In proper fashion, our arrival in Thailand was unexpected, unannounced, and without planning. Unfortunately in recent years, the Thai government has begun clamping down on its immigration rules and standards. One such example is its frequent denial of travelers entering the country on a tourist visa who do not have a booked flight out of the country. Although enforced randomly at Thai immigration, if a tourist’s entry is rejected, the cost of a flight back to the country of origin is born by the originating airlines. This being the case, many airlines have begun screening passengers upon check-in, at the city of origin, to ensure they have a return flight, and often times removing one-way passengers from the flight.
Not knowing our next destination after Thailand, and of course not booking an onward flight, we were quite nervous upon arriving at Istanbul’s international airport to check in for our Gulf Air flight. Wearing our only collard shirts, and cleanest pair of pants, we were hoping to slip through the cracks. However at check in, things quickly went south. Managers where called over. Manger’s managers were called over. Eventually the head of the airports security was called over. After some back and forth, and stellar acting on our part, we were allowed to pass. We like to think that our boyish charm, remarkable good looks, and Nick’s uncanny resemblance to the airline manager’s cousin won the day over, however the simple fact that we were Americans, holding American passports, seemed to clinch the deal. Although our reputation for international policy may be tarnish throughout the world, as a country we are still appreciated for our large pocketbooks and willingness to spend ample tourist dollars abroad. The airline manager let us pass because he believed Thai immigration would look past our one-way flights, simply because were were American tourists on vacation – another humbling reminder of the privileges of being an American.
Finally, we were on our way to SE Asia, but not before a quick 2 hour layover in Bahrain! For those of you familiar with my “Bahrain career decision,” it was a hilarious addition to our trip, even if only for a brief layover.
After a grueling overnight flight we arrived in Bangkok, Thailand (and proceeded through immigration without a problem). Knowing that we would be back in the area in a couple of months (to meet up with Mike Berner and Nick’s girlfriend Cait) we decided to start making our way south as soon as possible through southern Thailand, Malaysia, and possibly Indonesia.
Some of the more famous islands lie to the east in the Gulf of Thailand. However, these have skyrocketed in popularity and commercialization in the past 15 years turning the two largest islands into backpacker “theme parks” stuffed with western style bars and cafes and late night “full moon” ravers. Although fun, we were after a more traditional beach experience and wanted a taste of the secluded, and relatively untouched, white sand and turquoise waters that can only be found in the deep south near the Malaysian border. Buses are the way to travel in Thailand, and after a couple of days of getting our bearings in Bangkok, we hoped a bus to the furthest most destination we could find on the route map.
Arriving at 4am in a small farming village presents itself with a few problems. But ones that you become quite familiar with while on the trail. English is widely recognized as the international language of commerce and is spoken, to some degree, in all major cities (thank god). However, once outside of these metropolitan areas, grunting, hand waving, and face pulling become the international language of choice. After amble attempts at communication and a few laps around the city, we learned that the next leg of our trip was via local ferry which could be reached by the city’s local bus (yes, singular bus). In fact, the city’s bus was no more than a small ford pickup truck with two benches drilled into the back bed. Fares are paid in route by reaching your arms outside of the truck bed and around through the passenger window. We were accompanied buy a couple of lovely young Spanish ladies adorning red mo hawks, scalp tattoos, more face piercings than a pin cushion, underarm hair grown, and a keen interest in each other – a look that we simply wrote off as “European.” If my morning EL rides in Chicago were as entertaining, I may not have left.
Reached by slow local ferry, or speed boat, the islands located off the south west coast of Thailand are simply magical. Long stretches of beach lined with simple huts and minimal tourists, days are filled with cheap and delicious thai cuisine, kayaking between islands, snorkeling off shore reefs, and sipping local brews There are no cars or public transportation. Walking, biking, or motorcycle taxi (personally preferred) are the only ways to move about the islands. The 100cc motorcycles/scooters are driven by flipflop wearing locals, usually weighing in at no more than 120 lbs. Its a pretty hilarious site when Nick and I jump on the back with our packs and start whizzing through jungle interior. Pricing is very negotiable, however after watching Nick’s driver stop mid route to pick up her 5 yr old son (who was positioned between Nick and the driver, on a single person motor scooter) and drop him off at school, motivation to haggle over a $0.50 price difference quickly fades.
After our brief island stint in Thailand, it was on to Malaysia. After crossing the border via speed boat, we spent a few days and nights on the island of Penang, in the city of Georgetown. Founded by the British during colonial occupation of Malaysia, the city bares a very strong resemblance to old colonial cities found on the eastern United States. In fact, Malaysia as a country has a very unique ethnic and cultural make up with a mix of Indian, traditional Malaysian, Chinese, and Thai. This mix makes the city of Georgetown even more intriguing. Thirty minutes of walking around the city will have you pass through small Chinese neighborhoods, buzzing Indian restaurants, and old colonial British fortresses. The food was absolutely amazing and the people incredibly friendly. Highlights included the outdoor Chinese food stalls, a Malaysian cover band playing Allen Jackson and White Snake, and our hostel owner named Joseph (everyones name is distinctly British).
After a night in a bed-bug infested hostel (an experience only made worthwhile by the horrible, but hilarious Malaysian 80s cover band showcasing at the bar – see video below), we moved into the Old Penang Guesthouse run by a slightly psychotic, but overly generous and friendly Malaysian man named Joseph. Air conditioned dorm rooms, free breakfast, wifi, and a flat screen television with scores of pirated movies (most of which were still in theaters). Although this may sound like the exact experience we are trying to avoid on this trip, after nearly two months on the road (and a couple weeks of sweaty, itchy SE Asian heat), a little taste of western comfort can be a big boost to morale.
After Georgetown, it was on to the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur (or KL as known by the locals). KL was nothing more than a layover between peninsular Malaysia and the island of Borneo. Famous for its Petronas Twin Towers (touted as the tallest buildings in the world until 2003) and eclectic neighborhoods, we were fairly disappointed with the city beyond its opportunities for great ethnic cuisine. Dirty and disorganized the city itself left much to be desired. We will be avoiding it at all cost for the remainder of our time in Malaysia.
After cruising the beaches of Thailand and getting a taste of city life in Georgetown and KL, we are on our way to the interior jungles of Borneo in search of remote jungle villages, blood sucking leaches, and endangered pygmy elephants!