Traveling from Koh Tao to Penang

I want to preface this by letting all of you in on a little secret: if you are traveling abroad, especially in the third world, you will get scammed. Sometimes it will be in small ways and sometimes it will be in bigger ways, but the fact of the matter is that it will happen to you. It’s an extremely violating feeling, especially when it is so obvious. It is easy to feel indignant, like a giant injustice has been done to you. How could you cheat me like this!? After I came into your country speaking only English with my wallet full of money?!

It sucks. I know. But I think we should consider a better way to think about getting scammed abroad.

I think the easiest way to avoid being scammed is to do your research. If you know roughly what the taxi fare is supposed to be between the city and the airport, you can insist on a fair price. If you know you should only pay 200 baht for a Thai massage, you can skip the stalls that are advertising them for 300 baht. And if you know there’s no such thing as a Malaysia border fee, well, you’d be smarter than me.

Okay, but here’s the thing though. It’s impossible to research every possible thing every single time. It’s exhausting! We travel to experience new cultures and new things, right!? Not to spend all day reading online forums and worrying about the multitude of ways that things could go wrong. Sometimes you just have to learn through your mistakes. And sometimes, the moments when things go wrong end up making the best stories later on.

My journey from Koh Tao, Thailand to Penang, Malaysia started at 8:20pm on a Thursday with a frantic farewell. Seems to be my modus operandi. Sitting at Su Chili in Sairee Beach (try the red curry peanut sauce, it’s amazing!), I scarf down my dinner, quickly wave goodbye to my new travel buddies, and have a typical Stephanie-style run/walk back to my hostel. I’m already sweating. 

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Mix it all together and pour the sauce on top! 

Quickly grabbing my stuff, I get on the back of the hostel owner’s scooter and he zips me down to Mr. J Bungalow, where I need to pick up my ticket (you can read elsewhere on the Internet about Mr. J, a unique Koh Tao character who sells homemade condoms with a 20-year guarantee). He hands me my ticket to Penang, quickly spouting off travel instructions that go in one of my ears and immediately leak out the other, and tells me to hurry, hurry, the ferry leaves in 10 minutes! Crap, I should’ve paid more attention to what he just said.

Fortunately for me, I make it down to the pier and get on the night ferry. Oh my gosh, what a surprisingly pleasant experience! The bottom of the boat has been converted into a traveler slumber party, with two long rows of tiny mattresses and fuzzy blankets with tigers on them! I fall asleep almost immediately, enjoying being rocked to sleep by the boat. I just hope I don’t roll over on top of either of the people next to me… I’m kind of used to taking up 98% of the bed.

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A friendly traveler slumber party!

The lights in the cabin all come on at 4:21am, letting us know that we’ve reached Surat Thani on the mainland. Can’t we sleep here for just a few more hours? Everyone files off the ferry into immediate chaos, with a bunch of Thai people asking, “Where you going?” and dividing us into groups. I start immediately regretting not paying more attention to Mr. J, since I don’t even reeeeally know what the next leg of my trip is supposed to be. All I know is I paid 1200 baht for a ticket from Koh Tao to Penang, theoretically. And now here I am, needing to take it on blind faith that these people are going to send me in the right direction.

They usher a group of us into the back of a pickup truck and drive us around the corner to a small office with a bunch of plastic chairs arranged in a semi-circle outside. I talk to these two German girls for a while, asking and answering all the typical questions. Where are you headed? Where did you come from? How long are you traveling for? They call us in group by group. When it’s my turn, I step inside the small air-conditioned office and I’m greeted by an overweight Thai woman, dressed in a yellow pajama set. She gets right down to business.

“You need pay 2000 baht”, she says. “For Malaysia border crossing.” I’ve never heard of anything like this, but she goes on to explain that she collects the money, gives it to the bus driver (which I actually did see her do later), and he presents it to border control when we get there. It’s 5am, I’m alone in a not-the-safest third world country, and I’m not feeling very brave about creating a conflict. Plus her explanation sounds reasonable. Ish.

But crap! I don’t have even close to 2000 baht on me. I spent most of my baht beforehand, thinking that I’d be in Malaysia the following day anyway and wouldn’t need any baht there. I tell this to the lady, and she gives me very precise directions to the nearest ATM.

