234th Meeting – Tuesday, May 13th 2003

A Passage to Thailand

A talk by Brian Hubbard

Present: Klaus Bettenhausen, Robert M. Boer, John Cadet, Jim Campion, Guy Cardinal, Etienne Daniels, Richard Hudson, Reinhard Hohler, Marissa Hutchinson, Mike Long, Richard Nelson-Jones, Ricky Ward. An audience of 12.


In 1990, I traveled through 13 countries and crossed 5 seas, plus many other assorted stretches of water, to get from London to Bangkok. The journey, on buses, trains and ships, but no planes, took almost 10 months. When I left England, I had a one-way train ticket for Paris and a visa for India. I had no final destination in mind, nor any planned route. By the time I arrived in Bangkok, I had been to France, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Jordan, The United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Malaysia, and Singapore, crossing enroute the English Channel, the Adriatic Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and swum in the Dead Sea . It was an interesting journey.     

The following are extracts from the seven-volume diary that I wrote as I was traveling.  

17th March 1990: Left England. London to Paris - English Channel – train – ferry - train. Paris Metro to the Hotel des Academies, Boulevard de Monparnasse. 225 FF / £25 B&B

19th March - France to Italy: Paris to Venice, via Switzerland – by train, listed on the timetable as ‘The Orient Express’. Turned out not to be the Orient Express.

44 FF to pass through Switzerland. 27 FF for 2 cakes and a bottle of water on a station in Switzerland.

Venice – Hotel 28,000 lira / £14 per night.

I went to the opera: “Cosi Fan Tutti” at the Teatro La Venice. Seat in a box about £20.

Booked a ticket for Piraeus on the Adriatic Line. I wanted to go through the Corinth Canal, but the Adriatic Line went on strike. Bannasi Travel Agents wanted to charge 20,000 liras to refund my ticket. After some discussion I agreed not to pay it.

23rd March - Italy to Greece: Venice to Piraeus to Athens.

Train from Venice to Ancona. Across the Adriatic Sea by cruise ship, the F/B Lissos, a floating smoked glass palace, to Piraeus. Bus to Athens. Met 70 year-old Jimmy on the bus. He warned me that hotels try to rip off tourists by upping the price. He took me to ‘his’ hotel - Hotel Omonia about £9 per night.

29th March - Greece to Cyprus: From Piraeus to Limassol across the Mediterranean Sea by cruise ship. Stopped at Rhodes for lunch.

Limassol – Hotel £4.50 per night.

From Limassol by bus to Nicosia

Nicosia – Femina Hotel about £4. I was the only man in the hotel. It was full of Thai and Filipino women working in the bars and clubs as ‘hostesses’ and ‘cocktail waitresses’. 

Cypriot hospitality!! Went into a bar in the red light district and the customers wouldn’t let me pay for a drink.

5th April - Cyprus to Egypt: From Limassol by cruise ship, MS Princea Cypria, NOT a floating palace, to Port Said. I was in cabin 508, that’s not 5 floors up, that’s 5 floors down in the bowels of the vessel. Not a cabin for the claustrophobic! 

Arriving at Port Said, I met John Menhinick on the boat to the Customs shed. He offered me a room in his apartment in Cairo, Mohandessin.

Went to shipping agents in Port Said to ask about a ship to India. They said try in Suez.

Followed around Port Said by a man on a bicycle. Probably an undercover policeman. Port Said is a Duty Free port.

Took the bus into Cairo. 

Excursion by train to Alexandria for a couple of days.

Went to Suez. Shipping agents said I would have to go to Port Said because the ships stop there to wait their turn to go through the canal in convoy. In Port Said I would make an arrangement with a captain. Then by road to Suez to wait for the ship. On to the ship from the pilot boat. $290 from Suez to Bombay + the captain’s fee? One travel agent told me that the problem I had in trying to find a ship in Suez was because once they are through the canal they don’t stop. He suggested I would find it easier if I went to Aqaba, Jordan.   

Quote from Brian the manager at the BCA in Cairo, “Happiness is a dry fart.” Many a true word spoken in jest, as I was to discover.

