Goodbye Hat Yai! – on awkward transitions

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‘Hat Yai! Hat Yai!’ A Thai woman called repeatedly, walking up and down the carriage. I started; dozing every 20 or so minutes had become a habit on the 15 hour journey.

Other people were in the carriage too; men. And they called out, ‘Hat Yai, Hat Yai!’ until it rang a rhythm to my panic. I gathered my things in a fever, afraid that I would miss the stop, forgetting that the train terminated here, in Hat Yai City; Big City living in southern Thailand.

My head was ringing as I stumbled, shoe laces still untied, from the train carriage, balking at the canyon between the train and the platform, wincing in advance of the pain I would feel in my ankle.

Old sofas, stuffing-guts spilling out, made for benches. Women stood at stands offering food as the flies crashed above through an overwhelming smell of fish.

And then it began, ‘where’re you going?’ Local men surrounded me; persistent. I was money. I was sweaty money. I began to walk. Again and again and again they asked me. I to them I knew where I was going (first time I have ever said that with much conviction).

If there is ever pessimism in the Lonely Planet, then I would say there were undertones in the section on Hat Yai. In its brevity and it’s ‘stay if you want’ attitude. I didn’t want, but having changed my plans to suit my wretched foot, I had no choice.

Hat Yai City, population 157,000 approx is a transition town; a place which travellers pass through and historically where Malaysian men make weekend pilgrimage to find their hookers. Along with this you might find good shopping and good food.

Between the Internet and The Lonely Planet, I was confused. The Lonely Planet advised that mist interprovincial buses and south-bound minivans left from the bus terminal south of the city centre. The Internet (I generalise here) advised not to travel direct to the bus terminal but that tickets must be booked from one of the many travel agencies scattered all over the city.

My instinct was that I wanted to buy the tickets direct from the station, if I could. Call me tight but I didn’t fancy paying commission to an agent for something that a degree of hobbling could achieve; I think it’s my duty as a traveller to adopt this attitude.

My first life line turned out to be the TAT, the Thai tourist authority. Located 100 yards from Sripoovanart Road on Niphat Uthit 3 Soi 2, they furnished me with a full timetable. So I set off to the bus station to try to book my way out of Hat Yai.

I passed by the international Golden Arches of McDonalds, an amazing feat considering my hunger, before I tailed onto the backstreets where people on mopeds shout ‘hey lady!’, greasy dogs watch their patch of concrete and men piss into the canal. There are also many many food stalls and I berated myself for being too meek to try at least one. Instead I fixed my face and just kept walking. And walking.

But I couldn’t buy a ticket to Ranong, when I got there, as I had planned. No, the ticket booth was shut until six. I slumped down on a bench to gather my thoughts.

‘Where’re you goin’?’ This time it was a New Zealander, pre-occupied with his onward journey to Padang Besar (border town and dead ringer for The Phantom Zone of Superman literature) and a seemingly insatiable itch in his scrotal area.

I’You wanna’ go to Phuket, Ranong bus is gonna’ go there anyway.’ I nodded, made the right noises and tried not to notice the itching.

‘Loads of buses go to Phuket.’

I assured him I would keep it as a back-up plan, then continued to give him my interested face as he told me of his frustrations.

The next time I saw the bus station I rode there, on the back of a motorcycle taxi, my 15kg rucksack wedged in front of the driver. The 50 baht ride might have been the first time I have genuinely smiled since arriving. Whether that was because of the feeling of the warm wind through my clothes or the anticipation of leaving, I don’t know; probably both.

In the end I got a ticket to Phuket – international beach resort – looking for some certainty. Although a little voice resounded, is that what travelling is? Certainty?

On my return to the hotel, through those back streets, I’d asked myself what travelling was all about. Because right then I felt scared, alien and impotent. And of course I got no answer but my instincts told me I might find both my feet and some temporary peace in Phuket.

Now the useful stuff:

The bus terminal is just off Sripoovanart Road on Chotwittayakul 1 Road…

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Bottom right, not Google Maps, I know.

Hat Yai Bus Terminal can be contacted on 0 7423 2404

Buses offers are VIP, two levels of air-con and non-air-con.

Here are a few of the locations the terminal services:

Bangkok
Chumpon
Koh Samui
Koh Yai
Krabi
Padang Besar
Phang-Nga
Phuket
Ranong
Surat Thani
Trang

This list is not exhaustive and for all locations there are multiple departures daily.

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Travelling Feet

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Or not….

