Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Day the System Beat Us

Every backpacker wants to do it his or her own way.  Most also want to believe that they're the only one to have ever discovered a point of interest, or had a particular unique experience.  The truth is we all have a copy of the Lonely Planet guide to SE Asia on a Shoestring and we're all subject to the same ploddings from the local and sometimes scam-artist travel agencies.  And we all go to the same dang places.

As a backpacker (and yes, I can now call myself a backpacker, since I ditched my suitcase), I am determined to spend the least amount of money possible.  I was not 'backpacking' in Australia.  I spent crazy money.  But now it's time to tighten the ol' proverbial belt.  This has become so easy because I am now traveling with the world's cheapest person, rivalling only Larry O'Connell in her ability to survive on less than $10k per year.  Even as I type this, she corrected me with "8 grand."  We have a game now.  The game of spending NO money.  One of the most common phrases we uttered in Thailand was "mai me thang" (my me tong) which means, "I have no money."  I have become so adept at this game I once walked three blocks to save 33 cents on my laundry.  I have walked away from taxi drivers because they wouldn't come down 1 US dollar. 

When confronted with the task of getting from A to B, "mai me thang" becomes tricky.  Plane?  Bus?  Train?  Taxi?  Open air truck?  Tuk tuk?  Walk?  You're going to need all of them, but which order and how cheap can it be done?  Summer and I found ourselves in this predicament because our time in Thailand had come to an end, and we had to find a way to our next destination of Penang Malaysia.  Lonely Planet suggests that this is an easy task, and that border crossings are usually no problem.  It even lists unbelievably cheap prices like $5 to the border of Thailand from Krabi town (our starting point) and $8 from the border to Penang. 

Our hotel offered a complete pick-up, drop-off package for 650 BAHT each, or $20.96.  This is not bad, considering you're traveling a total of seven to eight hours and it includes every leg of the trip.  But we felt we could do BETTER.  CHEAPER.  And so we took our little motorbike into Krabi town and drove around for a really long time looking for the 'local' bus station.  It's on the map, but impossible to find.  Eventually we got there, but not before being directed to several 'travel agencies' on the way.

As we approached the bus station, we were mobbed by men in red vests and white vests saying everybody's favorite Asian-accented-English-phrase, "where you go?"  We told them "Penang" and they said, "OK you follow", and suddenly we're leaving the bus station and going to an adjacent travel agency?  There we were offered a price of 600 BAHT.  No hotel pick up.  No thanks.  Back inside, there are three counters, only one of which looks legitimate.  We were ushered to one of the illegitimate-looking counters, because of course the legitimate-looking one serves only Bangkok to the north. 

"How much to Penang?"
"No Penang.  Only border Thailand."
"Ok how much border Thailand?"
"169 BAHT 2nd class.  219 BAHT 1st class."
"What's the difference?"
"2nd class no toilet."
Summer and I look at each other, eyebrows raised.  We don't need a toilet!  Now we're GETTING somewhere.  That price was $5.45 US to take us to the border of Thailand.  A town called Hat Yai.  A half-way point.  A town Lonely Planet calls an easy border crossing.  We stepped aside for a quick impromptu band meeting and weighed price against time.  I asked Summer if, in the end, we saved just $8 per person, would it be worth it?  We agreed that we wanted to try doing this on our own, and even if we saved $1 it would be worth the adventure.
"OK we'll take two tickets to Hat Yai on the 2nd Class but at 11am."
"I not sure if 2nd class bus tomorrow.  You come back tomorrow buy ticket."
OK...whatever.  I'm pretty sure I said to the woman, "I don't believe you."

So we left the bus station and drove past a sign for something a French guy recommended to us called the Tiger Cave.  This is a whole other blog post, so I'll leave it there for now.

The next morning, we got up, had breakfast, took one last ride on our motorbike to use up all of the gas we put in it (like I said, cheap/principled) and then hired an open-air truck for 60 BAHT to take us directly to the bus station.  When we got on, there were a little boy and three girls on the left hand side, and an ancient old woman on the right hand side.  Summer and I sat next to the old woman, who did not move or make room at all.  A few kilometers later the truck driver picked up three more people and there was only space for maybe half a butt.  We laughed at the truck driver, but this was only a tiny picture of things to come.  Once at the station, we were directed to the other illegitimate-looking ticket stand, and we purchased two 2nd class tickets for 169 BAHT each.  The fact that it was the same price was comforting.  The fact that we didn't have to give the lying lady our money was priceless.  The 2nd class bus would arrive in 10 minutes.  Perfect timing!  We're winning!  We took turns peeing and got on the bus.

