When your work tells you that you need to take two days off and go to Malaysia on a visa run, you feel pretty lucky. Until you look at the logistics and see that you’ll be spending 4,500 baht, plus visa fees, PLUS bribe fees, and best of all, you’ll be in a van driven by a cranky Thai dude in a trucker hat for at least 18 hours. Then, you start to worry.
I didn’t enjoy any part of the visa run (more like visa-speeding-down-highways or visa-stand-in-line-for-an-hour). I had to sit, and attempt to sleep, next to two stoic European guys in the van and our driver was about as friendly as a rabid dog. The drive took so long that I started to forget my former life and accept my new reality of existing on 7/11 food, scrounging for toilet paper for the public toilets, and doing weird car yoga so my foot didn’t sensually rub my neighbors. But, once we got dropped off at the Swiss Hotel (because what says Switzerland like southeast Asia!), the skies metaphorically opened up and I was in the bliss and charming embrace of the small city of Georgetown, located in Penang.
Penang is known for food and Georgetown is known for street art. I love to eat and take selfies in front of other people’s creative works, so I was excited to wander the colonial-style streets. I got a map of Georgetown and saw that my hotel was located on Lebuh Chuliah, the main backpacker drag. I walked, maybe two minutes, and already found myself in a eclectic cafe called Mugshot. It would have fit in well in San Francisco with its hipster decor and expensive, but delicious coffee. There was a pterodactyl skeleton wearing a santa hat, a foosball table, a painting of a rat in an orange, prisoner jumpsuit, and of course, a place where you could take mugshots. I made a hipster, working on his laptop, take a mugshot of me and I asked if I looked tough enough. I was given a sarcastic “suuuuure.”
Following my trusty map, I made my way down to Lebuh Armenian, where most of the popular street art is. It’s also a World Heritage site and no smoking is allowed, which I fully support. I was taking a photo of almost every shopfront. It was like if Instagram was a real-life street. The colonial and Chinese influence intermingles into brightly colored shops and cafes, brick peeking through plaster, bicycles leaning on posts, flowery trellises, red lanterns, rusty gates, and white-washed balconies. People lined up to take photos with the interactive street art and I had to push through many Chinese families to get my turn. I drank lemongrass and mint tea inside Armenian House, a guesthouse and cafe. It was very peaceful, friendly, and spacious inside. I meant to get my tea to go, but ended up staying for awhile, feeding on their free wi-fi and enjoying the oasis from the other tourists outside.
I wandered down to Chew Jetty and the waterfront. It reminded me of the ever-quaint Juifen in Taiwan. The jetty walkway, with its wooden planks, was narrow and hidden from the sea by smooshed together shops on stilts selling Penang White Coffee, mango ice cream, and anime fashions, among other frivolous items. I didn’t find it overly fascinating, but nearby was CF food court or hawker stall heaven. I was surrounded by every kind of street food you could think of, even Taiwanese barbecued pork on rice! I circled the area and finally settled on the local favorite, Char Koay Teow. It tastes like someone put the Thai specialty, Pad See Ew, on a barbecue. I loved the charcoal taste to it, but I definitely ate around the cockles. If only my stomach had been bigger. I would have ate at every booth.
Back at my hotel, I enjoyed some Teh Tarik, or pulled tea. It’s delightfully milky and tangy and I had to bring a box back with me. This is where I met a girl from Illinois, who I clicked with instantly. Mostly because she was talkative (everyone else on our respective visa run groups were immersed in their phones and standoffish), philosophical, and down to adventure. We had an uninspired dinner, provided by our hotel, and afterwards, we went to an Indian restaurant and shared a plate of fiery red tandoori chicken. I foolishly brought my Royal Stout beer inside with me and they made me put it in a bag to hide my sins. (If you’re looking for a cheap, drink in the street, 7/11 beer, buy Royal Stout. It was 8 percent and made Chang taste like water.)
Our Indian meal had been eaten on the outskirts of Little India, an area that was hypnotizing to me. I’ve never been to India, but this was the closest I’ve been. Bollywood music blasted in the streets, yellow and red flower garlands hung outside doorways, and between the sari shops, there were stores full of shimmery bindis and bangles. It smelled like spices that I didn’t know. I love Georgetown because you can walk from China to India in under 10 minutes.
Most visa run people go to the reggae bar on Lebuh Chulia and this is where my new friend and I went and bought some overpriced stouts. The tables are communal so we talked with some guys from Canada and Russia. She called it an early night, but I stayed on and ended up walking the empty streets with my new Canadian acquaintance. We were both surprised at how little was going on, nightlife wise, at 11pm at night, but we were told it is low season. Our wandering took us outside a cocktail bar called Mish Mash. It was classy and ambient, but I saw that sangria cost around 30 ringit, so I convinced the Canadian to drink convenience store beers on the porch of the bar with me. We enjoyed the music and soft light from the bar, talked about life and death, and laughed about the bad looks we were given by paying and more-adult patrons. Even though Georgetown wasn’t raging, I enjoyed walking down the streets, with a sweating beer in hand, looking at the lights of the sleeping city.
The next day, I went with my visa run friend to get some Chinese breakfast. We walked through a large market, where we saw fish being slaughtered in the street and smelled fresh nectarines, ready to be eaten. I was very happy to find a taro bun and devoured it. More than anything, I wanted to keep eating all the glorious things around me and keep taking in the charm of Georgetown, but my visa run van was ready to roll.
It’s possible that I’ll have to do another visa run in the future and during the horrendous van ride to Phuket, I told myself hell no, I won’t go. But, when I look at my photos from Georgetown, I find myself back in the dream, thinking it wouldn’t be so bad.