SE Asia 1983

a rite of passage

It’s1983. My friend Donna & I are about to turn 30. We’re single, have been living and working in Calgary for several years and are restless for an adventure that will take us outside of our comfort zone.

Much of our generation is heading to South East Asia as a rite of passage into adulthood, so we follow their lead and plan a three month trip that will take us to Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia. I quit my job, cash in my retirement savings, sublet my house and take a giant leap into the unknown.

The trip is truly a life-changer. We see, hear, smell, taste and feel things that blow our minds. Brushes with danger remind us of our vulnerability. Immersion in foreign cultures change the way we think of our world. Freedom from school and work open our minds to the possibility of living different lives than the ones we’ve been socialized to expect. We come home from the trip knowing that we are travellers and that travel will forever be an integral part of our lives.

We head out with backpacks and Tony Wheeler’s guidebook, “SE Asia on a Shoestring”. In Hong Kong we literally shop till we drop, making a mockery of our guidebook’s title. Watches and other jewelry, cameras, silk bedding, and tacky souvenirs are packed up and sent home.

Our room at the HK YMCA overlooks the harbour and is a short walk from the Star Ferry terminal. A coveted location! And well-priced.

From Hong Kong we fly to Bangkok, arriving late at night in this huge metropolis. The Hotel Malaysia, recommended in our guidebook, is out on Rama IV Road and we hop into a three-wheeled open-vehicle called a “tuk-tuk” for a hair-raising ride in the dark. The driver gets lost a few times. His English is non-existent. I don’t recall how we get to our destination. One of many strokes of travel luck gets us there.

The Hotel Malaysia is pretty basic. Geckos greet us outside the room as well as in. Roaches scurry under our twin beds. We quickly learn what 2 stars mean in this part of the world.

But Bangkok is dazzling. The many palaces, the canal floating markets, the street food. The traffic, the smog and congestion. The orange-robed Buddhist monks. A feast for the eyes and a test for the patience.

A day trip to the bridge over the River Kwai, where the famed world war II movie was filmed, ends with a tense ride in the back of an army truck. We miss the last bus back to Bangkok and cannot afford to stay at the hotel by the bridge. As soon as we hit the highway and stick out our thumbs a truck full of soldiers stops. Without thinking too much about the danger, we hop into the back, glad to have a ride before darkness falls. Once underway we take a look around and see a dozen set of eyes staring back at us. Then we notice the guns. In another stroke of travel good fortune, nothing untoward happens. They drop us at the outskirts of the city where we hitch another ride. We make it back to our hotel a bit shaken, but safe.

A week in the city is long enough. Our throats and eyes burn from the smoke and smog. Our bones rattle from the tuk-tuk and bus rides. The sex shows on Soi Cowboy disturb our moral sensibility and our rigid western notions of gender. After all it is 1983, not 2018 and transgendered is simply not in the lexicon.

In search of some beach time, we head to Ko Samet, a small island south of Bangkok in the Gulf of Siam. A three hour bus ride to Ban Phe and an hour on an ancient wooden ferry get us there. Because there is no jetty, we have to jump into waist deep water with our packs on our backs and wade to shore. Yes, it is primitive. Our bamboo beach hut costs $5/night. A fish dinner at the local cafe is $2. A group of Australian boys down the beach have a bag of ganja they are all too happy to share. It’s a chill couple of days.

Next we travel north to Chaing Mai where we take a “hillside tribe trek”, walking through rice paddies, into the jungle, to spend time amongst tribal Thai people living subsistence rural lives. Rather than sleep in the hut we’ve been assigned we opt for the porch where there are fewer roaches, but we have to listen to the hogs fighting below us.

In Bangkok we join a small group for a three week organized tour called “Bangkok to Bali”. There are 6 of us plus Tan, our Thai guide. Two female medical students from LA, Eve, a social worker from San Fransisco and Bob, a book editor from New York. Laura, one of the medical students takes a shine to Tan and it is entertaining to watch her trying to seduce him. Bob is a nervous wreck, popping Valuim and complaining about the bugs, the heat, the food, the service, the trains, the buses, the hotels, etc. Eve is a gracious, thoughtful experienced traveler with a disabled husband at home. We are a disparate group and we never really bond. But we manage to make our way from Bangkok to Bali without mishap.

Of note is a night trek, with horses and guides, up Mount Bromo, an active volcano in Indonesia, to arrive at the rim of the crater at sunrise.

