Drive Around The World (Australia)

One family, one car, one year, one planet

Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand – Kuala Terengganu, Malaysia, Day 313 – 320, 20 – 28 February 2009

Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand – Kuala Terengganu, Malaysia

Day 313 – 320

20 – 28 February 2009

1,525km

Total: 32,505km

Soundtrack:

‘Hallelujah’ – Leonard Cohen, John Cale, Jeff Buckley, et al

‘Devil Gate Drive’ – Suzi Quatro

‘Maybe the Last Time’ – James Brown

‘Proton Saga Kelabu’ – Jaidi Arifin

‘Too Hot to Move, Too Hot to Think’ – The Triffids

‘Big Chief Chinese Restaurant’ – Guided By Voices

‘Real Men’ – Joe Jackson

‘Ghost Town’ – The Specials

‘Call To Prayer’ – Yusuf Islam

‘Rain’ – The Chills; Not Drowning, Waving

‘Better Be Home Soon’ – Crowded House

We teetered between that pleasant sensation that comes with familiarity and concurrently an annoyance at (literally) covering old ground. While the landscape was still wondrous and inviting, much of the joy of travel is the regular encounter with the strange, the new, the unexpected, and so at times we felt a sense of opportunity lost. But then again, the southern Thai peninsula doesn’t provide road travellers with many options; squeezed between the azure sea on the east and the ominous and fraught Burmese border to the west is Highway 4, with various small roads that head to towns and villages peeling off it. To head north or south there’s really only one option.

We continued somewhat sullenly noting the various ‘lasts’ of the trip. We were now heading south for the last time. There would be plenty more ‘lasts’ to come in the next couple of weeks.

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(Pic: Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand)

A relatively short and uneventful but pretty drive from Cha-Am took us past the gaudy jetsetter glam of Hua Hin to Prachuap Khiri Khan. We had intended to stay at the same place we were at almost a year ago as it had a pool, and we recalled that the beach, while devastatingly picturesque, wasn’t all that pleasant to visit due mainly to the detritus from the numerous fishing boats that settled on the sea floor, floated to the surface or washed up onto the sand. Unfortunately for us there was no room at that particular inn, so we settled for the larger but pool-less hotel up the street. Fortunately, as one hotel door closed, another opened, as it prompted us to explore the area a bit more than last time, and we discovered a couple of small fishing villages and deserted white, sandy beaches. A few food vendors sat dozily in the shade of the fir and palm trees, with one seller making a spicy papaya salad for us – an essential refreshing Thai snack – and Raffy put his ingenuity to use by collecting driftwood and rope washed up on the beach and turning the debris into a swing.

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(Pic: Raffy’s swing, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand)

For days we had been following the harrowing news of the Victorian (Australia) bushfires and feeling quite frustrated at not being there to support people as others living locally were, in spades, and perhaps grieve. This was surely partly a dose of homesickness, but also feeling uncomfortable that people had lost homes, livelihoods, family and friends – and their lives – while some of our greatest personal concerns were whether to have the steamed or deep-fried fish with sweet chilli sauce for dinner. There have been numerous times during our voyage when we have been struck by the perspective stick and we considered the privileged lives we live compared to many others, especially in relation to our access to some basic human rights like food, shelter, relatively unencumbered access to information, education, healthcare and democratically elected governments, but the bushfires struck a different chord for us.

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(Pic: Fresh squid drying in the sun, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand)

The experience became even stranger for us when we sat outdoors in the shade of the hotel eating breakfast in view of the gentle blue sea, the limestone cliffs and islands in the distance and the lolling fishing boats, catching the cool breeze off the water, and watching live via the internet the memorial service for those who perished in the fires. We know from emails and calls from friends and family that people at home were enormously affected by the impact of the fires, whether they directly experienced them or not, yet at this time it was difficult for us to connect with it. Sandy and I reminisced about the old Cumberland resort that, when we were little seemed impossibly large and posh (croquet on the lawns, fruit cups at the bar, my first ‘girlfriend’ – Suzie Quatro on the jukebox, and those little bells that summoned guests for meals), but as adults seemed much smaller and faded, was reduced to ash in Marysville, along with the rest of the town. We gradually received word of friends and acquaintances who survived the inferno, and, some weeks after, those who didn’t.