24th April - Egypt to Aqaba, Jordan: Overnight bus from Cairo across the Sinai desert to Nuweiba. Stars at night in the desert are unbelievable. The desert at dawn is surreal. Technical problem with Immigration as I was leaving Nuweiba. The entry stamp on my passport wasn’t complete. Eventually allowed to leave.

Ferry to Aqaba. Later by bus to Amman. Went swimming in the Dead Sea, rode a camel at Petra and did a desert trek around Wadi Rum, where ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ was filmed.

3rd May - Aqaba – Joseph Gharios owner of National Shipping Services: He said he had a German container ship coming in that was on its way to Bombay. I wrote a letter to the ship’s captain, Joseph telexed it.

4th May – Went back to National Shipping to see if there was a reply. Joseph kept a straight face as he handed me the telex. The captain said ‘Yes’. 15 days to Bombay, 250 DM. He could take me because the ship’s insurance for a crew of 18, on this trip no third officer. I was told at first that I wouldn’t be able to leave the ship at Karachi because I didn’t have a visa. Not a problem.  

Joseph did not charge me anything.

7th May – Depart Aqaba: I was ‘officially’ Supernumerary or Superintendent of Cargo. I had my own air-con cabin and three huge meals a day.

Lots of dolphins playing in the bow wave at 14-16 knots.  

9th & 10th May - Lifeboat drill. First day it didn’t happen, problem with the hydraulic release. Captain not amused. Saw him talking to the Engineering Officer. No one was smiling. Second day it happened. Strapped in and then dropped off of the stern from a great height. Instant seasickness. Like sitting in a hot floating coffin, bobbing on top of the water. Back on board ship via a rope ladder up the ship’s side.    

Spent a lot of time on the bridge talking to the 1st and 2nd officers. Told the Suez Canal is nicknamed the ‘Marlboro Canal’ because that’s the baksheesh the officials want.  

Straits of Hormuz – Iranian patrol boat at 3 a.m. no lights.

14th May - Jebel Ali: Completely automated, hardly a soul on the dock. Stayed for one night. I got a shore pass. Hitched a ride on a lorry with the Radio Operator into Dubai.

17th May – Karachi: 2 nights. Labour intensive. Stevedore sleeping on the dock where the containers are going. He didn’t want to move. The driver of the container forklift was going to drop a container on him. He moved. Stevedores sleeping on the dock and on the ship’s decks. They worked 12 hour on 12 hours off.   

Got a shore pass to go into Karachi. My first experience of Asia. Culture shock.

Stopped and searched by a policeman in a Honda 850 minivan. He had his gun on the seat.

20th May - Arrived Bombay: Very hot and humid.

Camera and all electronic equipment I’m carrying; flash guns, Walkman, calculator, etc written into my passport. If I didn’t have them when I left the country I would have to pay a sales tax based on what Indian Customs thought they were worth.

Seashore Hotel - 130 rupees about £4 per night.

Toured around India for more than 4 months.

Quote from Canadian man in Madras, “Never in my life have I been so preoccupied with what goes into and comes out of my body.”

11th September – Madras: Went into Pat Volk shipping agents and they told me that a passenger service – Singapore, Kelang, Penang, Madras, was starting in October. The ship, ‘The Vignesswara’, was due to sail from Madras on the 15th – 17th October. Ticket prices Economy class between 2,000 to 2,500 rupees     

I got my Indian visa extended, went to Mahabalipuram for a few days, came back to Madras.

20th Sept. Train from Madras to Calcutta - 33 hours.

21st Sept. – Arrive Calcutta: 1st night in the ‘Paragon Hotel’ 40 rupees. Definitely misnamed. 2 nights in ‘Fairlawns’, an oasis in the middle of Calcutta. 1,240 rupees, including meals. 3 course breakfasts. Waiters – Sikhs in full dress uniform plus white gloves. Bathtub in every room, clean sheets and an eiderdown on the bed, frilly curtains at the windows. It was like stepping back 100 years into the British Raj. 

In Calcutta got a one-month visa for Nepal in one hour, 560 rupees.

24th / 25th Sept: From Calcutta train up to Patna and then a bus up to the border at Raxaul. Crossed to Birganj. Stayed one night in Birganj. On by bus to Kathmandu. 

