The Thai travel agent lady, Bee, ( “call me Bee you know, like a bee,” she first said, as she fluttered her arms up and down like a winged insect), assured us that not only was the bus a deluxe, first class ride to Phuket, but that if we booked now, she would specifically give us “VIP seats”. Normally I’m not a sucker for such things, but honestly, it did sound pretty deluxe- reclining seats with blankets, free snacks and bottled water, an attendant, bathroom, a featured movie, and, even a FREE dinner. The pictures she showed us made it look like a palace on wheels, with its plush, red velvet seats.
Bee bounced excitedly in her office chair with the energy of a 5 year old, while exclaiming:
“Yes! Free dinner too! They stop bus halfway, and you go out and you show a place your bus ticket and you get free!”.
We were originally going to fly from Bangkok to Phuket, because when we first looked online, tickets were really cheap and it was like a one hour flight. However, the day before we wanted to go, prices had quadrupled in cost and it was no longer a feasible option.
But, BUT!- for a mere $50 USD each, we could ride in first class luxury all the way to Phuket (which would be a 12 hour, overnight ride). Even more, it would be my BIRTHDAY. It sounded like a fun way to spend my birthday. Something new and different, you know?
I envisioned us comfortably reclined, perhaps chit-chatting with some backpackers, watching a comedy on the flat screen, stopping for a delicious, free, authentic Thai meal- basically smooth-sailing to Phuket. Mike and I were sold: we paid Bee the $100, proud of ourselves for making such classy move. She instructed us to be at her office tomorrow at 4:30, where we would be picked up.
When we got to Bee’s office the next day, she surprised me with a piece of cheesecake, lovingly arranged on a little plate adorned with a garnish of strawberry and a chocolate sauce drizzle which spelled “HPB!!” . Mike had repeatedly announced that it was my birthday to her the day before, as an attempt to get a discount.
“Happy Birthday, Misses Megan”, Bee crooned, with admiring eyes.
Don’t get me wrong, it was incredibly nice of Bee to give me a huge piece of cheesecake for my birthday. However, I realllllly wasn’t in the mood for it, my stomach still overly-full from lunch. I couldn’t just not eat it though, how rude would that be? For all I know, she had paid full price for it from the bakery next door, which, if she made what the average Thai person makes in a day, is like 1/3 of a days work for her.
So, I gratefully took the plate as she beckoned me to sit down, and began to eat it. It was sickeningly sweet. Bee stared at me and smiled.
“Wow, this is so good. Thank you so much, my gosh, Mike will you help me eat this?”
“What?! I don’t want to eat your birthday cake, its yours to enjoy! Eat up”.
Come on, help me out here! You really expect me to eat this whole thing by myself? , I said to Mike through pleading eyes.
Mike ignored me and busied himself looking at his phone. Looked like I was on my own.
I started shoveling the cake in faster, eager to clear the plate and prove to Bee that I loved her gift and that I wasn’t some stuck up girl from America. As I was devouring the last few mouthfuls, Bee slowly pulled something out of her desk drawer.
She hesitated for a moment, then shyly said “And this too, miss Megan, is for you. Your birthday gift”.
“No! For me? What! Thank you! Wow, you are spoiling me today!”.
She furrowed her brow and whispered in a concerned tone, “Oh no…spoiling?”.
“You know, spoiling, like treating me too well? A joke? Never mind.”
I smiled and took the key chain, perching it on my knee.
“It look like it rain today,” Bee said, glancing past the glass doors.
I looked behind me through the doors to the gray sky, and a van, crammed with a bunch of passengers pulled up.
“Oh! That is ride to bus station”, exclaimed Bee, and she jumped up and started to get our luggage.
Huh? Ride to bus station? I thought the bus was going to pick us up here. Whatever, I’m sure it’s all good, but how are we going to fit more people in that little van?
Much like the Hawaii rain I’m accustomed to, it literally started to pour out of nowhere. Bee popped up an umbrella and opened the door for us, following me from behind with the umbrella over my head. The short Thai driver got out and slid open the side door of the van for us, opened the trunk and started casually throwing our bags in, all with his cigarette dangling from his lips.
