Friday, May 08, 2009

I recently returned from Penang, Malaysia where I visited the Royal Thai Consulate for my second non-immigrant B visa.
I quit working for the Stairway English teaching agency and was hired privately by the school where I’ve been teaching for the past four years.  My school was sorely unprepared for the daunting task of preparing visa renewal paperwork for the foreigners working for them, dragging their heels for too long and causing my visa to expire.  I told them all along what they would have to do, but typically they didn’t listen and tried to do things their way, which didn’t work.  I suppose this is a pride issue with Thai's not accepting suggestions or help from a foreigner.

So, on Sunday the 3rd of May, I headed for the border in a rented minivan bound for Penang, Malaysia and the Royal Thai consulate.  Giving Mam a hug, kiss and wave goodbye I zoomed out of town around ten o’clock in the morning.  Like most minivan drivers in Thailand, ours was an absolute maniac on the road arriving at the border a mere thirty minutes later.  I've often said that if I die in Thailand, it's going to be from an accident on a motorcycle taxi, a songtheaw, a bus or a minivan.  They all have no idea what it is like to drive safely. 

Everything would have gone well had I not overstayed my visa for three days.  I was pointed in the direction of the immigration checkpoint office on the Thai side of the border and made to wait while they prepared the paperwork for my overstay penalty of one thousand five hundred baht ($43.37 U.S.).

The minivan driver was pretty peeved at me for holding us up, but managed to bribe an official to put me at the head of the line after I paid my fine.  Soon we were off to the Malaysian checkpoint side, which is virtually across the street.  No holdups here, just a lot of people for a Sunday afternoon.
Once back on the road it was just a brief matter of time for the drive to Butterworth, Malaysia to cross either by ferry or use the bridge to get to Penang Island.  I was hoping our driver would take the ferry so I could get some nice pictures, but he took the bridge option instead.  We reached Chulia Street in Georgetown by 2:30 in the afternoon and I checked into my hotel by 2:45.  Then I suddenly realized there was a time difference between Malaysia and Thailand, but couldn’t remember if I’d gained an hour or lost one.  Eventually I figured out I’d gained an hour.

Almost everything was closed, which is much different than Thailand on a Sunday.  I walked down every street in close proximity to my hotel, looking for a money changer and found plenty but all were closed except for an old man advertising money changing from a tiny sign set out on a table, tucked inside an alleyway along side some food stalls.  I got royally ripped off, paying out six thousand baht ($173.50 U.S.) and only getting four hundred and ninety ringgit ($137.53 U.S.) in return.  I really didn’t have much choice but to take it if I wanted to eat that evening, so I took it with a grumble.

This is the view I had from my hotel window, which faced out on the front façade of the hotel.  I was pleased to get this room not only for the excellent view, but because the last time I was in Penang, they put me in a room facing the rear of the hotel where I was exposed to loud speakers blasting out prayer from the local mosque.
I did things a bit differently this time around, choosing to use the services of a visa agent and possibly pay a bit more rather than have to travel to the Royal Thai consulate myself and deal with filling out the necessary paperwork, standing in queue, and having to take a taxi there and back.  I’d done some research online and found many people saying it was a much better deal if you figured in the price of the taxi and the promise you’re almost guaranteed you’ll get your visa hassle free.

The agent’s fee was only twenty ringgit (200 baht or $5.61 U.S.), which is certainly the way to go when you figure a taxi is about twenty-four ringgit (240 baht or $6.73 U.S.) to and from the consulate and you have to go to the consulate twice, to deliver your paperwork and to pick up your passport and visa the next afternoon for a total of forty-eight ringgit ($13.47 U.S.).  Definitely a much better deal!

This is a picture of Jim’s Place, the visa agent I hired.  Jim Tachinamurthy runs the place and is a very pleasant, helpful, interesting man with a lot of character.  After traveling to and from Southeast Asia and China, and living in both China and Thailand for several years, I don’t trust easily, but Jim is the type of person I felt I could trust right off the bat. He just has a way with people that I’m sure he isn’t even aware of possessing.  He is truly kind and considerate of his customers, and goes out of his way to ensure everything goes well for them.
On Monday morning, after a terrible breakfast at the 78 Kafé across the street from my hotel, I ventured out to Chulia Street, the main drag in Georgetown regarding services for foreigners such as bars, pubs, liquor stores, restaurants, guest houses, hotels, visa agents, bookstores, etcetera.  After meeting Jim and handing all my visa paperwork over to him, he suddenly turned to me and said, “Are you aware that tomorrow is a holiday?”