There seemed to be no seats available.  How strange.  Why would they overbook a bus?  I am laughing at my reaction now, but at the time it seemed utterly absurd that there wouldn't be any seats for the Misses Kady Hexum and Summer Grimes.  We got befuddled, but finally once people situated themselves I discovered that there were two seats in the front row across the aisle from eachother and we thanked our lucky stars and moved into them.  With every one of the 50 seats occupied, and only three of them by Westerners (one German dude got on), Summer and I congratulated ourselves for our genius and frugality and ability to blend with the locals and so on.  Winning again!  Then more locals started getting on the bus. 

On these buses you'll usually have your driver, and then one or two staff members who tell people where to sit, take tickets and money, etc.  The man who was in charge of the bus yelled out the window at anybody on the road and invited them onto the bus.  Pretty soon there were 20 people standing in the aisle, two of them with their butts in my face.  And now I was just glad to have a seat.  Right as I hunkered down into that feeling, an OLD woman got on the bus and stood at the front, looking for a place for herself and her young granddaughter.  Crap.  Hal Hexum would turn over in his grave if he found out I remained seated and so I dutifully jumped up and the woman and her daughter sat down.  Summer squished over and I put my butt on her seat and sat sideways.  This meant that I was in the way of the aisle, and everyone who got on had to get by me and so I had to stand up, straddle Summer's lap, lean against her so that my chest was practically in her face, and the bus would heave and sway and people would knock into me and it was way too hot for that kind of close contact.  Then they would get by and I would sit back down and the ticket-taking man would then decide to go and collect their money.  But through all of this I had a huge smile on my face, because we were winning!  We figured out a way to beat their system.  Plus it was fun!  Everybody on the bus seemed to get a kick out of the Western girls, smiling, laughing out loud to This American Life on their headphones.  The adventure was already beginning to pay off.  But we still wondered if anybody was going to get OFF of this bus.  And then somebody did.  We high-fived eachother.  But another person got on, we grimaced.  At the next stop, two people got off and three got back on.  It was like a bad 6th grade math problem.

This was a four hour ride.  On the way I checked the map of Thailand in the Lonely Planet guide and discovered that Hat Yai is not in fact on the border.  It's like far from the border.  Wha?  Half-way there our driver stopped for a toilet / lunch break.  See?  We didn't need a toilet!  Winning!  Summer and I both went to the bathroom.  I went first and was depressed because there was a huge bottle of lotion on the counter but no soap.  There's never any soap!  I have hand sanitizer, but it's just not the same.  Then Summer comes out of the bathroom beaming.  "Soap!" she says.  "Huh?" I say.  "The lotion bottle.  It was soap."  "What!"  When she saw from my face that I hadn't figured out the lotion bottle contained soap, she said, "Kady, what's the worst that could have happened if it HAD been lotion?  You would have had a little lotion to rinse off your hand.  It was soap.  mmmmm.  Smells good."  And then she rubbed it in my face.  Literally.  She made me smell her fingers.  They smelled good.  (We're discussing this story now as I retell it, and she said, "I'm just trying to wrap my mind around why you didn't just try it."  I have no good answer.) 


Finally we arrived in Hat Yai and no sooner had we gotten off the bus did a man in a green vest yank us over to another travel agency.  They offered us 450 BAHT to take us to Penang.  And the bus left in 40 minutes.  "NO WAY!"  We left and got a beer at a 7-Eleven, sat in the air conditioning and had another emergency band meeting.  How did this happen?  Why is Hat Yai not on the actual border of Malaysia?  Why don't we do more research?  Lazy!  OK.  We agreed that there was no way in heck we were going to pay 450.  Not for a minivan ride to Penang.  Not now, while we were doing so well.  We told him we wanted big bus.  When we walked past him again he offered 350 BAHT.  We declined, an he explained to us that there was some sort of Holiday that day, and that tons of Malaysians had come into Thailand, and were now trying to get home.  This irritated the crap out of me.

He tried to say there was no bus to Malaysia.  "How do all the Malaysians get home then?", I asked, "are they all chartering mini vans, at 11 people per?"  "WHERE IS THE BUS THE MALAYSIANS TAKE?!"  I demanded, and he left us.