I peeked in the van and thought, wow, this is going to be one cramped ride. I was going to have to climb in to a random last-row seat which was surrounded by big suitcases.
“Goodbye Bee! Thank you SO much!”, I said as I was climbing into the van .
I suddenly lost my footing and slipped on the wet van step . I banged my knee, hard, on the van, and simultaneously tweaked my back.
It felt like my lower spine compacted, and the disks squashed together. Bee gasped and the girls in the van looked at me like I was an idiot.
“Oops, I’m okay, I’m okay, ouch”, I muttered, as I haphazardly crawled into my designated seat.
We had been waiting at least three minutes to pull out onto the main road, when I looked back and saw Bee, now standing on the edge of the store-front area, watching our departure with a forlorn gaze. She saw me looking back and began enthusiastically waving. In turn, I waved the stuffed bunny back and forth.
As we got on our way, I took a survey of the van passengers. A bunch of other white people. They sat in awkward silence. So did I, trying to get into a semi-comfortable position that didn’t make my back feel even worse. We turned a corner and stopped on the side of a busy road. There was an old man sitting under an umbrella on the sidewalk. The driver got out and went to talk with the umbrella man. They spoke for a few minutes, and then the driver came back and said, “you wait while here”.
Okay, no problem, I thought. But why? Is this bus station? Okay, We wait here. Damn it, why do I keep thinking in broken English?! He shut the door and walked back over the umbrella man.
I entertained myself by flipping through a tour-activity book which was in the back of the seat. Typical tourist crap, riding elephants and petting tigers and going to floating markets. There was one advertisement that looked pretty interesting but was also confusing. “Sex show”, the headline read in big letters. No cover charge. There was a big list of activities, or something, all starting with the word “pussy”. Pussy and banana. Pussy with sword. Pussy change water. I don’t get that last one.
I looked at the clock. It had been at least 20 minutes since we parked there. What the hell! Everyone else in the van started getting antsy, and a group of Russian people finally started talking. Damn, why don’t they speak in English so we can participate in the conversation, or at least eavesdrop (more likely), I thought. Something to entertain myself besides trying to imagine what “pussy change water” means.
I watched Mike as he suddenly leaned forward and began furrowing his brows in some sort of effort of intense concentration.
“Wow, what is this, one of you is speaking French and the rest of you are speaking Russian?” Mike blurted out to the Russians.
I did a face palm. Yes Mike, they have totally been conversing back and forth in two different languages for the past five minutes, I thought. He had blown our cover, they now know that we are Americans and that we are ignorant. I had been trying to avoid the dumb American stigma to the best of my ability, but, I guess it is what it is. Mike isn’t so good at playing the role of a savvy, well-seasoned, experienced world traveler. Not that we were that, but that’s what I aspired to be.
The truth is, I was nowhere near being a savvy, experienced traveler. I had major culture shock on the first leg of our trip in the Philippines. I was so paranoid of getting food poisoning, I hardly ate.
Ha! And I actually contemplated traveling internationally by myself for the first time. That thought is laughable now. Who would walk down the street at night past all of the seedy brothels to buy me bottled water, while I lay in bed dizzy and overwhelmed with the stimulation of a third world country?
As we traveled around to different islands, instead of thinking things like wow, that’s a beautiful waterfall, I’d think to myself, Wow, I bet that’s a great place to pick up Malaria. Instead of seeing road-side restaurants as appetizing, as Mike did, I’d think to myself wow, I bet that’s a great place to pick up hepatitis A. If I saw a stray dog or cat (they are everywhere) I’d think rabies! After about a week I more or less got over the initial culture shock and became less concerned about stuff, but in the back of my mind I was still paranoid about getting some exotic tropical disease like dengue fever or intestinal parasites.
Anyway. Waiting in the van. More backpackers randomly started showing up on the sidewalk and were piled into taxis. Our driver finally returned, swung open the door, hopped in, and gunned it, seemingly with a sense of sudden urgency.
