I was 21 the first time I travelled to Asia. The year was 1983 and it was on the cutting edge of western backpackers who were making their way through the ancient cultures of the Far East.
It was November, and the monsoon season had begun on the island of Koh Samui in southern Thailand. I was travelling with a friend from Vancouver and we were planning on heading south to Malaysia. We met a European couple who asked us if we would be interested in sharing a taxi over the border to Penang. They informed us that it would be a two day trip.
Apparently it wasnt safe to travel over the Thai-Malay border at night; there were too many rebels holding up buses and cars.
We agreed to travel with our new European friends, they were friendly, and it would keep our costs down.
We left early one morning and later that afternoon, as our taxi neared the border, we noticed a strategically located billboard that read, "Welcome to Malaysia, Drug smugglers will be hung."
I thought I didn't have anything to worry about; I was wrong. I became acutely aware of the Europeans shifting nervously beside me in the back seat.
The taxi stopped, we got out of the car and put our bags on a rudimentary table for inspection. I was surprised that we were the only people in transit between countries. There wasnt another car or truck in sight.
Outwardly, I did my best to appear calm, but inside I was freaking out. There wasnt a moment to share my angst with my friend. I didn't take my eyes off my rucksack.
Startled, I handed over my precious document to the bored looking immigration official, he ruffled through my pack, and before I realized it, we were all in the taxi and on our way towards the island of Penang.
Was my instinct wrong? I watched the Europeans, they spoke their language, which I didn't understand, but I could tell by the intonation of their voices that they were reacting to something.
Our driver took us to a small hotel, we checked in, and retired to our rooms. Shortly after there was a knock at our door, it was one of our travel companions. He asked us if we wanted to smoke a joint. They had just smuggled a bunch of dope into the country.
Since then, I have never crossed a border with people I don't know.
This past April, twenty-two years later, I went back to Penang. I was able to witness how the island is recovering from the December 26 th tsunami.
Penang was hit with a secondary shadow wave. The island suffered 68 deaths and massive property damage. My Malaysian friends told me the clean up was reasonably quick and efficient.
Driving along the coast I noticed newly constructed barrack-style buildings overlooking the sea. I found it odd that the buildings were surrounded by a mesh wire fence. The buildings were painted white and they looked like generic hotel blocks. My friend informed me that they were the temporary housing projects for the tsunami victims.
I was surprised that most of the buildings were empty, but it seemed like people were actually moving in. Some people were carrying in boxes, some were wandering around the empty rooms, and some were standing outside looking rather perplexed about what to do.
I found it rather surreal to be here now with the gentle waves washing up on the shore.
I asked one of the islands taxi drivers how the island community had faired since the tsunami. He explained to me that the economy was extremely slow, business was bad, but everyone felt confident that the tourists would come back.