24th 20.00: In Howra Station, Calcutta, met Paul and Bridget from New Zealand. They had arrived from Thailand 4 days ago and were already looking for a way out. Quote from Paul “There are more people on these platforms than the entire population of New Zealand.”

25th Sept. Enroute to Patna – 09.00 - my bag departed on the train without me. Thanks to the Station Master I got it back, intact, by 14.00.

25th 20.00 Arrived Patna: Rickshaw driver wouldn’t take me to the Rajdhani hotel. First he said they didn’t take foreigners, then he said it had burnt down. A very large Indian man who had stopped to listen to our conversation remonstrated, physically, with the rickshaw driver, after which he was happy to take me to the Rajdhani hotel, just 200m up the road.

At Birganj the rickshaw drivers wouldn’t take us to the hotels we wanted. Said it was too far and the roads flooded. Forced to stay overnight in a derelict, damp hotel.  In the morning we stood on the balcony of our squalid hostelry and saw the hotel we had asked the rickshaw driver to take us to on the other side of the square, less than 50m away. Luckily for the rickshaw driver he was nowhere to be seen.  

In Kathmandu – Friday 12th Oct: First call to shipping agents in Madras, told ship will sail on 18th or 19th Oct.

Monday 15th – visa for India, takes 3 days to complete.

Tuesday 16th - phoned Capt. Natrajen at the shipping agents, he told me the ship would sail on 22nd October.

Wednesday 17th - got my passport back.

Thursday 18th – 08.00 - On a bus out of Kathmandu to Sunauli, arrived 18.00, 2 hours late – 10-hour journey.

No train ticket waiting for me in Sunauli. Told it would be at Gorakpur.

‘Fast-tracked’ across the border, through Nepali and Indian Customs and Immigration, by a rickshaw driver for 100 rupees. Indian Customs/Immigration didn’t write my camera or anything else into my passport.

Bus to Gorakpur. Given 17 rupees for bus fare. 19.00 to 22.00 - 3 hours to Gorakpur.

In Gorakpur told my train ticket is on its way to Sunauli. Travel agent eventually produced a duplicate ‘at his own expense.’

Booked into a ‘flea pit’ hotel for a couple of hours.

Friday 19th – train left Gorakpur at 03.20.   

Sunday 21st – arrive Madras 02.00.             

Total journey Kathmandu to Madras by bus and train about 65 hours traveling time. Nepal 650 rupees about £11. 

Sunday 21st - Official at Port Office said ship would sail at 17.00 tomorrow.

Went to Mercantile Marine Agency and booked a ticket for 2,310 rupees, about £72, which included 3 nights accommodation on board ship in Singapore. Time enough to shop for a camera, I thought.

Monday 22nd Oct. – Went back to Mercantile, they said go to Time Travel Agency to pay for my ticket. 2,530 rupees, about £73. I was told at the shipping agents, Mercantile, that the ship would not now sail until 29th because of a technical fault. They didn’t elaborate. This was confirmed at Time Travel agency, but they said it was a problem with Immigration. At the travel agents it took 3 men and the boss to make the ticket out correctly.

Went to Pondicherry for a few days. 

Sun. 28th Oct. - Arrived back in Madras. Told at the Dock Gate Office that the ship will sail tomorrow.

Mon. 29th Oct. - In the morning, sold SLR camera, two lens, flashgun and other bits and pieces $405. That’s about the same as I had paid for it, second hand, in England.

15.00 - Went to the passenger terminal at the dock. I was the only person there. Rear loading ramp on the dockside, lots of welding going on.

16.00 – other passengers started to arrive. About 30 in total.

We were told that the ship will not sail today because it doesn’t have Seaworthiness Certificate.

Taken aside by shipping agent and told they will have certificate within ½ an hour, by 17.00 at the latest. Customs officials went home at 16.00, won’t be back ‘til tomorrow.

Travel agents promise complimentary hotel accommodation.

18.30 – Arrived at a Youth Hostel 20 km outside Madras. After the women passengers have been found bunk beds, the place is full. The manager said he would put mattresses on the floor for the men. Not for me!! I said I wanted a hotel room, with a bed! I took the agent to one side and explained to him that I wasn’t going to sleep on the floor, and suggested that if he needed a reason for moving me to a hotel he could tell the other passengers that I had booked 1st class. He agreed. 

