copyright by Morgan McFinn
s official non-residents of Thailand, those of us who reside here are officially required to vacate the premises every four months. As an idle truant ensconced in a thatch-roof bungalow on the exceedingly idyllic shores of Maenam Bay, I’m usually quite happy to get onto the mainland once in a while.
While I’m here, I spend most of my time reading and writing, swimming and sleeping. I eat a lot of fresh fruit, tofu, bean sprouts, whole grain bread, and the occasional tin of smoked tuna imported from Australia.
On the other hand, I also drink a fair amount of whiskey and smoke far too many cigarettes. I seldom read a newspaper, never watch television, and I listen to what passes itself off as music around here only involuntarily.
I'm happy living here. Nevertheless, the need to acquire a new visa provides a valid excuse to expose myself to the trials and tribulations of the so-called real world. These visa runs are an effective antidote against a condition of languid bliss to which people of my disposition are susceptible.
For the past two years I've made my visa runs to Penang. I make a five-day round trip journey of it. The alarm goes off at six in the morning, whereupon I curse, push a button, and go back to sleep.
Fifteen minutes later the damn thing goes off again, and again I curse—but this time I crawl out of bed and stagger outside to the verandah. The sun is rising in all its splendor, washing away the darkness with brushstrokes of amber, ruby, and sapphire hues. The air is fragrant with jasmine and morning dew. The birds are . . . ah, the hell with the birds . . . I'm in a hurry.
I brush my teeth, dress casually, pick up my bag (packed the night before), hop on my motorbike, and direct the excursion toward Na Thon, Samui's main town. There, I park the bike at the police station, board a large air-con bus to the pier, get off the bus and onto the ferry for a two-hour ride to the mainland, re-board the bus, and spend the next four-and-a-half hours cruising through rubber plantations and coastal shrimp farms until we arrive in Hat Yai, the capital city of Southern Thailand and weekend entertainment Mecca for drunken, sex-starved Muslims from Malaysia.
I stay a night in Hat Yai, at the Pink Hotel, adjacent to the notorious Pink Lady Massage Parlor. The rooms are moderately priced and comfortable.
First thing I do after checking in is walk over to Kentucky Fried Chicken for a deliciously unhealthy meal of greasy fried potatoes, a crispy deep-fried patty of chicken sandwiched between two thoroughly defunct halves of a bleached white-flour bun, and a glass of acid- and sugar-packed effervescent cola.
Why do bad things taste so good?
Marketing. That’s why.
Following a night of watching TV and drinking beer, I board the 9:00 a.m. mini-bus for Penang. If you were to drive within the legal speed limit, the trip from Hat Yai to the Malaysian border would take about an hour and fifteen minutes. With a Thai driver at the wheel it takes less than an hour— during which time you find yourself engaged in an inordinate amount of praying.
The worst part about it is that by the time you reach the border, you've probably made a number of promises to God hoping he'll intercede on your behalf and save you from the tragedy that seems so imminent because of the kamikaze Thai driving the not-so-much-a-mini-bus-as-a-wayward-missile.
You feel like you're sitting behind Slim Pickens in the last scene of Dr. Strangelove.
One thing I’ve learned is that you should always refrain from getting into any kind of motorized vehicle if the Thai driver is wearing more than two Buddha amulets.
Thais tend to believe that amulets make them impervious to peril, and consequently they behave recklessly every time they get behind the wheel.
Of course, most Thais also believe in reincarnation, so assuming a career in driving mini-buses isn’t a particularly exalted station in life, these guys may not really give a damn if they crash and burn. Next time around they could return as a crooked cop or a corrupt politician, which are both highly lucrative positions in Thai society.
Christians, on the other hand, have only got one pass for a ride on the merry-go-round. You die; you're dead . . . the gig is up. Just don't make any promises you can't keep.
Many a fellow Christian passenger has made it alive to the Malaysian border only after having promised his God to forsake all the carnal indulgences that make life somewhat enjoyable. A couple of these distraught characters have thereupon converted to Buddhism and applied for jobs driving mini-buses. Avoid these people at all cost.
Once upon Malaysian soil, the average mini-bus passenger will notice two things almost immediately. Firstly, the condition of the road is far superior to that of Thailand, and secondly, what one sees from the windows is in much sharper focus and not just a frenetic blur.
Malaysians spend a much more appropriate amount of concern regarding the care of their infrastructure, and they have a higher respect for law and order than Thais do. The reason for this is very simple. In Malaysia, law and order are enforced. In Thailand, they're bought and sold.
Approximately three hours inside the Malaysian border, the mini-bus loads onto a ferry at Butterworth, and fifteen minutes later docks at the quay on the island of Penang. The final bus stop is the Swiss Hotel on Chulia Street, a cheap and relatively clean little hotel and a popular short-stay haven for cheap and relatively clean backpacking travelers.
From there I walk up to Penang Road and check into the Oriental Hotel. I fill out a visa application, hand over my passport to an agent, and then proceed to my favorite room (1007) via either one of the two slowest elevators in all of Asia. These devices cannot possibly be electrically powered. Imagine a couple undernourished gerbils in a cage connected to a pulley. I enter the elevator about mid-afternoon, and by the time I get to my room on the tenth floor, the mosque down on Chulia Street is bursting forth with the discordant howl of evening prayers.