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(Pic: Maddy, Raffy and Sandy watch the Victorian bushfire memorial service, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand)

Still, there was cause to cringe at how Aussie the service was. Whoever chose the Leonard Cohen classic “Hallelujah”, a song that is much less about religiosity, redemption or compassion, and a hell of a lot more about unrequited love of the sordid variety, should, as Aussies say, take a good hard look at themselves.

Two days later we decamped at the rustic Sunny Beach Resort in Hat Arunothai, where the four of us increased the tally of guests to, well, four. Our hut on the Hat (beach) was right on the beach, making it a Hat hut, if you like. We ate in a bamboo shelter built over the sand, the quiet breaking of the small waves the only sound around us.

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(Pic: Hay, move over! On the way to Hat Arunothai, Thailand)

Raffy spied the resort swimming pool which we discovered was crumbling, cracking and currently being vacuumed, it seemed in hurried response to our arrival. We splashed about for a bit with a couple of local kids who thought it hysterically funny when one of them stuffed a T-shirt down the front of his undies and stood on the end of the rather droopy diving board. The boys kept looking in our direction, and we wondered if they were impersonating anyone in particular. At any rate I took it as a compliment.

The beach itself was a little grubby, as it seems anything facing the South China Sea is now littered in plastic debris. This is the great scourge of the region – it is impossible to ignore the impact of western commercial and consumer demands, which equates to tonnes of plastic bobbing around on or under the surface of the water or carpeting the sand. I recently read about a study that sought to measure the impact of plastic on the world’s coastal environments, where scientists took sand samples from beaches all over the globe. Disturbingly, the scientists could not find a beach in the world where the sand wasn’t contaminated with plastic particles. Our walk along the beach in the late afternoon became a Clean Up Thailand Day, with the children schlepping large, discarded rice bags full of refuse back to the resort. Still, it was yet another tranquil corner of the world that thankfully was not overrun by the loud and the flabby, and we still felt a great distance from the fast-approaching reality of home. The setting sun set off numerous insects that screeched rather than trilled, reminding us that we were now in the tropics once again. One type of creature that we have dubbed the ‘drill’ insect made this idyllic locale sound like a metal workshop, but at the same time rather comforting.

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(Pic: Maddy cleaning up Thailand, Hat Arunothai)

It had all the makings of the perfect beach getaway until, that evening, I began scratching like an overzealous DJ on bogan dust. I had been monstered by sandflies whose bites wouldn’t quit for days. The assorted creams and potions we carted around the world made no difference, and so I resorted to the last antihistamine tablet that remained from my wasp-bite episode in Turkey. Of course as midge sufferers know, the bites are most itchy in the middle of the night, so soon I was not only spotty and scratchy I was also tired and grumpy. Irritated and irritable. The family needed me to get hold of more medication as much as I did.

At Hat Sichon we went back to a beach resort we patronised all those moons ago on our way north and east. The Issara Beach Resort was also deserted, save for the numerous chefs, waiters, cleaners and gardeners and the one other traveller who came and went quickly by scooter. And, once again, as had been the case throughout Asia, Raffy was a star attraction. He was quickly befriended by the son of the owner, Oi, who provided a few treats and some impromptu Thai lessons.

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(Pic: Sunset, Hat Arunothai, Thailand)

In the morning we headed into Sichon town in search of a pharmacy for antihistamine medication for the midge bites, but between explaining our ailments in Thai and trying to decipher pharmaceutical terminology we were seriously struggling to make any headway. It was great that local shopkeepers wanted to help out, but showing us tablets that had names like huberfluxatybersol mesonaphiwackerbine and bebopalulapam shesmybabytol (or some such) meant as much to us as a café latte does to a dolphin.