The car did not arrive until 21.30. It was late because of the Iraq / Kuwait war? It had run out of petrol and all the garages shut at 19.30. In 3 hours we were begrudgingly given two cups of tea, no food.

22.00 – Mr. Nanu, an Indian man from Singapore who had booked 1st class, and I were taken to a hotel in Madras. The hotel only had one room vacant, so we were told, so we had to share.

Tues. 30th Oct. – Stayed in the hotel all day. Made two phone calls to the shipping and travel agents, confirmed by both that the ship will definitely sail tomorrow - probably, perhaps, maybe. Greenseas rep called later to say he would pick us up tomorrow morning between 09.00 – 10.00.

Mr. Nanu works for his brother-in-law in Singapore. His wife and two children are there. He came to Madras to collect his furniture and ship it back to Singapore. He should have been back at work a week ago.

Wed. 31st Oct. – Mr. Nanu phones for a car to take him to the Youth Hostel, to check on his luggage and find out about the ship. The car eventually arrived at 09.00, two hours later.

11.30 a.m. – Mr. Nanu returns with two Greenseas reps. They are going for a meeting with the ship’s owners to find out what is happening. Mr. Nanu is asking for a refund on his ticket so he can fly back to Singapore.

Mr. Nanu and the Greenseas reps return at 13.30. The ship is definitely sailing tomorrow because they now have the certificate of clearance. Mr. Nanu got half his money back as a refund on his ticket.

Thurs. 1st Nov. – Got a phone call after lunch to say they would pick me up within one hour. 1 ½ hours later they arrive and it is now monsooning. We have to meet the bus at the end of the road and we can’t wait until the rain tops because Immigration officials are waiting for us.

16.00 – Arrived at the passenger terminal, very wet. No Customs or Immigration officials to be seen.

19.00 – The Greenseas rep from Singapore, Mr. Morgan, assures us that the ship is ready to sail, even though we could see men still working on it, and that the reason we couldn’t leave now was because Immigration hadn’t turned up. They only work office hours, 08.00 – 16.00. Hard to believe.

Bus back to the Youth Hostel. It was 22.00 by then. I was starting to develop a headache, tired and in no mood to start fighting for a hotel room. I agreed to stay at the Y.H. for one night with the promise that the ship would definitely sail tomorrow.

Fri. 2nd Nov. – A man called Arif has emerged as a sort of spokesperson for the passengers.

At 16.00 Arif and I went to find the Greenseas rep to find out what is happening. We were told by the rep that the delay is now caused by the weather depression. The work which had to be done on the ship is now almost finished, but not quite. 

I request to be put back into a hotel. The rep says I have to go to the travel agents because that is their responsibility, and it is now 17.00 and they are closed. Lies! Greenseas picked up the tab for the hotel I stayed in before. Another night in the Y.H. When we got back to the Y.H. we were told by the other passengers that an Indian woman, who was having a very close relationship with the ship’s Electrical Engineering Officer, had been taken to stay in a hotel. Surprise, surprise.

Sat. 3rd Nov. – The Greenseas rep arrived in the morning and I got taken back to the hotel, to wait.

Sun. 4th Nov. – Arif called at 09.00 to say they were all going to Mahabalipuram for the day, would I like to join them. 60 km fare 90 piasas. In conversation with Arif on the bus, quote “The French are an arrogant and immoral people because they refuse to speak English when they can, and because the men have mistresses.” I had a good day with the passengers in Mahabalipuram.             

Mon. 5th Nov. – 12.15 the Greenseas rep arrives to say he will be back to collect me in one hour. Got to the passenger terminal by 14.00. They are now loading bags of onions and felspar, but not passengers.    

16.45 – 3 men arrive in an official car. There was a brief conversation and the men then said that they were leaving at 17.00 if Immigration hadn’t arrived. I managed to question them before they left and was told that the ship had still not received its safety certificate and that Immigration, Customs and the shipping agents couldn’t get there act together to be on the dock, in the Passenger Station, at the same time.

