In the beginning there was just my mum. Maybe also a few friends who feared I might hold a multiple choice quiz on my latest post at any moment. And, most obligated of, Lexy. Lexy had to read every word of my ugly homemade site, because she made me start it.
Lexy and I were colleagues at an international events agency in London but were to become travel buddies after I convinced her to join me on a jaunt around South East Asia over the 2009 Christmas holidays. I’d dreamed of playing at being a backpacker again ever since I returned from Asia in 2007 and Lexy, who had not taken a post-uni gap year, was tempted by a few weeks of independent travel. We also had personal reasons for wanting to take off during what is usually a lovey-dovey, couples-snuggling-in-wooly-socks-by-the-fire time of year. For Lexy, the trip would be an escape from the latest development in her disastrous ex-relationship and for me it would be an escape from the fact that I didn’t have a relationship. The fact that I was 25 years old and had never had a relationship. Faced with a holiday season of watching reruns of Bridget Jones and thinking just how much I really am like this dip-sh*t, we decided to take off to the tune of Destiny’s Child Independent women instead.
Throw your hands up at me!
We spent weeks planning the escapade at work over MSN Messenger (remember those days?). Then on Saturday nights, when all our loved up friends were going on grown up dates with meals that involved courses and cutlery, we would sit on Lexy’s sofa surrounded by Lonely Planet guides, empty bottles of wine, M&S crisps and sour cream dip. (An accompaniment that is 100% worth the breath of death, in my opinion.)
The most time we could take off work was 2 weeks so we needed to plan our arrangements in minute detail. Slowly we whittled down a whole continent to a few select destinations and felt we had a grip on the logistics based on the words of our travel bible – an outdated version of Lonely Planet’s South East Asia On A Shoestring. Our ambitious plans involved flying into Kuala Lumpur, catching a bus to Singapore, flying to Thailand, getting boats to the islands of Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta, coming back to Malaysia, going to Langkawi, spending a night in KL and then flying home again via Bahrain because we couldn’t afford a flight that didn’t stop over. We had 14 days. What were we thinking?
“What happened your face?”
The Singapore immigration officer looks back and forth between my passport photo in her hand and the person standing before her. I catch her suppressing a giggle as she asks me once more “what happened?’ whilst pointing at my face. As far as I’m aware nothing has happened to my face, except for the stresses of the last 48 hours being scribbled upon it like a kid who has gone to town on the Etch A Sketch.
Mine and Lexy’s epic journey, from London to Kuala Lumpur via Bahrain, had gone smoothly enough until we landed and hit a massive stumbling block. We had caught a taxi from the airport to the bus station in the centre of KL, as planned. But the airport was much further from the city than I expected and we were cutting it fine to catch the last bus of the day to Singapore. However, having already booked and pre-paid for our accommodation in Singapore that night, we forged on. As we approached the bus station and our taxi driver learnt of what we were about to attempt he let us in on some bad news.
“No buses today. It’s Sunday. All full as Malaysians go work in Singapore.”
I glanced at Lexy with a knowing look. “Sure they’re all full”, I whisper to her, “And I bet he has a friend who owns a minibus and can drive us instead. That old trick.”
Lexy who had never been to Asia before was relying on me as an ‘experienced backpacker’ to take the lead on certain matters. I’d spent about 4 weeks in Asia in my early twenties and hence thought this make me somewhat knowledgeable about travelling around a massive, multi-cultural continent.
Turning to the driver I say, “I’m sure we’ll be fine thank you. Just take us to the bus station as planned.”
“No Miss, I don’t think you understand. These buses are full. All booked. You no ticket already?”
He did sound almost genuinely concerned. My confidence faltered slightly. I take out my Lonely Planet and as it didn’t mention anything about pre-booking seats on the Singapore buses tell Lexy we should stick to the plan.
Finally we arrive at the bus station and the driver doesn’t want to leave us alone.
“Maybe you go and find tickets and your friend wait here with bags in car, just in case I need to take you to hotel instead.”
I was sure his offer of helping us find a hotel was some elaborate ploy to bring some business to his cousin or some such relation, but he had a point about needing somewhere safe to leave the bags. From the car window we could see the station was absolutely heaving. People carrying luggage the size of small houses were bursting from every doorway. The noise was intense even from inside the taxi: a medley of congested traffic, a rapid-fire foreign language making departure announcements, vendors selling unidentifiable food and oriental-sounding music blasting from Lord knows where. I was more than a little apprehensive, but I daren’t show it.
“I’ll be right back.’ I called to Lexy as I stepped out the car. She seemed relived to be able to do as she was told and stay put.
As I crossed the footbridge that spanned 6 lanes of traffic and led into the station foyer the smell of sewage mixed with strange food attacked my nostrils. This was the first time I had stepped outside since our journey begun; and as I dodged bowls held out by beggars and swerved a group of over excited teenagers, it suddenly struck me that I was in Asia. And I had no idea what I was doing.
Inside the station there were hundreds of booths but mercifully none had any queues. I scanned the hand written scribbles on the signs above the desks to see if I recognized one that looked like Singapore. I ran up to the first one I saw with an S on it.
“I’m looking for 2 tickets to Singapore today please.”
“No.” came the reply.
“Maybe there are some later buses?” I ask. “We can pay to go First Class, I just really need to get to Singapore today,” I stammer, embarrassingly assuming this is a matter of money rather than availability.
“No tickets,” she repeats and looks behind me as if searching for a real customer.
