Right now, I am supposed to be in the Philippines. I had a flight booked out of Singapore on Sunday, a bed in a hostel dorm in Cebu city waiting for me and plans to travel to the outlying islands all set. Instead, I am in Thailand – following a three day overland journey, nights spent in windowless guesthouses in the arse-end of Malaysian nowhere and a parade of different transport options including a jungle line train, several dubious local taxis and a neon lit Thai party bus. Sometimes when you’re travelling things don’t go to plan – sometimes things come together to change your course and all you can do is ride it out and trust that everything happens for a reason.
The catalogue of rookie fuck ups that instigated this particular change of plans began on Sunday morning. I had a flight booked that afternoon to the Philippines; Rikki had one booked to Vietnam. Packing bags at the hostel in Singapore’s Little India an hour before we needed to leave, I casually turned to Rikki;
‘You do have your Vietnamese visa sorted yeah?’. Blank look.
‘Because you can’t just turn up in Vietnam like you can Thailand or Bali or wherever – you need a visa’. Still nothing.
‘So – no visa then?‘
With Rikki unwilling to risk being turned away or detained at the airport in Ho Chi Minh and therefore googling visa requirements and alternate flight options in a panic in the lobby, I finished packing.
‘Any joy?‘ I asked, dragging my bag through and dumping it on the sofa.
‘Nope – it’s all too expensive to book same day – even flying into Cambodia’s going to be over £100. I might have to stay here another night or see if I can come to the Philippines’.
Now running late for my check in, we piled into a taxi and headed for the airport, hoping to find Rikki an available seat on my flight. Approaching the desk, I gave the Tiger Air lady my biggest smile along with my passport.
‘Bag?‘ she asked, raising her eyebrows at me disdainfully. I dumped it clumsily onto the conveyor.
‘Onwards flight?‘. Another flick of the eyebrows.
‘I need to see your onwards flight details from the Philippines in order to check you onto the flight’.
‘Oh – I don’t actually have anything booked. You see, I’m kind-of taking things as they come, not planning too far ahead, going with the wind… you know?‘ Her clearly unimpressed face told me that she didn’t know at all, and that she was pretty sure I was talking shit.
‘I can’t check you onto this flight without seeing your onwards journey information. You need to book another flight out of the Philippines with the ticketing desk and come back. Check in closes at 12:30pm’.
‘What time is it now?’
I ran – in so much as I can run bent double under the weight of my backpack – round to the ticketing desk where Rikki stood waiting to buy a seat on my flight.
‘Where are you going to book onwards to?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know! I need more than 20 minutes to process decisions like this!’ I wailed.
‘Right – realistically are you going to make this decision, book a flight and check in within 20 minutes?’
‘Then fuck it – don’t get the flight, we’ll rethink the plan’.
An hour and a couple of Big Macs later, I sat in McDonalds as my flight left without me, googling overland journeys from Singapore to Thailand. Any flight options that day were going to be too expensive, the alternative flight options involved staying in Singapore airport overnight, and I wanted to be in Thailand in November anyway – so the train to the border crossing near Kota Bharu it was.
After a couple of hours researching options to get to Thailand, we were on the Singapore MRT underground out to Woodlands station, with fingers crossed that we would be able to get hold of tickets for a train into Malaysia at 8pm that evening. After an hour on the MRT and a taxi ride to the train station, we staggered up to the ticket desk.
‘The 8pm train is fully booked’ the openly unfriendly ticket officer informed us, his face impassive and unsmiling. Of course it is, I thought; I wouldn’t expect anything else from today. After explaining that we were trying to reach Gemas to take the train up the Eastern coast jungle line to the Thai border, he leveled his flat glare at us and, with a sigh of utmost boredom, destroyed our last hope.
‘It’s a public holiday in Malaysia this week. There are no seats on an East coast train until Thursday’.
‘Is there any chance of cancellations do you think?’
‘Right. Is there any way we can get to Gemas tonight?’
‘There’s a train leaving at 11:30pm. It’ll get you in to Gemas at 4:30am tomorrow morning’.
‘Outstanding. Two please’.
Four and a half hours later, having endured a particularly tedious immigration process, we found our seats on the Malaysia bound night train, huddled in hoodies and blankets against the icy blast of the industrial strength air conditioning unit above our heads, and tried to get some sleep. Arriving in Gemas five hours later, we tumbled bleary eyed onto the platform with our backpacks and headed out into the night in the hope of finding a hotel with someone awake enough to let us in. Repeatedly pressing the doorbell of a crumbling yellow painted establishment – I hesitate to use the word hotel – prompted a grumpy pajama clad woman to emerge from a back room, hand us a key, and relieve us of 45 ringit for the privilege. After reassuring myself that the filthy looking bedding was largely bed bug free, I finally put my head to a pillow at 6am. Just as the builders in the hall outside started hammering….