20 months since leaving home, I was only 800 kilometres from my original finish line. To travel from the UK to Singapore purely on the kindness of others was something I didn’t think I could do. Someone else maybe, but not me. But there I was, in Malaysia, the penultimate country. I even saw a couple of cars bearing the Singapore number plate.
Dusk was calming the hazy air as I waited on the road going from the border into Malaysia. One man took me 50km to the first town, and shortly after, to my great surprise, a Muslim woman picked me up. Women, let alone Muslim women, rarely, if ever, pick up male hitchhikers. But this lady had been opened up the the world and wasn’t at all worried.
She took me to Penang island, 1/4 of the way to Singapore. There, I decided, I would check into a hostel and spend Christmas. Surely I’d find other lonely foreigners.
I wasn’t so lucky. There were a few people around but they all wanted to keep to themselves in the depressing, lonely atmosphere. I managed to call my family though, which was something.
I wrote off Christmas 2018 and headed South towards Singapore. I treated myself to an English breakfast before leaving, a welcome break from months of Asian food, and walked to the boat. I got across for free because I’d already been driven onto the island. I saw it as a good omen for finding a lift across the sea to the next continent.
Now outside the ferry terminal, I walked for an hour to the main highway where the traffic was going too fast to stop. As I began to walk to where the traffic slowed, an hour away, two Chinese women stopped and offered to pay for a bus to Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, half way to Singapore, an offer which I turned down out of politeness. I regretted it after!
Instead, they took me to a service station where I could approach drivers. Despite having done this countless times since leaving the UK, I was overwhelmed with apprehension and pitched my tent at 5pm. Travel, I’ve come to realise, doesn’t change you, it makes you realise who you really are.
The following day, I struggled to get up and accept that I’d have to go and bother drivers at their vehicles. At 12pm, I decided to take the easy option and stood at the exit with my ‘Kuala Lumpur’ sign and was picked up by two off-duty police officers. Why make things harder than they have to be?
The van was old and rattly and the back cabin where I was seated was in the stream of the exhaust pipe. Half way, after 2.5 hours, I was caked in black dust. I washed it off as best I could, but once I reached the city I looked like I’d been in a mining accident!
I made the decision to rest up in Kuala Lumpur for a few days, but that became a few weeks. I felt a lot of anxiety around reaching my original end point. I am still not sure why, perhaps I was worried about feeling underwhelmed after all of the impossible challenges of overcome. Or perhaps I was scared of failing so close to the original end point.
I took a few days to see the sights. Malaysia’s capital amalgamates the West and the East; just as colours blend in a rainbow, so do cultures in places like this. British occupied in the days of the empire, the influence is still very apparent and seems to be recognised as useful in taking them into the future. Every local I met spoke English well, their economy seemed stronger than the neighbouring nations and they seemed conscious of the future. Kuala Lumpur is not only a mix of two nations, but many; Indians, Chinese, Thai, and many more small percentages make-up their nation. It defines the term ‘multiculturalism’.
A few days in, I began to hibernate. After months of solid hitchhiking, you need to rest. 10-14 hours were slept each night for the first 10 days!
I wouldn’t reach Singapore for another 4 weeks. In that time, I secured a ride to Australia!
I was trying to find a boat, but the best I could locate was a man asking for $25/day for a crossing of few months, which defeated the object. Saving the day, two of my lovely followers paid for a flight. I’m truly grateful to them, because the boat option was looking to not be an option at all. Thanks again, Geoff and Mark!
I booked the flight for 6 weeks’ time because of the prices. The hostel owners couldn’t understand why I didn’t just buy a more expensive ticket to save money on paying for a dorm bed for that time. I tried to explain my hitchhiking rules, but I realised we were just from different worlds…
A few days later I went for a walk and a man approached me, saying my name. I had no idea how he knew me, all I could think is that I had done something wrong. Was I in trouble again?
