Penniless in Penang

by Ian Reed

Normally I just relax and enjoy myself here on the farm in Thailand, but the one thing that I cannot escape from even here, is government bureaucracy and I realized that my last Thai visa was almost due to finish. So I had to start preparing for another trip to Penang to obtain my next visa. It was the beginning of a new month and my monthly pension was not due in my bank for another few days, but I calculated that I had enough money to buy a train ticket from Bangkok to Butterworth, Malaysia and also still have enough left over to pay for my hotel for one night, my visa and a little left over to eat and have a few beers the first evening. My pension would be paid into my bank as usual the next day, so I could use any of the ATM machines in Penang to access my pension there the following day. That was the plan!

On the day before my visa expired, at 14:45 I boarded the train to Butterworth at Hualumpong railway station in Bangkok and settled down with a good book for the long journey ahead. The train journey to Butterworth usually takes about 21 hours and I was in a sleeping carriage. Because of my amputated left leg, I had booked a lower berth in the carriage, because it would be virtually impossible for me to climb up into an upper berth. I had brought a few beers along with me in a cool bag, because this was a lot cheaper than buying beers on the train, a saving of about 75%. The next morning after a good night's sleep, at around 09:00 local time Malaysia, we reached Padang Besar, which is the border station where everyone has to disembark and go through the usual immigration procedures. Entering Malaysia is much easier than entering Thailand, I have a British passport and I get an automatic 3 month visa on arrival in Malaysia. After the immigration procedures everyone boarded the train again and we set off for Butterworth. I am not sure why, but the train had to keep stopping, probably for other rail traffic on the line, so we were very late arriving in Butterworth.

I have been to Penang many times before, but only twice before with my amputated leg. From the railway station it is about a 400 metre walk to the ferry and most of it is an upward incline. Even though my suitcase has wheels, with my false leg this gets very tiresome and painful as my leg rubs against the prosthesis, but I get to the ferry with just two stops to rest my leg and then we cross to Penang Island. At the Penang ferry terminal, it is the opposite when disembarking, it is a long downward incline and this is just as difficult for me, because the foot on my prosthesis does not pivot like a normal foot and ankle does, so it is quite hard work for me and my leg was beginning to chafe. Eventually I did reach the road and got into a taxi, I explained to the driver that I wanted to go to Chulia Street where I usually stay in a hotel and also explained to him that I had not changed my money into Malaysian Ringgit yet, so if he could stop just by an exchange counter near the hotel, then I could pay him no problem. This we did and I was left with one hundred and eighty Ringgit when I entered the hotel.

I got a hotel room for 20 Ringgit and then arranged for my Thai visa with the hotel and they charge 120 Ringgit for this. So now my funds were down to 40 Ringgit and my pension does not go into my bank account until the next day. It was now quite late 17:30, so I just wandered up the road in Chulia Street and headed for my favourite night time spot there, The Blue Diamond Hotel. I like the Blue Diamond because, they have an open air Caf Bar at the front of the building and have live music with a few musicians jamming in the evenings. As I walk in there one of the resident musicians, "Leg" calls to me by shouting "Hi Legless", this is my nickname here now due to my first book entitled "Legless in Thailand" It had been a few months since the last time I was here, so Leg came over and asked me how I was doing, I told him that I was working on my second book now and also told him about my new accommodation on the farm. He ordered a couple of beers for us and then went to start his evening's entertainment. They have a good Mexican food counter here, so I ordered some beef nachos and just relaxed by drinking Guinness and taking my leg off, because my leg was a little painful now.

When I had just finished my food, "Low Si" arrived and came to sit with me and asked me how I was doing, he is quite a nice guy, he owns this hotel and we had known each other for about the best part of one year. He asked me if I had a copy of my book with me, so I pulled my only copy out of my jacket and he asked me if he could borrow it to read, which I agreed to and gave it to him. He then bought me a beer and said that he had to go to his office and do the day's accounts and left. I sat there enjoying my beer and listening to Leg playing the guitar and singing. A few of the guests came out of the hotel, walked over to the table that I was sitting at and asked me if they could join me, I agreed and they sat down and we started introductions. They were all British and when they asked me what my name was, I just replied "Legless" at this they all started laughing, because of the English slang term associated with my nickname, then I lifted up my left leg and showed them the real reason for my name. After that we had quite an enjoyable evening learning about each other and they all showed great interest in my writing and my book. Occasionally Leg would take a break from his music and come over to join us, so the first evening in Penang went quite well and I stayed quite late, even with my painful leg.

