Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Escape from Singapore

It seems that the more stuff I get up to the more there is to write in my blog, but the less time I have in which to write it. Another of nature's annoying positive feedback loops.

I'd just left Deon's flat in Singapore with a list of complicated instructions on how to get to Johore, the Malaysian town on the other side of the border. It involved catching about 3 buses and a train, and on the final bus I had a massive miscommunication with the driver and got off about three kilometres too soon. "No worries" I thought, "I'll walk it". This was to be a little more arduous than anticipated.

After about an hour of negotiating freeways and figuring out if I could more accurately be described as a bus or a motorbike for emigration queues I at last had my passport stamped as No Longer In Singapore and to celebrate decided to continue my walk across the causeway into Malaysia.

I think Singaporeans and Malaysians have different ideas to each other about footpaths - along the two kilometre or so gap between the two countries the footpath just sort of petered out until I was walking on the road, hoping my bulky backpack would provide some protection in case of vehicular impacts. Pretty soon this road became a freeway, and I still hadn't entered Malaysia. After another kilometre or so I came across a construction site for a new set of flyovers and the engineers there (probably sensing they were among a kindred spirit) politely waved me through towards my destination of Malaysia (I wonder who pays for freeways between countries?), which was by now encapsulating me in a tall barbed wire cyclone fence.

After squeezing my way along the 30 centimetre wide shoulder I walked underneath an overpass (hanging in Malaysian airspace) upon which a heavily armed policeman was shouting directions at me (which amounted to "Pretend you're a bus, not a motorbike - it's easier to go round corners"). I was pretty relieved he was friendly, but of course this Malaysian cop couldn't actually get to me as I was not under Malaysian jurisdiction - I was in Limbo Land, which didn't seem to have its own police force.

On these sorts of occasions it does occur to me to wonder what Normal People do when they try to get between two widely separated national borders without resorting to motorised transport. These sorts of experiences just don't seem to crop up in other travelers' accounts.

Eventually I got through and into Johore, another urban-prairie/gleaming-city so fashionable in Malaysia. I booked a night train and spent the afternoon wandering around overgrown shopping malls and abandoned waterfront resorts, smelling fennel and admiring vines as they jealously embraced their rotting rafters.

As I sat on the platform waiting for my train a sudden feeling of horror filled me. I had realised that I was about to take a train all the way up to the Thai border, sleeping through the ancient rainforest of Taman Negara and associated highlands that everyone seems to rave about. I checked my guide book to make sure I wasn't missing anything but I got a cold dread when I read that one would have to be a moron to take the 'Jungle Train' at night. I felt so bad I considered abandoning my ticket and not getting on board at all, and when I did reluctantly board I spent most of the night squeezing my face against the window in a vain attempt to see something cool.

Sometimes I find myself thinking I'm living in some kind of Panglossion Paradigm - 'All is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds'. I know it's not very atheist of me - I'll have to pay penance to the patron saint of atheists for that - but I suppose it means I'm an optimist at heart. In this case I soon decided that making my way to Thailand as fast as possible (delayed only by having to take two more busses and another train as well as walking across another border - more easily done this time) was quite a good thing - Malaysia is actually a lot more boring than Thailand. Sorry guys, you tried.

On the train through southern Thailand I finally finished reading 'War and Peace' and hefted it around triumphantly at the other passengers. It really is an amazing book - a vast epic with hundreds of complex but flawed characters and incredibly vivid scenes. Not once was I bored reading it, except for at the end during the very long second epilogue which was a snore inspiring dissertation on the forces of history (including a big whinge about Tolstoy's contemporary Charles Darwin - he obviously upset old Leo's religious sensibilities).

Once I'd finally looked up from the pages of the book I noticed some things about Thailand that are distinctly different from Malaysia - firstly it's much more yellow, Thailand's favourite colour. Secondly, I discovered I could no longer read. This was a bit of a problem as I was used to knowing at which station I needed to alight (although luckily I've retained the ability to decipher information derived from my own world). Another observation is that this was the boundary where the Dutch tourists fade out and the French tourists fade in - vestigial colonialism at work. Finally, I noticed that the usually sharp definition between the sexes is in this country... somewhat indistinct.

After spending the night in Phatthalung - the train line's closest approach to my destination on the coast (I like to macro-navigate by compass when there's a lot of public transport) - I headed to Krabi, a karsk formation environed sea-side town. After finding an appropriate hotel with a balcony overlooking the ocean my first act was to check what geohashes were going that day - there was one 25kms to the east (a 70 km ride in all) - right on the boundary of accessibility for three pm. Nonchalantly I decided to go for it, but after several hours riding a hired mountain bike to exhaustion, being chased by wild dogs and finally failing the geohash by 1.4kms due to a missed turn off and impenetrable jungle I had to admit that it had out-epic-ed my expectations.

