A Travellerspoint blog

Visa Runnin'

Or, A Very Brief Stint in Malaysia

After 6 months in Thailand, it was time for me to embark on what is called a "visa run", where you leave the country for a day or two in order to renew your visa for living in Thailand. Having been extremely busy with my instructor course, instructor exam, and moving, I hadn't been paying attention to the expiry date of my current visa - I thought I had until October 9th, but to my horror on the morning of October 5th, I discovered I had to leave that very day. I also discovered that since it was Friday, and the embassies don't open until Monday, I would be spending quite a few nights away from my beloved Koh Tao and my new home with my best friends.

I booked the visa run to Penang, Malaysia, because of it's easy accessibility and cheap price - I say easy accessibility in a somewhat sarcastic manner, as it takes a boat and two busses to get there - and after all was said and done I boarded the night boat to begin my journey southwards.

The last time I took a night boat from Koh Tao, I was headed back to Pattaya to pick up the belongings I had left at my friend's apartment. Then, the boat had individual bunk beds, air conditioning, and a general sense of being well-kept. This was not the case this time around: each person was assigned a number, which corresponded to HALF a twin bed, and we were all packed into the wobbling, less secure feeling ship like sardines. Luckily for me, I can sleep anywhere, and was extremely exhausted from my first aid instructor course earlier that day, and I managed to drop off as the boat was leaving the harbour and awake at 5:30 am when we hit the next one. From there, I boarded a highly crowded, extremely uncomfortable mini bus that for some reason had hard knobs all over the tops of the seats, preventing any sort of head comfort, and the roads were so bumpy that I almost was knocked completely unconscious more than once whilst leaning my head against the window. Once we arrived in Hatyai, we boarded our final bus over the border to Penang.

The border was easy enough to get over, especially considering I had overstayed my visa. Luckily it was only by one day, so my fine was 500 baht (about 12 dollars Canadian), and I made sure I was extremely polite and was excused very quickly. Another fellow in there wasn't so lucky, however - he had overstayed by 30 days, and was inquiring about the possibility of a "discount" for staying so long ... the ignorance of some cultures truly does astound me.

I managed to sleep about 15 of my 20 hour journey South, which was extremely lucky, as my iPod has recently broken and they tend to turn off the lights on night boats and busses, impeding my reading. I arrived in Penang and was brought to my hotel, which, run-down as it appeared, soon transpired to be quite a pleasant place. It was full of animals - cats, turtles, fish - and extremely friendly Malaysian employees. My bed was easily the most comfortable one I'd ever encountered in a hostel, and the room had air conditioning, which I actually had to turn off, being too cold. I was silly enough to not think that power converters would be different in Malaysia than in Thailand, and therefore I had no way to charge my computer, but the lovely man who owned the hotel lent me one for the duration of my stay, and the wonderful Indian hippie across the road, Jim, lent me a portable Internet stick so that I could entertain myself while the rain poured down outside.

Penang is famous for it's massive, very current shopping mall, and I padded there, barefoot, on my first full day in Penang. I attracted many stares, but as I am accustomed to no longer wearing shoes, I didn't think anything of it. I even had people offer me the shoes off their feet. The fact that someone will offer a complete stranger a pair of their own shoes really restores my faith in the human race. The mall was massive and freezing cold, and full of everything I could ever want, but I hate shopping, and didn't feel like spending money anyway, so I took a cursory look around and settled down at Starbucks for a green tea (a rarity on Koh Tao) and a banana chocolate chip muffin before making my way back home. It took me a while to figure out the conversion rates between Malaysian Ringgits (not Ribbits, as I kept hearing), Thai Baht, and Canadian Dollars, but it turns out one Ringgit is 10 baht, so that made things a little easier when trying to figure out my spending.

I left Koh Tao two days ago, and I head back tomorrow, and I am thoroughly looking forward to stepping off the boat onto my familiar island again. Having just become a scuba instructor, it's time for me to look for work, doing a job I love so very much. I count myself extremely lucky to live where I do, and how I do. Until I leave tomorrow, however, I'll be enjoying the company of the wonderful people of Malaysia, and am now in pursuit of the apparently awesome Indian food Penang has to offer - very vegetarian friendly!

