Category Archives: Asia Overland

Stories of backpacking across Asia

Christmas in Singapore 1975

On the tender from the ferry docking in Singapore harbor that Christmas Eve, across from me sat a Yank –  an “older man” – engrossed in a book.  I watched him read, getting vicarious pleasure from seeing someone so absorbed in a work of serious, worthwhile fiction. It had been  months since I’d been able to get my hands on acceptable reading material.   He looked up and saw me studying the cover of his paperback.

“The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” he said. “Have you read it?” He passed me the book. John Fowles was one of my favorite authors. He was almost finished, he said, then I could have it.

Paul told me he was from Alexandria VA, retired from the FBI – which turned out to be true, he showed me his badge. He had a neatly trimmed moustache, dark blond hair, kind of a craggy face creased from lots of sun. We’d both ferried here  from Jakarta, where I’d spent a few hours wandering around before boarding, the conclusion to a 2-month stay in Indonesia.

This section of Jakarta appears unchanged since December of 1975

We shared the stories of our shipboard   experiences – which differed dramatically. He’d slept in a bed.   These policies have probably changed in the last 30 years, since so many overloaded Indonesian ferries have sunk between Jakarta and Singapore, but in those days they would take as many passengers onboard as they could collect fares from.  Westerners got preferential placement. We were allowed to camp out on the first class deck, breathing fresh air and sleeping on clean, usually dry hardwood planking. I stretched out on a sarong, my head on my backpack. My wallet containing 2000 rupias and change – just under $6- had been lifted before we left port. There went my funding for meals during the 2-½ day voyage.

More alarming was the loss of the never-used American Express card I’d brought from home for emergencies. Nobody who took it would have known what it was – but I’d been counting on it as backup to get home from whatever European city I’d end up in, months from then. A couple English-speaking Indonesian college boys were hanging around the first class deck. We had a little talk.  If they happened to know who had the American girl’s wallet, I said, tell them they could keep the money but please, please, return the wallet.

I told Paul how I’d found the captain in the airless,  foul-smelling cargo hold. That was where the extra Indonesian passengers got to stay- hundreds of them packed in on a wet concrete floor  like slaves or refugees, not paying passengers. Horrifying. The captain sort of understood English. He wrote down my plea for the wallet’s return, and announced it over the loudspeaker.

When I returned to my spot on the upper deck, there it was. They’d taken the folding money and left me the AMEX card and 300 rupias in change – about 80 cents. This bought me  one meal – a scoop of white rice topped with a fish head on which I passed – and enough tea to get through a couple days.

FBI Paul knew Singapore – great places to  eat, and an open air market that sold English-language used books.   We had an authentic Chinese feast for Christmas Eve dinner. We shopped for books.  That’s where I found Paul Theroux’s book The Great Railway Bazaar, which became my bible for that trip. 

My companion insisted on spotting me a night at the Strand hotel – real showers, real beds with clean sheets. The next day, not wanting to impose on his hospitalit or give him what  girls then referred to  as “the wrong idea” I checked out and got a room above a Chinese restaurant.  He helped me get settled.

On Christmas Day I wandered around the pristine city (when people get caned for littering, things stay pretty spic and span) stopping outside churches to listen to Chinese Christians singing hymns. I wandered down Queen Elizabeth Walk along the Harbour, stopping to read and people watch. Heaven in a dictatorship. It was warm and breezy, not oppressively hot and humid like in Indonesia.

At some point I met a soldier on leave from the Singapore army – a Hokkien Chinese who spoke perfect English. “Steve” had a fiancée waiting for him in Canada, where he planned to emigrate. He showed me the sights – Tiger Balm Garden – kind of a cheesy theme park – and took me out for Hokkien chicken. He ate with his fingers, sucking all the bones clean and piling them on the table. I was grossed out but this is how Hokkiens eat chicken. Chinese and Yanks have different table manners.

The night before I left as I was walking up the stairs to my room above the restaurant I crossed Paul coming down.  He’d come to check on me. I was staying right down the street from Raffles, Singapore’s famous hotel from British colonial days. In huge rattan chairs where a plaque said Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling used to sip cocktails, we had a farewell drink.

Paul was probably in his early fifties. He may no longer be among us, but if he is – or not –  I wish him a Merry Christmas –  across the miles, across the years.

Bangkok – after Saigon fell

bangkok street scene2Don’t go to Bangkok they all warned me – stay away.

