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Border Runs and the Breaking Point

2011 February 28
Koh Phangan, Thailand

Beautiful Koh Phangan, Thailand.

Backpacking is fun. There’s no doubt about it. But it’s also challenging. You’re always catching buses, trains, boats, packing, unpacking, dealing with unfamiliar places and people. It wears you down mentally and physically. Most of the time you just deal with it and move on.

But all of us have had a time where we can’t take it anymore, break down and lose it. Times when the frustration boils over and all you want to do is scream “FUCKKKK THISSSS” and teleport home. These are the worst times on the road but as bad as they may be, they always end up being a good story.

My absolute, rock-bottom, holy-shit-I-hate-my-life lowpoint occurred in Thailand.

- – -

March 2009

It started out innocuously enough. I was on Kho Phangan nearing the end of my trip. My visa was running out so I had to do a border run into Burma. I then planned on heading down to Khao Lak to dive the Similan islands. I was originally going to take the night boat to the mainland. However, I ran into a group of friends and changed my plans to leave the next morning. We stayed up all night partying and I caught the 6am ferry on practically no sleep while nursing a hangover. “No worries” I thought, “I’ll sleep on the bus ride over.”

Oh how wrong I was. I assumed that it would be a straight shot to the border town of Ranong. But this was Thailand and nothing is ever that simple. I got off the ferry and jumped in a bus. I rode the bus for several hours, hopped off and waited for a minibus. The minibus took us to a little waiting station where I jumped on a tuk-tuk. The tuk-tuk then took me to another waiting station which crammed us into another minibus. After this minibus, we arrived at the Ranong bus station where we hopped into a pickup truck that took us to the border.

By this time, I was hot, exhausted, dirty and incredibly irritable. I hadn’t slept properly in roughly 30 hours (mostly my fault) and now I had to deal with the Burmese authorities. It’s supposed to be a relatively simple process of going into Burma, walking into one room, getting your passport stamped, walking into another room and getting the exit stamp. We jumped into a long tail boat and cruised into Burma.

Crossing the lake to the Burmese immigration office.

Our boat driver kept on making stops. Every little goddamn village on the lake he stopped at. We had asked him to go straight to the office before it closed but obviously this was not part of his grand plan. To add insult to injury, a loud, annoying and unattractive Irish girl in my boat seemed to notice my irritation and badgered me to “chill out”. I wanted to throw her overboard. Lost Irish tourist in Burma? Oops. We finally made it to the other side and headed into the immigration office. Figuring that this might be the only time I’m ever in Burma, I pulled out my camera and took a shot of the Burmese sign. All of a sudden I’m surrounded by five little kids yelling at me and telling me that I have to pay to take pictures. Now these weren’t the smiley, friendly and curious little kids that I was used to. No, they were rude, loud, obnoxious and kept tugging on my clothes and bag. “Little cocksuckers, pulling out the oldest trick in the book”, I thought. I ignored, took a few more shots and headed into the immigration office.

Little bastards didn't stop me from taking this shot.

I knew there was a $10 fee and that Burma was strict about the condition of dollar bills. I had packed a perfectly crisp Hamilton in my bag for this exact reason. As I pulled out the bill, the Burmese immigration officer looked at it with a twinge of confusion and handed it back to me.

“This dollar bill is old. We want new one.”

“What do you mean it’s old? It’s perfectly new, there’s not even a crease in it.”

“We want new style, old style no good.”

I nearly blew my lid. Some time ago, the new version of the $10 bill was released and I didn’t have that one. The alternative was 500 baht which came out to around $14. It wasn’t so much the extra four bucks that infuriated me, it was the fact that I felt like I was being cheated. I had no choice though, for everyday my visa ran over in Thailand, I’d be subject to a massive fine. So I handed over the baht, got the exit stamp and sulked back to the boat.

I felt like I couldn’t trust anyone; from the boat driver, to the kids, to the immigration officer. This distrust weighed heavily on me mentally and I was glad to be leaving Burma, even if I had spent only an hour there.

- – -

With my visa issues sorted, I now focused on getting to Khao Lak. Ranong was an absolute shithole and I didn’t want to spend any time there. It was a run-down and dirty port town with literally nothing going on. Having come from Koh Phangan, with its beautiful beaches and vibrant nightlife, Ranong was like a punch in the stomach. I had to get out. The interesting thing was that the bus leaving for Khao Lak didn’t stop at the central bus station, only at a stop by the side of the road. As such, the schedule was a bit variable. I grabbed some noodles and sat down to wait.

The tussle in Burma had really drained me and all I was looking forward to was a warm bed in Khao Lak. I was traveling alone again and the times on the road between meeting people really do kind of suck. I thought about the fun times I had on Kho Phangan and all the good friends I had left behind. Feeling the traveling blues, I hoped that Khao Lak would be a good backpacker spot.

I didn’t see much in my Lonely Planet so I headed to a tourist information center about 20 feet from the bus stop. I had plenty of time before the bus was supposed to arrive so I walked in, looked at some pamphlets and talked to the guy behind the counter. Ten minutes later, I was starting to cut it close so I went back to the bus station. As I stepped out of the door, I saw the back of the bus driving away. In a last ditch effort, I sprinted over and tried to wave it down. Too late. I didn’t know if there was going to be another bus that night so I ran over to a cab driver and asked him how much it would cost to drive to Khao Lak.

My jaw dropped: 3,000 baht or $85 for the 3-4 hour drive. In a place where $5 gets you a room for the night, there was no way that was happening. I was crushed. Combined with the lack of sleep, frustrations in Burma and my traveling blues, the realization that I would be stuck in Ranong for the night was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Feeling a seething rage creep up from the deepest and darkest part of my soul, I grabbed the first thing I could and smashed my water bottle into the ground with every ounce of strength I could muster. Hot tears of frustration started streaming down my face and all I could do was sit on the bus bench, stunned for a good 10 minutes.

I was broken. My nerves were fried and a sudden sense of helplessness washed over me. It was the only time I’ve ever broken into tears because of travel frustrations. The taxi driver, who had watched the entire episode, probably thought I was crazy. With my head down and shoulders drooping, I trudged back to the guesthouse.

When you’re traveling, even the best laid plans can and will fall apart. Had I just waited at the bus stop or come out of the visitor center even a minute earlier, I’d be well on my way to Khao Lak. Now I’d be stuck in Ranong, something I had tried desperately to avoid from the very beginning. But the beauty of travel is that as quickly as one plan falls apart, another springs to life. It turns out that the information I was given earlier was wrong and there was one last bus headed there that night. It was scheduled to pass through around 11pm which meant that I would pull into the town around 2-3am.

I didn’t care. I had an over-my-dead-body attitude of getting out of Ranong. Determined to not miss this bus, I took a nap and woke up to wait at the bus station 30 minutes prior to leaving. Sure enough, the bus pulled up 10 minutes early. Finally, after a day and a half of no sleep and traveling, I was on my way to Khao Lak.

- – -

Ohhhh was I ever in for a surprise…

Next: The Night of All Nights

3 Responses leave one →
  1. February 28, 2011

    Ha …great article. I gotta laugh as I am currently in teh middle of writing about Myanmar and how the biggest problem we had was new money being not so new in their eyes.
    I may have to link this article in there…

    Nice work,
    John

    • Paul permalink*
      February 28, 2011

      Hey thanks! I would love to go to Burma one of these days for reals and experience the country. But this incident certainly left a sour taste in my mouth…

  2. March 4, 2011

    Travel frustrations happen every once in awhile, but I’m glad you ended up catching a bus and getting out of there!
    Ashley recently posted..Predicting the Oscars

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