I try the next desk, and the next one, and one in another section of the station altogether. They all say the same thing. The buses are full.
The driver wasn’t lying.
As I race back to Lexy, wondering if it was a good idea to leave her in a car with a strange man and all our worldly possessions, I also rack my brain for a Plan B. I remembered reading somewhere about tourist coaches that depart from some major hotels, maybe they happen to have just 2 spare seats?
I send some thanks in heaven’s direction as I find Lexy and our driver where I left them. I try not to let my fear and shortness of breath show as I tell her the news. I turn to the driver to see if he knows something of these tourist buses I think I have heard of and luckily it seems I wasn’t making it up.
“Yes, I know a hotel,” he says, and I start to like him.
At this point I glance at the meter. Thanks to a favourable exchange rate the current tariff is not objectionable, but I quickly calculate it is already the equivalent of one person’s fare to Singapore from Kuala Lumpur on an Air Asia flight. Best not mention that to Lexy.
As we pull up to the hotel there is indeed a coach outside whose window states it is Singapore bound and, with perfect timing, it pulls away at the exact moment we draw up behind it.
“Nooooo,” all three of us cry.
“Don’t worry, I’ll speak to the hotel. There might be another one,” I say with misplaced optimism.
The hotel concierge helpfully explains how he cannot help me. But below their hotel, he says, is a shopping mall in which there is an office that sells tickets for the bus to Singapore.
“Show me the way!” I exclaim.
Down escalators, along slippery, polished corridors and around endless blind corners I tear like a woman who owns a fitter body than my own. Finally I find the office. And it is closed. Of course.
As I make my way back to Lexy and the taxi, trying not to vomit from all the sudden exertion, I am all out of ideas. Luckily the driver has one more.
“I could take you,” says our new hero. “We can go as far as Jalan Batur in Malaysia and then you catch a bus over the border to Singapore. Very many buses there and very cheap. How much you want to pay me?”
I try to do a mental calculation of how much we would have spent on coach tickets if there had been any, versus how much I think 2 flights would cost today if we chose to go back to the airport and try that option. I weigh up what it would cost us to stay in a hotel in KL, add in what we would lose on the night in Singapore we prepaid for, consider the fact we would be one day behind our schedule and that we already owe the driver far more than we intended to pay for this part of the journey and the answer forthcoming from my jetlag and jogging addled brain is ‘F*ck it’. We offer him another 2 times more what is on the meter and he accepts.
So that is how our 2009 jaunt to South East Asia begun – with a 6-hour taxi journey across Malaysia, bums stuck to the sticky leather seat, bladders full and only a tube of Pringles for nutrition. It turned out we needed to take a further 2 buses to get to Singapore from Jalan Batur where the driver dropped us, one to get us to the border and one to take us away from it. My tired, hungry and crinkled face nearly got me rejected from the country we had spent so long trying to reach, but we made it in the end. And, it later transpired, this was the least expensive of our South East Asian transport disasters that were to keep on coming over the next 2 weeks.
But our friendship survived the misadventures and as Lexy and I sat in the Hard Rock Café on our last night of the trip (don’t judge us, we had reached our fill of curry and rice for the fortnight), back in KL almost in one piece, we began to reflect on the experience. Strangely and overwhelming the trip had given us both the travel bug. I always had it, but this time it was vengeful and it would not be sated with just 2 short weeks away. I asked the waiter for a napkin and on the branded white square he handed me I drew 2 columns. In the first column I began to scribble down all the places I had been since a child, trying hard to remember if it was Majorca or Menorca I had been as a frumpy teenager. In the second column I made a separate list of all the places I really wanted to discover or revisit in the next few years. There were about 30 places my wandering soul longed to see.
“I wonder if I can make it to 40 countries before I turn 30?” pondered the 25-year-old me who was fond of linguistic poetry and a personal challenge. I had no idea what the next few years had in store for me.
Back in the UK, Lexy and I took it in turns to regale friends and family with tales of our misadventures in South East Asia.
“I nearly peed myself in that taxi to Singapore.”
“We completely missed the ferry and had to pay for a private speedboat AND pay a bribe to the harbour master in order to let us do so.”
“We met so many hot Aussies but they all had the strangest nicknames.”
On the first day back at work Lexy and I were allocated 5 minutes to tell the rest of the team about our trip. Realising we were full of stories the boss cut us short with the warning that we’re not to distract the other girls with further tales until lunchtime. But their interest had been piqued so they hounded me to continue on email or MSN instead.
“You should really write a blog,’ typed Lexy one day. “You tell everything much better than me. I’m cracking up just reading your emails and I was with you when it happened.”
Although I’d kept a private online travel diary during my gap year I had no idea what went into a modern day blog or how one goes about getting one. But I certainly did enjoy writing. All I’d ever wanted to do was write but I had never considered doing so publicly on the internet.
Unswayed, Lexy started sending me links to free blogging platforms and articles on blogging for dummies. They looked complicated and had words and phrases I didn’t understand like ‘domain registration’ and ‘DNS’ in them. But there is not much you can’t find the answers to on the internet and Lexy kept those links coming until I couldn’t make excuses anymore.
So one weekend I did it. I set up a very basic free blog using blogger by Google. I wrote about that ridiculous journey we made to get to Singapore (I mean there are direct flights from London, what were we thinking?) and added some very poorly focused and unrelated photos (there was no time for picture posing during the actual incident). And I called this ugly site, which I assumed no one would ever read, 40 countries before I’m 30. I thought it had a sort of ring to it.
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