So we went back into the actual station and asked for a bus to the border, or a town called Padang Besar.  Only 40 BAHT!  Winning!  We ran and jumped on because it was about to leave.  I still had the 7-Eleven beer in my hand, and a woman on the bus in a hijab saw me and shut! her curtain.   (I don't know if it was the beer or my tiny sundress?)  This bus took two hours.  Somewhere in the middle of the two hours, the bus pulled over and kicked us off.  They said, go get on that bus.  It was across 6 lanes of traffic.  I grabbed my backpack and RAN across the highway to hold the bus for us.  Summer wasn't so lucky.  Her suitcase was heavy, she had all the stuff in her backpack sprawled out like garage sale-style across the seat and so it took her more time to get to bus number 2.  This was our first fight.  Somebody thought somebody else shouldn't have ditched her and somebody else thought an implication was made that she was unhelpful.  We fought it out in front of a busfull of Thai people who we assumed didn't speak English, but probably recognized some of the words we used.  Once we finally came to terms with the other's position on the matter, a one-thousand-pound bus window fell on Summer's arm because I may have forgotten to latch my side of it.  I laughed.  She cried.  The 9-inch square bruise on her bicep is a daily reminder.  Here is me and my Muslim-offensive beer and sundress:

and look at these little cuties!:

This second bus finally arrived in Padang Basar and when it stopped and we were kicked off again we were told there is the border, but go next door to this hotel.  So we walked passed the border crossing to the hotel, and the hotel person had no idea about anything about a border, except that we could walk across and she thought we should be next door, and not at her hotel.  We used the toilet and bought water.  This toilet was monumentally disgusting, with standing water on the floor, a bucket holding open the door and no lock.  But there was soap.  But the soap dispenser wasn't working.  And so I unscrewed it.  Then all the liquid soap from inside the dispenser spilled all over the counter.  And I didn't even feel bad because I think maybe I made the bathroom just a tad cleaner for it.

So now we are back with heavy backpacks, walking across the Malaysia border.  You heard me.  We walked into Malaysia.  We had to get passports stamped, and by now it was dark and 8pm.  If we had taken the hotel's option we'd be in Penang by now and we still had four hours to go.  Not winning.  A nice man with an open-air truck who was crossing the border to get gas (remember this International Falls-ians?) offered us a free ride to a taxi stand on the other side.  We took him up on it thankfully and he did drop us at a taxi stand, where they attempted to extort us for 80 ringgit ($24 US) for a ride to Alor Satar, about 45 minutes away.  I offered 30 ringgit.  ($9.23 US).  They said no, and we walked away again for an emergency band meeting.  Before we walked away, I told him, "we got all the way here from Krabi for $13 total, you want $24 to go just to Alor Satar? NO WAY!  TOO EXPENSIVE!!"

This is where we considered hitchhiking.  Normally I would never in a million years do it.  And we didn't do it.  But we considered it, and based on that tiny fact you could see how desperate we felt at that moment.  Instead we went to a Malaybank ATM and got some Malaysian ringgit and were on our way to the 7-Eleven when the man who overheard our taxi cab situation got involved.  He had seen a tourbus around the corner and negotiated two spots on it for us to go all the way to Alor Satar.  We didn't know the price, but we felt very fortunate because it was an icy-cold air conditioned bus.  There was even a Western man on it and this was pretty rare.  When we realized that the tourbus driver agreed to it, we were like, "Wait wait wait, how much?" and we found out they had told the tourbus driver we were willing to pay 30 ringgit to get to Alor Satar.  But that was by private cab.  Tour bus changes things.  But it was too late.  If we wanted the ride it was 30 ringgit, no negotiating.  This brought our individual totals up to $17.  We had only $3 US to make it from Alor Satar to Penang and still come under budget.  There was still a chance to win...but it was getting tinier.  We took the ride. 

I'm not sure how the driver turned 45kms into 2 hours, but he did and we arrived in Alor Satar at 10:30.  Alor Satar was not a bus station, but rather a coach bus express station, serving not Penang, but Butterworth, which is just a ferry ride away from Penang, our final destination.  We asked around and found a price of 13 ringgit each to get to Butterworth, bringing our individual totals to $21.  BUSTED.  DEFEATED.  BLURG!

I had read in lonely planet that Alor Satar is a Western woman's nightmare because of the hassling they receive from the local men, mostly of Mulsim descent.  I told Summer I would rather be stranded in Butterworth than in Alor Satar, and she agreed.  I should disclaim that there is no anti-Muslim feeling on our parts at all, this was just an entirely new experience for us, to be in 110 degree heat surrounded by hundreds of people, including so many women whose only skin showing was their hands and faces.  Being white-faced, blue-eyed, skin exposed was a little nerve-wracking.  I draped my Samoa sarong over my shouders and bought an insanely delicious Waffle with strawberry jelly.  I told Summer I would kill someone for some peanut butter.  Then we waited for our coach bus.  While we were waiting, I became involved in a LONG conversation with a mulleted man who explained that he was in a band and his mullet was 'rock and roll'.  I didn't disagree, but when he told me that his two wives liked their arrangement, I had to.  "No they don't."  We argued.  I said, "do you know how I know?  Because I'm a woman."  I asked if they all lived in one big house and he said that no, the women needed separate quarters.  "See!"  I said.  Then he told me that he prefers his daughters to wear the hijab because it "restricts their movements and keeps them out of trouble."  I asked how does he keep his sons out of trouble?  And then he went on to tell me that he's some kind of spy and I wrote him off as a crazy person.

