No more travel adventure to be had in Thailand (here)
I used to make travel my occupation for a year and a half when zig-zagging through Asia on all sorts of transport 15 years ago. Most of the vehicles that I shared time with probably (and rightly) don’t exist anymore, and the ones that are still around I would not fit into anymore. Not only physically, with my ass barely being squeezable in-between the arm rests of my office chair, but more mentally, when now I struggle to get through the eight hour on said office chair compared to 48 hours on a Chinese sleeper bus. My mental bus state has been lost.
In addition to me changing, Asia has changed even faster: where there were no roads, there are now. And if not, the Chinese are more than likely to built one right now. The charming but back breaking Hino and Isuzu buses have all been replaced by air-con Chinese made KingLong buses. But on some very rare occasions, I am thrown back into one of the many absurd situation that I endured during my travels.
At the taxi desk at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok I am advised my taxi. “My daughter son” says the female driver as we pull out of the airport. The daughter is working and the mother baby sitting the son. He (the son) is not overly happy with the attention that she puts into speeding the car at 130 km/h over the highway, throwing his water and milk bottle around and trying to push the gear selector out of D into something more fun. He (me, the passenger) is initially irritated (he (me) being my father’s son, after-all). But it’s late at night, the air hot and humid, no traffic and I am reminded of the feeling of arriving and traveling in the past. And my (long lost (unfortunately)) travel mantra: nothing can happen to me.
Her concept entertaining him is to play Isan music and make the boy stand up on his seat and dance. Which he proudly does, with me being his audience. It’s a bizarre throw back into a time that was not airport express trains, planes, travellator, etc. We speed through the night, Isan music blasting, the kid dancing, past the right exit, and a lengthy detour I arrive: nothing has happened to me
This is what I wrote after my travels about traveling:
I am a walking amusement for people. Wherever I go, people like to stare at me. In some countries more (Tibet), in some countries less (Mongolia). No stares in Thailand. My height (1.89 metres) should qualify for disability benefits. It should qualify for the disabled persons seat on buses and the emergency exit rows on planes. In Thailand, the trains provide priority seats for the elderly, pregnant and monks. None for the vertically challenged. My height requires to be pointed out constantly by anybody in case I might have forgotten: “oh, very tall”. People pose next to me and raise their hand over their head to compare their height to mine. My nose is another Madame Tussaud wax cabinet worthy attraction: “Oh, you have Jewish nose (Pakistan, followed by “Hitler, good man, killed many Jews”)”. In Chinese hotels every floor has a ‘floor woman’. They keep the keys. They distribute hot water in red thermo flasks. They do not yield to the concept of privacy and come and go into the room whenever they feel is required (under the pretext of delivering hot water. The concept of privacy is somewhat lacking in China). Hot water in red aluminum flask is essential and everywhere in China. Being in control of key and water, there is little need for the floor ladies to be pleasant. In a hotel in Litang, while lying on the bed reading a book, the floor woman kept opening the door to deliver hot water. With her she would bring a group of curious Tibetans. “Tall”. “Nose”. The biggest (in terms of number, big in terms of height was the attraction that is me) of the groups she would bring into the room were 15 Tibetans. Around my bed, staring. And not leaving. “You can go now, I am not sick”. Tibetans are number one stare-ers. “Go now”. Stare. My shy outburst of “All of you, get out” is received with giggles. Tall, nose and funny sound. I get out my camera and they flee. I amount a respectable number of flasks in my room that night.
The staring does get somewhat intimidating when on the toilet. Digestion and toilet is as important an issue for any traveler as is the proper choice of buses and trains (and I feel that guide books, be they American or Australian, treat the issue too light hearted). All books go into great detail regarding food (‘places to eat’(Lonely Planet)), but fail to realize that digestion is part of travel and lack the essential section of ‘where to shit’. Trying to buy train tickets I have found the Lonely Planet guide book section ‘getting there’ useful and ‘getting away’ even more so. I have never been stranded searching for food. Well, almost. But I have been in dire search for toilets. Especially in China (and even my mother can vow for this). The Chinese have invented the toilet paper but – unfortunately – stopped there and failed to invent the proper toilet and, perhaps more importantly, proper (ad least adequate) toilet etiquette. The common toilet in China is a lengthy trench over which one squats. When cold, I slide over frozen shit, urine and spit. When not, I fight the flies, despite the Chinese Government initiative to improve hygiene in public toilets and to not allow more than three flees in any toilet (not a joke). In Beijing public toilets urine gets collected for medical use. Some toilets have a knee high partition above the trench, most have not. That for the better, since the partition is likely to collect shit. Most toilets do not have water, hence the shit, frozen or not, accumulates in the trench. One meets people when sharing the trench: a high ranked military official in green spanking uniform and decorated with lots of colourful metal plates ordered me using his toilet paper judging, by the looks, mine to be too abrasive and inappropriate for my behind. More abrasive and inappropriate however is to have to share the trench with Tibetans. Their stares shy my bowels… Unsolved mystery are shit (frozen or not) and footprints on the wall at 1.5m metres hight. The floor women likes to wander around the toilets with her flasks for no apparent reason.