The following day, despite my natural aversion to guided tours, I went on a sea-kayaking trip. This was pretty awesome. The highlight was dragging our kayak along several kilometres of deep mangrove mud because of a king-low-tide. My guide kept saying "This is your trip, it's your choice if we push on or turn back now". I've always had trouble with that choice. In the end he told me he'd never attempted doing that before and was amazed that it was even possible.

While kayaking I met two English guys called Paul and Karl and for the next couple of weeks we'd frequently separate and rejoin like a flat stone skimming across a still pond, or more accurately (and awesomely), like a B-52 bomber armed with twin 40 megaton thermonuclear devices being refueled mid-air while continuously circumnavigating the territories of the Soviet Union... but without any of the sexual connotations. We were to meet again the next day for a chartered long-tail boating expedition to some nearby islands.

This day turned out to be one of the highlights of my whole trip. Exploring beautiful deserted beaches shaded by rainforest, climbing overhanging sea cliffs, snorkeling through sea caves and wandering along narrow spindly beaches as they were submerged by the tide on both sides before our eyes, the water so glassily transparent above the sand it looked like bad computer graphics.

On our return we decided to hit the bars along Ao Nang beach, playing pool and drinking buckets (I think I'll have to explain that one later). I had to conscientiously check the time in order to catch the last bus back to Krabi and, not having much experience having to catch the last of anything, missed it. As it happened there was an aboriginal girl from Carlton with us who was on a month-long rest day while cycle-touring from Chiang Mai, and she graciously let me borrow her bike for the night. My bed in Krabi was over 20 kms away.

After a couple of wrong turns (I didn't have a map and had left my compass in Krabi) I slowly threaded my way towards home along a road through the jungle and between looming karst formations. Within a few kilometres of my hotel I relaxed a bit and let the gravity well of Krabi pull me in. Unfortunately, like a frog being slowly boiled after being submerged in a bucket of cold water, it failed to occur to me that I had got so far off the beaten track that I had become lost, roadless and lightless, in a plantation forest. Awoken from my daze by a pack of wild dogs I had just enough time to see the humour in being chased on bike by wild dogs through a dark plantation forest twice in a little over two days before I legged it under the influence of a previously undiscovered reservoir of adrenaline. But the worst part was that I had to ride the bike back in the morning.

My next destination was Phuket. A town so dead and lifeless it had me wondering if I'd got on the wrong bus again. I spent a day reading two books that both coincidentally featured the extinction of humanity by oceans - one, 'Ark' by Stephen Baxter, because the sea levels inexplicably rise by 20 kilometres, and the other, 'Cat's Cradle' by Kurt Vonnegut, because the oceans suddenly turn to ice - I had a lot of trouble separating fiction from reality in that town. Nice architecture though.

The next day I checked out of my hotel and took a local bus to Patong beach. I looked around and warily observed the sinister atmosphere and disphasic inhabitants. I got the distinct feeling I was living in that popular science fiction genre where a planet is discovered in a complex orbit around a multiple star system, but when an eager yet inexperienced batch of young colonists arrive just before a rare period of darkness they realise, naturally to their horror, that the planet's unobserved nocturnal biota is not as benign as its diurnal. I had to get out before nightfall.

I spent the afternoon lazily at the beach, dread still tingling in my lymph system. Succeeding this time in catching the last bus out of there I got a call from Paul. By this stage I was hanging by one arm from the back of the comically overcrowded bus, torqued precariously by my book-loaded pack as the vehicle roared up a hill in first gear a few kilometres away from Patong Beach. Paul and Karl were staying there and wanted to know if I'd care to join them. My curiosity was piqued.

Well, there was no way I could fight my way through the crowd to tell the driver to let me off there, but the bus was traveling at a sedate 15 kms an hour or so, and there was no traffic to speak of behind it, so there was an alternative...


  1. Hi Felix,
    always fun reading your blog. You asked for no-man's land stories. Mine's in 1971 heading west in southern Iran we reached the Iraqi border and looked around for our next transport.
    The border guard told us to step out from behind the wall, something he was clearly disinclined to do,and asked if we could see a similar brick wall about a desert mile away.
    Yes we could see the wall and that was our destination. A rather surprised Iraqi guard pulled us in a mile later. We were the only people who'd crossed in days and no westerners. Still haven't met anyone else who's crossed that particular border.

    Oh and on the subject of botanic gardens, Melbourne's is about the best in the world. I checked out BotGs around the world and believe that only Pune's, 100km SW of Mumbai are rivals.
    Enjoy your travels, Sandy and I are off on a four day paddle down the Glenelg on Friday

  2. Wow, awesome story Colin - did you get shot at? Pretty jealous of your paddling expedition down the Glenelg. Are you ending at the coast?