Ignoring the spirit of traveling slowly by land, I booked a 2-day return flight to Hat Yai, in the Songkhla province of Thailand, in order to secure another 90 days in Malaysia before the stamp in my passport expired. The tickets only cost me $90 NZD, which I thought was a pretty good deal.
I arrived at the airport VERY early and set up a small nest in a quiet spot to read. Everything was going well for the first minute and a half until I heard a little popping noise. I looked around to see a kid swiveling in a chair, a bored looking 20-something girl lounging, a European couple trying to sleep, and a businessman tapping away at his computer. I turned back to read, but after a few seconds the popping sound happened again. And again. And again. After snooping a bit harder I realised that the 20-something girl had a sheet of bubble wrap. She lazily stared at the ceiling and popped individual bubbles slowly and methodically – without any sense of rhythm. I went back to reading, wincing at every pop. Then two men Chinese men approached together, inexplicably sat about six chairs apart from one another with a pillar in between them, and had a very loud conversation in mandarin. This did a good job at drowning out the bubble wrap girl.
With the option of reading gone I decided to eat. After searching the extremely large terminal for something that wasn’t priced outside of my wallet I finally came across Hot & Roll, and ordered a chicken rendang chapatti. The guy serving gave very loud hiccups while I was ordering, and continued to hiccup loudly, watching me while I ate my chapatti. When I looked up from my meal he smiled, hiccupped, then simply went back to staring.
On the plane I was seated next to a very fat Chinese man in an All Blacks shirt. His two favourite activities were playing an annoying game on his phone that made meowing sounds every two seconds, and digging deep into his ears with a cotton tip. As soon as the plane hit the pavement he got up and scrambled past me, longing to be first person off. In Hat Yai airport when I went to use the bathroom, the only free urinal was that one which he had just vacated. It had chewing gum inside it.
The cheapest way from the Hat Yai airport to town is in the back of a songthaew, which is basically a pickup truck with a canvas-covered cage and wooden seats in the back. The standard price for a journey in a songthaew – no matter how long you’re aboard – is 40 Thai baht ($1.80 NZD). At the waiting area there were six white people with large backpacks looking confused. I said hello and one of the girls started a rant about how the songthaew driver was trying to rip them off – first he said 30 baht, then he said 60 baht… The usual stuff. Eventually a local did some translating for us, a fair price was agreed upon, and we all climbed aboard. Just as I learned that three of my new friends were from the Czech Republic, and three were from Germany, they hopped off to go to go to their hotel. I stayed aboard, bound for the Central Festival Mall where I was to meet Greg, my couchsurfing host.
I had sent four emails to potential couchsurfing hosts, but Greg had been the only one to respond to me. Worryingly his profile was completely blank. No photos. No information. No feedback – nothing. Under ‘spoken languages’ his profile said ‘English – New Zealand’. So on a whim I asked if he was Kiwi, and whether he could host me. His reply was, “Should be okay.” This left me in a difficult place. Do I stay with the mystery man, known only as ‘Greg’, who might steal my credit card, pump me full of Zolpidem, chop me up, and dump me in a river? Or do I book a hostel and have to pay for it?
Greg met me at the Central Festival mall, which was right by his house. He grew up in Christchurch and had married a Thai woman in New Zealand. They’d had a couple of kids, aged 6 and 11, and had moved the whole family to Hat Yai five years ago. His profile was blank because he didn’t want too much personal information splayed on the internet. And so, understanding Greg’s need for privacy, I’ve changed his name to Greg. He drove me to his house on the back of his motorcycle, down the wrong way of a one way street, under a muddy underpass shortcut, then up the wrong way of another one way street.
“Do you mind staying in the spare house?” Greg asked. “There’s a queen bed, and the only other person living there is my cousin-in-law.”
“Sounds great.” I replied.
“He doesn’t speak English. He’s a bit… antisocial.”
“What do you mean… Antisocial?”
Greg didn’t want to elaborate on his apparently peculiar cousin, so I didn’t press the matter. He cooked me dinner, introduced me to his kids, and we shared beers and stories. After a little while he walked me to his other house, showed me my room, shower, and water dispenser, and left me there. I fell asleep quickly, waking only in the middle of the night when a few doors started crashing inside the house. ‘Must be the cousin.’ I thought, and went back to sleep.
The next day Greg had to work, so he dropped me in town on the back of his motorcycle pointing a few points of interest along the way. “Good luck!” He called as he drove away, leaving me with just my wits and my 3000 baht ($120NZD). I wanted food so I bought some noodles from a stall for 20 baht (75c) and, not knowing where to eat them, squatted down by the side of the road and plunged a plastic fork in. This is when I first noticed how friendly the locals were. Most people who saw me smiled and said something friendly sounding in Thai. I hadn’t seen another white person since the six people at the airport (excluding Greg), so I put this friendliness down to the fact that westerners haven’t had a chance to make complete cocks of themselves in Hat Yai yet.
What I really wanted to do was to see the huge, stainless steel temple on top of the hill. The internet had called it the Phra Maha Chedi Tripob Trimongkol temple, but whenever I said that to anybody they’d either look puzzled or just smile sympathetically at me. I did eventually get there, but only after the following situations:
1) Discussing the matter with a large group of motorcycle taxis, who finally agreed that we all knew what I was talking about, who agreed to drive me there for 100 baht, but who then drove me to some other, random temple that was falling to bits (it was pretty neat, actually). Then boarding a songthaew back to town only to miss town completely and end up on the outskirts at a university, which, parched, I explored extensively trying to find bottled water and wasn’t successful, only to realise that across the road was a Tesco, where I finally bought life-giving water before catching another songthaew back to town, sweating and confused.