Then 12 names were read out and we were told to take our bags upstairs to the Passenger Station. Apparently we were now going to be processed on to the ship in groups of 12.

Waited until 20.00 during which time we had been given a cup of tea.

At 20.00 we were taken on to the ship for dinner. Arif and I were taken out of the group and sent along to the 1st class restaurant, probably because we were seen as agent provocateurs. The Catering Officer took exception to Arif being there because he was economy class, so was I, but it seems they had had a disagreement on the way out from Singapore. So we both left and dined alfresco with the rest of the passengers in the Economy class ‘restaurant’ on the rear deck. After dinner they wouldn’t let us off of the ship. Our luggage was apparently under lock and key being guarded by two of the crew. We were eventually all allocated economy class bunks to sleep in. Economy class bunks were in what was probably once an upper lounge deck at the front of the ship. The ship was supposed to be able to carry 800 passengers. I never did find out where the rest were supposed to sleep, if anywhere.

Tues. 6th Nov. – We were roused before 06.00 to be off the ship before Customs arrived, some joke. These people have a wicked sense of humour. We joined the rest of the passengers from the Y.H. in the Passenger Station. Waited in the Passenger Station ‘til 07.30, still no sign of Customs. I went back on to the ship and got breakfast in the 1st class restaurant, it was included in the price of the ticket. After breakfast, back to the Passenger Station to continue waiting. No one seems to know, or wants to say, what is going on. We are told eventually that the ship now has its clearance certificate and that all we are waiting for now is Customs and Immigration to appear, at the same time.

Lunch on the ship. After lunch, more waiting.

By late afternoon there is a rumour going around that the ship will only be able to sail with 12 passengers. There is much concern amongst the passengers and talk of either going to the Collectors Office, where they are empowered to deal with all official complaints, or to the newspapers. I spoke to the Greenseas rep who confirmed that the rumour was true. He said that the only passengers who would be leaving on the ship would be those who were on the return leg of the journey to Singapore, and those with one-way tickets, which conveniently totaled 12 passengers. I went back and told the rest of the passengers. They were not happy. It was suggested by the rep that they could be found passage on other ships going to Singapore. There are no other passenger ships going to Singapore. No suggestion on how would they get back. A delegation of suitably irate passengers went on board for more information and they were told the same as I had been told. The purser took the passports of the 12 passengers who were departing to get them processed through Immigration. Arif was one of the 12. He told me that it had been ‘suggested’ to him that now that we were on the list to go, it would not be in our interest to concern ourselves any further with the plight of the other passengers.

At 19.00 a Greenseas executive came to the Passenger Station and offered the remaining passengers 50 rupees each for overnight accommodation in Madras. They vigorously declined to accept the offer. The exec withdrew, I think on to the ship to talk to the owner, and returned with an offer of airline tickets. The passengers were cautious at first but eventually, reluctantly, accepted. They had little other choice. After having waited 15 days from the original sailing date, they are now told they have to fly, something that they could have done 15 days ago.

At 19.30 our luggage came on board and the remaining passengers left. We are all to be accommodated in Economy bunks again until we clear Customs and Immigration, when we will all be given cabins. Talking to some of the crew, the latest story of the day is that the owner and two or three others were on their way to the home of the Assistant Chief Commissioner to try to get 2 last pieces of paper signed. If this could be done then Immigration would come on board and give us clearance to sail. It didn’t come to pass.         

Wed. 7th Nov. – At 10.00 the purser came and sat with me to talk and ask a favour. 9 out of the 12 passengers on board are only going as far as Penang. The owner doesn’t want to take the other 3 to Singapore because it’s going to cost $5,000 to tie up at the passenger terminal. The owner is offering us train fare from Penang to Singapore. Seems we don’t have much choice. It was never said but the implication was that not to accept this offer would mean that we couldn’t sail on this voyage.  

The rest of the morning was spent going back and forth between the ship and the Passenger Station, waiting for officials to arrive. They didn’t. Just before lunch we were told to take a bag, any bag, and go across to the Passenger Station, because Customs was there waiting for us. They weren’t. The Passenger Station was locked.

By 12.30 it was decided, by the passengers, to go back on board and have lunch. During lunch the Customs officials arrived, but not Immigration.  