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(Pic: If you pay peanuts…: trained monkeys used to pick coconuts in southern Thailand and Malaysia are transported around in the backs of utes)

Complicating matters was the custom of selling individual foil sheets of pills that may have some information printed on the back but usually didn’t immediately come from a carton that could possibly provide more info. Finally we settled on some and hoped for the best.

I’m not one to regularly or contentedly ingest medication without at least knowing something about it, so, while sitting on a beautiful beach in Thailand I consulted with my favourite general practitioner and pharmacist dynamic duo in Melbourne via SMS who gave me the green light and dosage. The wonders of technology. I slept well that night.

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(Pic: Ready, set, go – Hat Sichon, Thailand)

We were once again revelling in travelling off the beaten path and away from standard tourist haunts. Indeed, we went for about a week without seeing another westerner. Aside from compelling us to engage with locals and experiencing local cultures that were mostly untainted by western demands, it meant that we stood out like canine’s proverbials. It was almost like a scene from a shoot ’em up Western; I was waiting for the honkytonk piano to suddenly stop mid phrase and the hushed, gravelly “You ain’t from around here, are ya boy”. Then again, we didn’t get steely glances or people taking cover behind water troughs – people smiled, laughed, called out “Allo!” and waved. Still, Raffy continued to get annoyed at the overzealous attention and learned to push away errant fingers that wanted to pinch his cheeks or ruffle his hair. They meant no harm but the cultural difference was palpable.

In the evening Oi, his dad and a number of locals who were at the resort for dinner asked more questions about our trip. I fished our world map out from the truck and spread it over an outdoor table, tracing our route with my finger. Soon, though, it became apparent that much of the world was mysterious to our audience. Names like America and Europe got a flicker of recognition, and they could certainly point out their own country and its borders, but then an old, white-haired man with a solitary tooth asked about Switzerland. Maddy pointed it out, to which he and others traced a line around where Maddy’s finger was, but in a loop as big as Europe itself. “No, no,” Maddy explained, “Here!” and she carefully indicated the small spot that was Switzerland. The crowd had swelled a bit now, and comparisons were being made incredulously of the sizes of Thailand and Switzerland.

Oi’s father then pointed out the large, lonely blob that was Australia and noted its size and distance from Thailand and the rest of the world. The old man seemed to ask for clarification, placing his finger on or about Alice Springs. He was told again what it was, slowly, and he repeated the strange word slowly. It was as if he had heard this name for the first time, and it was as familiar to him as gefilte fish.

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(Pic: Perusing the map, Hat Sichon, Thailand)

We never found out why Switzerland was of so much interest to them, though. As I was falling asleep that night I thought of this group of tropical beach dwellers making a pilgrimage to the land of cheese and yodels and hooning down the piste.

A pleasant and scenic drive south was briefly halted by a police roadblock. We have encountered many of these over the year, and the only time we have not been immediately waved on was close to this very location near the start of our trip.

“Sawasdi,” I greeted the stiffly clad policeman wearing a surgical mask in a vain attempt to keep car exhaust from his lungs as he approached our vehicle. “Sawasdi kap!” was his clipped reply. “You speak Thai?” he asked, hopefully. “No” was my answer (and probably would have been even if I did).

“License!” he demanded, to whom it was presented.

“Mister Daniel!” It seemed all verbal communication was thrilling and urgent. “Ninety kilometre in Thailand!” I was doing 100, being overtaken by a variety of grey extra-cab utes who were in an enormous hurry to get, well, somewhere else. I agreed with the policeman, and he handed back my license.

“200 baht!”

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(Pic: Raffy makes breakfast, Hat Arunothai, Thailand)

I questioned his intention.

