The first thing you need to know about con artists is that they’re the friendliest people you’ll ever meet.
They’ll ask you where you’re from, advise you about the various documents you’ll need while attempting to cross the overland border from Thailand into Malaysia and, if they’re really on a roll, they’ll sit next to you on the train after you’ve been denied entry into Malaysia and find yourself scurrying back to a city on the border of Thailand.
Desperately seeking an ATM so you can draw 500 US dollars…
There was no way I was going to fly to Malaysia.
The country had recently seen planes getting the Bermuda Triangle treatment if not mistakenly being blown to embittering bits so when I purchased a ticket for an overnight train that would take me from Bangkok to Hat Yai before crossing the border into Malaysia at Padang Basar, I thought I was making some pretty slick life choices.
That was until I met Guy.
I’ll call him Guy because I never knew his name and when describing him to people in the aftermath of unparalleled personal disaster I referred to him with such venom and with such complete lapse in “being a lady” it would make your pubic hairs curl.
Guy is the kind of guy who looks like your Indian friend’s handsome uncle. He’s all unassuming plaid shirt, meticulous comb over and in certain types of light he looks like a brown Kevin Costner.
This is why I’m handing him my passport on a train heading to Butterworth when he asks to see it an hour before we reach the Thailand/Malaysia border.
Well, this and the fact that as an African still unbelieving of the fact that I can actually visit a country visa free, I’m still sort of waiting for someone to say “PSYCH!”
However, and if circa fifty Google searches are to be believed, I am allowed to visit Malaysia visa free for a period of 30 days with a yellow fever vaccination certificate, a passport valid for six months and a grin boarding on the idiotic.
It’s hard to believe but I go.
My friend Malkovich lives in George Town which is just a ferry ride from Butterworth and the creeping loneliness of roaming around Thailand solo has sent me rushing across the border in search of someone to talk to and laugh with while exploring a city so revered it has been named a Unesco World Heritage site.
I don’t get there.
By the time Malkovich tells me he’s making his way towards the ferry to meet me, Guy has taken me to a room at the Thai border, showed my passport to a “Malay official” who has asked me how much money I have on me and who has laughed in my face at my response before escorting me to a train heading back to Thailand with the instruction to show him 500 USD before he will allow me into Malaysia.
According to him, all Africans have to present this money to a Malay immigration officer in cash to prove that we can afford to holiday in Malaysia before we will be allowed entry into the country.
Helplessly, I tell the immigration officer that I didn’t know and that I can show him a bank slip from a withdrawal I made that morning and he refuses it. Instead, he insists I go back with Guy, draw the money in cash and return to the border on the four o’clock train.
Stunned, I board the train and Guy sticks around like the ghost of a diseased date until something in the rear catches his attention and he leaves me.
That’s when I meet Ean.
Ean who is hissing at me to come closer and asks: “What are you doing with that guy?”
It’s a good question.
And for the first time since I met Guy, I realize that I’ve been assuming he works for the overnight train I was on, facilitating the border crossings for the non-Thai people like myself and another Indian fellow who has managed to lose him and is nowhere to be seen.
Ean assures me that he is not before telling me a strange story of how Guy trawls the trains trying to make a buck and that he once sold him overpriced tickets to Krabi before groping him a little for good measure.
Seeing the absolute terror in my eyes, Ean says I can sit with him and his friend.
He’s a young Malaysian air host on his way to the Thai islands and he calms me down, let’s me charge my phone in his portable charger and walks me all the way to the ticket office in Hat Yai until he is sure that Guy is gone.
But Guy’s not gone.
He slinks by right after I turn away from the ticket seller at the sales booth who has just told me there is no four o’clock train back to the border despite what both Guy and the uniformed Malaysian immigration official have told me.
Furious, I turn around and he catches my eye as I do while yelling: “Hey, YOU! There is no four o’clock train!”
And then he runs.
He runs out of the train station, past the hawkers and into the streets of Hat Yai where I will be spending a stress-filled night preceded by the scourge of ATM drawing limits, money exchanges lacking US dollars, harrowing rides to 7/11 on motorcycle taxis and the growing idea that I should just pack it in and go home.
Untrustworthy African that I appear to be.
Lucky for me, sense and some tough traveler love from Malkovich and my little sister prevail and the next day, I take a mini-van to the border after getting the money I need and Googling Malaysian visa requirements deep into the early morning.
This time we cross at a different overland border.
One where they are far fewer foreigners and the Malay immigration official casually flips through my passport before welcoming me to Malaysia.
Needless to say, I feel completely ecstatic.
He doesn’t ask me for love, money or a return ticket.
But I do have to stop off at an office for disease control where two nurses ask me where I’m from before scurrying out of the room to put on masks at the word