Sep 7 • 10M

Couchfish: The Between Fars

Making, passing and losing time.

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Appears in this episode

Stuart McDonald
The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
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Just a quick administrative note. While this is, strictly speaking, a part of the itinerary series, as I’m finishing up mainland Southeast Asia, I thought I’d send it to the whole list. Any post I link to from this one has been un-paywalled, so if you’re a free subscriber, please have some fun poking around a bit.

Plenty of travel is needing to get from here to there. You pull out a map, find where you’re planning to go, then figure out how to get there. Sometimes, not always, the distance is far. Between where you are and where you need to be is fill, a blur, a distraction. No name towns, parks, beaches, fishing towns, hamlets and cities—most, if not all, you’ve never heard of before. These are the between fars.

Wandering a Burmese between far. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Leaving Ko Chang Noi behind, I’ve got plenty of passing time to play with. My goal is the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, then, for the first time on Couchfish, a short flight. I’m done with the mainland—for now—you see, and am changing universes. Before I go though, I’ve got one last stretch, and it is one full of between fars.

I’ve written before about Nakhon Nowhere, a fictional town that I imagine any town could be. These between fars are full of such places. People’s hometowns and graveyards, for some, the universe of their lifetime. They slide by your bus or train window or dapple the earth from 35,000 feet.

I was talking to a Balinese guy the other day, someone I’ve got to know a bit, and we were going through the pleasantries. You know, family-tree stuff, siblings, parents, kids and so on. The stuff that fills each of our universes. He’s the youngest of three, with two elder brothers. One is still in the village, coaxing a plot of land through a cycle of corn, watermelon and rice, year in year out. The other though, he lives far away, my new friend said.

Not far from my own between far. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

It turns out he lives in the next banjar, a few kilometres away give or take. When I say that doesn’t seem like all that far, my new friend scoffs and says “well it is too far to walk.” A different take on far I guess—it’s all relative. Sydney, where my parents live, we both agree is far—very far. I guess if I had to walk to his brother’s house, it would seem far enough.

Us travellers, we fly around the globe and burn through thousands of kilometres on the ground. For many, the point of the journey is the journey—we have a different take on far. Yet between our starts and finishes there are plenty of between fars. People fill these in different ways—there’s no right way to fill a between far. They may chat or read a book or three, watch something on a screen, gaze out the window or just sleep it away. All at once, they’re making time, passing time, and losing time.

So back to my own journey, from Ko Chang Noi to Kuala Lumpur. The fastest way by ground is a bus from Ranong to Surat Thani from where I can catch a south-bound train. From there, a bus or train onwards to Kuala Lumpur. My second option, if I wanted to stick to buses, would be to get one south to Hat Yai, then the border, then Kuala Lumper.

Not Vietnam but Surat Thani! Photo: David Luekens.

Either way, with time for bus or train changes as required, it is, give or take, 24 hours of travel. Doing it in one hit though is a bit droll, after all, there are plenty of between fars. Shall we break it down a bit more?

If I was to go with option one, I could linger in Surat Thani, or do a side trip to Khanom and Si Chon. Once I’m that far I may as well continue down to Nakhon Si Thammarat. From there, I could finally get on a train for the leg to Phattalung and throw myself into the CBT schemes there. Then, I guess Songhkla, and onwards south—security situation allowing—Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat. Time to slow the clock down.

South of the border, I could fit in an island break and head out to the Perhentians, or linger in Kota Bharu. From there I could get a through train to Kuala Lumpur, but maybe I should pop down to Kuala Terrenganu and Kuantan. Then it’s a hard right to KL, but wait, there’s Taman Negara along the way, I should fit in one more mainland jungle trek.

My daughter unwinds on a southern Thailand between far. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

With the second option, the whole Andaman Sea coast is a between far awash in distractions. I’d return to Krabi, do some island trips out from there. In season I could always island hop my way all the way to Langkawi. I don’t know if I’d do that though, as that would mean I’d miss all that southern Thai fare in Trang, Satun and Hat Yai. Decisions decisions. Another loop, another month.

As with Thailand, on the Malaysian side, there’s islands and mainland towns and cities to break up the trip. Why would anyone choose to turn down the chance to spend more time stuffing face in Penang or Ipoh?

Many of the above have featured on Couchfish at some stage or another as I’ve meandered around the place. There are plenty more between fars though, far more than I’ve covered. That is the amazing thing about Southeast Asia, with even 326 days I’ve barely scratched the surface.

A dozen of these will do. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

While I know not all have 326 days—hell it took me 20+ years to accumulate these experiences—do allow linger time when you can. Before you book that overnight train or three-day “direct” bus, look at a map and pick a few between fars. If you don’t have a lot of time up your sleeve, you might make do with one. If you have more time on your hands, there’s no reason why you couldn’t pick dozens. What about a trip where you only went to between fars? That would be a diary worth reading.

Looking out the bus window I can see KLIA terminal looming. I’ve a flight to catch (the only one on Couchfish so far), I’m heading to a universe like no other.

Indonesia.


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