I had just walked out of the Immigration office in Songkhla. I was pissed. Immigration had just told me that my visa was canceled because they had made a mistake in my paperwork and I would have to go, at my expense, back to Malaysia for a new visa and start the process all over again. This was not in my plans or in my budget, but I was given no choice in the matter. If I wanted to stay in Thailand, I had to play by their rules.
My wife wasnít happy when I got home and told her, but by that time, I was beginning to warm to the idea a bit more- hereís my chance for a break from work and a nice 600 km ride to Penang and back. The only down-side was that I would have to pay for the trip myself.
I had been working at Thaksin University for about six months and was feeling stressed from waiting to see if my contract was to be renewed. I hadnít done anything that I should have had to worry about, but with the Thai way of doing things, the unexpected could easily happen and I could be out of a job. As it turned out, I signed my new contract, but I was still feeling like I needed some space, so whenever I needed to relax, a nice long ride on my bike was just the cure.
Out on my bike, I feel like Iím leaving everything behind, and when Iím driving through the countryside, Itís like meditation. Iím able to put everything in perspective- nothing seems so overwhelming like it did at other times. I could just mull stuff over while on my bike and the relief just seemed to come by itself no matter what I was thinking about. Maybe there werenít really answers to some of the problems, I just needed that meditative place to mull a bit.
My plan was to leave on Monday morning and try to get into Penang around 11am and get my visa application in before noon. I didnít really have the time or the money to stay a few days in Penang, even though itís my favorite city in Asia. If I got my application in early enough, I would be able to get it back the next day. This would leave me enough time to cruise around Penang Island before picking-up my visa and heading back to Songkhla on Tuesday.
I left my house at 5:00am, setting off into the darkness. I felt the humidity, but the wind and the coolness of the morning dampened the effect and made it quite comfortable. As soon as I hit the main road to the border, I started to feel relaxed. I like to sing sometimes when I feel this way, but at this time of the morning the bugs are in abundance, and I had in the past eaten my fair share of bugs during my singing sessions on a bike, so I opted to be quiet and just enjoy the feeling.
After getting fuel for the bike and some donuts for me in Hat Yai, I had about 60 km until reaching the Thai/Malaysian border. On the way, I watched this part of Thailand waking-up. In the markets, people were already getting visited by customers looking for the freshest fruits and vegetables. The street sweepers were cleaning the streets and Muslim children were on their way to catch a bus or songhtaew (pickup truck with two rows of seating) to school. They always looked so cute, all wearing the same school colors, walking in small groups to school. This was also the time to find the monks, walking silent and barefoot, collecting the food they would eat that day. All along the road, women, mostly older, would have a table set with rice and maybe some curry and fruit waiting for the monks to pass by. A monk would pause
in front of each woman, and with his head bowed, open his bowl to receive the food. Sometimes he would give a short, quiet blessing, then move on to the next person. When he received enough food for his needs, he then returned to his wat to eat.
The traffic on the road had started to pick up now, and I had to pay more attention to that. Though Iíve never had an accident in Thailand, I always assume the worst will happen and I think this helps keep me maybe a little safer. The Thais generally arenít such bad drivers, but sometimes the vehicles will consider a motorcyclist to be unworthy of much attention, so itís up to me to accept my relative role in the scale of Ďmight is rightí on the road and take care of myself.
All along this section of road to the border, there are rubber trees looming overhead, blocking out much of the morningís emerging light. It actually feels cold during these stretches until you get back out into an open area where the temperature is starting to rise and the light returns.
Reaching the border at 6:00am, it is just opening for business. Crossing the border has four parts; passport control to get the stamp to allow you to leave Thailand, a short stop at an insurance office in Ďno manís landí to get some temporary vehicle insurance, then passport control to get a stamp to enter Malaysia, and finally, a quick look-over from Malaysian Customs and a few questions on the purpose of your visit. Malaysian Customs officials are always very nice, but you know they're serious about their jobs and you donít want to mess with them.
The first thing you notice on entering Malaysia is the lack of trees along the road like in Thailand. Here, the small country road from Thailand has now become a highway. There are some shops and restaurants along the road for a few kilometers, but in a couple of minutes, you hit the expressway. For the next 600 km, there is nothing but fast, smooth highway. There are lots of side roads you can take, but if youíre in a hurry, this is the fastest way you get through the country. Penang was about 140 km., and I would make it in about 1 1/2 hours, including stops for fuel and one other possibility- rain.