After lunch we went back to the Passenger Station again. This time it was open, but we still had to wait. Our passports were collected and taken on board for Immigration to see. Eventually both Customs and Immigration officials were in the Passenger Station at the same time. Immigration needed one form filled in. A Customs official stuck his hand into by bag then asked how much money I had, but didn’t want to see it. Having been duly processed, we all went back on board and the Customs officials came on board for their free lunch, this was on top of all of the free cokes, orange juices and beer they had consumed during the processing.

At 16.00, to the sound of breaking coconuts, an Indian tradition for good luck, we cast off from Madras and I was leaving India. I was not sorry to be leaving. I had many good memories of India but 6 months was long enough.

1st class cabin was a joke – four bunk beds and all shared bathrooms. Later, the captain told me he was also sharing a cabin and bathroom with other officers.    

Once out at sea the sea picked up to what was described as moderate, which means about wind force 3 or 4 and a 2-metre swell. This ship was lighter than the Olandia and, unlike the Olandia, didn’t have stabilizers. The whole voyage was pitch and roll. Every now and again the ship would judder/shudder as we hit a wave.

9th Nov. – during lunch, met Mr. And Mr. Kalusingham. They are from Ceylon / Sri Lanka. They live in KL.  He produces sports programs for Malaysian TV. He gave me his card and told me to call him when I arrive in KL.

Over dinner with the captain this evening he told me that the ship was a Japanese car ferry, not designed to spend more than 24 hours at sea on one voyage. The owner had bought it and spent some money converting it to a passenger ship. But he hadn’t spent enough. They had bluffed their way out of Singapore through Kelang and Penang on promises that all of the required modifications would be completed by the time they returned. They weren’t. When they had arrived in Madras there had been a huge welcoming party with every city official, his wife, children and their extended family members coming on board to take part in ceremonies to open the bridge, the restaurant, the cabins, the toilets, you name it. The next day the authorities impounded the ship and gave the owner a list of work that had to be complete before the Indian government would let the ship sail. There had been a passenger service run by the Indian government, but about 4 years ago one of the ships had caught fire out at sea and about 90 people had died. The Indian authorities were going to make sure that it didn’t happen again. The captain had waited three months for this job because his wife and daughter lived in Penang. On this route he could see them every few weeks instead of every few months.   

10th Nov. – Asked the purser about the train fare to Singapore. He said not to worry, see him in the morning; the agent is taking care of it. That got me worried.

11th Nov. – Arrived in Penang. An Immigration official came on board and I was asked to go to the restaurant to be processed. He was a delightful man, courteous and polite. “Welcome to my country.” We sat and talked and he asked about the voyage, my travels and talked about the places he wants to go to. He asked how long I wanted to stay in Malaysia. I told him I was going through to Singapore. He gave me a month visa and said I’d get 2 months one on my way back from Singapore.

Woman Customs official on the dock – “Anything to declare?” “Does your bag just contain personal items?” No and Yes. She didn’t ask to look inside just smiled and said “Welcome to Malaysia. Enjoy your stay.”

On the jetty, followed the agent to the office to see about the train fare. Met the captain’s wife. She told me that he was resigning his commission with the company. He hasn’t been paid in three months, and the owner had wanted him to make a false declaration; to say that it was a passenger ship when it was only registered as a cargo ship. He had refused.

In the office discussion ensued over the payment of the train fare for myself and another passenger. First the agent said he didn’t know anything about this payment and he would have to check with Singapore. Then one of the owners, Mr. Ghopal, arrived and offered us M$50. I suggested that M$150 would be a more reasonable figure, taking into account the fact that we now had to pay for accommodation and food on our way to Singapore. We eventually agreed to M$100.

Unlike my arrival in Bombay after 15 days on the Olandia, after 4 days on the Vignesswara it took me several days to stop swaying as I walked. On my second day on Penang, experienced an earth tremor standing in the Komtar Centre. I didn’t notice it because I thought I was still on my sea legs.    


The rest of my journey was Malaysia to Singapore by train - Singapore to Malaysia - Malaysia to Thailand. I arrived in Bangkok on December 12th 1990. The end of one memorable journey and the beginning of another.