Hat Yai, Thailand. Friday 2nd March 2018.
When I think back about why I chose to go to Thailand instead of Singapore, I reach the conclusion that it was as a result of what’s known as a ‘bugger’s muddle’. I think the crucial issue was that I needed to renew my Carnet (Carnet De Passage en Douane) before the end of March. The issuing motoring club, Germany’s ADAC, insist that the old Carnet is stamped out of a country before it expires, and then that the new one must be started off in a different country to the old one. What that tortuous rule meant in practical terms was that I needed to exit Malaysia, with my bike, on or before the 31st March. Meanwhile, my visa expired on the 10th March. With a bit better organisation I would have finished my tour of Malaysia by the time my visa ran out, arranged for my new Carnet to start at that same point in time, and everything would have clicked into place. But that was far too simple. I hadn’t got around to ordering my new Carnet early enough. The ADAC will issue it up to four weeks ahead of its start date, so in theory I could have arranged for its arrival at Tony and Maggie’s, down near KL, and then gone over to Singapore to renew my visa. The main reason why I didn’t go south to Singapore is because my new Carnet wouldn’t have arrived before I needed to head north again. A comedy of errors, but I wasn’t laughing. It wouldn’t have been so bad if Malaysia’s re-entry rules hadn’t been so harsh. Here’s what happened.
Carnet de Passage. This is what all the fuss was about.
I rode into Bukit Kayu Hitam, the Malay border town, with the intention of trying to find out whether or not I could do quick border run; i.e. cross over and come straight back, or maybe just stay for a night and then return. The road took me to the border area, almost without pause, and before I knew it I was sucked into the specific motorcycle lane that took me to passport control. Narrow, and with nowhere to turn round. I’d wanted to park up and make enquiries but that wasn’t going to happen now. So I just thought that if I go with the flow all will work out well. After all, that’s how the world works, isn’t it? I arrived at the immigration booth and was stamped out of Malaysia in the blink of an eye. I asked the helpful woman there how soon I might be able to return and she said seven days. Surely not, was the thought I expressed to her, maybe just a couple of days. She just shrugged her shoulders. I explained that I didn’t want to take my bike into Thailand and she told me there was a duty free area where I’d be able to leave it. This area is before Malay customs so there was no need for my bike to leave Malaysia and to attempt to get it into Thailand. This was a crucial point because of the difficulty of getting foreign registered vehicles into Thailand. More on that later.
I was stamped into Thailand with no problems and walked down into the border town of Sadao. I could have stayed there for a night or two but I’d been told that it wasn’t a very nice place and that the town of Hat Yai was easy to get to and had more to offer to the tourist. I’d been told there was a cheap bus that would take me there, and so it proved. I changed up some Ringgit into Baht, bought a ticket and sat on the bus until it filled up. It didn’t move until all the seats were occupied, but the upside was that the driver spoke some English and recognised the address of the hostel I’d booked and would drop me off there. The ‘bus’ was actually a minibus, so was able to be flexible about dropping passengers off at, or near, their specific destination. Wonderful.
I booked into the hostel for a couple of nights. Next day I walked around to see the sights. It was very hot indeed and I wondered if all of my time in Thailand would be like this. I came across a street market down the road a bit, with stalls lining the kerb as well as being further back under cover. I bought some dates and delicious roasted almonds, as well as normal fruit This was refreshing change from what I’d found in Malaysia, where these markets seemed to be a bit more tucked away, and it boded well.
I made the long walk down to Hat Yai Floating Market, on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, which runs through the city. There’s a normal market there, with plenty of stalls, but the main attraction are the boats, moored nose into the bank, selling mostly food, mostly cooked, but some fresh. Many of the women wore traditional costume, giving the scene an air of authenticity. The food includes both grilled and fried insects. There’s speculation that these may well be the food of the future. Hat Yai is a city that caters particularly for Malay visitors. The men are tempted by the ‘special attractions’ that are on offer in some parts of the city. Their wives like to shop, and this is one of the places they come to.