“That way,” she says, waving her hand in some vague direction. “Five minute walking.” So I ‘five minute walking’ in the direction she’s pointed, channeling the expanding search pattern I just learned in my Rescue Dive course. Eventually I come across an open-air market just starting to groggily open its eyes, the freshly-caught fish still flopping around in plastic trays. I locate a 7-Eleven, and thank goodness, there’s an ATM right outside. I take out just enough baht to cover the rest of the requested sum, grumbling to myself as I again pay the 200 baht ATM fee. I hurry back as fast as I can to the tiny shop, round the corner, aaaaand everyone else has left. Ummmm.

I walk back inside the shop and present my newly-acquired funds to the yellow pajama lady. She takes the money, my passport, and my golden ticket from Mr. J (note to future self: do NOT let go of the only proof of ticket purchase you have!), and then hands me back my passport and an indecipherable yellow transfer slip. She tells me about her sister who lives in North Carolina. She tells me how clever she thinks Americans are. Are you mocking me!? She then directs me outside to a nondescript van with a middle-aged male driver. Again, he literally just drives me around the corner (I have two legs, you know), drops me off on a curb with all my stuff, and says, “You wait 5 minute. Bus come 5 minute.”

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What does it even mean!?

I sit, alone in the dark on an empty road, wondering where the hell the rest of the travelers are and why I’m not in that place too. Five minutes pass, and a bus pulls up and slows down. Two small honks. I’m unsure what to do. Two more bigger honks. Alright, alright, I’m coming. I step onto the bus, showing the woman my chicken scratch yellow transfer slip, and say hesitantly, “To Penang?” Barely glancing at my slip, the woman says, “Yes, yes” (whatever lady, just pay the fare) and ushers me onto the bus. I sit at the back of a dark bus full of Thai people, clutching my bag and wondering where the hell this bus is taking me. Ten minutes later, we pass a bus station, and I wonder to myself if I was supposed to get off there, and transfer to whatever actual bus I was supposed to be taking. That seems somewhat reasonable, plus I still have no idea where I’m going, and I’ve begun to suspect I got on the wrong bus. No shit, Sherlock.

I get off the bus, wander around the bus station, don’t see any other travelers, and start to worry a bit. What do I do now!? I notice we’ve passed a Lomprayah office, and head over to try to ask a question. I have about 52, but figure I shouldn’t overwhelm them right away. Sidenote: I have nothing but good things to say about Lomprayah. They are an organized and well-run travel company, labeling people with tiny stickers so they know where each person is headed. Am I an object? They also have excellent WiFi, which I’m grateful for at the moment. The bad news is that their office doesn’t open until 7am. It’s currently 5:52. I sit down on the concrete outside a chain-link fence and make phone calls to people I love on my amazing Republic Wireless phone. This calms me down a lot. Technology FTW.

At 7am, a lady walks up to unlock the chain-link fence. By the look on her face, I imagine it isn’t often that she gets to work and finds a confused westerner sitting on her pavement. She immediately comes to my rescue, repeatedly phoning Mr. J and the travel office across town to figure out where in the world I’m supposed to be. And to be clear, I wasn’t even traveling with Lomprayah! Thank goodness for kind people. Seriously. She tells me to sit in the waiting area and that someone will come pick me up. Don’t know who will come and pick me up, but I guess that anyone is better than no one given my current predicament.

After well over half an hour of sitting in an uncomfortable white plastic chair, I start considering the very real possibility that no one is ever going to come pick me up. But wait! There he is! The same man who left me to die on that desolate curb pulls back up in his minivan and walks over to me, shaking his head and laughing. There’s laughter in his eyes though too, so I think it’s good-natured. We have a conversation in broken English about how I wasn’t supposed to get on THAT bus (well why didn’t you say so in the first place!?) and he drives me back to that same godforsaken office. Oh yellow pajama lady, how I’ve missed you. After telling me all the things I’ve done wrong, she makes 47 phone calls, speaking loudly in Thai and grunting a lot, and then tells me she’s arranged for me to be on the next minibus. She also tells me she’s not letting me out of her sight, so I don’t mention to her that I’m starving and would kill for some breakfast. We sit in oddly companionable silence for a bit, and then she starts talking.