“200 baht you pay me!”

I agreed, but requested it in writing. Where’s the speeding ticket?

“No, no. 200 baht you pay me or 400 baht you pay police station!”

And there’s the rub. A not too subtle attempt to fleece the falang (foreigner) for cash that goes directly into his crisp, uniformed pocket. So, I requested the ticket to go to the nearest police station, which would have been in Sichon, some thirty or so kilometres up the road. Of course, I was reasonably certain that there would be no ticket because there was nothing that proved I was speeding – just this bloke standing on the side of the road.

And all of a sudden he stepped back and waved us on. He probably thought this was going to be too hard and his game was up, or maybe someone was watching him – who knows. My 200 baht safely tucked into my wallet.

Our final stop in Thailand – another ‘last’ – was Hat Yai, a place that the children remembered most fondly and the adults rather nervously. Continuing official advice about the restive Songkhla region put us on high alert, but of course, as for when we were here last, nothing remotely dangerous happened. Maddy and Raffy were desperate to go back to the JB Hotel, which, in their mind’s eye, was large, posh and a great treat. This time round, though, perhaps due to their collective world-weariness, or more discerning standards, the JB just didn’t float their boat as much. Still, we rested well, ate well at the local hawker market and even caught some of a traditional Thai dance performance that was happening in the darkness of the forecourt of a temple. The young women moved deftly to the overdriven tune blasted from a decrepit old boom-box and under the instruction of their proud teacher. We then headed back to the JB and prepared for our border crossing into Malaysia the next day.

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(Pic: Raffy and Maddy choose their Chendol, Hat Yai, Thailand)

Immigration and customs were a relative breeze, and we stopped on the other side of the border to organise car insurance and a spot of lunch at a small, nondescript restaurant. Maddy deftly ordered a seafood nasi goreng and proclaimed it one of the best meals she’d had.

As it happened, as when we drove the other way, there is a one-hour time difference crossing from Thailand to Malaysia, but there is nothing to indicate it. It was only when we noticed people sitting down to dinner in cafes and restaurants at a rather early hour did we check the time and worked it out – another ‘last’: the final time-zone change before landing back in Australia, as well as using our last guidebook.

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(Pic: Traditional Thai dancing, Hat Yai)

The road traffic was also again immediately different, with the large people-carrying utes of Thailand giving way to the omnipresent, diminutive, indigenous Protons. Between cheaper fuel and a subsidised car industry – and a fervent nationalist spirit – almost every car on Malaysian roads is a Proton, which makes for a rather mundane scene. We also had the sense that Malays – and particularly the men – were more belligerent on the roads, with much attention being paid to modifying their cars, including, and often limited to, installing big fat exhaust systems that make their little four cylinder engines groan and fart, rather than roar like the beasts they would prefer to drive. So loud and obnoxious were some little buzz-box exhausts that our truck voiced its offence by sounding its alarm.

The exhaust pipes and mufflers weren’t the only things fat; for the first time in a long while we were reacquainted with a human rotundness that is synonymous with increased standards of living, lack of insight into healthy eating and the influence of a relatively new and exotic culture on a local people. There’s nothing inspiring about generously proportioned, wobbly people exiting a well-known fast-food outlet with armfuls of carbohydrates and grease.

There also seems to be somewhat of an air of resignation in Malaysia that is not as obvious elsewhere in the region. This was exemplified by what we termed the ‘thong drag’. Only a very small proportion of the inhabitants of south-east Asia wear closed shoes, with most wearing sandals of varying modes, or the simple, humble rubber thong (or ‘flip-flop’ if you’re American, due to the word ‘thong’ being yet another in the English language that has been misappropriated with a salacious bent). Here, more than elsewhere it seemed, people would walk languidly, almost as an afterthought, letting the back of the thong or sandal drag along the ground. The summers of my youth were filled with the sharp ‘clack’ sounds of a thousand thongs slapping the soles of feet on their way to the pool, the beach or ‘down the shops’, but in Malaysia it was as if those thousand thongs were a thousand little brooms relegated to sweeping the pavement.