Across the river I could see a Buddhist temple so I crossed the bridge to take a look. The Wat Klong Hai temple is quite an amazing place. There is a monastery there but the main attraction is the temple building. It has four entrances, each with a decorative gate and equally decorative guards to watch over it. There is a very large central stupa, surrounded by decorative statues, gongs etc. It’s true to say that gold is the favourite colour here. More gold than Smaug could ever want to sleep on. At each of the entrances are very fierce looking statues, guarding the way in and parts of the Buddha story are told by the carvings on the outside. This was one of the more decorative temples I’d seen and it left quite an impression.
It seems that the colour gold is quite popular arounf here.
After a couple of days in Hat Yai I caught the bus back to the border, hoping to get back to Malaysia with a new visa. I got stamped out of Thailand and went down to where my bike was at the duty free area. Once loaded up I headed to Malay immigration, along the motorcycle lane once more. The guy there said No, and told me to ask at the main building. I walked over there and the guy there said No, go and talk to a supervisor. The supervisor said No, go back to Thailand. Seven days out of the country is their rule and they weren’t going to bend it just for me. One of them commented that I only had ten days left on my original visa, suggesting this might be the reason behind the need to wait seven days. Knowing that didn’t make me feel any better.
Now faced with another five days in Thailand, with no bike to ride, as it was back at the duty free area once more, I walked up to Thai immigration control. And so began the battle of the entry stamp. Immigration wouldn’t give me a fresh stamp, telling me to go over to departure and get them to cancel the exit stamp. The way he expressed it, it seemed quite routine. The guy over there didn’t see it that way and said he couldn’t do it. I’d have to go back to Malaysia and come again tomorrow. I was completely unable to get him to understand that my problem was that Malaysia wouldn’t let me in. He just kept repeating his mantra. So I went back to immigration and the guy there spoke to the supervisor who, thankfully, sorted it out. I thought I was going to be sleeping out on a bench somewhere in no man’s land. Another bus ride back to Hat Yai, to the same hostel, where a certain amount of surprise was expressed. I couldn’t blame them.
I spent the next few days writing, reading walking around. There isn’t much to do in Hat Yai, I discovered, especially without transport. But the time passed eventually. I took the bus back to the border and was welcomed back into Malaysia like the prodigal son. I’m exaggerating, of course, but I did get a fresh ninety day visa.
My plan now was to head down the east coast, collect my Carnet from Tony and Maggie, then come back north again and try to get my bike across the border. Perhaps crossing over into Singapore for a few days while I was nearby. Making sure the Carnet arrived in time involved paying out for DHL to courier it from Germany. It wasn’t cheap, but at least I knew it would get there. I’d lost an hour when I crossed the border so the 100kms ride down to the small town where I’d booked a hotel was about right. After about 80kms the bike started misfiring again. It was getting low-ish on fuel so I filled it up. 20kms later, more misfiring. I got to the hotel just after that, a homestay really, parked up and threw the keys in the corner of the room in sheer frustration. Having a bike problem is one thing, not being able to pin down what’s causing it is the most frustrating thing of all.
I was traversing Malaysia west to east and found myself up in the mountains. Nice riding, albeit with occasional rain. It was Saturday and I saw several groups of bikers out for a ride, some of them on large bikes. That’s an expensive hobby here, given the rate of import tax. After a while I stopped at a café at a viewpoint at the top of the pass. A group of riders came in and we got chatting. They were asking about my bike but also told me that one of their mates had crashed during the morning and had died. That’s never a good thing to hear. I asked them whether I should stay in the nearby town of Kota Bharu or go further down the coast to Kuala Terengganu. They advised Kota Bharu as there were some interesting things to see. OK, decision made. How did the bike run? Perfectly, until I got low on fuel towards the end of the day. The fault is getting consistently inconsistent.
This town had enough cultural sites to keep me busy for a day. It also had enough coffee shops and bakeries to stop me feeling hungry too. A doughnut with sardine inside? I thought eating that was quite adventurous. I went to the Istana Bahar Cultural Museum. Housed in a former palace, it mostly had craft displays, including some fairly moth eaten traditional fabric. Upstairs there were rooms laid out in the style of the times. These included for birth, marriage, circumcision and death. A special room for circumcision? Well yes. It’s a big and important ceremony in the Islamic world. I remember the family celebration I’d attended when I was in Kumai, Borneo. That was for the same reason.
