by Tobias Thornes
‘Hotel,’ said the border official, pointing to the place I’d left blank on the form. I must have looked conspicuously European as I waited amidst the queues of Malaysians to cross into Thailand, for almost at once he had come and beckoned me into a side office. Britons, as I knew, did not need a Thai visa, but I wasn’t going to get across without filling in the proper paperwork.
‘No hotel,’ I said, trying to explain that I’d be sleeping on the train, just passing through Thailand on my way north.
‘Ah. You sleep on the train. Where you go? Bangkok? You must put your hotel in Bangkok.’
‘But I’m not staying in Bangkok. I catch another train – to Laos.’
After a little persistence in this vein, he seemed to understand. ‘Ah, I see. Not stay in Thailand. You sleep on the train.’ He paused. ‘But you must put down hotel. No hotel…’ – he held out his hands emphatically – ‘no come in to Thailand. You go back to Malaysia.’
The man sat back, waiting expectantly. ‘Put down hotel.’
Now, at last I understood what he wanted me to do. I wrote slowly on the paper, thinking desperately of a place to invent, ‘Hotel Bangkok’. He took the paper, and looked at it. Then he handed it back. ‘There is no Hotel Bangkok.’
Again, he waited. I was now very nervous, as the gravity of the situation grew upon me. Would this be the end of my journey, already? How would I get back? Carefully, and in full sight of the man, I crossed out what I had written and wrote instead, ‘Hotel International Bangkok’. He took the paper, read it, and stamped my passport. It had done the trick, it seemed. I was let in.
I was on my way into Thailand from Malaysia, in whose capital Kuala Lumpur I’d stopped off for the night. Emerging from Kuala Lumpur’s enclosed modern railway station, you could be forgiven for not knowing which country you were in, let alone how to navigate the minefield of shops to find the exit, or where to go when you finally found fresh air. The day had been overcast and the sun shrouded, so that when I found my way out I was left with little means of navigation. Confronted with nothing but the cavernous mouth of the carpark under a huge hotel, and a taxi rank attached to a road too narrow to safely walk down, which lead only onto the mass of ring-roads that tangle this city like a deadly knot of snakes, I was trapped.
To chance these roads by foot seeming too treacherous, I was compelled to take a taxi, which here entailed buying a ticket in advance from a nearby counter. When I did, eventually, find a place to be set down and explore, I found very little worth the risk of the roads. The city appeared to have been transformed in recent years, spotted with skyscrapers that had sprung up like a pox, and cloaked in repugnant air made poisonous by endless streams of diesel cars and buses.
Traffic lights could not be trusted when crossing roads; only in ‘China Town’ was there an absence of cars, where instead there was an almost impassable throng of stalls selling plastic tat and packed with people barred the way. The few remnants of cultural heritage were hidden away behind already-crumbling modern constructions, like the ‘historic’, original railway station whose long, wide platforms now stood largely empty beneath its majestic colonial architecture, relegated to a little-used stop-off for trains going north. It was fashionable, in 2018, for every capital city to possess a metro, and Malaysia didn’t want to be left behind, whether its people wanted one or not. On very ugly concrete tracks hoisted above the fumes of the city, a shiny modern monorail ran a little-used service, which bore me back to the modern station in a tiny – and almost empty – capsule train. It seemed quite evident that Kuala Lumpans preferred the car.
English was widely spoken in Malaysia, and a Briton might enjoy the familiar comforts of English-style sockets and cars driving on the left. But my journey was about to become more adventurous when my train drew me up to the last stop in Malaysia – the oversized terminus at Padang Besar – and I walked across the border into Thailand. No one seemed to speak English, and I certainly didn’t know any Thai, so broken phrases and gestures were to be the only means of communication. Just as well, then, that the locals were so friendly, not least the border policeman whose helpful hints had let me in.
Padang Besar was a beautiful, rustic town that – save for some small supermarkets – seemed largely to have been unchanged by recent years, with a makeshift market congregating on the dusty unpaved road. A man on a motorbike just past the border insisted he would take me to the town centre, where the Thai railway station stood a couple of miles away from the Malaysian one where I’d arrived. With some trepidation I agreed to climb up behind him, my heavy pack still on my back, and in this precarious balance we went zooming to the town. On our arrival, I fumbled amidst my collection of currencies searching for 50 Thai Baht with which to pay him. Suddenly he seemed to recognise a 500 note, took it and zoomed off, I thought, in search of some change. For a few minutes, standing there alone, I wondered whether I’d accidentally given away a rather hefty tip, but sure enough he soon returned – only to say that the note was no good. Meanwhile I’d found a smaller denomination, with which he was satisfied. So, with a few hours to spare, I explored the settlement in the hot afternoon sun, but oddly nobody would accept the large-denomination note, and I was directed to several currency exchanges, all in vain, before taking a proper look at the note – and realising that it wasn’t Thai Baht at all, but 500 Russian roubles.
The Thai railway station was efficiently and pleasingly built, consisting of a single platform for the single line, neatly and beautifully decorated, with a staffed station building attached. There was also, as at all Thai stations, a huge portrait of the King commanding adoration in a well-kept shrine. I went up to the counter, as previously instructed, to collect my ticket, only to be told that my instructions had been wrong: the ticket was supposed to be collected at the Malaysian station, back over the border. Just as I was considering with horror the prospect of returning through the border-checks and having to explain a return to Malaysia and re-entry into Thailand to the border policeman, the station manager thankfully reached for the telephone, and arranged for the ticket to be brought over by motorbike. So it was with these setbacks avoided with more than a little help from the locals, I boarded the little weather-beaten sleeper train – a gift ‘from the people of South Korea’, said a plaque, from 1996 – and set off into the sunset.