Butterworth to Bangkok: 24 Hours on a Train

I was on a train for over 24 hours.

I didn’t exactly realize it would take so long, I thought maybe 18 or 19, but I was wrong.

It started out fun enough. The Butterworth to Bangkok train was just 2 cars, both old sleeper berths with two facing benches and a secured upper level that would turn into beds later. I made good progress on my book – Grisham’s The Pelican Brief, a mystery that I’d picked up in New Zealand and been saving for a long haul like this when a book that reads like a movie would help pass the time – while waiting for the border stop.

The border was easy enough: all stuff off, stamp out, stamp in, stuff on scanner, back on the train. When I got back on my warm vegetables and rice dinner was all set up in my booth for me (a rip off at 17 MYR but a good decision on my part since I’d underestimated the next day’s train time and would need my snacks then). It was decent and at least came with enough fruit to last me three breakfasts.

I figured we would get moving any minute but I was very wrong. Again. It was almost 2 hours until the train started rattling along. I have no idea why. But I’d gotten out my computer during this time and productivity struck. All those blog posts that have been posting daily for the past couple of weeks were written on this train, from leaving Khao Lak to Singapore.

Around 8:30 the guy came to turn my seat into bunk beds. I had the bottom bunk, thank god. I cocooned myself in my private room and read more Grisham till I felt tired enough to fall asleep. It was nice to finally have a bed on overnight transportation.

The morning was a little brutal. I kept thinking we would be arriving any minute and we kept moving. Morning turned into afternoon and I was still crouched in my little bunk. Where was the guy to make this a seat again? I kept shifting positions, trying to read. My iPod had died the night before when I fell asleep listening to it. Time kept passing and we still weren’t there. It wasn’t until around 2 when the train finally pulled into the Bangkok station. About damn time.

I was relieved to get off the train after such a long trip. The feeling of air rushing past me in the tuktuk felt fantastic. I was in Bangkok, and just hours away from another reunion with travel friends. That always makes the trek worth it.


A Stopover in Penang

I had high hopes for Penang. It was written up as a place with charming colonial architecture and the best street food scene in Malaysia.

I arrived in the afternoon and instantly started sweating. I was back in the heat. My first order of business was to figure out how I would get to Bangkok. My hostel recommended the train, like all the other travel advice I’d read so far, and that I get the ticket immediately. I was hungry and hot but I had a mission so I found my way through Little India, over a busy main road to the ferry terminal where the train ticket booth was located. I wanted to get this over with quickly, the street food was calling my name and it was already 2:30, but I wasn’t in credit card land anymore and didn’t have enough cash to buy the ticket so I had to go back out of the terminal, across the street, to find an atm and take out a measly amount of MRT with my heft US$5 foreign ATM transaction fee, then back to the road, the office – this felt harder than going to grandmother’s house. But eventually I got the ticket and could finally find some food.

I found the best looking food stall area at this weird in between lunch and dinner time and got a noodle dish with seafood that sounded close enough to one of Lonely Planet’s “must-eat” dishes. It was good, but it was also food, and at that point KFC would’ve tasted good.

I now knew I had to leave the next day by noon so I planned to make good use of my afternoon by walking around the supposedly picturesque Georgetown area of Penang. It turns out there’s not much to see there. Maybe I missed it or maybe I was mentally gone already, but this stop just felt like a time killer. I didn’t explore long before returning to my hostel for the night.

I feel a little bad about Penang; I was anxious to get to Bangkok and see Alex and Ben, and I’d just had a lovely stay in the Cameron Highlands. This felt like an in between, a stop that my have been better to avoid so I didn’t have such a mediocre opinion of Penang but was necessary to get the overnight train to Bangkok. It’s not the first time I’ve felt this way about a place and I’m sure it won’t be my last. It just happens sometimes.


I Got Healthy in the Mountains of the Cameron Highlands

The ride to the Cameron Highlands was rejuvenating. It didn’t take long till we were winding our way up tight mountain roads passing rich greenery. I read for a bit but passed a lot of time listening to music staring out the window. It was another crazy drive that reminded me of places I’ve enjoyed on my trip so far: Baños, Minca, Dalat were all approached on similar drives. It was a happy connection. I smiled. I already felt better up in the mountains.

When I got off the bus I was pleasantly surprised by the temperature; it was cool. The first thing I did at Father’s Guesthouse was put on jeans, a sweater and a hat. I was cozy and content. I’d missed a bit of a chill after all those weeks in sweltering heat. My evening was calm on purpose: blog, curry, reading. A final attempt to feel good again.

My one full day in the Cameron Highlands I did the highlight: the Mossy Forest tour with Cameron Secrets. We started in the tea plantation hills overlooking the whimsical rows of tea plants. There were some low misty clouds that created a fantastical atmosphere. The whole scene was very photogenic. After a brief lesson in tea production from our guide we went to a viewpoint, the highest peak in the region. The clouds had cleared and we were lucky to see nothing but blue skies over rolling green hills all around us. It was time to explore those hills, so after a short drive we were in the Mossy Forest.