Overland travelers with serious road cred, those who’d started in Athens and gotten to Southeast Asia the hard way were unanimous in their distaste for the dirt, chaos and crime of the Thai capital and really any other major city.  Surely Bangkok would overwhelm a  novice like myself who had flown to Tokyo from Chicago only 4 months earlier.

 bngkwmn-1But I’d racked up some cred of my own. After  a month navigating the Tokyo subway system, being hospitalized with dysentery in Java, managing  a harrowing border crossing from Malaysia into Thailand with a ditsy travel companion from Lincoln, Nebraska who “forgot” he had some opium in his backpack –  at the last minute he palmed it off on our trishaw driver as a tip  – I felt prepared for Bangkok, where the prospect of Western toilets, hot showers and mail from home being held at the American Express office awaited. 

Also I had a phone number to call. The forest fire fighter/journalist I’d met on Penang could be reached at this safe house for Kuren rebels in Bangkok. Thirty years before this phrase was coined he was embedded with the rebels and their cause and was filming them at their camps and on the front in the remote hill country that spanned the Thailand-Burma border up north near Chiang Mai.  We’d spent a week or so in  Batu Feringhi, in Penang exchanging  scorching glances, always surrounded by a group of people. Peter had left a folded piece of notebook paper with this Indian guy we’d befriended on which he’d written me a poem and this number to call.

In Bangkok with  Nebraska Bill and Eric from the Peace Corps, who’d joined us in  southern Thailand  we got a Western-style motel room with private bath and a pool and had  breakfast at Mitch & Nam’s, an American-styled diner run  by two Viet Nam vets who decided not to go home after the war. This was February, 1976 – less than a year after the fall of Saigon. Eggs, bacon, hash browns, pancakes, heaven. We lingered over coffee and The Bangkok Post – the  first English language newspaper I’d seen since leaving Hong Kong in November.  

budhstmnk-1Overland  travelers in those days were almost completely isolated from the outside world.  In Asia you could go weeks without access to any form of Western media.  It became known that  I had a  transistor radio that might pick up the BBC on a clear night and sometimes a  group would gather, listening to mostly static.  There was a brisk trade in paperbacks, but news was a scarce commodity.

 The Thais loved us Yanks. After months of being heaped with scorn and derision by both natives and  Europeans who held us personally responsible for our government’s decisions – something any American traveling abroad at any time has no doubt encountered – this was heady stuff.

At the motel I tuned the transistor to an English-language station playing the blues and my frst hot bath in three months. The water turned black. Apparently the cold dipper baths didn’t slough off dead skin cells.  So I refilled the tub with more hot water and shampooed my hair – lather, rinse repeat. Heaven.

I wrote home faithfully once a week but hadn’t gotten mail since Hong Kong;  parents   communicated with backpacking kids back then  by sending letters  to Amex offices marked “Hold for Arrival.”  There were 7 letters from home.  Ecstatic, I sat at the pool and read them from the  most recent back, not understanding  my mom’s   references to “bearing up under the circumstances.”   The earliest letter – one from my brother – was hilarious.  I laughed so hard  people around the pool turned to look at me. Then he wrote that our grandmother had died. Gram and I were astral twins -we shared the same birthday – and I was finding out three months later. I  cried so hard the same people around the pool turned to look at me again.

When I got back to the room I reached Peter at the number he’d given me, amazing since this was the first time he’d actually been at the safe house; he’d be leaving for the hill country that night but he wanted to see me. He caught a three-wheeled taxi  and came over. Bill and Eric were out. As soon as I opened the door he knew something was wrong .  He held me while I cried, and for a long time afterward.

Bali: Where you go lady?

So I like to go places – exotic or mundane, city or country, domestic or international – anyplace I’ve never been is someplace I might want to go. 

The recorded history of my travels dates back to the purchase of my first camera – an Olympus Pen that shot double frames, I bought it in Tokyo.  You could get twice as many pictures in a roll. I recently found out these cameras were collectors items which made me regret all over again the fact that I dropped it down a Mayan pyramid.  It still worked when I found it. After that motor drives came in so I guess I threw it away. Wish I hadn’t. But I still have the pictures.

I did everything backwards on that trip. I’d never been out of the country, and I started out in the Far East. Clueless. By the time I got to Hong Kong  I realized I had packed wrong and I really wouldn’t need  a grey wool blazer in Southeast Asia.  Everyone else I met coming from the other direction had been on the road for like 4 or 5 years, they couldn’t believe I had just left home like a month earlier. For the sake of the narrative I guess I’m going to have to admit this was in 1975. As a newbie on the  circuit I was much in demand because in these pre-internet day I was an actual source of information from home. Who won the World Series? – did Gloria and Mike on All in the Family have a baby? – what about this new president Gerry Ford? (Not a bad guy, I said, maybe not presidential material  but he’d make a nice next-door neighbor. He reminded me of the dad on My Three Sons).

In Bali all the little kids would chase me yelling “Lady! Where you go? Where you go?”  It drove me nuts but that was all they knew how to say.