Next visit was to the Istana Batu (‘Istana’ means ‘palace’), the former Crown Prince’s palace, now mostly dedicated to explaining the Malay monarchical system. This is a big thing for the state of Kelantan right now as it’s their man who’s currently the big chief. They have an unique, I believe, system in Malaysia, where the king is elected from among the sultans and serves a five year term. Nine of the thirteen states of Malaysia have hereditary rulers and they choose the king from among their number. He ( never ‘she’) has specific powers granted to the constitutional monarch, relating to appointing a prime minister, dissolution of parliament and so on. He serves a five year term. Everywhere I went I’d seen posters and slogans supporting the king, and now I understood why. There were also displays of the Crown Prince’s rooms, clothes, artefacts etc. On the wall of one room I saw a newspaper article from a few years ago. It was written by a journalist who was the grand daughter of a former Prime Minister, and therefore clearly Muslim. But in her photo she wasn’t wearing a hijab! I took a certain delight in asking the female member of staff why that might be. A certain amount of consternation ensued. There’s more info about this system here.
Malaysia’s east coast suffers from very stormy weather from November through to February. As I continued south I could see that beach side businesses were just starting to wake up,shake off the dust and get ready for a new season. I’d managed to find the road that ran alongside the sea, so it was a pleasant journey on a sunny day. As I neared Kuala Terengganu I went looking for a dentist. I’d managed to break off one of my plastic teeth when trying to open some plastic packaging. I found one, and when I got there they were just opening after lunch. The assistant couldn’t speak any English but the dentist could. She was able to see me straight away and made an excellent job of grinding out the remains of the broken tooth, matching up a new one and resetting it. I was very pleased, especially with the price (about £27), and with having my nice smile back again. And no misfiring from the bike today either – even more reason to smile.
This town had quite a lot to offer and I was here a few nights. Chinatown is a world heritage area, because of the shop houses. There were murals to discover too, although not hard to find. I’d gone out late in the afternoon so by the time I’d walked a round a bit, and reached Chinatown, I was ready to eat. There’s always good, cheap food in the Chinese section. I’d just finished when I got talking an Austrian couple who were on a three week holiday. They’ve travelled all round SE Asia and promised to send me details of some contacts. He used to ride bikes and his eyes lit up a bit when I explained what I was doing. Have I lit a spark there?
The National Museum was worth the forty five minute walk to get to it. There’s supposed to be a tourist bus but I wasn’t sure where to catch it and anyway, exercise is good for you, apparently. There was a big display of photos, taken by a local photographer, and it’s incredible how much a place can change in forty years. It was the degree of modernisation that struck me most, where timeless industries such as fishing seem to have almost disappeared from the area. Anywhere will change hugely in that time scale but the move from ancient to modern seemed to be much quicker here.
There was a section explaining how Islam came to this area. I’d assumed its arrival in Melaka had been Malaysia’s first brush with it, brought in by Arab and Indian traders, but it arrived here over one hundred years earlier, with the local Sultan adopting it at the end of the 13th century. As before, it seems to be the well organised laws that were the attraction. One thing I was disappointed to learn was that young school children are being taught Arabic, because of the ‘beauty of the language’. I saw it more as the thin end of a wedge being driven between Malaysian’s and their use of western script. It was no surprise when some later research showed that it’s Saudi Arabian money that’s pushing this along, as well as supplying funds for more mosques and other religious support. Their payback is to be able to push the Malaysian government towards a stricture enforcement of Islamic teaching for schoolchildren. This is evident in the style of school uniforms around the country, which are very strict in style, especially for girls. I’d noticed a similar trend in Indonesia too. There are some elements within the government who are trying to push back against this, believing, rightly in my opinion, that Malaysia should be left to manage its own very multi-ethnic society without outside interference. Let’s be honest here, multi ethnicity is not Saudi Arabia’s strong suit. There’s an interesting article about it here.