Wow, I guess we’re in a rush now? I muttered to Mike.
Then, my stomach started to hurt and I began to feel majorly nauseous. Oh god. Oh no. Please, don’t let this be food poisoning. My worst nightmare.
Was it the cheesecake? Just thinking of the cheesecake made me want to barf. I hunched over in the seat, clutching my stomach, praying that there wasn’t funky bacteria on the cake that would give me nasty food poisoning. After swerving through traffic for another 20 minutes, we arrived at a gas station.
We parked and the driver motioned for us to get out and wait in a little dead lawn area with dog shit on it. We were all confused. I flipped my suitcase on its side and sat on it, feeling very nauseous.
I saw a building that resembled a bathroom and decided to make my way to it. As I walked in the bathroom, I knew it wouldn’t be western style. There was about a quarter inch of gross looking water on the floor. I’m okay with non-western toilets, however I am a fan of cleanliness. This bathroom would definitely not qualify as clean. I went to the last stall and flung the door open. There was a prominent turd lounging, unashamed, in the squat-style toilet. Ugh. Next.
The next stall was acceptably “clean”, if the meaning of clean is loosely-defined. At least, there wasn’t a turd in the toilet. I carefully hiked up my loose gaucho pants, determined to not let them touch the floor. I squatted over the toilet, I think what was in the right direction.
That was actually my first time using a true squat toilet. The ones in the Philippines were squat, I think, but a different style and shape. These required a full length squat. There was no water in the toilet bowl and no flushing. To dispose of the waste, there provided in the stall was a large tub of questionable gray water, with a ladle to scoop it out. You dump several ladle fulls of water into the toilet to “flush” it.
I guess I hadn’t locked my stall all the way, because as I was dumping water over my waste, I looked up to see one of the Russian girls standing at the door, with a terrified look on her face. What’s funny is that she didn’t say anything like “Oh, excuse me,” and shut the door, she just stood there staring at me, with her jaw dropped. I guess she’d never seen a squat style toilet before. I smiled and finished.
As I was walking out, out she said something I couldn’t understand, but I casually responded with “Yeah, they’re bit tricky at first,” as if I were some squat-style veteran.
When I returned to the designated “waiting area”, there were about 100 more white tourists milling about.
“Whats going on?” I asked Mike as I approached.
“Not sure. Still waiting I guess.”
“Ughhh. First class VIP my ass” I muttered indignantly.
I was supposed to be sitting on a luxurious bus by now, enjoying my free snacks, reclining chairs, and movie.
It’s my birthday, damn it! I sat hunched over on my luggage for a long time, trying to fight the feelings of nausea. I remembered I had some activated charcoal tablets in my suitcase, which supposedly work well in preventing food poisoning, so I frantically flipped my suitcase over and began rummaging through the unorganized mess to find them. I found the bottle and hastily threw a bunch of the tablets in my mouth, chasing it with big gulps of my bottled water. I then returned to my pathetic head-to-knee position and waited, uncertain with what was going on and where our bus was.
I looked up and saw our driver standing off to the side, shouting directions, waving groups of people this way or that. Mike was up there too. After another 15 minutes, there were only a couple of us left. I still sitting with my head to my knees, fighting off the nausea, when I heard Mike say with an urgency in his voice: “We have less than 10 minutes to find our bus, hurry!”.
I staggered behind Mike, crossing over the gas station property to what I assumed was the real bus station. We turned a corner and WOW, there were a lot of buses! Dozens upon dozens of buses. We were number 602.
Finally, after running around various rows, we found our bus. The driver was standing in front of it, looking impatient. He quickly checked our tickets and grabbed our luggage, heaving it into the luggage compartment. We stepped into the bus, where I immediately got the sense that it was not the first class luxury bus I had envisioned. I stayed hopeful as I followed Mike up the stairs to find our seats. Before we even sat down, the bus took off. THE BUS RIDE- TO BE CONTINUED