Three weeks post-ski season I do a light, four mile jog. The risks are much smaller than those faced on the slopes and its not the first since my return either, its possibly the fifth. The result is as shown above…

Tubi grip was not in my travel wardrobe. Sadly, yes, the sandals always were. Quite gross but also quite practical!

So, if ever it was crucial not to carry too much stuff, it’s now…

…slowly, I unpack everything. Then slowly I re-pack. Everything. Curse my penchant for hoarding! Clearly, I have not learned the lesson of letting go yet. Buddha would be unimpressed.

Park Life – Acclimatisation in Kuala Lumpur

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…The title? Think dirty pigeons…

After 24 hours in Malaysia my brain was struggling (with the noise, sticky heat, roads – their treachery and lack of pavements – stares, dilemmas, the great bulk of my backpack) and searched constantly for patterns, something it could identify with.

Eventually, it found animals.

My first fear, if it is that easy to separate those slippery, weaving eels, was that once in the guesthouse, my bedroom door shut, in a sanctuary where there were no eyes or voices, it would become my cage. I would not dare to leave, like an animal that desperately seeks safety. Like my cat, in fact, who disappeared behind the washing machine for two weeks when she first became ‘my cat’.

And strangely, it happened just that way – funny, huh? I had more in common with my cat than I thought. But for me it took only 13 hours to emerge and like ‘Little Miss Tib Tabs’, it was food that drew me.

However, I think our similarities end there. Before I could face breakfast (a good job it ran from 07:30-11:30) I had to revise Malaysian culture and food etiquette – always use the right hand (never the left, the poo hand), don’t put the fork in your mouth, use it to push food onto the spoon, wash your hands, before and after…I had images of horrified gasps, the Malay equivalent of crossing themselves (whatever that is) as I unwittingly did all of these things.

But, eventually I clunked my way to the ground floor and within minutes was sat on the covered porch, in a chair the shape of a huge hand, a steaming mug of coffee in front of me. Ahhhhh – I had not been cast out as a heathen.

Shortly after I sat down a grey cat streaked in, only half a tail and little spare flesh. Trotting low it came to rest under a large bench. It was something in its urgency that caused me to look outside, beyond the canopy; it was a dense mucousy grey. Rain, lots of rain.

The cat comforted me. I watched it beneath the bench, tearing at its clumped coat with its tongue, intermittently staring at the monsoon. Like the cat I looked with baleful saucer eyes, but set out later anyway, turning towards the monorail station, umbrella aloft. I fixed on the entrance as I passed the first of many malls. ‘You want taxi?’ An old man looked at me. I shook my head. He would be the first of many. ‘What wrong with your foot?’ Again, the first of many, always men.

Kuala Lumpur is not like the cities I know; European cities. Much of the centre, although close together, is huge dual carriageway. Like any city it is thronged with vehicles, one after another, after another. But there so many motorbikes, armies of (mainly men) on board old puttering machines, their jackets worn back to front across their bodies –

– and then the more I think, perhaps it’s not the construction. It maybe no different from many European cities in build. It was the customs; the noise and the customs. Many of the crossings do not work, so to cross four lanes of traffic people learn split second timing. I found myself walking long pavements, beside these beasts and when I needed to cross, honed the hobble-run. Nowhere else have I walked a dual carriageway into the path of the oncoming traffic. In China Town the roads became narrower, wedged with every kind of vehicle, pipping and chuntering, straddling junctions and, in the case of the mopeds, simply mounting the pavements and using them as a short cut.

Tides of men passed me in varieties of costume while I limped my way up that dual carriageway and I began to think of lame pigeons. Those you see on the street, close to the walls or edges of side walks, a little broken and lost; a sight that evokes pity and revulsion in equal measure. I wondered then about the eyes that ran over me; always male.

Through China Town, then beyond the market dragons and into the city to the magnificent Petronas Towers; one huge monument to capitalism built on foundations of Chanel and Bvlgari. KLCC, the business district; where the corporate animals live.

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Business time…

At the guesthouse, safe, I congratulated myself; able to smile, rather than scream, at the lizard scuttling about the light fitting. Aware that I had not eaten, I dared myself to head out again to the street vendors.

Only I didn’t go. Disturbed on the porch by a man who claimed to be in Real Estate, to do ‘oh, maybe one or two deal a year; that’s all I need.’ He had a BMW, he said. He was a good friend of the guesthouse owner, he said. He had time to kill he said, before going clubbing. The club – The Butter Factory – opened late, he was meeting a lady there, an architect. I didn’t tell him he was killing my time, I only wondered that there was this type of man all over the world. Making my excuses, ducking the inevitable invite by pointing at my bandaged foot, I limped to my room. After that, I stayed there, hiding; always the animal.

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