A young man makes his way West on $6 a day.
I arrived in Kuala Lumpur from the airport by bus late in the evening, blissfully ignorant of my surroundings. The notion that Asia was connected to Europe, and therefore Nina, had become an obsession for me. I would go there, I told myself. I would cross over Asia walking if I had to; I would starve if necessary. Indeed, perhaps that was preferable. If I could impress her with a thousand stories and a grand adventure perhaps she would have no choice but to love me, or at least respect me.
Malaysia immediately surprised me. I was, as previously stated, utterly ignorant of all things Malaysian, but I imagined that all of Southeast Asia was probably as chaotic, poor, and disorganized as the Philippines. Malaysia, on the other hand, seemed more wealthy and developed than the US. The thing that really surprised me was that the cars all drove within their well-marked lanes and avoided leaning constantly on their horns.
I took a taxi from the bus station to Chinatown, where the cheapest lodgings were supposed to be found, and wandered into the first guesthouse that I found. The streets seemed scrubbed and sanitary and I immediately felt that I had arrived at the center of a civilized, modern place: a ‘World City’ as such locations are usually called.
I was met on the stairs by a relatively tall Malay man who greeted me with a warm smile.
“Are you looking for a bed?” He asked me in clear English with a strong British accent.
“Yeah…” I answered.
“Well, I’m sorry, but we’re all booked. If you’d like, you could sleep on the roof for tonight. You don’t need to pay anything. Tomorrow there will be space in the dormitory.”
It was perfect. I had been calculating my expenses during the flight. I counted the cost of the visas across Asia: Laos, China, Pakistan, Iran. I had planned on hitchhiking, but there would certainly be places where that was impractical or impossible and therefore I would need to buy bus tickets or taxis. I allowed for these expenses and subtracted them from the money I had left in my bank account. I then calculated the time I would need to cross such a vast distance and formulated a daily budget. It amounted to $6 per day until Western Turkey, where I would probably run completely out of money. The taxi had already cost me $4, so the option of sleeping for free was a blessing.
I was already tired as I dropped my possessions on the floor of the terrace. I unfolded a blanket and put it down as a mattress. I stretched out and leaned my head back on my backpack and looked up at the sky, surrounded by the radiant lights of the bustling city. I lay comfortably in my new home and slept peacefully, having no fear of the journey ahead, and no worries to trouble me. For three nights I stayed like this in Kuala Lumpur, before I began to realize that I had worn out my welcome and needed to move on.
I took a bus to the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur and found a place along the highway from where I could hitch a ride. Lacking the money for a map, I had sketched a rough outline of the country from a map at the previous hostel and included the names of some towns on it. I wrote the name of a town on a piece of cardboard and stuck my thumb out by the side of the road.
Great things can be said of hitchhiking in Malaysia. Hitchhiking was probably preferable to taking public transport, as each driver was increasingly hospitable and kind. I never waited for more than half an hour for a ride and was invited to lunch by a couple of Chinese businessmen on that first day, who also gave me a few bills amounting to 30 Malaysian ringgits ($10USD) for a possible train ride north. Indeed, by the end of my first day I was $10 ahead for my troubles and within 100 kilometers of the Thai border.
By nightfall, I found myself in a town intersected by a highway headed north to the Thai border and made my bed in a small park just across the road from a gas station. The heat was oppressive, even after dark, so I pitched my one-man tent and stripped down to my underwear inside of it. Sleep was difficult, as the ground below me was quite rocky and loud cars and screaming motorbikes would pass by periodically throughout the night less than three meters from my head. Besides, there is always a certain stress in lying out exposed in an urban area which prevents the traveler from enjoying a peaceful night of sleep, though in this circumstance I was confident that no one would rob me.
In the morning, just as I left my bed, I was greeted by a young man who had been running circles in the park. When he saw me, his face lit up in surprise.
“Are you okay?” he asked me with concern. “Why are you sleeping here?”
“I don’t have money to stay anywhere else,” I said with a smile. “Do you know what time it is?”
He was carrying a watch and checked it eagerly.
“Seven o’clock,” he told me. Then suddenly I saw him pull it off his wrist and offer it to me, nearly placing it in my hand.
“No, no, my friend,” I said, laughing, “Thank you, but I don’t need a watch.”
He looked even more worried.
“What about your family?” he asked.