2) Wandering for an hour trying to find a souvenir shop where I could buy a postcard of the temple and show people, but failing to find anything.
3) Pointing at a motorcycle’s chrome spokes and saying to the driver, “Like this! Temple like this!” and having him nod knowingly, but then taking me to an alley instead.
4) Asking an English-speaking lady to write down the name of the temple in Thai, and then showing that to a motorcycle driver.
5) Finally, after negotiating a price from 800 baht down to 400 baht with two betel-chewing guys with black nubs for teeth and wispy neck-beards, I jumped on the back of (another) motorcycle and we took off.
The temple was magnificent. 1000 small wind chimes and darting swallows. Clouds racing. A monk playing a Tibetan singing bowl. The soft hitting of gongs from the devout.
It’s an indescribable place, and it sent shivers all over me – not something that happens often. The motorcycle driver had never been there before and he seemed as awe-struck as I was. Inside the structure, alone, I watched swallows diving and noticed that everywhere I looked were enormous hand-sized moths. I could have stayed in this place all day and let myself melt in the tranquility, but a van load of what I think were Singaporeans showed up, yelling, running around, clanging all the bells and hitting the giant gongs. The driver and I looked at each other and wordlessly left, not speaking until I said goodbye back in town.
Back in town I realised that I had pretty much walked everywhere I could and was starting to do loops. So I found a tiny little drink, sweet and handicraft shop, run by a tiny little old lady, and ordered a green tea which was served in the largest paper cup I’ve ever seen outside the USA. The old lady was watching Thai drama on the TV which, I noted, followed a similar structure to Korean drama; mostly crying and despair. There was one other man in the shop who was pretending to read the newspaper but was actually watching the drama too.
I boarded another motorcycle bound for the Central Festival mall. The driver was named Mr. Konni Waspsit, and he gripped my hand tightly (while I was behind him on the bike) as he introduced himself. He encouraged me to make vague promises about meeting him in New Zealand one day, and gave me his phone number for ‘next time’.
“You la massa?”
“Massa, massa!” As Mr. Konni Waspsit said this he gripped my leg and started massaging it while we were speeding along on the bike. Who doesn’t like massages?
“No.” I said.
“Oh.” He removed his hand.
We jumped off the bike at the mall and I handed over a 100 baht note. Mr Konni Waspsit didn’t have change so he asked a passing prostitute if she could break the 100. She may not have actually been a prostitute, but if she was going for a prostitute-style she succeeded. Thankfully her purse was loaded with cash and she exchanged the money for us. I took my leave from Mr Konni Waspsit, making a few more vague promises about various things, and headed into the mall.
Entering the mall somewhat ended my brush with downtown Hat Yai. It was like every other mall in the world – large and awful, and I listened to smooth saxophone as I moseyed around, finally finding a little shop selling skewers.
“Do you speak English?”
“Yes. Little. Hello!”
“What are all these?” I waved my hand over a platter of various shaped food-like things on skewers.
I chose a couple at random, which were deep-fried in front of me, chopped up and served with chili sauce. They were delicious. I have no idea what the cafe was called because, unsurprisingly, it was written in the Thai alphabet. Later in the evening I was talking to Greg and his 11-year-old kid about the alphabet. The kid started his schooling in NZ then moved to Thailand, having to learn the language. He informed me that there are 44 characters in the alphabet, with 32 of those being vowels. To make matters more difficult Thai, like Mandarin, is a 5-tone language where one word can mean something totally different if your voice cracks while saying it. I vowed to learn a few phrases before going to Thailand again.
We’d been eating a Japanese dinner in the mall while discussing this, and afterwards we went to play spacies. If you ever get a chance to, I suggest you play Pac-Man Air Hockey. It’s for four players, and sporadically releases twenty or so tiny pucks along with the main large puck, all of which are worth points. Chaos. There was also a game called Animal Kaiser: The King of Animals. It was a fighting game where you played as various wild animals that couldn’t possibly fight in real life; orca vs. praying mantis, jackal vs. polar bear, gorilla vs. great white shark… I didn’t play Animal Kaiser, but only because it was being hogged by children.
The next morning I was waiting in the lounge room downstairs to meet Greg and go to the airport. My vacated bedroom was upstairs, next to Greg’s cousin-in-law’s room. He must have thought I’d left the house because he started playing very loud Thai pop music, singing loudly, and hoiking in the shower. After a while he came downstairs to find me sitting there, pretending I hadn’t heard anything. He stopped and looked at me with what could only be a mixture of surprise, embarrassment and contempt. Then he hurried out of the house without saying a word. And that was the last I saw of him.
On the drive to the airport we stopped for petrol. Greg said, “They’ve got E20 fuel here as well as the regular stuff.” E20 is a mixture of 20% ethanol and 80% petrol. Apparently it can have the disadvantage of thinning out your oil, so your car has to be specially tuned to accept it. “There’s also Gas Pirates.” Greg said. These are guys that go to Malaysia to buy fuel at half the price, then sell it cheap at the border. “I’ve bought from Gas Pirates. They’re great!”
Closer to the airport we came across a routine police bomb check. “I don’t think they even know what they’re looking for.” Sighed Greg. I had heard about an explosion earlier in the year in Hat Yai, so I asked him about it.
“Yeah, that was actually right by the shop where I dropped you off yesterday in town. Someone parked a car with a gas bottle bomb inside and it blew up. One person died in the resulting fire.”
“Do they know why it happened?”
“Not really, but there’s a conspiracy theory that the shop’s owner set it off to claim the insurance.”
The police didn’t find any bombs in the car so we rolled along to the airport. I said my goodbyes, went to the airport cafe, ordered a ginger ale, and watched some Thai drama.