As with my debut, The Outback, Stealing Asia begins with a true event from my days travelling. In this case, a very stressful border crossing from Malaysia into Thailand.
There were two points where the overland crossing could be made. One at a town named Bukit Kayu and the other at a town named Sungai Kolok. At the time, the latter had come under scrutiny as a potential trouble spot between warring factions in the area and tales of bombings and targeted attacks on tourists were not uncommon. Obviously, when buying our tickets we made sure that we would be using the safer crossing at Bukit Kayu.
Thankfully, we made it into Thailand without incident and upon arriving at the transport hub of Hat Yai, it was just a case of securing further transport to take us on to the islands. Unfortunately, this was where things started to go wrong.
A tall, dark skinned local helped us with our bags as we left the minibus, which had delivered us to the town. I assumed that he worked for the company we had travelled with.
I was wrong.
The man took us to a small travel agency and asked us to wait whilst he arranged for tickets to take us on to Donsak and the connecting ferry to the island of Koh Samui. I handed over 500 Baht and he handed us the tickets, which had been filled out entirely in Thai script. He then led us to the bus station and put us into a small minivan. The driver was not Thai and all of the passengers were women wearing headscarves. Having spent a month in the predominantly Muslim Malaysia, I did not blink an eye at the head attire. I thought that like my girlfriend and I, these women were travelling to the islands for a holiday.
It was after 2pm when we finally set off and I made sure that we bagged the seats on the right hand side of the minivan. We were travelling north and since it was the afternoon, the sun would have been strongest on the eastern side. The fact that it was not and I had the full glare upon me, should again have alerted me to the fact that something was not quite right. Only when we came to the roadblocks did I start to suspect something.
I have seen people carrying guns before. Armed police are always visible around the popular tourist areas of London (Buckingham Palace in particular), but this does not compare to witnessing armed soldiers in a foreign land. The machine gun turret replete with sandbag barricade was particularly disconcerting. We passed through three such checkpoints and at the third the vehicle was actually searched. Suffice to say, I was terrified (my girlfriend, Katie, was just confused).
By the time we approached the journey's end and were greeted by a large sign with the words "Selamat Detang" on it (Malaysian for welcome), I already knew what had happened, but still my brain tried to tell me otherwise. We were in a forlorn looking town and a pallid grey mist had set in. I asked the driver which way to the ferry port as we left the minivan and he he just stared back at me blankly. When I would not give up, he finally pointed me the way to go. Just a few moments later, the mist gave way to a long line of immigrants and a strong military presence. We had found ourselves at the Sungai Kolok border crossing.
What happened next is a little hazy. I just have snatches of images in my memory bank. I can recall confused soldiers herding us on like cattle. I remember faces in the crowd deliberately averting eye contact from the two confused westerners kicking up a fuss. I remember Katie crying.
Now, I realise that I may have blown everything out of all proportion in my mind (what do you expect - I'm a writer. By nature, my imagination is overactive.) At the time though, we were genuinely terrified. We were lost, alone and did not know who to turn to (the soldiers were only interested in getting us through customs and back into Malaysia). That was when we managed to find an office of the tourist police and our ultimate salvation.
For all that I know, we were just unfortunate. The ticket fiasco in Hat Yai had resulted from a misunderstanding. But what if it was deliberate? What if somebody had wanted to send us to that place? What if they were trying to prevent us from getting to the islands? This is where my novel, Stealing Asia, comes in. The stories central protagonist, Ben, has met his dream girl and is on his way to be reunited with her, when he too is sent on such a detour, but unlike with Katie and I, this is no accident.
Looking back, that day should be one I would want to forget. Looking forward, I am really glad that I didn't. We want our stories to be as realistic and believable as possible and that is why there is no better place to search for inspiration than our life experiences.
I would love to know if anybody else has also had an experience that may have been harrowing at the time (or magical - great art does not always come from dark places contrary to what some emo pop bands may have you believe) and they have then used it as the basis for a fictional story. If so, was this easier or perhaps more satisfying to write, knowing that a small part of it was real? All comments will be greatly appreciated.
As the picture below shows, we did finally make it to paradise. Eagle-eyed readers will spot that the photograph is not of Koh Samui, but an island off the east coast of Thailand named Al Maya. Although it is more widely known as simply "The Beach". (In the movie the gap in the cliffs was filled using CGI to give the bay the appearance of being completely enclosed).