It was also here that we were reintroduced to that noble, sophisticated and refined pursuit of men hanging out of car windows and shouting at women. Sandy and Maddy often copped an earful in Malaysia that unsurprisingly made us all livid. The comments were unintelligible, but the intent clear as a bell. Certainly a counterpoint to our recent experiences of Thai, Cambodian and Lao cultures.

We must be getting closer to home, then.

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(Pic: Masjid Zahir mosque, Alor Setar, Malaysia)

The prospect of our relatively imminent return home was also indicated by reminders from my place of employ via email that I was indeed expected to clock on in only a few weeks’ time, and polite requests from my workplace for confirmation. I was extremely tempted to reply in the negative (“nah, we’ve decided to drive the length of South America now. Toodle-pip!”), if only just to stir up the proverbial possums for a while, but I reluctantly acquiesced. We were now becoming a little more than distracted by the imminent return to life back in Melbourne instead of the here and now.

Our next few nights heading south were spent at relatively unremarkable Malaysian cities and towns that, while still providing ample opportunities to wander around and people-watch, enjoy local cuisine and note the subtle or extreme differences in culture the further south we head – differences that seemed absent the first time we travelled through this part of the world. Now that we had learned much more about local languages, customs, cuisine and religious beliefs Maddy and Raffy were interested in examining and discussing with us some of their interpretations. Now that we were in Malaysia women covered their hair and face with a hijab, and some in a full burqua, and some men wore the traditional white ‘kufi’ hat. ‘Kiblat’ arrows depicting the precise direction to Mecca were again stuck to the ceilings in all hotel rooms and elsewhere, and Buddhist bells, drums and chants had given way to the Muslim call to prayer that wafted through the air five times a day. Alcohol was only served in the many Chinese restaurants that dotted the back streets, but not in the Malay ones. (However, the distinct waft of ganga a few times had us a little confused. One explanation was that dope is ‘natural’, but alcohol is ‘man made’. I’m not entirely convinced.) Indeed, it was interesting to note the number of Chinese people whose ancestors had settled in these southern lands but who maintained a strong link to their traditional customs, including conversing in Mandarin and reading local Chinese newspapers.

Through the Malaysian cities of Alor Setar, Kota Bahru and Kuala Terengganu the air was becoming decidedly thicker, the temperature toastier. The further south we head the closer to the tail-end of the monsoon season we get. At night we drifted off to sleep watching lightening in the distance.

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(Pic: Maddy and Sandy get taken for a ride, Kuala Terangganu, Malaysia)

Maddy was again fascinated by the range of produce, ingredients and prepared foods, marvelling at the range and varieties that were often of a singular type at home. (Photo – Ikan billis). The aromas and signs of Malay foods got Sandy thinking of home – randang, ikan billis, sambal, chendol, amongst others. In Kota Bahru we ate at the local night market, sampling and observing local delicacies and taking in the spectacle of something that, once again, was exotic and to be savoured by us, but ordinary for the locals. Then, a little after 7pm, people began to vanish, with stall-holders packing up their wares or covering their displays with sheets or tarpaulins. One minute we were in a thriving market with hundreds of others, the next it was a ghost town. We were only half way through our meal, but wondered if we shouldn’t be a little concerned. Then, the omnipresent ‘Adhan’ – the Muslim call to prayer. Ah, that explains it. While a couple of younger stall-holders waited around, listening to music and playing games on their mobile phones, most of the people went to the mosque or elsewhere for prayer time. Those funny cats with short, bent tails took advantage of the lull in search of their own dinner, while the Chinese stall-holders sat around and continued to watch the televisions installed into their stall. Half an hour later or so the market was back to normal.

