Plane. Bus. Taxi. Train. Coach. Mini Van. Speed boat. Slow boat. Longtail boat. Ferry. Car Ferry. Tuk Tuk. Songthaew. Bemo. Jeepney. Motorbike. Scooter. Tall ship. Cable car. Tram.
I’ve travelled on pretty much every type of transport going over the course of my backpacking trips. From short two hour journeys to overnight missions anywhere between twelve and thirty hours, overlanding is part and parcel of backpacking. And whether you like it or not, you will at some point get on a bus in one town and wake up in another – or perhaps even a different country.
I’m writing this on such a journey – 14 hours in, Koh Lanta – Bangkok. So far I’ve been on a mini van that, after the slow and leisurely ease of being delivered by car ferry over two causeways, spent the remaining two hours bombing down one of Thailand’s most dangerous roads and kissing the arse of the vehicle in front of us; then a songthaew (like a kind of truck/bus thing with no windows) that took us to another mini van crammed full of backpackers without air con; and now I’ve just got back on the ‘VIP’ bus (when there aren’t any seatbelts, can it really be VIP?) that I’ve spent the last 20 minutes watching three separate bus drivers crawling under whilst black smoke chugs out of the exhaust.
But really, this is nothing. This journey could go either way at this point, but this is nothing out of the ordinary when you’re overlanding in Asia. Here are some of my most memorable journeys to date.
The Slow Boat Down The Mekong
From: Chiang Mai
To: Luang Prabang
After a mini van journey to some nondescript, strange town near the Thai border, a major panic that I had a) lost my passport and b) the departure card in it, and a baguette wolfed down at the edge of the Mekong river, we started the main leg of the two day journey to Laos’ ancient town of Luang Prabang. The slow boat had something resembling plane seats wedged into it, the large beers on sale were being taken advantage of, friends were made. We passed beautiful scenery: green hills dotted with tiny settlements set against the bluest of skies, us casually making our way down one of Asia’s most famous rivers. Memorable company, memorable beauty, memorable…food poisoning.
Yeah, that tuna baguette for lunch turned out to be a terrible life choice, showing itself for the next few days in all forms. It reared its head overnight in our shack of a room in Pakbeng – the mid-way stop off point of the journey – and followed me on the next leg of the boat trip, on which I also got drenched by a rogue wave. The friends I’d made on the boat? We’re still friends. Their bed was divided with our bathroom by a very thin wall. If anything will bond you, that will.
That Time Hannah Thought We Were Genuinely Going To Die
From: Gili Air
My dear friend Hannah does not like boats. The thing is, if you know Hannah, sometimes you swear there’s always something trying to kill her, so you can understand her nervousness. Me? I love nothing more than sitting on top of a boat, iPod playing some summery playlist, catching a tan and just taking it all in. So I insisted that those dark clouds we could see as we boarded the boat from Gili Air to Bali were headed in the opposite direction.
Half an hour later, Hannah’s sat cross legged, bent as far to the surface of the boat as all that yoga will allow, clutching to the handles of a roof hatch, singing. Singing because it helps distract her from the the fact the boat is ALL OVER THE FUCKING PLACE. Me and Han’s boyfriend Adam are hysterically laughing whilst the boat flings our arses clear of contact with the bloody thing because laugh or cry, right? Then a huge wave launches over Adam’s head and hits me square in the face. (There’s a trend here). This went on for an hour. When we made it to dry land Hannah immediately rang home in relief that she was still alive. They now cancel boats on the Lombok Straight if it’s too rough since one sank about a year ago. Progress.
The Party Train to Chiang Mai
To: Chiang Mai
Oh God Ayutthaya. Sure, beautiful old ruins, absolutely. The rest of Ayutthaya is just dozens of howling, stray and possibly rabid dogs. We somehow got stuck there for three nights and on the fourth finally got on an overnight train to Chiang Mai at around 9.30pm, ready to nap on down and wake up in the fabled beauty of the North we’d heard so much about.
Do my tired eyes deceive me, or did a carriage with flashing lights pass us on the platform? We dumped our bags and decided to check it out, only to reach the restaurant car where dozens of people cheered as we entered through the door. Someone had hooked up an iPod and there were at least fifty people crammed into the tiny space intent on drinking the bar dry. When midnight struck and the lights were switched on in that universal ‘alright, you can all piss off home now’ signal? A couple of Russian guys climbed on the tables and unscrewed the lightbulbs as the rest of the rebel contingent partied on.
Needless to say I woke up in Chiang Mai with a debilitating hangover.
One Boat, A Motorcycle, Two Mini Vans and A Coach
From: Koh Tao
To: Kuala Lumpur
This one is my ‘look at the size of my bollocks’ journey every backpacker will brag about [read: be a twat about] at some point in their lives. A night of no sleep due to painful toothache on the wooden floor of a questionable boat wedged next to a bunch of strangers led to a near hysterical me refusing to get on a scooter with my bags the next morning, a minivan journey that took me to another minivan that delivered me to the border of Southern Thailand where I was eventually shoved on a coach bound for Kuala Lumpur. Only 30 hours long, no big deal. Arrived to torrential rain, an empty hostel and some of the worst homesickness I’ve ever had.
The Game Changer
Much as I enjoy being on top of a boat rather than in the boat, I’m partial to bombing along the roads sat precariously on top of some sort of vehicle. The jeepneys of the Philippines are a great way to travel: American jeeps leftover from WWII converted into public minibuses, gutted and lined with two long wooden benches along the windows, packed full of people in typical Asian fashion.
This 45 minute journey from Sagada to Bontoc was the first leg of a 19 hour journey from the former to Boracay, swiftly followed by another jeepney, an overnight bus, a taxi, a plane, another bus, a boat and a minivan. Pretty hellish in all but this part was wonderful. I sat atop the jeepney with the locals, the sun shining in a blue sky as we rode the mountain highway with stunning views of rice paddies, rolling hills and a river lined with rocky borders.
The night before I had been lamenting about some twat of a guy (an ingredient too often present in a round the world trip), and I will never forget listening to Sigur Ros’ ‘Festival’ and feeling particularly badass that I was in a beautiful part of the world that many people will never see. I congratulated myself on quitting my job, having the balls to go for it again at the age of 26, and knew then that I had definitively done the right thing for me, and fuck anyone who couldn’t wish me well. Most of my memorable journeys have been so because they were plain traumatic, but this one was special because it was the very opposite.
Could’ve easily fallen off the roof of the jeepney though, so it was a fine line between what may have been the worst journey I’d ever taken instead of the best.