Posted by bgriffs 03:53 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Underwater Antics

60 dives into my scuba diving education, I have learned so much about the ocean and seen so many memorable things. The underwater world is something so unlike anything I have ever experienced, and with each descent my love of diving becomes stronger.

It’s hard to describe exactly how it feels to swim alongside purple and orange striped Angelfish, or to find yourself in the middle of a school of Yellow-Tail Barracuda as they split off in a graceful arc around you. The feeling you get when you are 20 meters deep and you look up, and all you see are thousands of fish silhouetted against the sunlight streaming through the first few meters of water is a strange lightness in your heart unequivocal to many other things. When you see your first giant turtle gliding gracefully amongst the coral, or a pair of moray eels stick their bulgy-eyed heads out from their rocky homes, you really start to appreciate how lucky you are to be where you are at that exact moment. So little of the world’s population has gone scuba diving – less than 1% of people on this earth have been so lucky – and it really makes you feel privileged to be down there, many meters below the surface, witnessing a whole new level of life.

Everything goes a different way when you venture below the surface at night, pitch-black water and only a flashlight in your hand to light the way. Giant barracudas hunt smaller fish with precision and cunning; small octopus lurk in the sand; many fish that remain dormant during the day are suddenly active and exciting; blue-spotted stingrays, which lie dormant under rocks during the day, are out swimming and hunting; and above all, the complete silence of the night dive envelopes you to the point where you find yourself barely breathing.

I spend a lot of time underwater fighting off the tiny Cleaner Wrasse, a small, blue and black-striped fish with a sixth sense for abrasions. Cleaner Wrasse are easily the most annoying thing in the ocean: they suddenly hone in on any cut or scrape on your body with the intent on cleaning it, but generally just end up irritating you as they poke at you in already sore areas. They are quite intent on their job and difficult to dissuade, no matter how many times you brush them away.

Another aquatic annoyance is the Titan Triggerfish, an extremely large, colorful fish that is extremely territorial and will fight to defend its eggs at the slightest provocation. Triggerfish are extremely smart, and like dolphins, they learn from experience. They have been known to take bites out of fins, dent air tanks, and if they hit you in the head hard enough, they can knock you out. Another DMT was hit in the head by an oncoming triggerfish and he said the pain was akin to getting a baseball in the head. Unfortunately, as a DMT assisting on courses or fun dives, it is my responsibility to put myself between these aquatic nuisances and customers. I have yet to be “triggered”, as it’s called, and I am hoping to avoid it for as long as possible, but luckily I do know how to deal with it if it does happen.

We have had a new kind of excitement lately here on Koh Tao – Bull Sharks have been spotted at two different dive sites frequently over the past few days. It has been ages since they have been seen, and their return coincides with the event my dive school, Big Blue, is putting on to raise money and awareness for shark conservation – Swim for Sharks. We are all swimming 3.4 km around the neighbouring island of Koh Nang Yuan, raising money to help a charity that is purchasing sharks from their captive homes in Pattaya and Bangkok and releasing them with radio equipment into the waters around Koh Tao. It is highly important that these sharks are returned to their natural homes and that their health and movements can be monitored – unfortunately, sharks of all kinds are becoming extremely endangered, with the shark fin soup industry being the one to blame. It is estimated that every year, 100 million sharks are fished, have their fins cut off, and are thrown back into the water, where, unable to swim, they sink to the bottom and are eaten alive by other fish. The loss of sharks threatens the stability of already fragile aquatic ecosystems, and it needs to stop. There is a documentary by Canadian filmmaker Rob Stewart called Sharkwater which is absolutely fantastic, and I highly encourage everyone to educate themselves on the fight that sharks and environmentalists are going through.

As I do more and more dives, I really realize that this is something I want to do for the rest of my life – the oceans are so very important, and it is our duty as divers to protect them. Every minute spent underwater is a good minute – who knows how long all those beautiful fish and coral will be there for?

