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Friday June 4th, 1999 to Wednesday June 9th, 1999

Pinang (or Penang) is a large island just off the north-west coast of Malaysia. The largest city on the island, Georgetown, has a Thai consulate, and hence is a popular destination for ex-pats seeking to renew their Thai visas. The following is a general amalgamation of several trips to Pinang for visa renewal purposes.

Most of the excitement (and all of the frustration) of the 1st trip was in getting there and back. We had about 3 days in which to make the trip. Our 1st thought was to take the train, and we went to the train station a couple of days early to buy tickets. Unfortunately, there is only 1 train each day, leaving mid-afternoon, and the trip is 18hrs each way. We did the math, and figured out that in order to be back in time, we would have to leave Pinang 2hrs before we arrived (which didn't leave much time to get a visa); so the train wasn't an option.

Our next thought was to take the bus. Although buses are significantly less comfortable than trains over long trips (without being significantly cheaper), they are much more frequent. The plan was to catch the 6:15pm bus on Friday evening; I left work at 4:30pm, with plenty of time to travel the 10km to the bus station. A little over 2hrs later, the taxi I was in emerged from a traffic jam that was significant even by Bangkok standards, and I arrived at the bus station having missed the bus (for which we owned non-refundable tickets). There were no more buses that night, so we had no choice but to head home. At home, we were unable to awaken those with whom we had entrusted apartment keys, and hence spent the night on the hallway floor. Needless to say, it was a very pleasant evening in all respects.

Sunset on the way home from Pinang, Malaysia

Now we were in a position where my visa was going to expire in 2 days, and we had to get out of the country and back in time to be at work on Tuesday; it occurred to us that the only viable option was to rent a car. We called Budget, and discovered that we could get a Suzuki Carabian for about $40/day. A Carabian is somewhat akin to a soft-top dune-buggy with a lawn mower engine, but the price was right, and we didn't have many options left at this point. Fortunately the people at the rental agency didn't notice that my license had expired.

After a futile attempt to get our money back for the bus tickets, we finally got out of Bangkok around 5pm Saturday, only about 24hrs behind schedule. We stopped for the night in a small town about 4hrs down the road, and then drove all the next day, arriving at the Malaysian border around 8pm. We finally arrived in Georgetown around 11pm. Exhausted, and anticipating that we'd be leaving to drive 17hrs back the next morning, we decided to treat ourselves to a Holiday Inn (the fact that we couldn't find anything less expensive also played a minor role in our decision).

The next day we discovered that there is a 24hr waiting period for visas, and that we weren't going to be back on time after all. We ended up spending a very lazy day, the highlight of which was getting to see The Phantom Menace 2 months before it would be released in Thailand.

On one of my subsequent (much less eventful) trips, about 3 months later, I got to spend some time exploring Georgetown, and found it to be a very interesting place. It was founded by the British (by Sir Francis Light, to be specific) toward the end of the 18th century, and thus it is populated entirely by immigrants, primarily from mainland Malaysia, China, and the Indian Subcontinent; there is a conspicuous colonial British atmosphere, but there are also signs of Eastern European and Thai influence. In a lot of ways, Georgetown is like a less developed version of Singapore: it contains the same conglomeration of cultures, but without having had them legislated into submission in quite the same way. The Chinatown, in particular, is quintessential Straits Chinese culture in its architecture, history, and even current atmosphere. Khoo Kongsi, one of the most famous Chinese clan-houses outside of China, is perhaps Pinang's most famous landmark. It was being renovated when I saw it, but I could still hardly help but be impressed the intricacy of the decoration all over the enormous building.

Sunset over southern Thailand, on the way home from Pinang, Malaysia

Anyway, on our first and most involved trip, we finally got my visa and got out of Pinang around 2pm on Tuesday. We drove 17hrs straight through, and got Hannah back just in time to be at work at 7am on Wednesday.

All that remains is to give a brief glimpse of what driving in Thailand is like. The general disregard for traffic laws among Bangkok drivers is fairly well known: in Bangkok, however, because of the traffic, people can only disregard traffic laws at a very slow speed. Outside of Bangkok, however, people generally drive however they want at whatever speed they want. Perhaps the easiest way to explain it is to offer a snapshot of 1 circumstance in which we found ourselves on the way down:

The road was fairly narrow, and not very well paved (this was the main north-south highway in Thailand). There was a motorcycle travelling down each shoulder. Inside the 2 motorcycles, closest to what would be considered the actual lanes, were 2 large, black smoke belching trucks, each of which had a large shipping container balanced on its bed (the containers were not attached — we could watch them bounce up and down as the truck went over potholes). The kicker was the bus driving up the middle of the road, honking at the oncoming truck (courteously letting him know that the bus was taking that lane, and that the truck had better get out of the way — of course, the truck had to try to avoid hitting the motorcycle on the shoulder). Just to make sure that the 2 trucks got the message, there was a guy hanging out the side of the bus, banging on the truck that the bus was passing, trying to get him to slow down so that the bus could pull back in to its lane in time to slam on its brakes for the bus stop 150m up the road. As soon as the bus finished cutting the truck off, the bus driver slammed on his brakes, causing the truck driver to slam on his brakes, causing us (behind the truck and marvelling at what was taking place before us) to slam on our brakes, etc. The funny thing was that after a few hours of this sort of thing, we began to take it for granted.

You might wish to look at the Pinang photos in the photo album.

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