It was as I hit the open expressway that I saw the dark clouds ahead. I wasnít sure that I would hit them, but I knew that if I was to hit rain, I wouldnít have much notice before the rain would drench me. I now wished I hadnít forgotten to pack my rain gear. I knew better, since on past trips in Malaysia and around Thailand, when it rains, it pours- blinding, hurting rain. Youíll be driving along and you see this wall of water heading towards you. If you stop instantly, you might avoid it if itís heading across the road and not following it. If you decide to go on, you will hit this wall of water and be completely soaked in five seconds. The thing is, sometimes you canít tell how long the rain will last. Maybe itíll be all over in the space of a few hundred meters- or maybe for kilometers and kilometers.
When the wall approached me and I felt the first drops, I saw an overpass just another 400 meters in front of me. I braced for the rain and turned the throttle up to get me to the overpass as quickly as possible. As I speeded-up, the rain hit me straight in face, instantly drenching me and my bag strapped to the back. By the time I reached the protection of the overpass, I could barely see where I was going and I was wondering if there was anybody behind me that that wouldnít see me braking hard as I reached a dry spot.
I just sat there, letting the collected rain drip off me. In that fifty-foot space another 5 motorcycles soon pulled up, grateful that they found this place- the only shelter from the rain for the next 10 kilometers. Some people had rain gear that they put on, but the rain was coming down so hard that nobody dared ride off into it. We waited another ten minutes, and when the rain started to slacken a bit, the people with the rain gear started leaving, hoping that they could ride out of the rain in the next kilometer or so. When the rain became a slow drizzle, I followed with the same hope. After a couple of kilometers, I could see that the road was getting a bit drier, and then I was out of the rain. Another 2 kilometers and the sun came out, helping to dry my clothes.
While I was still damp, the wind helped keep me cool, even with the sun blazing down on me. I love the exhilaration of the wind, but the sun is what makes bike-riding a tiring experience. It just drains the energy out of you. Back in U.S., we have lots of cloudy days with no rain, but here, either itís bloody hot or bloody wet.
Just after my clothes had started to dry, I came up on the only place until reaching Penang that sold fuel. It also had a store selling drinks and stuff, so I went inside. My shoes were still full of water and when I walked in I tracked mud all over the place. The Muslim sales girl just looked at me like, ĎHEY!, I just WASHED that floor!í. I got my stuff and got fueled-up and was off again.
A few kilometers after leaving the store, I could see another wall of water heading toward me and no shelter in sight! I prayed that I could just ride through this one and be out the other side before getting too soaked, but my prayers werenít answered. It just kept coming down, harder and harder. I tried to cover my mouth, because the rain felt like needles, but it didnít help much. The water on the road was starting to puddle, and when a car went by, I caught the water that sprayed out from it straight in my face. Then I saw a car ahead of me hit a particularly deep spot and the water shot out 50 feet from the bottom of the car. I tried to slow down for it, but just as I went into the deep section, a car came flying past me at 120. I braced for the impact of what I knew would be enough water at enough force to knock me off my bike. WHAM! It hit me, absolutely blinding me. When I could see again, I was surprised that I was still upright on the bike, headed in a straight line. A very close call...
The rain stopped and the sun came out again as I approached the bridge over the straight onto Penang Island. The view from this 5 km.-long bridge is outstanding. In the harbor sat giant tankers and cargo ships from all over the world. Maneuvering between the ships were tiny fishing boats, some no more than 3 meters long by 1 meter wide. The Penang car ferries were weaving their way through all the water traffic between Butterworth and the main Penang city, Georgetown.
Georgetown is an old colonial trading port dating back to the 18th century. It has a fantastic mixture of Asian and Western architecture, both old and new. The culture of the city is a mix between Muslim, Asian, Indian and European. It is my favorite city because of this mix. Of course, the food is as varied as the culture, with a Pizza hut right next to an Indian Roti shop, which is next to a Chinese noodle shop. The people are very friendly and most people speak English quite well, making it an easy place to get around in.
My first stop was the Thai Embassy. I had no idea were it was, because, in the past, I had used a service that took my passport to the embassy, did all the paper work and then picked up my passport with new visa the next day. This time though, I didnít want to waste the extra time I would have had to wait, so I was going to do it myself. After getting pointed in the right direction, I continued to ask people along the way, until finally reaching the embassy, located in an old colonial neighborhood with giant trees everywhere. I parked my bike and walked into the compound and was met by an Indian man who gave me the papers to fill out for my visa. After I filled them out, he said, Ďokay, thatís 65 ringití. I said, Ďhey, isnít it 55 ringit?í. ĎOh, yes, thatís right, 55í. Everybody wants their commission for services rendered and he was no exception, but he didnít push it. He did do it again by trying to short-change me, but we worked it out okay...