I take a shower, put on some clean clothes, bring along a book to pass the time on the elevator ride down to the lobby, and then head for the Tai Wah Cafe just across from the Happy Travel Agency on Chulia Street. It's a great spot to sit outside along the street, drink a pint or two of Guinness, and watch the traffic.
Penang is an ex-British colony founded some two hundred years ago by Sir Francis Light.... So much for the history of the place.
More recently Penang has become a point of transit for young backpackers traveling between Australia and Europe, with side trips to Thailand and Sumatra. These travelers come to Penang for visas, hot showers, clean rooms, good food, and information from fellow travelers about places that have no showers, filthy rooms, and rancid food.
The streets of the capital, Georgetown, have a spicy, smoky, and squalid charm about them that is always intriguing. Especially at night, when the bicycle trishaws pedaled by ancient-looking Malays are lit up with kerosene lanterns. And there are the noodle, fish, and satay stalls run by Chinamen, where you sit on a tin stool at small tin-top tables along a dimly-lit street with rats scurrying about the gutters, all in the muted glow of an amber haze. It's just so . . . Asian.
Last night I had dinner in the 1885 restaurant at the E & O Hotel, which—along with the Strand in Rangoon and Raffles in Singapore—is one of the three grand old hotels of Southeast Asia. The E & O still retains the colonial atmosphere of a bygone era. It overlooks the Indian Ocean, and was the favored abode of Kipling, Maugham, and Noel Coward.
I go there to immerse myself in its Old World elegance, and to fantasize about writing a modern Kipling tale, a Maugham-like short story, or a witty Coward play. This particular night, these reveries were slowly dispelled in the gentle draft of the rattan ceiling fans, and it occurred to me that I will probably never succeed in actually accomplishing any of those feats.
So, I sat in the restaurant properly spooning a bowl of mulligatawny soup and feeling rather sorry for myself. An English couple in their mid-sixties sat at a table behind me. In between the spring rolls with chili sauce and the main course of poached salmon hollandaise with baby carrots, brussel sprouts, and mashed potatoes, I was well into a second carafe of Bordeaux and bemoaning the fact that I had accomplished so very little worth noting in my life.
There was a moment when I felt that if my life had been served up on a silver platter, poached, baked, grilled, or otherwise, no amount of hollandaise sauce could have sufficed to make it palatable.
It would have been sent back to the kitchen.
The English couple, bless them, were in the midst of a lively chat about redoing their upstairs bathroom, which seemed slightly out of sync with my concerns, and at first I was tempted to turn around and sneer at them.
But then I thought, hey, wait a minute, these two people are at least twenty years older than me. Maybe they know something I don't. I mean, maybe if you're smart, you eventually stop worrying about all the dilemmas of existence and just settle for remodeling the second-floor toilet.
Later in the evening I was again ensconced at the Tai Wah Cafe tipping back a nightcap pint of the swarthy brew, and it dawned on me that this drinking is part of my problem. Not that I'm drinking too much mind you, but that I've been drinking too much of the wrong stuff. So I said, "Waiter, bring me a glass of champagne, please." That's what the English couple were drinking.
The waiter said, "Ain't got no champagne and the bar closes in five minutes."
"Well . . . okay . . . in that case, bring me a lager draft and make it snappy." It was just what I needed. Light and bubbly and it even tasted snappy. I started feeling pretty light and bubbly and snappy myself.
"Waiter, bring me another one of these babies."
"Bar closed five minutes ago, pal."
This was great. I'd been drinking Guinness at the Tai Wah Cafe for years, and not until I ordered a lager did that ass of a waiter start calling me "pal.”
I went back to 1007 at the Oriental and felt like a million ringits, which is only 400,000 dollars, but that's a hell of a lot more than I felt worth at dinner. The bathroom in my room suddenly seemed in need of some well-groomed alterations and I felt marvelous.
The next morning I retrieved my passport, freshly stamped with a new visa, and squeezed into the rear seat of the mini-bus bound for Hat Yai. I was refreshed from a sound sleep and my bowels were as relaxed as they'd been since I stopped wearing diapers. Actually, they felt a little too relaxed. However, when I noticed half a dozen amulets hanging from the Thai driver's neck, my bowels snapped tight as an eagle's claws around the neck of a jackrabbit. Soon it would be time to start praying again.
Tonight I’m back on the beach in one piece sitting on my verandah with a bottle of champagne thinking about gold-plated faucets, fancy lighting fixtures, a bamboo-framed wall mirror, and lots of ceramic tiles.
If only I had an upstairs bathroom.
What I do have, however, is a ground-floor hammock stretched between two palm trees, and tomorrow I'm going to spend all day in it. These visa runs are exhausting.
As happy as I may be to venture away from here every few months, I'm always grateful to return to Maenam Beach. I feel like an honorary citizen in the state of languid bliss, and for now, the champagne is visa enough.