Blah blah blah this story is getting so long!  But listen, let me tell you, it's not near as long as our day of travel. 

So the coach bus was icy cold and we got single seats and they reclined and when we got to Butterworth we were so elated to be just a ferry ride from our hotel.  We told them we'd check in at 9pm and it was only 1:40am.  Not bad.  Except. The. Ferry. Was. Closed. 

A little man who also missed the ferry told us that there was a bridge.  We asked about taking a bus or a taxi into Georgetown (the city in Penang where we were staying.)  He said it would be expensive, but directed us to their stand.  Summer asked if we should just accept defeat and take the cab, or should we wait for the 5am ferry at only 1 ringgit (30 cents)?  I was tired.  Negotiating powers -- ACTIVATE!

I left Summer at the seating area and went to work my magic.  The drivers told me that they charge 70 ringgit, but 60 was the lowest they would go.  I told them we had no money, and the next ferry was only 3 hours away, so what did they think?  Could they go to 40 ringgit?  ($12 US).  HA! No! they said.  There are two tolls at 7 ringgits each.  One to take us there and one to get back to the taxi stand.  They tried to tell me it was some law that they couldn't go below 60, but one man said he would take 50.  "You're just sitting here doing nothing.  If you change your mind, we have 40 ringgit for the ride and we are sitting over there."  And I pointed to Summer. 

Later Summer described the scene of me talking to the taxi stand men as a bunch of hand waving, almost flailing, on everyone's part.  She hoped the argument was not as heated as it looked.  We talked about it.  50 ringgit is only $15 US.  I left the offered cab ride over $3, or only $1.50 per person.  Suddenly I had an idea.  What if the cab driver could take us, and the nice man who helped us at the ferry for 50 ringgit?  Even though that meant caving to the taxi driver's last offer, we could squeeze another person in the cab, and do a good Samaritan act at the same time.  We would win!  Summer agreed, and I went back to make negotiations.  (I should mention this was after we waited a good 15 minutes for the cab drivers to 'change their minds' but they never did.  Jerks.) 

He agreed to take our friend.  It was lost in translation, and I mistook it as the man was Muslim and didn't want help from a woman.  (I can't help it, I just don't know that much about Muslims.)  I tried to save the situation by explaining that we needed his help finding our hotel and we didn't feel safe and could he accept the ride in exchange for his help?  He agreed.  Later in the cab, he told us he was Hindu.  BLURG.

We were dropped in front of our hotel at precisely 3:30am Malaysia time (one hour ahead of Thailand).  It took us 15.5 hours and $28 to make the hot, sweaty trip.  Instead of 8 hours and $20.  Lesson learned.

And that's how the System beat us.  The End.


ashley said...

I did it! I read the whole thing! Do I get a prize?

Anonymous said...

10 minutes later, that is an awsome story. Oh how i miss franticlly trying to catch buses. RH

Anonymous said...


I so understand. You have to read my blog on going into Cambodia and being harassed by the C. mafia because we tried to piecemeal it as well. "shoberg" click on mafia/cambodia blog. I promise you will relate and love it.
We had to learn the same lessons.

You need to get somewhere magical and stay there for a week to recharge, or you will start to fight/breakdown/stress about the small stuff that should not be stressed about.

ps. sorry for sounding teachy/preachy. I love following your blogs because you are doing our trip in reverse order and I love it!

norwhales are the new unicorn said...

Loved reading this! Glad you are making all these mistakes so I know what NOT to do when I go! ;~D

Glad you are safely in Penang,too! Love you!

Sarah said...

Back in about chapter six of this post, when you guys got dropped off no where near the border, I was laughing because how could you not look at a map? Mostly I was feeling sorry for you. What I remember about bus travel was the constant, unrelenting carsickness, standing up by the driver looking out into the distance hoping that would cure the nausea. Never did.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a stinky lesson to learn about cheap travel...I feel for you. Hopefully now you can find some cool places to relax for awhile.

The bus story reminds me of my recent adventure in friend and I took the "local" bus to the airport..a 3 hour ride...thought we had seats...but apparently not...standing in the aisle falling on people for hours...with people just staring at us and talking about us inches away..very uncomfortable.


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