Told that I could pick up my visa the next morning, I went off in search of a hotel for the night. I had stayed in a hotel called the ĎEasterní before for 30 ringit (about 400 baht) and it was okay for my needs, but my mother would have had a heart attack if she had seen it. The room had aircon and all the cockroaches (BIG, and they can fly, too!) I could use. Before actually going in, I asked for the bug spray (DDT?) and sprayed the room without breathing while I was doing it. I left the room for a few minutes, and when I came back, the bodies were everywhere. The maid swept them away and I moved my bags into the room.
Out to cruise around. Penang recently changed most of its roads to one-way, and if you donít know exactly how to get somewhere, and since none of the roads are straight, itís easy to get turned in the wrong direction. You can go miles and miles out of your way before you find your way back.. I use the Komtar building as a landmark to guide me by. Itís about 50 stories and can be seen from almost anywhere in the city.
My strongest urge, of course, was for food. I found a little martabak shop in the Indian part of town and had a delicious meal for about 3 ringit (40 baht). The Indians, have integrated quite successfully into Malay society and have fewer problems with the locals than they do in Thailand or some other S.E. Asian countries. There are still some racial integration problems, especially between the people of Chinese descent and the Ďpureí Malays, but nothing like the enormous hostility and violence that occurs in Indonesia between Chinese and Indonesian.
One of the first things you notice in driving around Penang is that you have to be on your toes, but most drivers do extend some basic civilities with each other when driving. When I let someone pass in front of me, they signaled a Ďthank youí to me. This has never happened to me in Thailand, where the drivers are, as a rule, much more selfish in their driving habits. I donít mean to imply that driving in Malaysia is easier than Thailand- in Malaysia you always have someone that is driving right on your butt and if you make a mistake, BAMM! Itís all over for you on a bike. The difference is, in Thailand, the Thai driver would probably just drive on (Ďflee the sceneí, in the vernacular) , but the Malaysian driver would at least stop and offer his condolences for your injuries.
I cruised some more and found a big shopping center that had a cyber-cafe. I read my email, sent off a couple of letters and cruised the net a bit. I have an old 386 machine at home and this was a new Pentium 166, so I marveled at the speed compared to mine and wished that I had an extra 70,000 baht ($2,000) lying around to buy a new computer.
I went back to a small street and bought some chicken satay with rice and then pulled into a quiet, dark street to eat my snack in peace. As I was sitting there on my bike, I saw across the street, a small Chinese religious altar at the end of a dark alley. I couldnít make out much, I could just see the red glow from the altar and see a few people in the shadows with sticks of incense.
I went back to eating my satay, and I felt a tap on my back. I turned around and was greeted by a person dressed in a tight red dress, smoking a long cigarette. HE started to speak, asking me in Malay, where I was from ĎDari mana?í I replied, ĎSaya dari mana Muang Thaií ( I come from Thailand). He then asked me in English, Ďlooking for fun?í Well, of course, Iím always interested in fun, but we had differing ideas about this I was sure, so I told him no thanks, and he left- down the alley where I had seen the Chinese shrine. A motorcycle turned into the alley just then, illuminating the scene for me to see more clearly. The Chinese altar with the red light? Well, how about a short doorway to a bordello with a red light to show the way. The people holding incense? These were actually drag queens with long cigarette holders. I left (fled) the scene and turned the corner only to be met with something out of a horror movie. About 25 prostitutes, none aged less than 60 would be my guess, swarmed all over me, forcing me to slow down to avoid hitting one of them. They were all yelling at me, wanting me to take them along. One actually tried to mount my bike and grabbed me around the waist. I shook her off, beeped my horn, and headed for an open section, hoping to squeeze through the throng of grandmothers . My heart beating fast, I escaped and headed back to the hotel, figuring I had had enough Ďfuní for the night.
The next morning, I had a bit of time to kill before returning to the Thai embassy to pick up my visa. I decided to take a quick trip around the island. After checking-out of the hotel, I headed out of downtown towards Batu Ferringhi. The road soon turned narrow and curvy, hugging the mountain on the left, with the ocean on my right. Itís amazing that such beautiful beaches are only located 5 minutes from a huge city. Here, the pace changes noticeably. Fewer cars, fewer people and the air smells much fresher minus the pollution of town. There is a dampness, not because it has been raining, but now I am entering an area that doesnít get much sun and all the greenery holds the moisture from the night before. At times I even feel a bit of a chill- a welcome rarity in S.E. Asia.