I am also a public commodity and as such to be yelled at with whatever English is available: “one two eight nine”, Hello OK”, “I’ll call you”, “hasta la vista”, “heil Hitler” and of course “sawadee”, the sound of Lao. As a public commodity, I am subject to constantly being touched. In addition to the amusement my height and my nose provide are my hairy arms. These hairs need constantly be pulled and are cause for serious amazement. The pulling hair business is more done by women, the comparing height is a men thing.
As a walking circus attraction, I must be asked questions. Number one information required (understandably) is: where do you come from. This comes in a number of variations: “what is the country belongs”, “country of origin” and “country!”. The answer varies depending on my mood, however, Cambodia is a favorite one. “Ah, good country. Cambodia Europe”. Question number two: “are you married”, why you travel alone”, you have no friends?”. “No, no friends”. Very important question is “how much money is it you earn?” In fact, this questions seems so important that even on the immigration card for Thailand it is asked. To be ticked a range from zero to 100.000USD. The answer of course is depending on mood, sometimes I feel rich, sometimes poor. However much I claim when being asked, it’s always “oh, you are rich man”. Then the cost of my place of origin (as described above Cambodia in many cases) and place of visit must be compared. If bargaining, the place of origin is cheaper of course (which, with Cambodia in case, is true quite often).
I am traveling a lot on buses. I have always liked buses, my ‘Ur-bus’ being a Dutch blue Beuk school bus (despite its destination) and I took great offense when the German ‘rough’ kid put a Fanta can under its rear tyre to watch it get crushed. I adored the bus’ huge steering wheel and never got a Kettcar that could have compensated for not having one. There are bus countries (can accommodate my disabled body, i.e.Thailand) and non bus countries (can not, all the others).
In Thailand I travel in great comfort on blue buses (aircon). On the red buses (non aircon, but the windows and doors are always open) I sit at the back near the door and where the cool bus conductor kid yells the bus’ destination and hop on and off as cool looking as possible (tall people are never cool, and adding a back does not help). Thailand also has great train service, and I sit at the open door in the overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai waiting for the first rays of sun after a freezing cold night on the train.
In Cambodia on the way to Siem Reap I sit for ten hours on the back of a Toyota pick up truck shimmed in between rice, chicken and twelve Khmer and melt in the heat. A little boy, who I adore for his bravery, vomits without emphasis over my shoes. This is a though ride over a road which isn’t one (yet), to finally arrive and meet western tourist with well styled hair and their luxury aircon coach. Where do they come from? On what road? They carry hair curling equipment (as some people would) in their bags? The German ambassador to Cambodia is on this bus. He certainly carries hair styling equipment.
In Lao I sit in the last row middle seat, the only seat on the bus where I can keep my legs. The seat however carries a penalty by being located at the end of the bus’ lever and so I am flying around the last row and every pothole (of which there are plenty) sees me ejecting upwards out of my seat. This travel is hard work. Luckily, the bus encounters numerous flat tyres, and swopping wheels around gives a welcome break from my ejector seat. Other than traveling on a bus one can ride on a boat. This is much more comfortable and – given the many flat tyres that cuts the bus’ average speed – still much slower. For traveling in Lao, either bring lots of patience or many books.
In Myanmar I ride on the roof of a pick up truck, avoiding any thoughts regarding the pick up trucks structural roof integrity. It’s a Toyota after all. I also avoid looking into the direction we are driving, all drivers exhibit a healthy ignorance regarding traffic ‘courtesy’. I dare say, the level of recklessness surpasses the level of recklessness in India (which, until then, had been the benchmark of blissful driving). It’s hard to hang on. In Yangon, at a traffic light, if observed, the car does not stand still. It lurches a bit forward to then rolls back again, a race to be first to run over a pedestrian. All traffic lights in Yangon seem to be built on upward slopes. There are no traffic lights outside of Yangon. On the way to Pyaye I marvel at the Toyota’s roof strength. It is of little surprise that the Toyota pick up is the vehicle of choice for do it yourself warfare. On a bus to Nyamg U I must sit inside. It is against the law to sit on the roof. I am lucky. I sit next to a bag of rice and an infant. The kid might stare all it wants, its legroom is mine. The kid stares and pulls my arm hair. Going to Bagan, I hang onto the rear bumper with eight others. The roof is full. Thanks to my handicap I have the same view across the bus’ roof as the driver. I try not to see. We are hanging on. Every turn we sway like a fish’ tail and arrive in Bagan to be met by a group of western tourist emerging from their luxury aircon bus in crisp white shirts. Where do they come from? I sweat, bargain and suffer every kilometer I travel. I get off busses deliberating whether its worth collecting my knees or not. I have earned every temple I go to, but be stared at in disbelief and disgust by freshly shampooed French and Germans.