The Mossy Forest is exactly what it sounds like. Trees and paths are blanketed in green moss. Interesting plants spring up from the soil and grow down from the branches. We trudged on a muddy path around, up, down, up again, in a swirling pattern only our guide knew, being told stories along the way about the forest, unique plants, conservation efforts, and parts of life in Malaysia in general.

The last stop felt most touristy: a tea factory that is supposedly still functioning but was closed today due to a low tea harvest, and the tea shop. We had an hour here to enjoy the tea and the view, aka buy things. I had a peach iced tea and it was nice but nothing Lipton couldn’t do. The view was pretty though.

After tea most of the group got dropped at a nearby town to walk back to Tanah Rata. I would have normally joined them but I was so close to healthy that I decided not to push it. Home for me. It was the right choice. I had an Indian pancake with veggies for lunch in town and spent most of my afternoon on the computer, blogging and editing a video from Fraser Island. It felt like a different life already and only 2 months had passed. I had dinner with the nice people from my tour and we played a game of Pictionary before bed.

I love these quiet interludes between louder adventures. They relax me, make me feel happy and at peace.

The Cameron Highlands was perfectly timed. It was a short stop on my short Malaysia trip but without it I don’t know when I would have felt better. I left the Cameron Highlands feeling healthy, happy, and ready for Bangkok. The only problem was I had to go to Penang first.

I Went to the Opening of a Waterfall in Kuala Lumpur

Like most people who go to KL, I just wanted to see the Petronas Twin Towers. My body wanted me to do nothing. Even after a 5 hour bus ride the first thing I did in KL was lie down in bed. This was going to be a rough one.

I had to do something, I only had a day and a half there, so I forced myself to get out and at least walk around the area the hostel was in, Chinatown. What is it about Chinatown everywhere and their markets? I strolled foggy-headed through a maze of stalls selling everything from electronics to tiny Petronas Towers statues. From the big outdoor market to the indoor Central Market I saw more souvenir stalls. My head was swimming. I grabbed a coke on my way to the Merdeka Square; it helped me feel a little more like a human.

Merdeka Square is an interesting assemblage of architecture and cultural institutions. One side is lined by a traditional-looking Malaysian building with small towers and Arabic arches, but behind this is a skyline of glass rectangles, and hiding behind that the tops of the Petronas Towers twinkle in the distance. The square is flanked by fountains, one with a large flagpole in the center proudly displaying the Malaysia flag. A small gallery has an “I ‘heart’ KL” statue out front with a designated picture-taking area. So I took a picture. At dusk the park had minimal activity. I sat on the edge for a while contemplating how I felt and my next moves.

My next moves were back to bed. Luckily my hostel, Reggae Mansion, had cubby holes for dorm beds so I was able to shut my curtain and try to sleep away my illness in peace. When I climbed into bed at 7 I thought I was taking a break. I woke up in the morning.

This was my only full day in KL so no matter what I was seeing things. I dragged myself out of bed and to a hostel breakfast of toast. I convinced myself that I could do this. I went straight for the Jamek Mosque next to the subway. It was under construction; the view from inside the subway was actually better than going into the mosque, but I was still happy to see some more Malaysian architecture.

The subway in KL is in between Singapore and South America: it is quiet like Singapore due to the doors that hide the approaching cars and dull their sound, but it is dirtier and smaller like some of the cars in BA. The one thing that is unlike anywhere is the tokens. The one ride pass is actually a plastic circle that you tap to get on and deposit into a turnstile to exit. I’ve seen subway tickets from tiny pieces of paper to tap to get in cards but I’ve never seen checkers pieces used for subway fare. I actually laughed out loud.

I went straight to the Petronas Towers. I had read the day before that they were closed on Monday so I already knew this would be an exterior- and lobby-only visit, but I still had to see them. They’re huge and shiny. They rise above everything else and the inspiration for their design – a Muslim symbol the Rub el Hizb – is obvious, but looking closely at the detailing and skybridge the steel structure is very visible. I viewed them from one side, backlit, then went through the base (a giant mall) to see the other side. Same impression, but a better view from this park. It would’ve been nice to go in them but I was satisfied, and I used my money to go for a better view from the KL Tower.

The KL Tower is more of a space needle design with two viewing options: observation deck for 45,000 MYR or outdoor deck for 90,000. You can guess which one I went with. From the observation deck I could see the huge extent of the city. I saw Merdeka Square and even found my hostel, then saw the myriad nondescript towers of the city center, with the shining Petronas Towers in the middle, as well as the distant mountains and smaller residential construction in the suburbs. The view was as impressive as advertised.

