Read more about my Self Care Sabbatical and the other places I’ve visited!
Before I got stuck in Koh Tao, my intent was to finish up my time in Asia with a week or two in Malaysia. Penang and Kuala Lumpur were at the top of my list, followed by some sort of nature stop. But this part of my trip never happened.
Yet I still made it to Penang!
Because I decided to stay in Koh Tao (and thus Thailand) longer, I needed to apply for a visa extension. Americans are given 30 days on arrival in Thailand (free) but have to pay extra (1,900 baht) for 60-day visas which can be obtained at a Thai consulate. It’s then possible to get a 30-day extension for a full 90 days. Alternatively, you could extend your visa on arrival for 7-days if that is all you need. More info on extensions here.
So after making the decision to stay in Koh Tao and dive, I had to do a “visa run” to Penang as my current 30-day visa was nearing expiration. Fortunately, I was able to travel with one of my dive instructors who had gone through the process before and could show me the way. I prepped myself with money for the fees, all of the information needed for the application (including flight out of Thailand and my lodging info in Thailand for at least 21 days). Because I had never applied for a 60-day visa before, I was considered “clean” and the process was rather simple for me. I didn’t even have to go to the consulate myself as the tour company in Penang handled everything for me. (Applying for the 30-day extension was even easier – pay a fee and fill in a form and hand my passport over for a few days.) I did manage to get grilled at the Thai border on the way back to Koh Tao which included me flashing the wad of 20,000 baht (about $600) at the customs agent before she let me pass through.
Our visa run took about 5 days. We could have done it in four, but I was excited about getting out of Koh Tao for a few days and seeing a new place so we decided to stay one extra day. Later I realized this was unnecessary. You see, this was one of those times where I experienced what it’s like to travel with someone that is a bit of a different traveler than myself. I had been so accustomed to traveling solo throughout my trip that I hadn’t really thought much about how this mini-trip would be different. Especially because in the lead up to our trip, we seemed aligned on what we would do, the places we wanted to eat, etc. Also, I think I was a bit sick of sightseeing (see my Bangkok post) and I wasn’t really in the mood to plan things for us to do.
The result? Most of my time in Penang was spent wandering around. We wandered a lot. It was hot so the wandering was often broken up by stops where we could cool off in the AC (because Malaysia loves its AC). Our hostel was in Georgetown and we spent most of our time in this neighborhood and, more specifically, at one coffee shop – Mugshot Cafe. This place was great – good coffee and breakfast (think pastries and decent bagels) – and the kind of place where we could sit for a few hours and no one would ask us to leave. However, because of this latter benefit, we seemed to never really leave. We’d arrive at the cafe for breakfast and then find ourselves still sitting there hours later. Or, deciding we were hot during our wandering, we’d go back to Mugshot for a cool drink and hang a bit longer. In our 3 days in Penang, we spent at least 9 hours in this place.
Charlie, my travel companion, was mostly in the mood to just find a spot and chill out. So we did this a lot, either at Mugshot or another cafe. We skipped the sightseeing and just explored what Georgetown had to offer. And I also realized that he was not the kind of person who wanted to eat street food (in a place where there is awesome street food, which left me a little heartbroken) so I had to adjust some of my plans for where we could get our hands on some delicious Malay snacks. In the end, we still ate well but it was definitely a different trip than what I would have done on my own.
And yet, maybe not. Maybe being “over” sightseeing at that point would have left me doing the same sort of aimless wandering, hanging out in cafes or my hostel reading a book. I found myself wanting to go back to Penang to see what I missed…but I am also quite happy about the few days I spent there getting a taste of Malaysia (and Penang is quite tasty!). Aside from a layover in KL a few months later, I never made it back to the country and feel like I will have to find time to visit on another trip.
Where and What to Eat:
Penang has an awesome mix of food, especially if you are staying in the Georgetown area. You can get Indian, Thai, Chinese, Malay, and western food here. There are also a few spots with street vendors if you want to opt for street food. I also managed to have some awesome desserts (maybe the best of my trip) while I was here!
Dishes to try in Penang – laksa, char kway teow (noodles with cockles and shrimp), rojak (gravy on fruit (this sounds weird but also delicious), nasi lemak and nasi kerabu (two famous rice dishes), hokken mee (prawn noodles) and oh chient (oyster omelette).
Mugshot Cafe – So I spent a ridiculous amount of time at this coffee shop, but the coffee is good and so are the bagels. There is a bakery adjacent to the coffee shop where you can pick up other goodies. And they have smoothies, beer, and more if you are not in the mood for coffee. Plus, free wifi and they won’t kick you out if you sit there for hours like we did.
Holy Guacamole – Some people told us this was great Mexican food. Those people were wrong. If you don’t like flavor, but want tacos, come here. Otherwise, it’s overpriced and not that good.
Rasta Bar – This is a fun little divey spot in Georgetown that has a nightly Happy Hour where women drink free from 6-8pm (two types of cocktails on offer, they will taste like soda and get you totally wasted). This is dangerous but so fun.
Mr. Shawerma – I love shawarma, especially after too many happy hour cocktails. And I loved this place. Plus, they have the cutest logo!
Jawi House – Quaint restaurant with all the local favorites. Good for trying laksa!
Hong Kee Wan Tan Mee – Come here for the wonton noodles with BBQ pork. Try to leave without buying one of the pastries at the front, it’s impossible. Buy at least one egg custard tart.
Tons of dim sum places and Indian food spots in Georgetown!
Grab cocktails at Mish Mash!
China House – Artsy cafe with a HUGE assortment of cakes. It’s not cheap here, but the desserts are incredible. Definitely come with someone and try a few.
Ais kacang at Jalil Special Ais Kacang and Coconut Shake – This is one of those shaved ice with syrups and beans and peanuts desserts that are incredibly popular in Asia and I am always so intrigued to try. Why don’t we have more of these types of desserts in the US? I honestly had no idea what to expect when I ordered this, but I was so happy I did. It was huge. It was weird. But it was excellent. Charlie had the coconut shake which he said was good so you can always get that if you aren’t into bean desserts like me. Cendol is another dessert to try, but I never got around to it!
Passion Heart Cafe – Very cute spot with awesome desserts
Where to Wander
We wandered a lot just looking around at the architecture and the street art. This is a totally viable activity, but you may need to stop every so often to cool off. You can do this at the mall which is full of random shops and quite cold. They also have a movie theater which apparently is great (but freezing cold) – we just weren’t into any of the movies showing at that time.
Walk over to the Clan Jetties – This is way more touristy than I expected. Good spot to buy some souvenirs, but otherwise kind of lame.
Getting There: You can fly into Penang’s airport from other parts of Asia (Bangkok, Hong Kong) or travel via bus from within Malaysia. We had a slightly less enjoyable experience getting to and from Penang since Koh Tao is so hard to get to. We took an overnight ferry to Suratthani, a van to Hat Yai, another van to Penang (including our stop at the border). On our return, we had another van ride through the border to Hat Yai, followed by a night bus ride to Chumphon where we caught the ferry back to Koh Tao. This night bus was awful – no way to actually recline or sleep and it was FREEZING. I mean, someone was wearing a parka and a ski hat!
Where to Stay: We stayed at The Frame Guesthouse in Georgetown which is a pretty area full of restaurants, shops, and hostels. It’s also quite close to Little India and it was easy to get around on foot in this area. This area also has a lot of street art so you’ll find yourself stopping to snap a pic or walk around tourists taking Instagram shots. Love Lane has a lot of bars and restaurants and is a fun little party area.