Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Visa Run

Having stayed in Thailand for the 2-month limit on my visa, I had to make a run out to Malaysia to get a new one. Any country would do, but Malaysia is the closest and easiest from here. A few people go to Laos as well. One of the strangest things for me out here surrounded by “travelers” is how unserious about travel people really are. The visitors all have the simple stories of a newbie on a party vacation and the people living here “working” all seem to dread their visa runs, telling horror stories when they get back. Something along the lines of “the train was late” or “there are Muslims in Malaysia”. On the other side of the spectrum was me, positively relishing the idea of a little more travel and movement and a chance to add to my reputation here on Koh Tao. The trip did not disappoint…..
For a quick visa run to Malaysia there are two logical choices, Kota Bahru and Penang. For some reason I don’t understand, most people go to Kota Bahru in the mistaken belief that it is closer, faster and cheaper but in reality the two are equal options. Tempted as I was to go somewhere new, I opted for the return to Penang and the guarantee of good Indian food. Being me, I also opted to do everything completely on my own and organize things as I went rather than buy tickets from an agent on the island. I also declined all offers of buddying up with others that needed to do visa runs at around the same time.
On the day of departure I checked out of my room and stored my very stuffed backpack in reception. Two reasons for this, first to travel light and more importantly, second, I know me and having finished my DM and not having to come back, there would be a good chance I wouldn’t come back once I started moving again. This turned out to be a very wise precaution because as much fun as I’d been having on Koh Tao, I was tempted a few times to just keep going. Anyone worried that I might be feeling tempted to settle down a bit now need not worry, wanderlust is still running strong in these veins. The body is very willing, the wallet is not….
Overnight ferry from Koh Tao back to Surat Thani. Arrived at 5:30am and walked to the nearby bus station to catch the first bus out at 6am. I can’t say I was really surprised to find I was the only foreigner on the boat to do this. 7 hour ride south to Hat Yai. True, the minibuses are a lot faster but being the only foreigner on a bus, watching the scenery roll by hour after hour felt so normal. It was like living again. Even the breakdown and transfer to a new bus 5 ½ hours into the journey gave me the warm fuzzies of familiarity. I know it’s only been 6 weeks on Koh Tao but it’s the second longest I’ve stayed anywhere in 4 years after Cairo. The only thing that seemed a little strange was having to wear sandals again since I’d only worn them once in the weeks since I’d last written on here.
At Hat Yai I found the local minibus to the border and walked across, without problem, only to find that there was no onward transport other than a taxi for the next 10km to the nearest bus station. Taxi? Me? Nope, wasn’t going to happen. So I stuck out my thumb and after a few minutes managed to snag a ride the rest of the way to Penang. Well, actually to the ferry terminal in Butterworth but that was a lot better than I’d been hoping for. Test #1 was complete. If you pay for the bus and do it all yourself, you don’t really save much money over the tickets by the cheaper travel agents everywhere. With all the transfers and time involved on your own, it’s only worth it if you are crazy like me.
In Penang I went straight to Indian food and then found a hostel with a dorm a little further down the main road from where we stayed before. I can’t emphasize enough how different Thailand and Malaysia are. I knew it, I’d seen it before and yet I was still shocked by the ethnic diversity of Penang. Indians and Chinese, Muslim Malay, the better roads, the cleaner streets, the history, architecture, culture and character of Georgetown were such a breath of fresh air to me after the cultureless, tourist-dominated life on Koh Tao. I love the diving but there is nothing else there that appeals to me as much as suddenly being back in my travel world again. Chatting it up in the dorm (which was just a large open area on the upper floor of a building oozing character) with real travelers that have a real appreciation and respect for what I’ve accomplished. I’ll admit that my ego definitely enjoyed the boost, but more than that, I just really enjoy giving travel advice to others and telling stories. I can barely make it to 10pm on Koh Tao without falling asleep (despite the constant party atmosphere) whereas that first night in Penang I was up until 1:30am having tea on the side of the street telling travel stories. Like a true addict, that little infusion of travel drug suddenly had me craving so much more. I think I’m in serious trouble. Is there a proper rehab for people like me?
The next day I made the trip out to the Thai consulate (with a few others in tow) and was pleasantly surprised to find that the visa is still being offered for free. The sad thing is that after all this travel, it’s the first time I’ve got duplicate visas in my passport and they are sequential. A few of you will understand what I mean….
For old times’ sake I popped into the Hotel Noble where we stayed before and found two people I recognized, Helga and Macon. Both had been away and just recently returned so I had a nice long visit with Helga over dinner. Always fun to meet people again on the road. I opted to spend the following day in Penang as well and made a trip over to the Kek Lok Si temple, the largest Buddhist temple complex in Malaysia. It is very big indeed with many different buildings, ponds, giant statues and stupas but in all honesty I found it disappointing because it felt like most of them had been converted into tacky souvenir shops. The weather was hot, humid and surprisingly dry. The true monsoon seems to have been delayed this year. The other note I want to mention is that all the shops and malls were playing Michael Jackson since he’d only died a few days before. Yes, even Malaysia mourned.