Then I got woozy and had to sit down. I was doing so well. Then it hit me: I was starving. I’d skipped dinner and just had toast for breakfast. I needed real food. I made my way to what Lonely Planet said would be a busy restaurant street and found one of the recommended places. I told the waiter I wanted Malaysian chicken soup and he served me just that with nice rice noodles and some veggies. It hit the spot. Until I had what looked like a relative of the string bean and ended up being the spiciest pepper I’ve ever eaten. I cried instantly. I had to keep eating just hoping the spice would die down from the other flavors. I was sweating. At least I was distracted from my illness.

I felt better after lunch and tried to make it to the Islamic Arts Museum. I rode the monorail to a different subway station, enjoying the mid-level view of the city, but when I got to the next station the transfer was not obvious and I was forced to wander around a mall until I found it. I was frustrated and tired. I needed small change for a new subway ticket so I bought a chocolate chip cookie. I got on the subway and instead of going to the museum got off back near the hostel.

I decided to go to the Cameron Highlands the next day and get out of this city. So I missed a museum, no big deal, I felt like I’d gotten a feel for the city and more importantly felt like getting out to the country was the right move for me to get healthy. KL is a big complicated city. It’s not easy to walk around, streets have basically no logical orientation, and it’s hot and busy. It didn’t make me want to stay long. So I went home, which happened to be near the bus station, and got my ticket for the following morning.

I was hiding in the AC working on uploading pictures when a hostel worker asked me if I’d be at dinner that night. What dinner? Reggae Mansion had won a Ministry of a Tourism award and all guests were invited to a dinner. For free. Free food? I’m in! All I knew was I had to be in the lobby at 7 with the other guests.

I was unprepared for what this night turned out to be. The hostel gave us some pizza slices and iced tea while we waited to depart – “dinner might start late, we don’t want you to be angry.” I talked to some lovely people from England and Colombia, who would be my companions for the night, while we waited for further instructions. Then we were told it was time to go. Where are we going? It turns out we were invited to the opening of a waterfall walking distance from the hostel. When we arrived it was an outdoor buffet under a tent basically on the side of the road next to the park with the newly constructed waterfall. About 50 of us from the hostel poured in; the only foreigners. Someone said some stuff in Malaysian then thanks us, the special guests from the award-winning hostel, for being there. Time to eat.

I had some rice and barbecued lamb with my new friends and then we were all summoned to the main event. We gathered next to the park as the music started and a man carrying the Malaysian flag zip-lined across the street. None of us knew what to think; we all took video of it. Where the hell were we? Then some colorful lights turned on and water started running down the smallish new waterfall. We took a group picture with the Minister of KL and some people shook hands with the Mayor. The head of tourism thanked us for coming. We walked back to the hostel unsure what just happened but laughing at the randomness of it all.

Thus ended my time in KL. It was a strange experience, from the sickness to my impression of the city to the waterfall opening event, but one that will not be forgotten. I wouldn’t tell anyone to rush there any time soon, but at least I made it, and made it out feeling a little better.

Thoughts from Butterworth: The End is Near

January 23, 2015. Butterworth, Malaysia. Waiting for the overnight train to Bangkok.

“The end is near. It’s been over 7 months so my technical end of the trip is fast approaching, less than 2 months to go. I think it’s safe to say that I don’t feel like I expected to at this point. Although how was I supposed to know how I would feel today. Months ago I remember declaring that I would travel until I couldn’t travel anymore, then I would find some temporary fix ’til I could take off and travel again. It’s not that I’m done with travel, far from it, but I feel I need a break soon. I want to unpack, I want to sleep in, I want a week where I don’t have to look at a single bus, train or plane ticket. I want to stop planning. I want to just be.

People who I’ve met on the road are going home, and for the first time I’m a little jealous. A bed, a couch, a fridge full of options, drinkable tap water, my own bathroom. It’s the comforts of home that I’ve started to miss, to yearn for.

I can finally see myself going home. I couldn’t for a long time, and I still know it will be a hard adjustment, but I can start to imagine it happening. I see myself hibernating for a while, eating PB&J’s with chocolate milk while I catch up on the news and movies. Doing some video editing. Wrapping up blog posts. It sounds lovely.

The part I can’t imagine is a few months into being home. I’ll have to start job searching, replenishing all the money I spent, becoming a “real person” again. And that’s when it’ll start again – looking at flight prices, calculating how long I could last off of what I have left, figuring out if I have to be done just yet. Just a few more months, maybe I can stretch it. South America is pretty cheap.

I can see myself going home, but I don’t know how long it’ll last. The good thing is that I don’t have to know. The hard thing is knowing that this travel bug has no cure. I don’t see 2 week vacatoins in my future, I see two, four, six month ones. So even though the end of this epic journey may be near, it doesn’t mean my exploration of the world is almost over. Not even close. But I’m only 27. I have a lot of life left for that, however I figure out how to keep it going. Maybe it’ll come to me during a break this summer. One way or another, I’ll figure it out. But that’s for a different blog. This one has a timeline now – open ended still, but maybe not eternal anymore.”