“My sister in USA 10 years,” she says. I tell her that’s a long time. “She study medicine. I alway help her with the money so she can study.” I make a mental note to try to be that generous with my own sisters. She goes on, “You know, my sister lady in her body, but she man in her heart. You understand me?” I tell her I do. “It okay,” she says, “I love her same.”

After that, she pulls out several postcards that her sister has sent her from North Carolina, written in beautiful Thai script. She tells me she misses her. She sees me writing in my journal, and pulls out a whole stack of her own, flipping through the pages and showing me her innermost thoughts (not that I can understand them anyway).

Thinking back on this whole situation, it’s a bit baffling. First she scams me, then she tells me I’m clever. She scolds me for getting on the wrong bus, then she confides in me. She tricks me, but then she takes care of me and makes sure I get safely on my way. After almost two weeks spent in extremely exploited, overly touristy Thai islands, full of western children playing games in a foreign playground (oh my gosh, are you going to the Full Moon Party!?), this might be the most meaningful interaction I’ve had with a Thai local.

Ten hours and two harrowing minibus rides later (Mr. Bus Driver, are you on drugs? Or are you just 70 and don’t see well at night anymore?), I finally make it to Penang, safe and sound. I treat myself to an overpriced and crappy pizza, the first real meal I’ve had in over 24 hours. It may be the best thing I’ve ever eaten.

So what I’ve been thinking about is this: you will get scammed while traveling. It’s going to happen. But maybe instead of feeling violated and angry, we should just consider it part of the cost of traveling. After all, we are the ones who show up and don’t speak one word of the local language. We’re the ones who expect everything to go according to plan, even when our plans are hazy at best. But maybe in those moments when the plan breaks down, we learn something about ourselves or the people whose country we’re visiting. Maybe if we look for it, there is always a bright side. Maybe these moments are actually the real travel.

Have you been scammed while traveling? Can you find the positive in your experience? Tell me about it in the Comments section below.

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6 respuestas a Traveling from Koh Tao to Penang

  1. Granny dijo:

    Stephanie, You are an amazing woman! We are happy that you are able to see the positive in all your travels. You are in our prayers always. Love, love, love – XXX OOO.

  2. mholkesvik dijo:

    Whenever I get third world scammed (nothing as bad as your ordeal) I try to mentally frame it as charity. Granted, it’s charity that creates an incentive to scam more tourists in the future. Granted, it’s charity that unfairly rewards those that are willing to be bad actors. But still, there is wealth transfer from the worlds 1% (>30k a year) to the worlds 99%. Even if it’s not https://www.givedirectly.org/, it’s not a pure Bad Event.

    Emotionally, the worst part of getting ripped off is that it shatters your illusions of friendship and bonding. The cynic in me says “oh course there was no hope for a real relationship when there is such a strong power dynamic between have and have-not”, but your experience seems to speak to the ability to get ripped off AND have an authentic interaction of shared human experience.

    • Mike! Thanks for reading and writing such a thoughtful comment! I like the idea that we can CHOOSE how to react to and interpret these moments when we get scammed abroad. Your second paragraph makes my heart smile… “your experience seems to speak to the ability to get ripped off AND have an authentic interaction of shared human experience.” WOW. You’ve conveyed so eloquently exactly what I was thinking! Thank you, friend!

  3. Nathan Vass dijo:

    I find this post extremely moving, in part because I know you and can imagine you in these situations, and in part because I can think of myself having been in similar situations and identify with the level of confusion and stress and emotions you are describing. I’m extremely happy you made it to Penang! Yes, what a sea of contradictions yellow pajama lady is! Of course I want to hug you, thinking of being on the wrong bus or waiting forever in strange places and knowing exactly what that feels like!!! I’m inspired by your take on the whole situation.

    • Nathannnn! Thank you for your virtual hug and for understanding the sea of emotions associated with these crazy travel moments! I think anyone who has traveled has a similar story, or perhaps dozens of them!! I met a really fascinating travel writer, photographer, and videographer (google Travel Tall to learn about him and his story!) who crossed Mozambique by land only to be told at the opposite border that his passport had been incorrectly stamped (on purpose!) and that he had to pay a hefty fine to leave the country.

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