Since I’m not a fan of hitching out of cities, I caught a local bus from Butterworth to Alor Setar and from there to Changlun, 10km from the border. Again, rather than pay a taxi, I stuck out my thumb and, of all things, was picked up by an off-duty taxi going duty-free shopping. Free ride in a taxi! Yes!! In the few hundred meters of no-man’s land there is a big shopping mall and even a golf course. Once in Thailand again I called Bangkok to make sure the hospital I needed to visit for my TB test for my Aussie visa application would be open the following day. Having been given the affirmative, my plans suddenly involved a journey of a little more than 1000km to Bangkok. I’d heard that hitching was really easy in Thailand so decided to put it to the test, get as far as I could and then catch a night train from wherever I ended up.
1st lift 12km to the next town. 2nd, 50km. Didn’t take long but I needed something bigger. 3rd, 100km but I made the mistake of letting them take me to the train station instead of dropping me off on the highway. Still had a few hours before dark so 4th lift, 4km back to the highway. 5th, 40km. He was an off-duty public transit pickup with benches on his way home. He dropped my off in the middle of nowhere on the side of the highway at a bus stop near the turnoff to his village. A couple of locals were looking at me strangely as I got out, ignored the next bus that came by and stuck out my thumb yet again. They smiled and waved as a few minutes later I drove off in the back of someone’s pickup. As it turned out, this 6th ride was the jackpot. A couple with 3 little kids, they drove a little further up the road, pulled up to some place and started filling the back of the pickup (where I’d been sitting) with a bunch of boxes and old electronics equipment. He then told me he was going all the way to Bangkok and I could come. I hadn’t said I was going that far initially as it was still 850km away. He left a small space for me to lay across the back against the tailgate and 30 seconds after leaving again we hit a storm. I was so happy there were 2 satellite dishes tied up over my head to keep me dry.
Being squished in the back of a pickup all night was awesome. I know, it sounds strange but I think everyone got a kick out of it. Lots of Thais travel that way and they’d all point and wave at me. Even the guys working on the VIP buses would honk, wave and laugh if they noticed. The guy driving was cool too. He drove all night and at every stop for gas, etc he’d get out, look to see if I was ok and just shake his head and laugh at such a strange cargo. Like all the Thais that picked me up, he spoke very little English, but got a kick out of having a foreigner half passed out in the back of his vehicle. At 6am the following morning, just as the sun was rising, I was dropped off a short walk away from the hospital I needed. It took 24hrs almost to the minute from when I’d left the hostel in Penang to cover the 1200km and I was even 2hrs ahead of the train! Sure, I didn’t save a ton because I could’ve flown for about $60 and taken the train for $40 but I had an adventure worthy of writing about and it cost me less than $5. I met a bunch of nice Thais, the first “real” ones I think I’ve ever really dealt with and now start to feel that their reputation for smiles and friendliness might be genuine and not based on the almighty tourist dollar. The best part was that I even got to run around a couple of towns that never get tourists and I spend all that time without seeing a single foreigner. It’s not really the kind of thing that would normally make a travel goals list but hitching in a pickup so far overnight would’ve been on there if I could’ve thought of it. Check!
Bangkok is known as the place to be in South East Asia for medical treatment and with hospitals like this one I’m not surprised. I got there as it opened, did my x-ray, had a complimentary breakfast as I waited for the doctor to ok it and then walked through Patpong on my way to the train station. Patpong is the old red light district and at 8am on a Monday, it’s even more dead than Amsterdam at 10am on a Saturday. I guess my natural timing for such things is just way off…. After a total of only 3hrs in Bangkok, I caught a 3rd class train for 3 1/2 hrs out of the city. It only cost a dollar and saved me a lot of trouble trying to hitch out of the capital. The time went really quickly as I met an interesting Czech couple on the train. If they were on that one they’d have to be the kind of people with interesting stories or travel ambitions and I was not disappointed. I left them in another fairly random Thai town called Petchaburi that is actually famous for some of it’s temples and as an old capital or something. I didn’t visit anything but the place had a nice feel to it. Again, no tourists. A series of 3 hitches from there got me the remaining 350km to Chumphon where I was kindly dropped off right at the pier for the overnight car ferry back to Koh Tao. I was so exhausted after all that that I confess to falling asleep before the boat even left and having to be woken up at 4:45am when it arrived. What a journey! Exhausting, busy but thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding.


At 8:54 PM , Blogger Ju_B said...

hah! Ammon, love the craziness.. :) I'm a big fan of ur blog and ur family story. Enjoy Aus


At 10:41 PM , Anonymous Maggie the mom said...

Oh how I'd love to be back on the road again with you Ammon I miss it too. But now I work and dream of the day I can travel again.
Hitching sounds fun I liked it in the Philipines. Miss and love you.


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