Greetings from George Town, Penang. I arrived here around 13:30 this afternoon and it was the smoothest journey south thus far, helped tremendously by good conversation during the minibus trip from Hat Yai this morning with a couple of Londoners. The girl actually teaches English to kindergarteners in Kathu, Phuket. Today was some sort of Malaysian holiday so the consulate was closed; it’s a good thing I wasn’t planning to go there until tomorrow. Once I checked into my guesthouse (a different one from my previous visa runs) I set out on food as it was a very pleasantly cool afternoon; there were even a few droplets of rain in the early evening.
I did teach at school yesterday, finishing work at 15:00 as we changed back to 60-minute lessons on Monday. At home I spent a couple of hours putting together a photo gallery for publication on the blog. It features numerous “stray” pictures that I don’t plan on using in my planned walking-tour articles and I posted it to the locally-hosted version on my laptop. I’ll upload the photos to the WordPress.com server when I return to Phuket so the gallery is visible online. I walked to the bus station at 18:00 last night which took about fifteen minutes. I was upset to see that the 7-Eleven just outside of the bus station had been closed down. I guess they’re anticipating the move to the new station up north (something I highly doubt will happen anytime soon as they just can’t seen to resolve this U-turn issue). At any rate, after purchasing my ticket for the bus leaving at 20:50 (the 18:50 bus apparently not running this particular day), I trekked over to the 7-Eleven on Montri Road for my travel munchies (including more Pretz-brand sticks and assorted tiny cakes). Our bus actually arrived in the station almost two hours early but he couldn’t exactly leave early — as it turned out, ALL of the passenger who boarded had been sitting there since before it appeared.
I wish the buses leaving from Phuket didn’t have to travel something like 100 kilometers north and east before heading south but that the price we pay for living on an island. I’m now familiar with both of the regularly-scheduled stops — the one at the 7-Eleven near Krabi Polytechnic University about two hours into the trip in order to use the restrooms and the food break at the Trang Bus Station an hour later. I rarely disembark at either of these stops but this time I planned to eat my free meal as I was craving Thai food at this point. However, extremely unusually, NOBODY got off to eat this time around. On most trips, I’m the only person waiting on the bus while everybody else gorges themselves. Not wanting to be the only person eating, I elected to remain seating as well and we finally left after the driver had chain-smoked a couple of cigarettes.
Another two hours later found us at the Hat Yai Municipal Bus Station and I cut through the wall of tuk-tuk and motorbike taxi drivers sticking their heads into the bus doors. One was quite taken-aback as I called out “Mai ao, krap” (“I don’t want one, thank you”). I now have a favorite bench in the bus station — it’s a long stone bench (so it’s cool if I lay down on it) in a sparsely-traveled section (at least late at night) with a television that I can watch. The time went fairly quickly this time around and before I knew it I was exiting the bus station compound (where the taxi-vultures are waiting to pounce upon you once again) and walking to the travel agencies across the street. I used the same one as last time (and I still cannot recall the name) as he has a comfortable waiting area inside of his restaurant. Just before 8:30 the minivan arrived and I met the two Londoners I mentioned before (the guy’s name was Jonathan; I can’t remember the girls name). After a quick stopover at the van company’s office — not the hour-and-a-half I’d grown accustomed to — we were on our way out of town.
The time went very quickly as I finally had somebody to talk to. On my previous two visa runs to Penang, the minivan was filled with Indians, Thais, or Malays who couldn’t converse in English. It’s always a pleasure to trade “war stories” with fellow travelers. When we reached Thai Immigration at Danok (officially, it’s the Sadao Checkpoint but Sadao is 15km back down the road), there weren’t any queues at all so we breezed right through. That was a pleasure! And it was the same entering Malaysia.
The minivan dropped us all off near Love Lane on Chulia Street. My routine now is to head straight to NJ Books. I changed three thousand baht into a little less than 300 ringgit and then booked tomorrow morning’s trip to the consulate. I then walked across the street to secure my room for the night at Stardust Guesthouse. There was a girl carrying a huge backpack who approached the desk at the same time as I did; being a gentleman, I let her go first and she inquired about a room. She asked a bunch of questions about whether there was a window, hot water in the shared bathroom, etc. and then went upstairs to take a look before committing herself. After she’d gone to check the room out, I told the receptionist I needed a room as well and that I’d stayed there twice before so I didn’t need to do all that. She told me that there was only one room available so I waited to see if the backpacking girl wanted the room after all. She did so I trouped back over to NJ to rent a room in their guesthouse.
I told the receptionist there that I needed a fan room and that I didn’t need to look (the rest of the operation is good, I figured the rooms would be as well). He started to give me one room but then said, “I’ll give you 501 since you’ve used our services before.” I thought he was giving me some extra-special room; I should have been leery when the rate was only 20 ringgit (about 200 baht) while the room I like at the Stardust is 7 ringgit more. Well, I went upstairs and looked all over for room 501. There were a bunch in the 600’s and a few numbered in the 700’s. I even searched for a hidden stairway or hallway. I went back downstairs and explored the backrooms, finding a storeroom, some really decrepit toilets, even a laundry area. I was about to give up and ask for help in locating the elusive room when I spied a tiny door under the stairway labeled “501.” In the space of a broom closet but with a diagonal ceiling under which I can’t fully stand at it’s highest point there is a bed that’s smaller than a single plus a desk that if I sit at it I have to lay my head on the surface or rick hitting my skull on the ceiling. It’s really quite comical, reminding me of something out of Harry Potter. They don’t provide sheets for the bed or towels for the shower. But it’s okay — it’s only for one night.
After laughing myself silly in my cupboard/bedroom I set out on a walk with no real goal in mind. I ended up at the Penang National Museum. This was a real bargain with a 1 ringgit admission fee and plenty to look at. The explanatory placards are bilingual and extremely descriptive. As photography wasn’t allowed inside I couldn’t do my usual routine of taking pictures of all the placards to assist in write-ups but I still spent an enjoyable couple of hours inside. The building was originally the Penang Free School which was South East Asia’s first English-language school, established in the early 1800’s. I also walked through Little India and much of China Town before ending up at the shopping complexes surrounding Komtar. I had a snack at McDonald’s but felt really guilty about it. A few hours later, after meandering through the Armenian district and back through Little India, I came across numerous street stalls being set up for evening customers. One of my goals for this trip was to track down and try the infamous “ramly burger“, a unique Malaysian take on the traditional hamburger in which the patty is totally encased in an egg. I found what I was looking for at a cart advertising the “Old Trafford” burger, decorated with the Manchester United colors and logo. It was, in a word, awesome!
And now I’m online posting this at the NJ internet cafe. They really do have everything — even if they’ve got me sleeping in a broom closet! Although I took plenty of photos today (much more than on my last trip to Penang), I’ll have to wait until I return to Thailand to upload them.