Back in February, it was one of those special times of the year when Thailand oh-so-lovingly tells us to pay up or get out; oh wait, it’s get out AND pay up. Yes, it was time once again for a visa run.
Usually, our visa runs consist of a nearly 12-hour sleepless van ride to Laos in a speeding vehicle during the dead of night, groggily standing in line at the border until 6 a.m., then being herded to the embassy at 8 a.m. before finally being able to collapse into a bed at our hotel around 11 a.m. the next day. Not fun.
However, my doctor had recently given me the go-ahead to fly short distances. We’d never been to Penang, although it is only an hour and half away by plane, and it’s always being touted as “One of Those Places to Visit Before You Kick the Bucket.” George Town, the capital, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Plus, it is widely considered a Foodie Capital of the World. This last fact, of course, settled it. To Penang we would go!
I was 14 weeks pregnant, officially in my second trimester and the nausea was finally abating. Most pregnancy guides say the second trimester is the perfect time to take a “babymoon” and indeed, I was feeling fine. In fact, I was almost giddy on the flight over, so excited was I.
The visa process couldn’t have been any easier: We dropped off our passports at an agency owned by a man that looked like an older, rougher version of Crocodile Dundee (Big Jim’s in George Town, for those who want to know), paid the fee (about $20) and then picked our passports up, visas included, 2 days later. That was it. The only downside? Only single-entry visas are available.
Although not a very large island, Penang is a diverse mix of cultures, religions, modern vs historic, rural vs. urban. Hindu temples sit near Muslim ones which are near Christian churches. Along Gurney Drive, Penang resembled Honolulu, Hawaii to me, with its high rises and shopping areas, while the area around the Botanical Garden is decidedly rural. The north end of the island is dotted with beach towns. Most people speak English like a dream, which, after being in Bangkok, never ceased to surprise me.
George Town could not have been more charming. It looked, in the words of my husband, like “something out of a Bruce Lee movie.” The old buildings are mostly short, with all these wonderful shutters. The streets are narrow, with raised sidewalks over canals. Everything feels historic and full of character.
And the food! The smells alone could have justified the food reputation. As soon as we landed, Bjorn and I had roti canai and chapati, each of which came with 3 sauces. Although the chapati was good, the roti stole the show. Freshly made, it was warm, full of light and surprisingly delicate, yet chewy layers. At night, hawker stalls of all types crowded the streets of George Town.
Our first night in Penang, a Wednesday, we stuffed ourselves with Char Koay Teow, Mee Goreng, samosas and more roti canai. Thursday was spent trying delights in Little India, an Asian food buffet, sweet siao paos and pizza. (Bjorn is a sucker for Pizza Hut, what can I say.)
And it all caught up to me. Now, the nausea had gone, but I hadn’t realized indigestion would move in to take its place. I thought I had been careful; though eating frequently, it had been in small amounts and we had always asked that it be made vegetarian. I was drinking a lot of water and juice. But on Friday, I found myself huddled in a ball on the bed, unable to eat or do anything except suffer through the roilings of my stomach.
By Saturday morning, I felt much better, but after a bout with a plate of nachos (we had to, we just HAD to eat it; although in retrospect I see how this was an unwise decision), I was down for the count. Sunday morning I was still suffering from low levels of indigestion and flew home in discomfort.
1.)”Babymoons” are not for me. There are too many uncontrollable variables in travel while pregnant, and being far from home when one strikes is, to put it delicately, “sucky.” I’m hoping that I won’t have to travel again while pregnant.
2.) It’s harder to control your diet when in a foreign country; our hotel didn’t have kitchen facilities so we couldn’t prepare our own food.
3.) It’s waaaaay easier to get a visa in Penang. So while the trip did have some bumps, it pays to be adventurous and try new things.
Just not while I’m pregnant.