Posted by bgriffs 16:50 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

Koh Tao

“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”

Koh Tao is a tiny island in the south of Thailand that is exactly what you think of when you picture a vacation in this country: always hot, endless white sand beaches, turquoise water, gorgeous sunsets … basically, paradise. It is the kind of place that as soon as you take your first steps on the pier at Mae Haad, you are convinced you could stay forever.

I have been living on this paradise for about a month and a half by this point, and have been thoroughly absorbed into the main cultural aspect of the island: scuba diving. I arrived here having never been lower in the ocean than a snorkel would allow; now, I am a certified SSI Open Water and Advanced Open Water Diver, a PADI Rescue Diver, and on my way to becoming a PADI Dive Master. The underwater world, a world which I have been privileged enough to become a part of, has provided me with some of the most amazing memories I’ve had in Thailand so far.

I admit that my first descent into the deep was not a graceful affair. As we started to release the air from our BCD’s (basically a fancy lifejacket that keeps our tanks strapped to our bodies) and descend down the buoy line, my brain suddenly woke up and went, “excuse me, what do you think you’re doing? You can’t breathe underwater! This is the worst idea you’ve ever had!” (Somewhat similar to its reaction to bungee jumping back in New Zealand). It took some convincing from my instructor to get me down the line, but, now that I have done over 50 dives, I know that I would have regretted it forever if I hadn’t gone through with it. I like to recount this story when I assist on Open Water courses as part of my Dive Master training, as new divers find it reassuring to have something to relate to.

The lifestyle that comes with being a scuba diver is one like I have never experienced: I now find it easy to wake up at 5:30 in the morning, ride my bicycle to the dive school, and prep a boat for it’s 6:50 am departure to the first dive site. I am constantly meeting and learning about people from all different parts of the world, all brought to Koh Tao by the shared interest in learning to dive. As DMT’s (Dive Masters in Training) we speak mainly about diving, how our last dive was, where we’re diving today, what we saw at 30 meters below sea level, and we find ourselves using the underwater sign language we use to communicate even on land.

Koh Tao is an island submersed in a dive culture, and the other main activity is socializing. The beaches are littered with bars, restaurants, and clubs that offer fancy cocktails, cold beers, or the deadly drink in a bucket; the Thai food is exceptional, and the attempts by many restaurants to produce Western style food is commendable. Koh Tao does not have one of the well-known Full Moon parties every month, but we always get a steady stream of people in on the days after, often arriving on the morning ferry from Koh Pagnan still covered in glow paint and wearing brightly colored clothing. Days off diving – not like it’s hard work to begin with – are often spent on the beach with a good book, doing errands, and generally enjoying yourself.

Living on an island is not without its drawbacks though; when I first moved out of the dive school’s accommodation, I was living in a little wooden bungalow in an area that could only be described as the jungle, complete with coconut trees. The bungalow was cute and I had been quite excited at the prospect of living in something so typically Thailand; this opinion quickly changed with the realization that I was not living in there alone. First came the geckos – in Chachoengsao and Pattaya I had been used to the tiny geckos that you would often find on walls or in corners, and they were cute and harmless, albeit very noisy. The geckos you encounter when living in the jungles of Koh Tao are a completely different story: they are almost the length of one my arms, and they move extremely fast. I would come home and turn on the lights, immediately hearing the scurrying of several lizard feet across the walls as they hid from the unwelcome brightness. Originally I had tried to eradicate them from my house, which often involved me chasing them around with a broom and yelling, then yelping in fright and jumping on the bed when they went near my feet. When it became clear that I would not be the victor in this battle, I reluctantly grew to accept the geckos, naming the two that hung around the most Bruce and Wayne, and thoroughly pleased that at least they were keeping the bungalow insect-free… until the night of the spiders.