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(Pic: Dinner at the night market, Kota Baru, Malaysia)

It is almost impossible to have a meal in this part of the world without at least one TV blasting some mundane and poorly produced soapy at the unsuspecting diner. Maddy and Raffy are drawn to TVs like moths to a flame and know well enough that if a TV is on then they need to sit with their backs to it so as to ensure they consume their food, not the pap. And the ubiquitous TV is not limited to restaurants – the smallest, most rudimentary and rickety food stall on the side of the road will often have a telly wired up to a bank of car batteries. Markets used to be places where customers and vendors would casually and effortlessly interact, a place to share the news and gossip. Now it seems they are areas where people increasingly exist in solitude, bathed in the bluish light of a cathode ray tube and engrossed in a distant and fanciful fantasy. And more’s the pity.

We hadn’t experienced rain since Turkey – through India, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia we, and the environs, were as dry as a Hawkeye martini – so Malaysian precipitation raised an eyebrow or two. So too did the graphic posters and T-shirts encouraging the local populace to donate money to the Palestinian cause, we supposed in the aftermath of the recent military battles there. We wondered what, if anything, most of the local population could afford, and what the more affluent Islamic nations were doing about it – help or hindrance.

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(Pic: Maddy discovers 47 different varieties of ikan bilis (anchovies) in the Kuala Terengganu market, Malaysia)

We also became aware of the rather mundane and potentially unfavourable modes of architecture in these parts. We hadn’t really noticed it last time we were here, but by comparison we became aware of other parts of Asia where not only did local design and construction incorporate specific styles, motifs and customs, but also made were sympathetic to the local climate and general environment. Now that we were on the coast we were astounded that, not only were many of the more modern buildings were without any reference to local culture – these cement boxes could have been anywhere – but were stifling in the heat, their design all but ignoring the breeze from the ocean. Indeed, there were buildings that focused all of their human space inland towards the road, while cars were parked near storage areas with a sea view, next door to an older, more traditional structure where it inhabitants spent most of their time near or even over the water. Strange.

The local market in Kuala Terengganu was an enormous, multi-leveled concrete bunker where locals continued to sell produce and goods of a substantial variety but seemed to groan and sway in the sweltering stillness. A number of the women there tittered at us as we went by, we assume because of how relatively odd we must have looked – the only one of our troop wearing a head covering was the adult male. I wondered how hot it was for them in their hijabs in that stifling market with only hand fans used to make the smallest of breezes.

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(Pic: Market, Kuala Terengganu)

Dodging more marauding Protons and that other traditional mode of road transport, the humble but seemingly irrepressible Datsun 120Y, we continued to head south.

Only a few days left before we tread Australian soil.

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2 Comments»

  Hilary wrote @

i find myself privately starting conversations with you as i read through this entry, such as about lennie cohen’s tour here at bushfire time, his generous contribution to the Cause, and his dedication of several songs during his last concert – in melb – to the victims; or how proud i was of you that you cleaned up a beach somewhere; or how much aplomb and assurance the kids seem to have gained from this journey; or that the market photo at the end reminded me of the royal melbourne show decades ago…

i also thought how lacklustre would seem the prospect of the grindstone, especially as the truck is yet to chart south america, russia, africa, which makes me wonder about your discussions canvassing such possibilities, especially as the distance between you and stkilda shrinks.

hope there are still fresh discoveries awaiting you in our own wide brown land.
hx

  Liz wrote @

Hi to you all. Life has been busy and I have not had time to read your blogs until I made LOTS of time yesterday and caught up on 2 months. It was so good to hear of your wonderful travels with all the excitement and frustrations – I guess this is all part of life. You do sound like you are becoming reconciled with returning home – with some relief and trepidation. i am sure that settling down to “normailty” will be so hard for you all – but just remember all of the wonderful adventures you have had – and I am sure that this will give you a different appreciation of your own homeland. Thanks for taking me along with you via your website.
Liz


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