“Are we in Thailand yet?” pipes up Hayley for the twelfth time in the two hours since we left Penang.
“Almost. We’re 2km away. We’ll be there in just a few minutes”
“Yay! Thailand Thailand Thailand!! We’re going to see Bubba Cole. YAY!”
Just as Hayley’s chants hit fever peak at the thought of seeing our friends, Drew and Christine’s baby in Koh Samui in a few days we hit a traffic jam. Not just a small traffic jam – a 2km gridlock of cars, trucks and bikes stretching all the way to the Thai border. This can’t be good … We are on our way to Bangkok to see my mother who’ll be in Thailand for a few days on a stopover. We’re driving from Malaysia to Bangkok via Phuket for two nights then Koh Samui for a week to meet up with our friends the Gilberts. A traffic jam before the border wasn’t part of the plan.
Of course our trip problems hadn’t started here.
Three days before leaving we realised that we were spending 18 days in Thailand. When you enter Thailand by land you are only issued a 15 day visa. We knew this … we just hadn’t done the maths and realized how long we were planning on being in Thailand. Crap! Us not plan a trip properly? Inconceivable! The only solution was a last minute visit to the Thai Embassy in Penang to obtain a 60 day visa. Considering we had two business days to organise the visa, we were in enough of a panic that I actually researched what we needed for the application before heading to the embassy.
What no online resource had mentioned was as well as two passport photos, an application form, our passports and 110 ringgits per person I also needed a photocopy of everyone’s passports.
Not the news I wanted after running through the rain to get there and waiting 30 minutes in line. Just before extreme panic set in as I imagined telling my mum sorry we weren’t going to make it to Bangkok, the Embassy official pointed outside.
“Go see the Chinese guy. He has photocopier. Then come back”
Fantastic! I head outside to the first building assuming a photocopier would be inside. Nope, that building was just a guardhouse. I started peering through the rain for another building sturdy enough to house a photocopier when I noticed a Chinese guy with an umbrella standing in a two inch deep puddle in the car park. Sure enough this was my photocopier man. In true Asian ingenuity he had a mobile photocopier rigged up in his truck charging 2 ringgits a copy or 5 ringgits for a family. I handed over the passports and headed back to the embassy to wait for my photocopies.
It was only then that I realised I had just handed all our passports over to a complete stranger in a carpark and spent the next five minutes anxiously assuring myself that it couldn’t be a scam if the immigration official sent me to the guy, could it?
Two minutes later he came back with passports and photocopies in hand. Phew. I hadn’t been looking to explaining to Colin how I’d lost our passports in a clever scam without even thinking. I lined back up and handed over the forms, money and passports with instructions to come back after 3.30pm the same day. I came back at 3.30pm, picked up our passports with their shiny full page visa and we started packing our bags.
Are we in Thailand yet?
Sunday morning rolled around. We packed up the car and hit the road for Thailand. The drive from Penang to Thailand is simple – cross the bridge to the mainland and stay on the main northbound highway until you get to the border at Bukit Kayu Hitam. The drive takes two hours. Our aim for today was to reach Hat Yai in Thailand where we’d see how the kids were doing. If they were still happy to be in the car we’d head to Phuket. Otherwise we’d stop for the night in a nearby beach town. What we hadn’t counted on was the traffic at the border crossing. Last time we were there on a weekend it took us 30 minutes to cross. This time we had a two-lane 2km traffic jam before we even got to the border. Unfortunately for us this week marked the start of school holidays, the end of Ramadan and Hungry Ghost month, and Merdeka. Friends had assured us that the road heading north wouldn’t be too bad. I guess they were wrong. It looked like half of Malaysia was all heading to Thailand on holidays at the same time as us.
Are we even moving?
Thirty minutes later after moving only 10m it became quite apparent that it was going to take a long LONG time to get to Thailand. The kids were still relaxed in the back, watching a movie on the iPad but in the front it was a whole other story. As we sat there idling in the outside lane of the two-lane road, car after car kept sneaking past down the edge of the road. After a while cars in front of us started pulling out into the imaginary land as well.
Perhaps the road branched into three lanes somewhere ahead and these drivers just knew something we didn’t?
