By Chris Gowland
Our ice-hockey team had a
tournament in Kuala Lumpur & five players flew down from Bangkok to take
part. Being a happy but impoverished scuba instructor I couldn't afford that,
& since the trains were full, I drove down from Pattaya - a 5,000 km round
trip. Here's a brief rundown:
I needed to be in KL on Friday for a pre-game press conference at 6 pm & a game at 8 pm. It was at a place called Sunway Lagoon. I hoped it would be easy to find.
Wednesday 21 Feb
I left at 8 pm, after a day of diving, upon finding out that I didn't have to dive the next day. I bought a dozen bottles of water so I wouldn't have to stop & buy any along the way. I thought I would drive a couple of hours & when I got tired, pull over at a gas station somewhere for the night. I think it was because I was driving under the influence of Alanis Morissette & Green Day music that fended off sleep & I wound up at Chumpon at 4 am.
Thursday 22 Feb
I woke up at 6 am after a good
night's sleep curled up on the front seat. It was time to head for the border
& I wanted to apply for a Thai visa in Malaysia in the afternoon. I was
worried that the border officials wouldn't let me drive to KL because (1) my
Thai driver's license expired six months previously & (2) I'm not the owner
of the car. At 1 pm, I crossed the Sadao border, without anything being checked
except my passport. Realizing that I couldn't make it to the consulate in time,
I opted for the scenic route across northern Malaysia to Kota Baru (rather than
the boring motorway to KL) so I could make my visa application at the consulate
there on Friday. The nice woman at the Malaysian tourism office across the
border gave me a decent map of Malaysia, a sketchy one of KL, & the address
of Sunway Lagoon, a casino/hotel/shopping complex.
Once I got up in the hills the
scenery was brilliant. The road constantly twisted and turned, climbing hill
after hill of virtually undisturbed rainforest. The slopes are so steep &
the road is an engineering marvel in some places. Hardly anyone uses it - just
the occasional logging truck piled high with freshly slaughtered torsos. After a
couple of hundred kilometers of great panoramas, including two long bridges that
cross a large dam & a spectacular sunset (I stopped to watch), it was
getting dark so I stopped for the night at a roadside village where truckers
take a break. The villagers didn't speak English & I was the only foreigner
there. The simple restaurants had some interesting local food. I tried some
spicy curry & sticky rice
wrapped in banana leaf then I
caught up on lost sleep.
Friday 23 Feb
I was up before sunrise but as I
drove along I didn't get to see it because of the heavy fog. It was so thick I
had to keep my windscreen wipers on until the sun eventually broke through. A
nice thing about Malaysia is that the fuel is 1/3 cheaper than Thailand. That
was especially important for me as I was on a tight budget. I eventually rolled
into Kota Baru at about 10 am & drove around in circles for two hours until
I finally found the consulate. Everything is closed on Fridays & Saturdays
due to their strong Muslim values.
There isn't any alcohol for
sale, no nightlife, & there were only a few guys playing soccer so I guess
they watch a lot of TV. I wanted to check out the scuba diving scene in Malaysia
& when I stopped at the airport to ask for directions I ran into a local
diving instructor & he told me all about the dive sites & diving
operators on the islands. For some reason there are very few tourists.
The time had come to blast down
to KL & I had six hours to do 400 kilometers. The road was narrow & got
busier as I got closer to KL. There were areas of beautiful rainforest, then
plantations & hills stripped bare, which was depressing. In some places the
forest had grown back but it just didn't look the same. I didn't make such good
time, a wrong turn cost me a half hour, & there were lots of hills but I
finally got on an expressway at 5 pm with 100 kilometers to go.
I arrived in KL at 6 pm - I
wasn't going to make it to the conference but I had plenty of time to get to the
game. Going into KL I looked for the Petronas towers & headed for them -
right into peak hour traffic (they're not as serious about their religion as
those in Kota Baru). While I was stuck in the traffic jam I noticed a clock
tower. It said 7 pm. I had totally forgotten about the time difference between
Thailand & Malaysia & now I only had 1 hour to find Sunway. I knew it
was south. I went past a turnoff & noticed too late that it was the road
that was on the Sunway address.