In China (I) I travel on what is called a sleeper bus. Despite the fact that a sleeper bus is a death trap should it plunge down a mountain in Sichuan (which it regularly does), I fit into a sleeper bus. Sleeper buses also only carry as many passengers as there are beds. The beds are stacked two high and two wide on each side of the aisle, thus one sleeps cuddled up to some bad breathed companion. Each row of beds has its own open able windows, thus a sleeper bus is easily distinguishable from the outside by having two rows of windows stacked above each other. I always travel with the window open (and in fact the greatest regret I have regarding modern buses is the non open-ability of windows). It is highly advisable to occupy the upper bed should one not wish to be the recipient of spit and flam freely distributed from the occupants above. Once, while sleeping on the lower bed window side and ignoring all the spit and flam distributed through the window from someone above me I wake up to the feel of warm liquid and find myself covered in goose blood and feathers. Some of the goose have not faired well traveling on the roof top, my assumption that a low hung power cable across the road decapitated most of them. Another necessity on a sleeper bus is the use of man’s greatest invention: ear plugs. My longest journey on a sleeper bus is 20 hours.
In Tibet I do not sit in any bus. I travel in a Toyota Land Cruiser BJ 60. In order to travel to and in Tibet, one has to join a group. My group consists of four people whom I meet first in Chengdu airport and whom I split with in Lhasa (wasting no time). Traveling independently up into Tibet carries a healthy fine when (as is normally the case) caught and is usually tried by Israeli. I book two more package tours with the Toyota BJ 60, and despite it being surprisingly uncomfortable and cramped inside, I do like the Toyota much more than I do like my travel group (the travel group not liking me excessively either, mind). In any case, I am the biggest Toyota Land Cruiser BJ 60 fan. It is the prettiest car with the prettiest name. When I will be grown up I will get myself a BJ 60.
In Nepal I sit on the back of a big truck. My Toyota Land Cruiser BJ 60 package tour has ended abruptly right after crossing from Tibet into Nepal. The Toyota Land Cruiser is heading back to Lhasa and my travel group heads for the bus. But there is a truck, and money can be saved and travel group company spared. The truck it is. My new truck group includes the usual starers and a pregnant women. In fact, she is so urgently pregnant that she receives the greater share of stares. Sitting on bags of onions and potatoes, she is uncomfortable. She is miserable. She silently suffers. She is reason for great amusement amongst the others. The poor women is mocked and made fun of for the lengthy miserable ride. No attention on me for once.
In India I sit on the train. India has the most dreadful buses: Tata. Having learned from previous travels in India, I sit on the train. There are no trains in Himachal Pradesh. I sit, with others on the Tata’s roof. In Himachal Pradesh, the trees used for telephone and electricity lines are stumpy and far in between so the cables hang low across the road and every once in a while somebody would yell “down down down” and we all crouch down lower than the chickens on the roof and swoosh the cable passes overhead. This game becomes especially involving when going through a curve where the cable is both seen late and especially low due to the greater distance of the stumpy trees. Many chickens on bus roofs have not kept their head.
In Islamabad, Pakistan, the bus has three compartments. The back for the man, the front for the women, and in front of that a compartment for the bus driver to compartmentalize him from the women. The driver is always a man, unlike in China, where the biggest double deck buses are driven by women, hence a solid wall between him and the women compartment is required. That does compromise his view looking back somewhat, because he should not be subjected to seeing women. What the bus driver does not see is this then: 60 Pakistani and me squeezed into a compartment not big enough to accommodate 122 feet. The bus driver sees fit to hit the brakes sharply from time to time. Not a problem, there is nowhere for any of the men to fall to. Neither is it a problem in the women’s compartment. The three women inside are comfortably spaced apart and sit in comfort. It is of interest that 60 Pakistani and myself are allowed to look into the women’s compartment through a window in the partition but the bus driver is not. 60 Pakistani and myself stare into the women’s compartment. There is room for improvement though: the women’s compartment could be at the back of the bus, no partition between bus driver and men would be required. Or the bus driver could be a women, but this is neither the time nor China.
In China (II) I arrive in style coming from Pakistan in my beloved Toyota Land Cruiser BJ 60. No bus crosses from Pakistan into China. Unfortunately, this will be my last Toyota Land Cruiser BJ 60 trip. It’s buses to Kashgar until I discover the train. Hard sleeper trains are the way to travel, unfortunately the windows can’t be opened. Despite my decision fueled by the existence of trains to never set foot onto a Chinese bus again my decision to go to Golok requires bus travel. As far as the horror on buses is concerned I would describe bus travel in Golok as seriously mature. That is if I can get onto a bus.