“They’re in the United States…”
“You don’t have a job? I mean, you didn’t study…?” he continued asking me almost desperately.
“I quit school to get an education…”
At this he seemed still more puzzled.
“Well,” he finally remarked, ” It must be easier like this!”
As we had been speaking I had finished packing my things and was ready to continue on my way. I met him with a final grand smile, utterly content with the way things were going on my journey and shook his hand.
“Goodbye,” I said.
“Please, take the watch. I’d give you… I mean if I had any money… I have a few…”
I laughed again, “Thank you, but I don’t need anything. You’re too generous. Goodbye.”
I crossed the road and stuck my thumb out, this time with the word Thailand written across my cardboard sign. Two hours later I was dropped at the border.
The border crossing was nothing more than a languid river, and after receiving my exit stamp I wandered across a short bridge into a new world, utterly cut off from the English language. I didn’t immediately find the Thai immigration office, but eventually discovered a jeep minibus service that seemed to be headed further into the country and away from the border. Unable to communicate with the locals, I reasoned that the immigration post must be further down the road, and I went along.
I had heard many things about Thailand, that the women were beautiful and that the country was wildly chaotic, that the food was spicy and delicious, and that the beaches were some of the most beautiful in the world. As I entered the back of the jeep my eyes fell on an incredibly beautiful young woman. Her dark eyes flashed back at me cautiously from under a beautiful flowing lace headscarf. Every curve and line of her face was to me the expression of feminine beauty, and her soft pink lips broke into a tiny shy smile. I smiled back.
Thailand suddenly seemed like a fine place to be, but where was the immigration office…?
We went on northward for fifteen minutes before I realized that I had made a grave error. I pulled out my passport and tried to use body language to ask my companions in the jeep where it should have been stamped, but they didn’t seem to understand. Finally, we arrived at a stop, and I stepped down to try to communicate with the driver.
After a couple of minutes of inter-cultural charades, he understood what I needed, and pointed back down the highway from where we had come. I would have to go back. I muttered some profanity, paid the driver, and found another jeep back to the border.
When I finally arrived, I discovered that the immigration checkpoint was located just beside the river and about 20 meters from the bridge. I cursed my lack of thoroughness as they stamped my passport, and I found yet another jeep to take me back to where I had been. In total, half my daily budget had been spent just on the jeep rides, and my stomach was already rumbling.
When I finally arrived back in town, I was met with strange, often cold stares from nearly everyone in the street. I hadn’t expected this. It seemed that foreigners were quite rare, and was only later to learn about the ongoing ethnic bloodshed that had been ripping through the region at the time between the Muslim minority and Buddhist majority. Utterly ignorant of Thai geography, and lacking a map, I found a place along the road where a sign in English read: Bangkok. I stuck my thumb out and tried to flag a ride.
One hour turned into two, and no one even considered picking me up. I would try to make eye contact with the drivers, but rarely received any response. Eventually, after three hours in the equatorial midday heat, I retreated from the highway to a small roadside shop selling beer and snacks.
I ordered one cold 630 ml Beer Chang, and as my road further seemed impossibly blocked, I ordered another, and another. Soon, as I was quite dehydrated and hungry, I was getting drunk and found myself sitting morosely along the side of the road again, pathetically trying to flag a ride.
As I looked across the four-lane highway, however, I noticed something entirely foreign to me. Brass arches decorated with dragons and strange beasts guarded a wall of fiery reddish-orange and gold. I left my pack and stumbled across the highway, as if pulled by some invisible force. When I entered the gates and looked around me, I noticed an empty courtyard. There was a temple on a small mound with steps running up into it, and inside a few monks praying and meditating. I looked around me for a long moment, having forgotten all of my recent troubles and studying the tall, ancient, languid trees of the courtyard. A peace settled over me, and at the same time a resolution that nothing was lost, that the road ahead was indeed open and that I could persevere. Every obstacle was simply a challenge and once it was passed would become a new strength. I smiled now, my drunkenness suddenly faded and my desperation gone. I recrossed the road, picked up my pack, and sat down next to a teenage Thai boy at the roadside store as I ordered a bottle of water.
He had an English-Thai dictionary, and taught me the pronunciation of about 100 words in Thai, such as numbers and a few basic questions. I wrote them feverishly in my notebook and thanked him in my new vocabulary before setting off walking northward, still trying to flag a ride toward Bangkok.