A trip to Borobudur, a 9th-century Buddhist temple in central Java, Indonesia, is something I almost miss. In bed with the usual traveler’s diarrhea, the group goes without me. Donna returns extolling the fabulousness of the experience and the next day I manage to get out of bed at noon, take the bus to the site and arrive late in the afternoon after the crowds have gone home. I have the place to myself. It is mystical. I can feel the deep peace even now as I write this decades later.

Borobudur is the world’s largest buddhist temple, consisting of nine stacked platforms, six square and three circular, topped by a central dome. It is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues. The central dome is surrounded by 72 Buddha statues, each seated inside a perforated stupa. Stunning!

I buy a postcard at the tourist shop by the bus stop. Spend the ride home alone at the back of the bus, processing Borobudur: the place, the feelings, the meaning. I write the postcard to Craig. I know he is interested in this trip and the photo of the site at sunset is the perfect enticement to make it happen. Plus it makes it more about the temple and less about our connection. I’m not ready to be more than a fellow travel aficionado just yet. That will come later, on the next trip.

In Malaysia we spend a few days on the east coast at Cherating, where we lodge with a family. Donna’s and my home-stay is with an elderly couple who speak no English. Lots of smiling, nodding and hand gestures. Learning that there is a Club Med a mile or so up the beach, we begin plotting a strategy to get in. Our diet thus far has consisted of rice, skin & bone chicken, peanuts, eggs and cabbage. Club Med is known for it’s smorgasbord meals. Enough said. We are motivated.

It is almost too easy to get in. We literally walk in off the beach, straight to the lunch buffet. Our table mates try not to stare as we gorge on bread and cheese, fruit and cold cuts. They’ve just arrived and are swapping stories of flights and bus rides. We just keep eating, answering their questions as vaguely as we can. No one notices we lack the requisite bracelets. After lunch we collapse on poolside loungers.

Our next resort crashing foray will be less successful. At Penang, on the west coast of Malaysia we furtively wander into a 5 star hotel and head for the pool. We know we need hotel towels in order to appear to be legitimate guests. We’ve pulled this caper before, usually by finding a housekeeping cart and stealing towels. But on this occasion we can’t find towels anywhere. We don’t want to leave but we know staff will soon be on to us. In the washroom we notice that the roller towel is the same material as the pool towels. Using a Swiss army knife Donna cuts the towel out and we take this to the pool. Of course, someone has complained about the vandalized towel roller. Soon enough a security guard shows up to escort us out. At the front door he tells us we could have paid $1 for a day pass. Live and learn!


The tour ends in Bali. Kuta Beach. We find a room on an alley called Poppies Gang. A graceful young woman leaves a plate of fresh fruit and a pot of mint tea on our deck every morning. We discover black rice pudding. Gamelan music, traditional dancing, shadow puppets, the Hindu legend of the Ramayana entertain us in the evenings. The epic poem Ramayana is played out on stages and tells the story of Rama, the legendary prince of an ancient Indian kingdom.

The beauty, artistry, serenity and friendliness of the island captivates us. Bali is so unlike the other places we’ve been in SE Asia. We stay a week before moving on to Australia.

Landing in Sydney is a bit of a culture shock. And it is cold! We buy sweaters at a second-hand store and trade our flip-flops for runners. A phone number of a couple we met in northern Thailand comes in handy; we call them and they are happy to hear from us. They pick us up at our downtown hotel and insist we spend a few days at their house. As well, they tour us around Sydney and have friends over for a dinner party to meet the Canadians. I wish I could remember their names, but 35 intervening years later it ain’t gonna happen.

The day of our departure the husband drives us to the local train station. We take the train to the outskirts of Sydney and from there we hitch-hike north. The Gold Coast towns are beachy and fun. Brisbane is interesting but big. Somewhere north of Brisbane we get a ride with an Aussie man living in Papua New Guinea who is doing some kind of sales work in Australia. He has a rental car and, we find out later, no money. Donna & I end up paying for most of his gas, some of his meals and one night we sleep in the car to save on the cost of a hotel. He is a bit crazy and often does not make sense, but he is driving all the way to Darwin, so we get a lot of mileage from the one ride.

He drops us in Townsville. We find a cheap hotel close to the beach and quickly make friends with John, Allen and Sandy who have a suite of rooms with a kitchen and one of them has a car. Perfect for a week of fun. John is a pretty good Scrabble player. Also living in the house is a guy who Donna befriends who turns out to be a heroin addict and ex-con.

Back in Sydney Donna flies back to Calgary and I carry on to New Zealand. Alone. For a month I ride buses, trains and hitch-hike seeing both islands and all of the tourist sights.


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