Friday, January 25, 2013

Run for the Border

In the midst of weeks developing my daily routine of yoga, massage and socializing on this island, not only did I manage to fall off the blog-wagon, but before I knew it, I reached the end of my 90 day tourist visa in Thailand. Rather than pursuing my original plan to continue exploring countries in Southeast Asia, I decided to do a visa run to the closest city outside of Southern Thailand and return to Koh Phangan as quickly as possible.
This is how I ended up in Penang, Malaysia for 31 hours...
My friends at the Yoga Retreat in Koh Phangan have made the journey to Penang countless times and they set me up with advice about where to stay, what to eat and what activities to do to occupy my time (ie run errands and pick up things for them in Malaysia). I felt confident making the journey with my "insider tips," so I departed Koh Phangan (sans guidebook) on the first ferry out in the morning.
(who wouldn't be stoked to ride the Poon Pol[e] at dawn?)
I was unaware that it cost extra to have a seat on the ferry, so I joined my fellow budget travelers and slept on the deck of the boat for two hours to Surat Thani, a coastal city in the South of Thailand.
Immediately upon arrival on mainland, I was ushered onto a modern coach bus alongside a group of travelers going to Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Considering the length of travel upon which we were about to embark, I thought that the bus would provide comfortable transport to our destinations. Unfortunately we were only on that bus for about 30 minutes before transferring to a less comfortable and cramped minibus. I was assigned a seat in the back wedged between two whiskey-drinking teenage Russians. After 4 hours rubbing shoulders with the sloppy Soviet Empire, I was transferred to a different minibus that would drive the remaining 8 hours to Penang.
We arrived at the border of Malaysia just after sunset. Happy to see that the soda machines there sold cans of soymilk as opposed to soft drinks, I stood patiently in line watching the other travelers breeze through passport control without problems.
Since I was leaving Thailand one day before my visa expired, I assumed I would have no issues and be safe from having to pay the standard 500 baht per day over the visa's expiration date. Much to my surprise, the border guard told me I was one year over my visa's expiration and owed almost 200,000 baht. I assured him this was incorrect as I had only just received my visa extension one month prior from the office in Chiang Mai. He pointed to my visa stamp and sure enough, it was stamped incorrectly.
If there's one thing that Thai's seem to hate, it's white girls crying. So without too much persuasion, I broke out the damsel-in-distress-waterworks, and before I knew it, they scratched out the visa stamp and wrote in a new date for me.
(Sometimes being annoying has its advantages)
I closed my Academy Award winning performance and boarded another minibus to drive the remaining distance to Penang.
I arrived in Penang around 10pm. Not having eaten since 6am and with no guesthouse reserved, I ran on the remaining fumes from my breakfast as I wearily walked up and down Chulia Street, the main traveler's thoroughfare, in search of food and accommodation. I found a nice female dorm room to share, laid down my backpack and found some street food before bed. Penang is renowned for its cuisine and I was not disappointed with my plate of nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice and vegetables).
As the third largest economic center in Malaysia, I knew that aside from eating my way through the island, I'd be able to shop as well. Excited to spread my Western wings, I went in search of the most American place I could find.
I spent the day observing Malaysia's version of Western food with the *assumingly* delicious hot dog croissants,
and being reminded of home by passing by multiple 7-11s and Starbucks'.
(if you squint you can see KFC in the background)
I even came face to face with Zach Efron and his friends at one point.
I enjoyed the synthetic luxuries of the shopping mall.
I surprisingly found some Nebraska letterman jackets hanging out in a store that desperately wanted to be Abercrombie and Fitch,
and I got to take a brief snooze on the most comfortable mattress I've felt in the last 3 months.
After many hours pretending I was in the suburbs of Minneapolis, I was ready to see a new part of Penang, and made my way to Little India. Along the route, I encountered more Eastern inspired sights.
I passed multiple stalls selling fried buns, a native product of Penang
(Let's take a closer look at what these buns may have been filled with...)
I finally made it to Little India where I went in search of a masala dosa, incense and nose rings (all activities I was assigned to accomplish by my yoga pals back in Thailand). Little India was full of the sights, sounds and smells of actual India (well, the good smells of India).
I walked amongst the silk stalls, bindi beads and beautiful saris.
And then I found Jesus.
After my day of wandering, eating and shopping, I was ready to call it a night and went back to my guest house to hang out with the new friends/shopping partners I'd made that day.
The next morning, I woke up at 4am to check out of my guest house and begin the long journey back to Thailand. I'll spare you the long, gory details of that trip, but it ended with me in a yelling match with a lady boy at a grocery store.
At least I saw a man swimming in a hard hat and a beautiful sunset before that happened.
Exhausted and happy to be home in Koh Phangan, I immediately resumed my daily activities of yoga, massage and socializing. I would definitely like to return to the hustle and bustle of Penang in the future, but till then I'll be content with the slower paced life on this island.