The next day I woke up quite late, about 14:30, I had a shower and shave, got dressed and put my leg on, it was still a little painful though. When I put my jacket on, I pulled out my wallet and I was surprised to find that I only had two Ringgits left, I knew that I had to go to the ATM and get some money, so I left my room quite quickly. In my hotel reception room, the guy behind the counter asked me for that day's rent, I explained to him that I didn't have it right now, but I was just going to the ATM to refill my wallet, he nodded and I left. Unlike Thailand, in Penang there was not an ATM machine on virtually every street corner, the nearest ATM to Chulia Street is near the tallest building in Penang, the Komtar, which is almost two kilometers away. Also, unlike Thailand, there are not that many taxis driving around, there are some tricycle rickshaws usually available, but as luck would have it, I waited for a long time this day and could not find any transport, so I started to walk slowly. After I had been walking for about 500 metres, my leg was very painful again and my right leg was also aching, so I had to sit down for a while. When my good leg had recovered a little I started walking again, still no sign of any available taxi or trishaw, so I plodded on. My leg was now getting very painful and I had to keep stopping, so my progress was very slow. When I was eventually within 400 metres from the Komtar, I spotted a small table and two chairs on the pavement and realized that this was a small tea stall. I had nothing to eat or drink today, so I needed to rest my leg and I also needed a cup of tea, I just hoped that it wasn't too expensive, as I still only had two Ringgits. Before I even asked the guy how much the tea cost, I flopped into the first seat and pulled my leg off, my left sock covering the amputated leg was covered in blood, I had really damaged my leg this time. I took the sock off and checked my stump and there were many lacerations, the only temporary bandage that I had with me was a handkerchief, so I wrapped that around it. I then realized that the tea stall owner was watching me, so I just smiled at him and asked him how much a cup of tea was, hoping that it was less than two Ringgits. He replied that a cup of tea cost 95 cents, which made me relieved and I ordered one, the tea was good and I really needed it, I was grateful for the place to rest too. I sat there for a long time and I was thankful that I actually had enough money left to get a second cup of tea. The tea stall owner asked me where I was going, so I told him that I was going to the bank to get some money and showed him the few cents that I had left now. He told me that there was another bank with an ATM about one hundred metres closer than the one I was heading for and I thanked him for this information.

I finished my second cup of tea, strapped my left stump up as best that I could and started limping down the road again. My leg was very painful again by the time that I reached the bank, I checked the signs on the ATM machine and was relived to see the "Cirrus" and "Maestro" system signs on there, which meant that they were compatible with my bank card. I put my card in the first ATM and entered my PIN number then asked to withdraw 400 Ringgits, it started to do the transaction, but then stopped and came up with the message that "This transaction cannot be completed at this time". I then waited for about twenty minutes and tried again, but got the same result. I then tried another one of the ATM machines there, with the same result again. I then thought that maybe this was some kind of communication error between this bank's computer system and my bank's system, I knew that my pension always goes in on the same date every month, so I was sure that there was money in my account. I then decided to walk further to the original bank that I was heading for, because I had used this bank's machines many times before. I could barely walk now, my leg was so painful, that I had to restrain myself from crying out in pain with each step. I eventually reached the second bank and queued for the ATM machine, even though now it was now very painful just to stand. When I reached the front of the queue I put my card into the machine and entered all the details, but then I received the same error message that I received at the first bank. This threw me, was the problem with my bank's computers? Or was there now a problem with my card? I had been using this card for two years now and I have never had a problem with it before. It was early evening in Penang now and the bank's doors were closed, but I could see that there were still some people working in there, my only option seemed to be now, that I could maybe do something if one of the staff could contact my bank in UK and arrange with this bank to give me some money. I eventually managed to attract the attention of the security guard inside the bank and he came to see what I wanted, I explained my predicament to him, but he told me that the staff were going home now, but that there was an counter next door that was still open and they dealt with currency exchange, he went on to say that maybe this person could help. So I went to the exchange counter and explained my problem to the person working there, he said to me that he had Moneygram facilities available and should be able to do this for me, so he asked me for my card, which I passed over to him. He placed my card into his machine, pressed a few buttons, scanned the readout and then informed me that my card had been blocked by my bank. I was shocked at this news, so I asked him if he could contact my UK bank and sort this out, he replied that he could not do this and that it would be better for me to contact the local branch of my bank in Penang the next day. I then asked him if there was a British Embassy in Penang that I could contact to help me, because at the moment I am penniless and there is no way that I can walk to my hotel, because I am in too much pain. He said that he could not help any more, but that there is a police office in this Mall on the fourth floor and maybe they could help me.