It was a night like any other, where I would come home, cautiously creeping into the house as I had started to do, always mildly apprehensive of what I would find waiting for me there. (One of the instructors at the dive school had told me when he lived in a bungalow he stepped on a scorpion in his bedroom, and this did not help to ease my nerves). The first spider I saw was in the bathroom, I would say it was about the size of a two-dollar coin, plus a little extra for the legs. I shuddered to myself, not because I’m afraid of spiders, but because I was thoroughly convinced I would wake up with one on my face one of these days. I turned around as was met with an even more unwelcome sight: an even bigger spider, the size of one of my hands, on my wall. My sudden movement had startled it, and it was not running along the wall in the typical spider fashion, which is creepy as it is… it was jumping. I watched in stupefied horror, frozen on the spot, as the monster proceeded to jump around, as if asserting how terrifying it truly was, and then settled in behind the curtain rod, two of its horrible, spindly legs curling around it. I have no idea how long I stood there for, thoroughly confused of what I should do. I didn’t know enough about the wild spiders of Thailand to know if it was poisonous or not, and I sure as hell didn’t want to wake up with that thing anywhere near me, if I got any sleep at all. I ended up sleeping backwards on my bed so I could keep my eye on it, and left the lights on all night, a broom close at hand to use as a weapon if it decided to get closer, wishing I had something to bludgeon it to death with.

That spider terrorized me for a solid week before it met its completely accidental death. I had a mild victory when I actually managed to chase it out of the house, but obviously it was devious enough to find its way back in, for just when I thought I was rid of it, I discovered that it had been living under the lid of my toilet seat. I flushed the toilet and was met with the horrible sight of the monster struggling against the flow of the water, trying not to drown, hoping to live to terrorize another day. Upon witnessing this, I may have screamed and ran around in circles for a few minutes, praying to God, Buddha, and every other deity that the thing had gone down the drain. When I finally mustered up the courage to flush the toilet again to check, it was revealed that the spider was gone. Its reign of terror was over, and I was moving out of this little wooden hellhole as soon as possible.

Besides the issues with the bugs, my main problem has been the constant theft of my shoes – you are not allowed to wear shoes in bars, restaurants, or stores here, and as a result, many shoes get stolen by people who either are drunk or confusing them for their own pair. I have so far gotten 4 pairs stolen and refuse to buy anymore.

Koh Tao has been good to me - I lead a truly amazing life out here. Hours and hours on the boats and under the sea, constant sunshine, great friends, and a beautiful, clean, spider-free apartment... finally, Thailand is how it should be.

Posted by bgriffs 17:04 Archived in Thailand Comments (3)

Pattaya

“There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.”

After the situations in Chachoengsao, both personal and professional, grew to be too stressful, I was moved to Pattaya to continue my teaching career at a different school. Having been to Pattaya once before for my friend’s 21st birthday celebrations, I knew what I was going into – a city that is completely dependant on Thailand’s ever-growing sex trade, and that makes no attempts whatsoever to hide it. The city has a strong Russian influence due to an influx of Russian tourists that decide to make it their permanent home, so it is a mix of Thai, western and Russian cultures, and completely different than the place I had just left. Disregarding its history and main sources of tourism, I happily settled into my bright, sea-view apartment and awaited my first day at the new school. I convinced myself that this had been the right choice for me, and as I sat on my balcony watching a fabulous, colorful sunset, I told myself that I was exactly where I needed to be.

I stayed in Pattaya for two weeks, discovering, as I had in Chachoengsao, that some situations are simply outside of your control, and I was extremely sick of the stressful situations that I had constantly been met with since my arrival in Thailand. Teaching in Pattaya was no different than in Chachoengsao, except that I had to deal with a smart-ass of a student who not only criticized me about my choices in life but also about the way I taught my classes, how I didn’t seem old enough to be a teacher, and how I “seem like a typical American teenager” (I’m Canadian, thank you very much!) Considering my employer had told me that I was now teaching in the best school in Pattaya, when two 12 year olds were suspended for bringing knives to school, I realized that really wasn’t saying much.