In Mongolia I travel on the Trans Mongolian railway that should be more correctly named ‘the booze express’ where everybody, including train conductor and left over custom border officers pass out on alcohol to arrive in Ulaan Bataar hangover and some met by ambulances.
In Hong Kong I slide along the too low stainless steel bench in the mass transit railway and wish I was sitting on the top of a bus, a Tata if it had to be…
Traveling is described as finding yourself along the way, or running away from yourself. Continuous travel is probably running away from what has been found. In Goa, on a different travel, I meet people who have dropped out. Living the dream. The simple life at the beach in India. Since these people have stopped moving hence given up on running away they (inevitably) must have met themselves. They are all drunks with some drug addicts added for good measure and live a sad life. Fighting out of bed at noon to start drinking. They retire early to re-start the cycle. It’s a sad life in a beautiful setting that could have been equally miserably lived elsewhere but perhaps not as cheap as in India. Better keep moving.
The most boring people to meet when moving are 1.9 metres tall , skinny and glasses wearing students of computer science from Linz who endorse their own weak jokes in asthmatic bursts of laughter and travel with their fittingly boring girl friends. Meeting these people in Vientiane could be fatal in regards of alcohol consumption. These two I see first when hanging onto the rear bumper of a Ford Transit and overtaking them on their bicycles (!) on the Karakorum highway in Pakistan. They consider my chosen mode of transport as somewhat hazardous, not quite realizing that it is the Ford Transits running them into the ditch. Later, when all the baggage is unloaded, I get to borrow the bike and it is fantastic to roll down the highway. It is astoundingly hard to cycle up the highway again, not least in the thin air. Both of them get my full admiration. When not actively hanging onto various external parts of trucks and buses, I am actively suffering inside and, relative to the movement of the vehicle, become static and motionless. This is a unhealthy parallel to Goa’s drop outs. Since alcohol is not the solution, least not on a bus, and really not on a bus in Pakistan, meditation will have to do. Embedded in discomfort and stares I have learned to withdraw myself from the situation by mentally closing my eyes and not seeing. My mantra being ‘there is no problem’. Works.
Another technique learned is ignoring any possible problem, just flow. In Thailand flow with a smile. In Cambodia flow with a graceful straight back. When crossing a street in Phnom Penh one could be discouraged doing so by the constant stream of bicycles and motorbikes and the occasional odd UN white Toyota pick up. The way to cross is to just go, everything (with the possible exception of the Toyota) will flow around you. Never take a step back. After a while I have become so centered within myself that I don’t look before crossing the road. Plenty more lives to come, anyway. When bicycling in Cambodia and confronted with three trucks, one car, plenty of bicycles and motorbikes and one pig before I reached this level of enlightenment I would oblige to the pecking order of the road, realizing that I am filed just one notch above pedestrian, give up, return the bike to the rental shop and go for a curry. In my enlightened state of mind however I decide to not look at the trucks but the dusty scenery, wonder what the pig might taste like in a curry, make liberal use of the bike’s bell and pedal around the many pot holes, my back straight and proud. Still time fro curry, pork perhaps.
Here, it doesn’t work. Noise and somebody yelling at me. All the yelling appears inappropriate for the situation. My bicycle collided with the yelling man bicycle and we both find ourselves lying on the dusty road. He doesn’t stop yelling. In China, the flow thing does not work. Here someone is to be skillfully cut off to make a third person crash by the swerve of the cut of. In my case I just drove into the guys rear wheel. He still screams. In China a red light is endorsed by guards with red flags and whistles. Anybody daring to attempt crossing at a red light is vehemently whistled at. The Chinese love educating others, perhaps a left over of the red guards days, hence the little red flags that the traffic wardens love to wiggle. For this reason, I cycle while listening to my Chinese cassette player and not hearing the red guards whistles. When queuing behind the guards red flag it’s the train station queuing revisited. Everybody squeezes, bumps and pushes into pole position. A crowd has gathered and stares. I however have also learned to smile myself out of situations. That works, since in China this is such an unheard of concept, and I get the crowd onto my side, get up, readjust my cassette player and cycle away, the yelling quickly replaced by Beethoven violin concert. Unfortunately, the batteries in my player are also Chinese and die quickly.
Blessed are those who neither need to be in Goa nor meditating in buses. Coming home from a two week holiday with the hotels bath robes the theft justified as revenge for the poor service, claiming that it’s always nicest at home. This should be the search free state of enlightenment desirable, unfortunately I see myself a long way below that rung on the ladder.