The rest of the museum had plenty of displays of craft, ship building and a section dedicated to Petronas, the state oil company. The style of the building reflected traditional Malay architecture and it was all set out in very pleasant grounds, bordering the river. A worthwhile visit.
Still on the Islamic theme, my next visit was to the Crystal Mosque, further along the river bank. I set off to walk down there but this time the tourist bus found me, stopping alongside me to pick me up. I was happy about that, I have to say. It was very hot. The park in which the mosque sits has all sorts of facilities for visiting school kids, and there were certainly plenty there. One section was devoted to ‘mosques from around the world’, and was a separate area, where an entrance fee was charged, where miniatures of well known mosques could be seen. How bizarre! A mosque theme park. I wasn’t tempted, I have to say.
Instead I walked along the river bank to the Crystal Mosque and found myself very impressed. Mosques can often be beautiful in their simplicity of design, as I’ve said before, but with the addition of reflective glass, this one looked wonderful. It used reflective, bronzed panels, similar to those on office blocks, and with the way they reflected the light, it made for a visually stunning building. I think the photos do a better job of describing it than words can.
More nice riding alongside the sea got me to the town of Kuantan, further south down the coast. When you travel unexpected things sometimes happen, and Kuantan provided one of those occasions. At the hostel I bumped into an English guy named Steve, who had spent the last sixteen years living in Thailand, where he ran a small business, teaching English. He’d decided it was time to move on and he was on his way to Vietnam, before heading to China. He was mindful of his age and his lack of a pension pot, and it seems the pay in China is much better than anywhere else. The next day we walked down to the beach, just for a day out, visiting a mosque on the way. It was the first time Steve had ever been inside one. We had to put robes on as we were only wearing shorts, and we were shown around by one of the helpers. Steve was quite impressed by the space inside and the simplicity of the design and layout. In complete contrast, we also went to a MacDonalds, as Steve needed breakfast. I had a Big Mac, a timely reminder of why I never eat there. It was awful!
Steve has a hobby job, which is to write reports for a Thai football blog. For this reason he was aware of a game taking place in Kuantan that evening. Malaysia doesn’t have a very big league, but each state and territory have their own team, as do some of the larger cities. This game was a 3rd round FA Cup tie, between Pahang (the local team) and Kedah. The venue was a 40,000 seater stadium originally built for the Asian Games some years before. I didn’t expect the ground to be very full as it struck me as a relatively minor fixture. Oh how wrong I was! Once inside we found the whole stadium jam packed with people, sitting cheek by jowl on the concrete steps that acted as seats. Plenty of women and kids, lots of chanting and singing. Most people had white plastic bags which they placed over their hands so that as they waved their arms in response to the chants, we could see a white wave of enthusiasm spread around the ground. In one section we could see the ‘Ultras’, known as the Elephant Army. In contrast, they had black plastic bags to wave, matching their black attire. As the game progressed Steve and I worked our way around the ground so that by the second half we were sitting with the Elephant Army and joining in with the chants, orchestrated by a couple of cheerleaders, who stood on a separate platform, facing the crowd so they could keep them roused. It was 1-0 by half time and that was the final result, much to everybody’s delight.
After the final whistle the players and entourage took a lap of honour around the pitch, stopping for photos in front of the Elephant Army. Among them was an old guy in a wheelchair, clearly someone of importance, who we assumed was the club chairman. We later learned that he was the Sultan of Pahang, which accounts for at least some of the large crowd and their enthusiasm. Steve managed to get a copy of one of the photos, and we’re in there among the crowd somewhere. It was a great night out, all the better for being spur of the moment.