I realize what I am about to say may come across as selfish, but I know it to be true: I am at an age where I should be putting my own happiness above the happiness of others; I feel that I have made many decisions in the past in order to make others happy, but this time, the decision to leave Pattaya had one ultimate motive: I needed to make myself happy. 21 years old, living in Thailand, a world of possibilities waiting for me, and the highlight of many of my days was going to the gym…clearly, it was time to re-evaluate my life and make a change. And that’s exactly what I did – I threw some clothes and essentials (for me, first aid supplies) into a backpack, and two busses, 1 ferry ride, and 14 hours later, I took my first steps on the island of Koh Tao, and everything changed.

Posted by bgriffs 00:34 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Accidents

On Saturday, May 5th, 2012, four friends and myself were leaving a restaurant where we had just enjoyed a Thai dinner; the rain had been falling that day, and the roads were slick. The three of us girls were on one motor bike, following the two boys home, driving the familiar roads as we had done countless times before. Suddenly, the boys slammed on their brake lights and swerved the avoid a silver mini van that had failed to signal before turning left and completely cutting them off. Luckily the boys managed to just clip the back of the van and get around it - us three girls, however, were not so lucky. The conditions of the roads meant our hasty brake would not be enough, and we slammed into the side of the mini van at almost full speed.

We found ourselves on the road, nearly underneath the van, with the bike trapping all of our legs. Glass had rained down on us - from the headlight of the bike being smashed as it collided with either the ground or the van, I can't be sure - and we all lay in a dazed, painful heap, asking each other if everyone was okay over and over again. We felt arms lifting the bike from our legs and other arms grabbing our arms to hoist us off the side of the road. I found myself with only one shoe, shaking, bleeding, and terrified that the other girls would be seriously hurt. Charlie, who was driving, seemed completely fine except for her shoulder and arm, which she said was particularly sore, and Sophie, who was in the back, was unharmed except for a slight pain in her arm as well. I had been in the middle, and from what we could gather from any one who saw the accident (it happened right beside a roadside restaurant, of course), I was thrown clear over Charlie face first into the pavement. The left side of my face was bleeding from the eyebrow, nose, and cheek; my shoulder bore a large graze that was leaking blood down my arm, and my foot was quickly swelling to a size that no normal foot should be. We were all led to seats and immediately had our friends helping to clean our cuts with clean, bottled water, and put ice where we were swelling.

Not 5 minutes after the accident had happened, friends of ours, who were a famous local band, were at the scene, calling the police, dealing with the driver, and helping us with our injuries. I had only been in Thailand for 3 weeks, and these people, who barely knew me at all, offered support that one would only expect from their closest friends or relatives. The realization that I had found something close to a family in a place so far from home, combined with the shock that was setting in, soon had me bawling my eyes out while I shook in my chair and iced my massive foot.

The result of this was that when we finally arrived at the police station, and I saw myself in the mirror for the first time since the accident, I was completely horrified at the sight of my face. Make-up rimmed my eyes and mascara was streaked down my cheeks; my forehead was still bleeding and my eye was swelling up around one of the cuts. I finally managed to clean my face enough for it to be moderately presentable, and joined my friends for a long, drawn-out ordeal at the Chachoengsao police station.

The aftermath of the accident had Charlie in the hospital - what she originally thought was just a "dead arm" (sort of a charley-horse feeling in your arm) turned out to be a dislocated and fractured shoulder. The doctors put her in a cast and told her they were going to take out her shoulder and put in a new, metal one using three different surgeries; she still doesn't think this is necessary (and we all agree). I had sprained my foot and just scraped the rest of myself up, or so I thought -three days after the accident I realized that my left shoulder was a good few inches lower and more sloped than the right, and 2 frustrating, language-barrier laden hospital visits I found out that my shoulder had separated from my clavicle and was confined to a sling for 2 weeks. Sophie was unharmed except for a bruise on her inner arm, and the mental trauma of having been in Chachoengsao for 2 days before we almost killed her on a motorbike.

We all know we could have been way worse off - the fact that no one wears helmets on motor bikes here is alone proof of that. We were extremely lucky! And that's all there is to say about my first (and hopefully only) motor bike accident in Thailand.

Posted by bgriffs 10:14 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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