I set off looking for the police office, but every step was now agony, the building did have some escalators, but the last climb to the fourth floor was just an open winding staircase and that took a lot of effort and pain for me to climb. When I eventually reached the police office I found that it was locked with no sign of anyone inside. I just rested there for a while anyway and then started to slowly make my way back downstairs again, when I eventually reached the ground floor of this Mall I was totally exhausted and in terrible pain, so I just sat on the steps, took my leg off and had a cigarette trying to figure out what I could do next. Whilst I was sitting there, one of the Mall security guards came over to me to see if he could help, I explained my situation to him and he was surprised that the police office was closed, he explained that maybe they had just gone out for something to eat, so he told me to stay where I was and he would go and check again for me. When he returned he explained to me that it was unusual, but the police office was closed today, he asked me where I was staying and I told him that I was staying at a hotel in Chulia Street, so he suggested that I just get a taxi back there for the night and check with my bank the following day, that is when I had to remind him that it was now evening and I did not have any money at all and I cannot walk now. He then asked me if I was able to sit on a motorcycle and I replied affirmatively, so he said that he would get his motorcycle from the car park and give me a lift to Chulia Street. He returned quickly and let me get on the back of the bike and then took me to Chulia St. When we turned into the street he asked me exactly where I wanted to go and then it dawned on me, I have friends here maybe they can help, so I told him to go to the Blue Diamond Hotel, this he did and he dropped me off at the entrance there. When Leg spotted me, he asked me what I was doing and before I could answer, the guy who had brought me here told him the whole story in rapid Malaysian. Leg then said to me that maybe his boss, Low Si could help, so I said to him that, that was my idea too. Just at that very moment Low Si came out and it turned out that he was an old friend of the Mall security guard and they were soon talking together, again in rapid Malaysian. Then Low Si escorted me to an empty table in the open air bar, bought me a beer and told me that I could order anything I wanted that night and he would arrange for me to have total credit there. So it turned out to be a good ending to a totally disastrous day for me, I just sat there drinking Guinness with some of the guests all evening and telling them about my bad day, Low Si would wander past occasionally, smile at me and ask me if I wanted another beer, which I always accepted. We had a good night, I was relieved to have access to credit that night, somewhere to rest my leg and I enjoyed the company of some of the other guests who were friends now, we even joined in singing with Leg in the music area.

The next day I woke up at a more reasonable time 11:00, got ready and I just had one main thing to do today and that is to sort out my bank. I still had no money in my pocket and my leg still hurt a lot, but I managed to find a trishaw who agreed to take me to my bank, which was 3 Km away and would come back to collect me later and hopefully I would have some money to pay him. On arrival at the bank, I thought I would test my card again, but got the same negative results. I was first interviewed by a junior in the bank, then she transferred me to one of her superiors in an upstairs office. She managed to get in touch with someone on duty in the bank in England and she passed the phone over to me, I explained the situation with my card and he said that he would transfer my call to someone in the relevant department and then the line went dead. The Penang bank person contacted UK again for me and this time I told him that the call transfer did not work, so he then gave me a direct number to call about my problem. So we phoned UK again and this time I got through to someone in the correct department directly, she asked me for my card number and asked some security questions, then she told me the problem, they had blocked my card because they saw what they considered some suspicious charges against it, so I asked what charges these were and she told me. I could not believe what I was hearing, the suspicious charges that they suspected, were two standing charges that I had arranged months before, one was for my UK lottery syndicate and the other was for a children's charity that I support. When I told her that these were normal, she said that she would take the block off my card immediately, I said to her, in future if you have suspicions about transactions, please contact me first before you block my card, because I am an invalid in a foreign country and now penniless because of a stupid mistake that you made. I put the phone down, excused myself to the Penang bank person and went straight to the ATM machines, sure enough it worked and for the first time in two days I had access to my bank funds again. I went back upstairs in the bank, caught the attention of the person that helped me, waved a wad of money at her and thanked her for her help.

I took the trishaw that was waiting for me back to my hotel, paid him, paid my hotel for two days and then hobbled back to the Blue Diamond, it was still only mid-afternoon, but I thought I deserved a celebration drink, so I started on the Guinness, paid off my credit bill and just started to relax again. Leg and Low Si came to see me and were pleased for me that everything turned out okay in the end and I thanked them for their support, without them, I do not know what I would have done. Later in the afternoon some of the guests there came to sit with me and we spoke about the situation that I had just gone through and I said to them "What would have happened to some other UK girl or guy had the same thing happened to them, but they did not know Penang and had no friends here?"

If any of the major bank personnel are reading this story, then please think before you carry out some of these so-called precautionary security measures, what problems you may be causing for your customer by not informing them of your actions.

Oh well! Just another one of life's unfortunate experiences that I have had to endure.

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