Somewhere in a conversation with someone I’d been told that Pulau Tioman (Tioman Island) would be a nice place to spend a few days. So I headed further south, to the town of Mersing, from where I could get a ferry out there. I had a bit of trouble pinning down suitable (cheap) accommodation at first, but some determined Googling helped me decide that Air Betang would be a good place. The bike would have to stay behind while I enjoyed some snorkelling and walking. On the ferry I happened to sit next to a young German woman who was going to enjoy some scuba diving. Lea happened to be a paramedic and I told her about how I’d been denied the chance to learn to dive in Australia because of my asthma. When I explained that I never suffered attacks, and that my asthma related to damage caused by smoking, and that my medication meant I never had breathing problems, she felt that diving would be unlikely to cause me problems. A germ of an idea formed.
Once I’d settled into my chalet I walked down to the diving school Lea was using and had a chat. There were three or four diving schools near to me and they all offered test dives. They would give me enough training to get me under the water and they all did a deal whereby they would reduce the price of a PADI open water diving course if I continued with it after my test dive. This seemed the perfect opportunity to find out if my condition would have any adverse effect when breathing under water. If I felt bad all I needed to do was to abort the dive, make my excuses and leave, no harm done. It seemed perfect. I decided to use Ray’s Diving School. They were the cheapest and would not charge me anything for the test dive if I continued with the course. I could do the dive next morning and then carry on with the course immediately if I wanted to. The die was cast.
Air Betang Chalets (ABC) is not a big place. The ‘road’ is simply a concrete path, just wide enough for the small sidecars that are common in Malaysia. No cars, therefore, but they’re not really needed when a village is only a twenty minute walk, end to end. The island is duty free, which means that where alcohol was sold, it was at a sensible price. But being Muslim, ABC didn’t have very many outlets. Three bars, and three restaurants, were the sum total of approved drinking dens. There is a big notice at one point along the path, warning Muslims they faced stiff penalties if there were caught drinking. BJ’s diving school had a bar next to it, so that was where I tended to sit to watch the sun go down. On a warm evening, after a hot day, it was one of life’s little pleasures. Food wasn’t expensive and I could get a nice breakfast for not too much money. ABC was as delightful as I’d been told it would be.
At 09.15 I arrived, as instructed, at Ray’s diving and met Emily, my instructor. She is a tall, strapping Aussie girl, from the south of Western Australia. Friendly, good looking and with a concentration disrupting figure. She’s hoping to become a marine biologist once she resumes her studies. But I had many things to learn so all that was pushed to the back of my mind. The first thing to do was complete a medical questionnaire which, of course, had a section on asthma. I lied. After all, it was the physical test that mattered most and I’m not stupid enough to ignore any warnings that my body may have given me during the dive. Emily talked me through what happens in the lungs while diving and gave me the most important instruction of all, which is to NEVER hold your breath while under water. The reason is that air compresses as you go deeper, but then expands as you come back up. The risk is that if you hold your breath while ascending the air in your lungs will expand and may rupture one of them. There are many other things to learn but I won’t bore you with them here. Suffice to say that once we went under water I was delighted to find that I wasn’t in the slightest way affected by being there. We only went down about five metres, and I did have one moment of – not quite panic, but let’s say stress. But I told myself to stay calm and kept breathing steadily, and all was well. I felt extremely comfortable all the rest of the time. Depending on depth of descent, a tank of air will last 30-45 minutes. The time seemed to go very quickly as we went through the exercises and had a swim around. Once we surfaced I felt delighted with the way things had gone and was happy to tell Emily I wanted to carry on with the course.
Over the next few days I was put through my paces and had my ability to learn new tricks thoroughly tested. I tested Emiliy’s patience to a large degree too. There were a couple of things it took me ages to get the hang of, especially maintaining neutral buoyancy while under water, but I got there in the end. It’s amazing just how much you rise and fall in the water simply by filling and emptying your lungs. You have to learn all about the equipment, proper signals for underwater communication, emergency procedures and so on. There was a lot to get the hang of. There was only me on this course and I think that put some pressure on me as I had no time to sit back and watch anybody else and learn from their mistakes.