Malaysia doesn't have it
together when it comes to road signs. When I came across one of these rare items
I often couldn't match the name on a sign with any name on my map & more
often than not there wasn't a road number given. I managed a detour through
Chinatown, & got back to the turnoff. It was getting dark & about 7:30 I
saw a sign with Sunway on it. I wanted to drive fast to get there but if I
missed the turnoff I would be done for. I had to drive slowly so I could spot
the turnoff that would undoubtedly appear without warning.
Fortunately Sunway management
are interested in their customers finding the way & I got to the car park at
exactly 8 pm, grabbed my gear & ran into the building in time to see the
players warming up on the ice. I only missed a few minutes of the game, which we
won 4 -0. One of the players in KL, Matt, put me up in his house. We went out
& had a few drinks at a disco - very different from Kota Baru.
Saturday 24 Feb
I spent the day unwinding &
fixing up the old Mitsubishi for the return
journey. In the evening we had the second game, which was close right up to the last minute - very exciting, & we won 6 - 5 in overtime. I wanted to get to Kota Baru on Sunday, so after the game (about midnight) I left KL & headed for the east coast. There was a torrential downpour that night (it must rain a lot in Malaysia because it is very green) & I stopped at the scene of a nasty accident on the way. It took me 4 hours to get to the coast, where I slept like a log in the back of the pick-up until 8 am.
Sunday 25 Feb
The drive up the east coast was
pretty flat & straight. I got to Kota Baru just before the consulate opened
for the afternoon. There was a sign prohibiting shorts but I only had shorts
& I was worried they wouldn't let me in. A French guy waiting with me kindly
offered the use of a pair of pants he had in his suitcase if they gave me a hard
time, but when I applied the staff just asked me to remember to wear trousers
There wasn't much for me to do in Kota Baru & I had to wait until the next morning to pick up my passport. I checked out a couple of guesthouses but they were dingy. I explored the one & only department store in town - the top floor had lots of video games but not one kid was in the place - very strange. I camped out in the car again.
Monday 26 Feb
I watched the sunrise at the
beach & then went running along the sand. Every 2 kilometers there are these
old concrete bunkers. You'd expect the military to do a proper job of setting
them up but they have been almost completely buried in the sand by the waves -
they wouldn't be much use in the event of an invasion. After a swim in the not
so crystal clear waters I drove back to Kota Baru with muscles aching (I hadn't
been running for months).
I was on the last leg of my journey. What could go wrong? I parked near the consulate & got out of the car. I needed to change out of my wet shorts but as I tried to open the other door to get some clean clothes I realized I'd locked the keys in the car. Argh! It took me 10 minutes to find a suitable metal thing to get the car unlocked (using a method I wont disclose) & swore I'd be more careful.
I got my visa & headed for Thailand. I made sure I
filled up the tank before I crossed the border & stopped in Sungai Golok for
lunch. As I walked away from the car I had a sinking feeling. Sure enough I'd
done it again - I'd locked the stupid keys in the car again. Fortunately for me
I'd had the foresight to keep the metal thing I'd used earlier. Pretty soon I
wouldn't need to use a key to open the door anymore. After that faux pas I went
to Songkhla to visit some friends. We had a game of basketball. I couldn't jump
because my legs hadn't recovered from my morning run. They had a cute baby pet
otter & as soon
Tuesday 27 Feb
The next day I did a few repair
jobs around the place to show my appreciation to them for putting me up for the
night. After lunch I got in the car, turned up the music & drove nonstop to
Pattaya. Just as I was coming into Pattaya I ran over some object lying on the
road & it somehow flicked up& made a nasty dent in the side of the car -
the only damage to the car on the trip. I got back at 2 am. I was able to get
some sleep before going diving the next day.
Chris Gowland can be reached at email@example.com