After a month in Thailand it was time to renew our visa again. As we are visiting our friends in Hat Yai in the south of Thailand, we decided to go to the nearest Thai embassy, in Penang, Malaysia; a well-known place for the farang (a Thai word for foreigners which also means guava) in the south of Thailand to apply for or extend their visa.
Like so often when travelling to or from a tourist destination in Thailand, our minibus was mainly filled with farang. A few were travelling to stay in Malaysia, but most others were traveling light, like us, on a visa run. Some were on their way to get a visa to work, others to extend their holiday, and I guess the older men were looking for ways to extend their time with their Thai girlfriends.
Just when we were leaving Hat Yai, I overheard a girl hint to her friend, (after they had already travelled for more than 15 hours), that she had maybe taken the wrong passport with her. She had dual nationality and had safely put away the passport she had used to enter the country, and taken the other one – the one that was not stamped with her entry date – to extend her visa. Her friend sighed deeply, expressed his astonishment, after which they both fell soundly asleep. I was amazed how easily they seemed to accept the situation, and found the peace to surrender and sleep.
As to be expected, the girl was not allowed to leave Thailand. With pain in his heart, her travel companion left her at the border. The last we heard was, that after some negotiation, she was given permission to return to the hotel and collect her other passport.
Poor girl, on her own, who seemed to be not very focused and easily distracted (“useless” as her friend put it, while blaming himself for not having asked her whether she had taken the right passport), with two extra day-and-a-half long trips ahead of her, a hefty fine for being late to leave the country and a boyfriend, already in Malaysia, probably pissed off as he waited for her in Penang. Not a situation to envy.
Due to all this, our border crossing was a bit delayed. We didn’t have to worry. Our driver was more than happy to make up for the lost time.
He started racing – playing with our lives, but probably not seeing it as such – caught up in the game that so many drivers of minibuses do, all over the world. What can I do about it? Asking to slow down often has the opposite effect. And is possibly even more dangerous. Sleeping, or ignoring it is not an option; the continual accelerating and braking reminds you constantly of what is at stake. So you take it as it is and hope for the best.
He made sure he arrived first at the turnoff to George Town, where he left his colleagues behind, on their way elsewhere. And we were finally slowed by the amount of traffic entering the city.
Crossing the bridge to Penang, Georgetown, I was struck by the skyline, and the constant stream of cars. So many tall white buildings, both apartments and hotels sticking up into the air and a jumble of cars and motorbikes coming and going. Was it like this, about 15 years ago, when we were here for the first time? Would the old centre have preserved its character?
Approaching the UNESCO heritage part of George Town, the madness seemed to die down. Slowly, the number of cars and motorbikes as well as their speed decreased, while the number of people walking, just wandering around, increased. There were also rickshaws, instead of the usual tuktuks, taking tourists around. All things you rarely see these days in the Asian cities, at least the ones we’ve visited.
Besides the relaxed pace of life, the colonial core is considered one of the best preserved in Southeast Asia. It’s a great place to wander around, admire contemporary street art and explore the different neighbourhoods where colonial buildings, places of worship and original shophouses dating from the 19th century to the 1930s coexist.
And in terms of food, we just didn’t have enough days to try it all. It was almost a chore to choose between the numerous delicious and famous Malaysian, Indian and Chinese dishes on offer, the one tastier than the other.
All this makes George Town the perfect place to wait for your visa to be organised.
As for our visa, we got them no bother. While some of the others from our bus, handing in their application for a visa with a work permit, were sent back to organise more papers (often meaning a trip back to Thailand or an extended stay in George Town waiting for the papers to arrive), we just had to hand in our passports, two pictures, sign a form and pay.
Even when picking them up, we seemed to be lucky. We were just about to sit down, to join all the others – a few of whom had also been on our bus and had already been waiting for an hour with their luggage while we were having lunch – when the lady shouted on us and handed over our passports before anyone else.
Feeling a bit awkward, and a little uncomfortable with how easy it all went, it was difficult to decide whether to smile and enjoy our luck or keep quiet and not to rub it in to all those still waiting, all seemingly so eager to run and hurry back in the last minibus of the day to their job or their love in Thailand.
It was then I realised that you often don’t know exactly what others are waiting for or why they have to wait longer. And that, like so often in life, it is difficult to compare your situation with others or judge whether you are just lucky, or whether your circumstances are so much easier or whether you have taken more care or time to get organised. And that it might well be better to stop comparing and holding on to expectations, and truly open up to whatever experience comes your way.