I had spent the better part of six months in South Asia. From the Everest trek, I flew from Lukla to Kathmandu, then to the searing heat of Calcutta at the beginning of May, then on to Burma.
In the late 1970s, staying in the austere dormitory of the YMCA in Rangoon, you met the overlanders who were crossing the “great divide”. Many Europeans and others went to Nepal, many Australians, Kiwis and others traveled through Southeast Asia, but in Burma most of the travelers were those who had decided to do the full traverse of Asia. Alas, xenophobia and military rule has taken one of the most beguiling and enchanting places in all of Asia on a different path. These were the days when travelers were only given a seven day visa. A few months earlier, the regime had decided that overland travel was forbidden out of Rangoon. However, on my third day in Burma, they decide to re-open the rail route. Given the short time I took the train up to Mandalay, went across to Sagaing for a couple of days, then took the train back just in time to catch my flight on to Bangkok. My time was too short to go to Pagan, the classic triumvirate of rapid travel through Burma among travelers in the late 1970s.
Arriving from Rangoon to Bangkok airport was a shock. The intense modernity was the most I had seen since Teheran, many months earlier. Even then, southeast Asia was heavily visited. While tight budget travel was still popular, many Australians and New Zealanders were on trips lasting weeks rather than months or years. I went north to Chiang Mai, up to the apex of the Golden Triangle where I looked longingly at Laos- closed to backpackers in December 1975, less than three years earlier. Further south and to the east, the Khmer Rouge were in the midst of their murderous reign. I did a short self-guided trek to the hill tribes for four days around Chiang Rai, an all day sojourn down the Kok River and some light shopping for tribal artifacts before returning to Bangkok. From there I went south to Phuket, then a quiet island just at the very beginning of the tourist trade which was soon to totally change the character of the place. Then south to Phangnga, for the Thai equivalent of the limestone kaarst outcrops reminiscent of Guilin and south to Sonkhla.
A series of local transport took us across into Malaysia and then on to the island of Penang. Over the last thirty five years, middle class prosperity has become much more visible throughout Asia. Given the comparative prosperity of Malaysia, I began hitch-hiking again, for the first time seriously since the Arab Middle East many months earlier. Malaysia then had some of the best infrastructure for travel in all of Asia. Transport was well organized, travel was easy, good food was everywhere. It was among the gentlest of introductions for those deciding to go to Asia for the first time. I went up to the Cameron Highlands. Perhaps because it was totally neat, the comparative coolness in the tropics made the location a virtual paradise for a visitor. I went down to Kuala Lumpur, then hitch-hiked across the peninsula to Kuantan. My last ride was from a man – Wan Ahmad – who invited me to stay with him in his simple kampung, where I stayed with his family. I took a number of photos, got his address. I asked my parents to send some of the photos of his family back to him. They did so, but for some reason, they were returned as undeliverable. If Wan, by some miracle you access this sight, I want you to know that I have never forgotten the hospitality and kindness you showed to a young Canadian backpacker so many years ago. I had to get a haircut to get across to Singapore – a very modern and somewhat sterile city. Amidst this hyper-conservative organized society, at midnight one could go out to Bugis street and see dozens of transvestites – a rather incogruous sight, given Singapore’s otherwise very conservative reputation. I returned back through Malacca and back to Penang for a few days before flying across to Medan in Sumatra.
Indonesia is one of the most fascinating countries on earth. At least in the late 1970s, it combined some of the most gorgeous, exotic and culturally fascinating and diverse rural areas, with some of the most horrendous aspects of polluted urbanism gone mad. This reached its most dramatic expression right off the bat. Flying from organized, relatively prosperous Penang to Medan – which I recall as little more than a blue haze of traffic fumes, ear-splitting motorcycles and buses with air horns careening though congested streets filled with garbage evoked an image of Dante’s inferno. A five hour drive later to Prapat and across on a ferry bota to Samosir island on Lake Toba, where I spent ten days among the Toba Batak – staying in cheap losmen, eating fruit and wonderful meals prepared by locals was the contrasting vision of paradise.
Travel in Sumatra was some of the most difficult, excruciating and uncomfortable of the entire journey. The trip from Prapat to Bukittingi took more than 20 hours. The bus trip from Bukittingi to Palembang – exacerbated by numerous breakdowns – took more than 60 hours. The buses, which at best resembled overcrowded Bluebird school buses, and sometimes were merely benches nailed across truck chassis, designed for the much smaller frames of most Indonesians. The discomfort was hard to over-exaggerate. Though I took it with stoic good humour as a story to recount to other travelers, it was best described as being inside a cement mixer – as you often spent more time airborne than on the seat. There was endless distorted tinny Indonesian music played at full volume. Other passengers ate lots of fruit then began vomiting shortly after the bus started its winding way through bumpy dirt roads in the mountains. At one point I had both women in front of me, the child beside me and the man behind me all vomiting at the same time. After Palembang, I was able to travel by train, which mitigated the discomfort considerably. Crossing by ferry from comparatively “jungly” and rainforested Sumatra to Java, highly populated was a dramatic transition.
This part of Indonesia become well travelled, particularly with Dutch and Australians, but was a popular area generally. I passed through Jakarta, Jogjakarta, Parangtritis, Prambanan, Mount Bromo and on to Bali – all by local transport. The closer I got to Bali, the higher the concentration of Australians With its amazing culture and diversity, very low prices and good value for money, and superb beaches, Bali was justifiably famous and touristed. I met another traveller, a British guy named Ben and we rented a motorcycle to travel the back roads of Bali. Again the contrast between polluted Denpasar and so many other pristine parts of the island was quite striking.
The traditional “overland by the cheapest means available” for those with unlimited time, used to be to island hop across to Portuguese Timor, then take an inexpensive flight to Darwin. The calamities which blocked this route were the almost total destruction of Darwin in a cyclone, but even more significantly, the invasion of Timor by Indonesia. With this route cut off, I decided to fly up to Sulawesi to Ujung Padang, then take the 12 hour bus trip up to Tanah Torajah around Rantepao where I spent the better part of ten days, then flew back to Surabaya and Jakarta, before catching a flight to Perth.