It turned out he had been following my adventure from day one and happened to be passing at the same time and in the same place as me. The chances were astronomical, but there we were! We relaxed into a friendly chat and found that he and his friends were on a round-the-world pub crawl – don’t think I have the liver for that!
This was the time I had been recognised! I felt like a celebrity in the adventure world.
Four weeks passed and I now had two to go before the flight to Perth. First, I needed to get to Singapore to complete the continent. It was one of the most challenging stretches, those final 400km, but I’d have felt incomplete if it had been easy.
Just before leaving, I stepped on something small that went right into the back of my foot. I couldn’t get it out, so I had to limp all the way out of the city. Once there, I set up the tent for the night in a dark cloud of mosquitoes; I incurred about 30 bites on my legs alone. And once inside, the heat and humidity accumulated and stagnated so much that I almost opened the door again to let some air in.
My rollmat kept too much heat in under me so I got rid of it and used the earth to lose heat, as dogs do in summer, with my towel under me to soak up some of the sweat.
Lying there, feeling like a melting candle, I realised I didn’t want it any other way. Arriving to Singapore clean, comfortable and well-rested would have been very disappointing.
The following morning, now aware of my tiny enemies, I ran 10m away from the tent and the other items and placed my backpack there. And then I darted back and forth in order to pack up with minimal bites. It worked, kind of.
It was a short walk to the roadside leaving Kuala Lumpur and there was plenty of space to pull over. The weather was comfortable and the cars were going slowly enough to notice me in time. The last 20 months, all of the challenges, people, places, mistakes and triumphs flashed before me, making my throat tighten and bringing a tear to my eye. I was actually going to do it!
A Muslim man pulled in and said he couldn’t take me to Singapore, but that he would pay for my bus ticket. I refused a few times but realised that this was upsetting him because of his culture of being kind to strangers. And that is the whole point of this trip, to prove that there is enough kindness in the world to travel around it, so I took his offer.
The bag was on the bus and I bought some snacks for a comfortable ride to my original end point, but it wasn’t going to be as smooth as I thought.
I was warned once about drug traffickers loading substances into tourist bags on buses like this one, because the penalty for importing drugs is death in Singapore; if the bag owner gets caught, they pay the price. So at the border, I checked my bag like my life depended on It.
Finding nothing, I proceeded to passport control and the bag scanner. I was pulled to the side to have my bag searched. As I opened it, a very strong smell infused the air. My heart sank.
I unpacked my things as slowly as I could, but the border guard wanted to see everything. I might die, I thought to myself.
Fortunately, the smell was coming from my sweaty towel that had been marinating in there from the night before. But it wasn’t over yet – they took my pepper spray and led me to a back room.
As they were walking around in that white, sterile room, whispering and avoiding eye contact, I noticed a poster warning against importing weapons. “$25,000 fine, 1 year in jail, or both” it read. I wasn’t going to get the death penalty, at least.
A second stroke of luck meant that I just had it confiscated.
The bus took me all the way to the iconic Bayside gardens where I savoured the biggest moment of my life so far. We never feel how we think we will in moments like these. I was underwhelmed, but extremely proud. Perhaps I felt this way because I knew this wasn’t the end point anymore, only half way.
It did take a lot of perseverance on my part, but without the people I met along the way and you lot following me, with all your likes, comments and support, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I was never really alone.
I believed at a few points that there was no way forward, that I’d failed. But something always came through for me. Before I even left the UK, I needed some emergency dental work which was provisionally so expensive that it would be drained my budget and made me remain for so long that I’d have arrived too late to Russia. Being refused the visa to China in the first few weeks was the second and the hardest problem to solve (involving months of anxious uncertainty and having to hitchhike backwards 3200km to get it!) Homesickness and battles with my own mind were great challenges too, and are ones I continue with into the next chapter.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed following my journey, with all the mistakes, struggles, triumphs and life lessons. I very much appreciate your support.
Why did no-one tell me that planes exist?