Onward transportation from Koh Samui, organised by opportunistic but efficient tour companies, was plentiful and easy. They branded us with stickers and pointed us towards a catamaran filled with hangovers, which zipped to the mainland, where buses branched off to various destinations: the train station, the airport, a selection of hotels. We bemoaned the lack of autonomy whilst happily leaving the organisation to somebody else, dodged the hobbling tourists with their moped injuries (of which there were an alarming number), and leapt on the first train to Chumphon.
I’m strangely intrigued by international borders. I think it’s because as a Brit, we don’t have any. I don’t really understand why I can’t simply step over the imaginary line a few miles down the road, thus avoiding all the tedious formalities, but that aside, they intrigue me with their subtlety. The scenery should be identical. The vegetation remains the same. Unlike in Britain, where crossing into a neighbouring state involves traversing either over or under a large body of water, there is no buffer zone to enable a distinct separation of cultures and therefore there should be no obvious difference.
There is, of course.
It’s fair to say that geography isn’t my strong point. Prior to this trip, I had no idea either Singapore or Brunei were carved out of Malaysia – I thought the latter was in the middle east somewhere, and the former . . . gosh . . . maybe nearer Australia? Anyway. I can’t be the only one who didn’t know that Penang isn’t a city at all, but an island.
Yet there it is. And more, actually: it’s a state. (Or even a country, if you believe the Wikipedia entry and understand the political and semantic complexities of designating something “a country”, which I don’t, so for purposes of uneducated brevity let’s call it a state and move on). It consists of a 300 km² island (Palau Pinang), and a chunk of mainland west-coast Malaysia. But the bit people mean when they talk about Penang – and indeed the names of which are used interchangeably – is the island’s largest city, George Town. Or Georgetown. Poor old George/Town, people barely know it exists and nobody seems to know how to write it.
Despite my nightmare visions before leaving Singapore’s reassuring confines, Malaysia (at least the peninsular bit) is of course one of Asia’s most developed countries, and KL is where all the cool kids hang out.
Thankfully we had a guide to show us how the locals do it, in the form of Rob, a half-Malaysian friend from London who had recently relocated to this fine city. It was with him that I got to try the traditional chicken rice we’d missed in Singapore (“ours is better anyway”, I was confidently informed – with no frame of reference I wasn’t about to deny it), breakfast at a banana leaf restaurant – where curry is literally served on a banana leaf instead of a plate (environmental!), and even traditional nasi lemak at his aunt’s house in the suburbs. Not only were we fed, watered and shown a much-missed dose of family familiarity, we were also taught how to eat mangosteens and identify the ripest dragon fruit. (I was convinced I would remember this sage advice forever until I went to buy one in Thailand and realised it was something to do with the scaly bits but for the life of me I now can’t remember whether they’re supposed to be big or small, and stick out or lie flat. Absolute fail).
If Christmas crept up on us unannounced then that was nothing compared to New Year’s Eve.
There’s a certain anxiety that precedes a new country on a long-term trip like this. It’s that nervous fluttering which accompanies most excited holiday-makers in the days before they depart: the excitement of a new destination mixed with fear of the unknown. I’ve noticed it creeping up on me every time: from Poland to Belarus to Russia to Korea to Indonesia to Singapore and now here it was again. This time it was compounded by Singapore’s silky-smooth effortlessness and the knowledge that life on the trip would never be so easy again. Malaysia was talked of in somewhat patronising terms by most Singaporeans, who praised the beauty and wildness of its landscape but seemed only too grateful to return to their country’s well-oiled machine. Malaysia began to loom in my mind as a hotbed of piratical lawlessness.
Now if any of you have been thinking “this is all very nice Robyn, but where’s the “flash” part of your flashpacking? This just sounds like slightly more civilised backpacking to me”, then my answer to you would be two-fold. Firstly, as far as I’m concerned, that’s what flashpacking is, to be honest. And secondly: you make a good point. Let’s get a bit flashier, shall we?
Enter Malaysian Airlines. Did you know that they offer us poor cattle-class plebs the opportunity to upgrade our experience without turning up to the airport in high heels and hoping for the best? Instead, you can bid to fly business class. I originally only chose Malaysian because they were so inexpensive: just £200 to fly economy from Tokyo to Bali, a 7 + 3 hour flight with a 6-hour stopover in Kuala Lumpur. They’re clearly struggling in the aftermath of MH71 and MH370. This bidding gimmick is presumably their way to try and drum up some new custom, and I was happy to bite!
My interest in Japan owes much to one of my favourite authors, Haruki Murakami.
Whilst in Tokyo, I had hoped to identify some of the locations he describes. I thought I might perhaps even gain a glimpse into the psyche of the Japanese men who form the bulk of his protagonists: forgettable loners, quietly plodding through life and barely leaving an imprint. It had seemed a strange universal character to choose, but after only a few days in the city I could understand why they provided him with such rich potential. It’s a place dedicated to solo living: the tiny apartments, the individual seats at ramen bars, the anonymity of the packed subway car. Like no other city I had visited, Tokyo invited people to disappear, even when living a life surrounded by other human beings.
Day three was dedicated to seeking out the weird and wonderful world of Japanese collectables.
I’d been pointed in the right direction by my friend Josy, she again of the Japanese intel, and headed towards Nakano Broadway. I had been promised “old movie posters, models, panty vending machines, godzilla statues etc” – basically everything I could possibly want from four days in Tokyo, or indeed any holiday destination. Primarily I was after the vending machines full of pants, if only to confirm that such a thing actually existed, but I figured I might as well take a gander at the other stuff too.
Nakano is an old-style shopping mall: countless outlets, some barely bigger than a cupboard, are crammed into the centre, lining both sides of the maze-like corridors with nary a window in sight. Five floors are filled with incredible amounts of kitsch, collectables, badges, dolls, trinkets, retro goodies, anime and manga (I still don’t know the difference), vintage toys, clothes, comics, video games, and items for which I don’t even have a name. I explored the whole place, rounding every corner thinking “this surely must be it, there can’t be anything else left to collect”, only to be proven categorically incorrect. If you ever thought it wasn’t possible to dedicate an entire shop purely to anime posters, or plastic dinosaurs, or muscle-bound statues of WWF members, then you would be very wrong.
The deal was that we would go to Japan together, at a later date. It was a country we both longed to visit and therefore deserved to be taken on its own merits without any other distractions.
But the cheapest flight from Vladivostok to Melbourne went via Tokyo, so Peter reasoned it would be simply churlish not to extend the stopover from two hours to two nights.
And if he was getting two nights in the city then damnit so was I. Although flight prices being what they are . . . two became four. And so I found myself bound for Tokyo with five days to play with and strict instructions not to leave the city limits.
I wasn’t going to visit the Korean peninsular without attempting to get into North Korea.
Well, by “attempting” I mean “paying for a trip” and “North Korea” I mean the Joint Security Area.
The DMZ, or demilitarised zone, is a strip of land around 2km wide which covers the entire border between North and South Korea. The JSA is a tiny section of this where talks and negotiations take place: a makeshift hut slap-bang on the border, precisely half in each country, is the epicentre. It’s arguably the most interesting place to visit and an essential part of any trip to South Korea.
It was also temporarily closed to visitors.
This was due to imminent talks taking place three days later between the leaders, so I deemed it a reasonable excuse not to let me in and went on a tour of the DMZ anyway, sans JSA, and feeling rather aggrieved at their ill-timed political processes.