As I continue past the beaches on the west side of the island, I spied a shop with hundreds of colorful batiks outside, waving in the breeze. The rich colors of batik are can be amazingly bright and when theyíre out in the sunlight, the colors are absolutely enthralling. I stopped to buy something for my wife, and then I was off again. After passing through the area with most of the expensive resorts, I entered the last small village of Teluk Bahang before heading up into the mountains. I stopped by an old abandoned house on the beach to relax a bit before the long mountain road ahead. As I parked my bike, an old man, I guessed to be about 60, stepped out behind the old house wearing just a basic loincloth. He came over to me and greeted me in excellent English. This is his house, he said, but he lives in Georgetown. He is a businessman, but he said that when he feels too stressed, he comes back to his beach house, puts on his loincloth, and just lies in his hammock feeling the breeze from the ocean blow over him. He invited me to stay with him and relax, but I felt like I was invading his private time in his private place, so I begged off, telling him I had to head back to Georgetown. He made me promise to come back and visit him next time I was in the area, and if he wasnít home, then be sure and relax in the hammock and enjoy the breeze. You bet I will...
I left him and headed out of the village, starting to climb into the mountains. I was in an old rainforest now, and the road was quite slick and covered with wet leaves. The trees were massive- some more than a meter across. The trees had orchids streaming from them, some almost touching the ground. I recognized many plants that I had growing in my house, but these were as big as my house. I was obvious that the government had not allowed people to build or cut down trees. This was sure different from many areas in Thailand where the once lush forests and jungle are no more.
As I climbed higher and higher the weather got much cooler and I could see out over the western part of the island for many kilometers. The sun was bright now, but here the sunlight felt good and warming to the body, not hot and oppressive like it did down below . All along the road were waterfalls with cool clean water that tasted sweeter than any water I had tasted in Asia. The one thing I noticed missing were the many types of birds that usually live in jungles and rainforests. This I guessed, was a sign that although man tried to keep this area in a natural state, his presence was still felt.
At the top of the mountain I stopped to scan the valley below. I could see small villages, surrounded by coconut and banana plantations. Off in the far distance was the outline of Georgetown, with a noticeable haze over it. I felt like I was awakening slowly from a dream and I could sense my reality dawning off in the distance. This was not a dream I yearned to awaken from, but one that I must.
The weather warmed as I went lower and lower into the valley. Signs of construction and man started to emerge. People appeared and so did telephone poles and cars. I was awake now, but I longed to sleep just a little more.
Okay, back to reality and traffic. I went back to the Thai Embassy and picked up my passport with the new visa and went to grab some lunch at Pizza Hut. Iíve lived in Asia for almost 10 years and sometimes the local food gets tiring, so Western foods can be a nice respite. This being a Muslim area, Pizza Huts donít have my favorite Hawaiian style, with ham and pineapple. They substitute chicken which just doesnít quite make it for me.
I decided to take the ferry across the channel separating the island from the mainland. The ferry is an old car ferry in which the vehicles go down below and the people ride up top. In the vehicle area, the cars, trucks and bikes get packed so tightly that once parked, the cars canít open their doors and the bike riders just sit on their bikes. The area has an open view of the water so you can still enjoy the view while waiting the 10 minutes it takes to cross.
Sitting next to me was an Indian gentleman and we started to make polite conversation. He is Malaysian, but was born in India and came to Malaysia with his parents by steamer in 1940 just before the war started. He was a prisoner of the Japanese for almost 4 years. He has traveled to many countries of the world and lamented that people who havenít traveled and experienced other cultures really havenít matured as people. He felt that if more people traveled, they would have a better understanding and acceptance of others. He said that when he was younger, it was difficult for him to live in a Muslim society, but age has given him more patience and travel has given him more understanding. I listened to him and hoped that when I reached his age I would have the same outlook on life.
As the ferry docked, everyone got ready for the gate to come down. I felt like I was at the starting line of a race, for when we moved, it would be as a tight group, and if anyone faltered, even the slightest, all the bikes would crash into each other. My bike, at 750cc and 300 kilos, was bigger than all the other bikes and much unsteadier at slow speeds. As we started off, I just concentrated on maintaining a straight line and keeping my balance until we all got up to speed and left the confines of the ferry terminal.
Back on the main road, I made one last stop before the expressway to get fuel and some water to take with me. I had a few Malaysian ringit with me and I wanted to spend it all before returning to Thailand. It was all in coins, which the money changers wonít take to convert back into Thai baht, so it was either use it up or be stuck with it in Thailand, where itís useless.
I finally found the expressway after some searching. I never saw a sign that hinted at where to find the expressway. I think the signs are designed for people who know that when you see the sign for some little village, you know that is the road to the expressway or somewhere. Unfortunately, many of these small villages arenít listed on maps, so you have to stop every kilometer or so and ask directions to where you want to go. In my case, the only place I knew to ask directions to was Thailand. The first reaction from most people when asked how to get to Thailand was. Ďby carí or sometimes they would just point towards Thailand if I asked which way. At some point, I just found myself entering the expressway and I confirmed that I was headed north with the compass attached to my handlebar.
Unlike the ride down the day before, the sun was out the whole time. Now I wished I hadnít forgotten my sun cream.