But as we inched closer and closer to the border over the next hour we realised no. While we were sitting in the traffic jam for the last 90 minutes, hundreds of cars were sneaking up the side and forcing themselves back in further ahead making us wait longer. Colin started to fume. After months of driving in Malaysia, we’ve come to realize that while Malaysians are a very polite, respectful and patient people, a large portion of the population suddenly do a Jekyl and Hyde morph the instant they step behind a wheel. It’s every man for himself on the roads. Sitting there in line with the knowledge that we still had hours left to drive as people sneaked past us was just too much for Colin. He started to develop a plan.
Initially the plan involved simply preventing any offending car from merging back in. He felt it was his good deed for the day – defending all the other drivers who had been doing the right thing and waiting patiently. As the minutes ticked and we still weren’t moving as cars continued to sneak by the plan evolved. Public education on a larger scale was clearly needed Colin decided. He began trying to block the passage of all the offending vehicles by sitting as far to the left as he could, or at least making them drive through as much mud as he could. Petty yes. Did it make a difference? No. The cars kept coming … and going on past.
When Hayley needed to pee and it was obvious we were still an hour from the border, he took great delight in moving onto the side of the road and stopping while she did her business so he could actually block the sneaking cars for at least a few minutes.
By the time we reached the border and another lane of people trying to sneak in developed on the right, with cars trying to force their way in until literally the very last second when we were physically at the checkpoint, Colin as prepared to put the car on the line. “Screw the cost and the fact we didn’t have comprehensive insurance! These guys need to learn”
(Apparently its perfectly fine for Colin to scratch the car up if it teaches others a lesson but not fine for me to back into things. Where’s the justice in that?) Thankfully we made it through the Malaysian checkpoint without any dents to the car and experienced two seconds of triumph before hitting the traffic jam on the other side.
Yay we’re in Thailand … almost
We reached the Thailand border checkpoint at 3pm. We’d left Penang at 10am, got to 2km from the border at 12pm and taken 3 hours to go two kilometers. Looking at the huge lines of people we realised it would be another two hours at least before we got through. We parked the car and started to cue. Colin took Noah to line up at customs to get permission to take our vehicle into Thailand, while Hayley and I grabbed the passports and lined up at Immigration. We inched our way forward, playing any game we could think of to keep the kids happy and ourselves sane. Finally only two people were left in front of us.
Suddenly a guy in a raincoat suddenly appeared trying to edge his way in. I gave him my best evil eye. He inched closer and beckoned his wife over. Clearly my evil eye needs work. I didn’t want to cause a scene – this is Asia and people here aren’t confrontational. But I wasn’t going to let him in. So I just refused to make any more eye contact and repeatedly blocked him as if he didn’t exist. He moved next to the person in front of me and started trying to pass his forms across the desk before the other people in the line told him where to go. I guess 5 hours cuing at the border is enough to frustrate even non-confrontational Malaysians!
Finally our passports were stamped. We headed back to Colin in the vehicle customs line where not surprisingly another guy was trying to sneak in front of him. After the whole driving fiasco, Colin was prepared to be a little more confrontational.
“Excuse me, what do you think you are doing.”
“I don’t understand English”
“There is a line. Why are you here?”
“I don’t understand English”
“I don’t understand what you are doing. There is the line”
As I said, even the normally impeccably polite Malaysians in the cue by this point had had enough and started to back Colin up. The guy headed to the end of the line and we reached customs at 5pm.
“There is a problem with your car. Last time you entered Thailand you didn’t hand back in your customs form”
What? We couldn’t come all this way and be turned back now could we? We’d done a border run a few weeks ago in the car and no one had asked us to hand in our customs form back in. We hadn’t even realised we needed to. After five minutes of playing dumb they handed us our new form with explicit instructions never to do it again or we wouldn’t be allowed in. Racing back to the car we started to drive off when suddenly the customs guys came running after us … what now?
“How long are you in Thailand? The form … it’s only until September 3rd. We forgot to ask you how long you needed”
How amazing was this? After a full day a setbacks and rudeness, the customs staff who had been processing thousands and thousands of forms all day realised their mistake and sought us out. They helped Colin fix the mistake, ushered him back through customs and finally we were on our way. At 6pm, 8 hours after leaving Penang we reached Hat Yai in Thailand. Clearly after such a day we weren’t going any further. The new plan was to find the first decent hotel and if the price was less than 2000 baht ($60) we’d just take it.
The first hotel we checked out was four star had one room left.
“How much for a room?”
“1200 baht including a full buffet breakfast. Do you want to see the room?”
“No we’ll take it!”