All the early instruction takes place in shallow water. Many schools have a swimming pool, we just had the sea. But the last day was spent diving off the boat. Doing it for real! All went well. We still had some exercises to do and a couple didn’t go as well as I’d have liked. So we had a another go on the second dive and it was all OK. On the third dive there were four of us and we just relaxed and swam around with the fishes, admiring the coral. We down as low as 17.5 metres, which meant that I would be certified to dive down to 18 metres, the maximum allowed on an Open Water Certificate. I was delighted! PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) is the largest certification body in the world and it means I can go to any dive centre, worldwide, and go buddy diving. I already had plans to do more when I got to Thailand and Emily was happy to recommend me a dive centre on one of the islands there. It’s a very long time since I’ve challenged myself by learning a completely new and difficult skill such as this, and I have to say I felt very proud of myself.
When I got back to my bike, parked for the duration by the ferry ticket office, I found the town council had left me a gift to help me celebrate. A parking ticket. They’d lifted up my bike cover and left it in my crash helmet. The youngsters who were hanging around nearby where highly amused. So was I, but I was laughing at the the council for wasting their time. It won’t get paid.
Having mentioned my bike cover, it’s worth noting the value of this item as a security aid. I often have to leave my bike out in the street, and although the vast majority of people are honest and wouldn’t touch any of the gear I’m forced to leave on the bike, it only takes one rogue to mess up my day. The cover hides everything on the bike and acts as a kind of invisibility cloak. Yes, it’s obviously a motorbike and no, it wouldn’t prevent thieves stealing it. But it keeps curious eyes, and therefore sticky fingers, off it and I believe that’s all I really need. I’d left the bike unattended for six nights and hadn’t really been worried about it. Just lucky perhaps, and maybe one day I’ll get caught out. Only time will tell.
My next port of call was to Tony and Maggie’s, to collect my new Carnet. I stopped overnight with them and discussed the possibility of leaving the bike with them for a few months if I couldn’t get into Thailand. In that case I would fly into Bangkok and buy or rent a bike to use instead of my own, and do the same in the other ASEAN countries. I’m delighted to say they were happy to help, should it be needed.
So what exactly is this issue with Thailand, I hear you ask? Over eighteen months ago the Thai Department of Land Transport introduced new regulations stating that travellers with non ASEAN vehicles entering the country must apply for a permit. OK, not a big deal you might think. But the major problem is that they must then be accompanied throughout their time in Thailand by an official guide. This would mean planning and declaring an exact itinerary, not being allowed to deviate from it and, most distressingly, having to pay thousands of pounds for the privilege. The travelling community believes this to be an extremely draconian solution to problems caused by Chinese visitors, who have caused all sorts of problems in the past but have been unable to be held to account. As an aside, they also won’t allow camper vans in, nor any vehicle bigger than 3.5 tonnes gross weight. You can imagine the consternation this has caused people like me, who don’t want to have to make plans further ahead than a day or two and, in particular, don’t want to have to shell out huge amounts of money. The good news is that because neither immigration or customs are directly involved in this, but are responsible for policing it, they often can’t be bothered and will let people through without the required paperwork. All well and good, except that it’s never possible to know for sure which border crossings will do this or when they’ll do it. There is a Facebook forum covering this topic and recent information about successful attempts can be sought on there. Generally it’s best to use small borders at quiet times of day. The rest is up to good fortune. So did I make it across? You’ll have to wait and see on that one.
A final, I hope, goodbye to Tony and Maggie saw me heading north to Ipoh once more. The bike was still playing me up by misfiring but it definitely seemed to be related to when the fuel level was getting low. I was now fairly convinced I’d picked up some dirty fuel, or maybe some water. Some stripping down was going to be required. For now, it was liveable with and I pushed on.
I stayed at Le Bug and Boat backpackers again, resting up for a couple of days before making a run for the border. Bugsy and Boatsy have expanded their activities and are planning to open a bar nearby. Their customer base will be travellers rather than locals. There are two or three other hostels around so they’ll promote the bar with them. They’re really enjoying this new venture of theirs and I’m sure they’ll do very well.
BC (Border Crossing) day arrived. I was in no rush as it wasn’t far away, and I wanted to cross over late in the day, when any supervisors who might be hanging around would have gone home. What happened? The next blog post will reveal all.