass the border.”
The immigration officer had probably never seen a foreigner this far off the beaten track. Perhaps he wanted to avoid unnecessary paperwork. He hadn’t even asked for a bribe yet.
I wai’ed the immigration officer, praying that there were still long boats at the concrete steps whence I came. It had been a long day.
Three hours later I arrived, soaking wet, and dead tired, in Kota Baru. I gritted my teeth and checked back into the guesthouse I had stayed in for the better part of a week.
Once again, I was stuck.