“Huh?” I said, my heart sinking as I reached for my wallet to check on how much money I had to work with.

“Yes, tomorrow is a holiday, so you won’t be able to pick up your passport until Wednesday afternoon.”

“Oh crap!  I don’t think I’ve got enough money for an extra night at the hotel!”  I said, searching my brain for what to do.

“Do you know anybody who can send you some money?”

“Yes, well…my wife, but where would she send it?”

“Well, she could wire the money to a local bank...”

And so the conversation went…with Jim finally using his own mobile phone to call Mam and arrange for her to wire money directly into his Maybank account, which I thought was pretty generous.  But, after the initial panic began to subside, I delved back into my wallet and began to count my pennies, eventually figuring out I had just enough for one more night at the hotel, my visa fees, agent fee, the van ride back to Thailand and some loose change on which to eat.  So rather than risk getting Mam flustered, I chose to try and wing it on my own.

I called Mam back and apologized for having stirred her up in my initial panic, telling her to forget everything I’d said and telling her I had just enough money to make it through Wednesday.  Of course none of that did any good to ease her mind and I could tell from her voice that she was worried.

I had no doubts that had the situation proved to be more difficult, Jim would have helped me out in his reassuring manner, which is a godsend to a foreigner in a distant land.  He is just the sort of man who really makes a very sincere effort to help people out.

Once back at my hotel, I decided to pay ahead through Wednesday morning (My little quirk, as I don't trust myself very much and if the money isn't there, I can't spend it).  

I had already paid for my return trip via minivan to Hat Yai using Jim’s services, and now I was left with a paltry amount of chump change in which to eat for the remaining afternoon and next two days.  With roughly fifty ringgit (around $14.60 U.S.) left in my wallet on which to eat, I decided to venture out and search for places that sold cheap food.

Across the street from my hotel is the Kafé 78 Makanan Dan Minuman, on the corner of Jalan Sri Bahari and Jalan Penang roads.  There are a few of these types of cafe's in the area, each with a different name and each selling different types of food.  The concept of these restaurants is interesting.  They have tables in their central area, surrounded by small cooking stands or kiosks operated by different people, cooking different types of food.

At Kafé 78, one kiosk near where I was sitting cooks a fish set, a beef set, and a chicken set, whereas the kiosk next to them cooks up prawn noodles, fried rice and a couple of Malay dishes.

Upon entering the restaurant and sitting down, you are approached by a waiter or waitress who ask you what you would like to drink.  A sign on the wall tells you that if you sit in their restaurant you must order at least a drink, or you will be charged 0.40 sen (about 11 cents U.S.).

Each kiosk charges separately and most of the food is relatively cheap.  I found I could order a simple meal like a noodle dish, or fried rice dish and a nice juice drink for less than five ringgit ($1.40 U.S.).  Meals range in price from around 1.45 RM (40 cents U.S.) to eight RM ($2.24 U.S.).  Just don't order their Western breakfast!

Three or four blocks away on the corner of Jalan Penang and Lebuh Campbell, is another of these interesting restaurants, where I ate lunch Monday afternoon.  Their food is a bit pricier but the quality and selection is much better.  I ordered an iced tea and four egg rolls that were quite delicious for 3.80 RM ($1.06 U.S.), however, the waitresses who work there are extremely rude.

Monday evening I discovered the Jaya restaurant on Jalan Penang only a short walk from my hotel.  Jaya is an Indian restaurant, and the food they offer is not only cheap, it is fantastically delicious!  The only problem is nothing is in English and the waiters don’t speak much English. 

I ended up ordering an iced tea and the Thosai Masala Ayam, which translated, means chicken Masala.  I enjoyed the meal so much that this is where I ate for the duration of my stay in Penang.  I didn’t see any foreigners here, which seemed odd given they are everywhere in Georgetown, most of them either on holiday or passing through for their visa processing.  I figured it must have been because nothing is in English, which can be a bit intimidating for some.  Not me though, as I rather enjoy the challenge of trying to figure things out or practice my smattering of foreign languages (except for Malay, as I haven't a need to learn that language yet).

So, in retrospect, I’m sort of glad my school took too long to complete my paperwork for my visa, necessitating my having to go to Penang to apply for another non-immigrant B visa, since the school paid for everything and I got a fairly good mini-vacation out of the deal.



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