One aspect of living in Asia or anywhere as an expat is that you are limited to how long you can stay in a particular country. The length of stay is dependent on what kind of visa you have and how long that visa allows you to stay in a country.
Each country has its own specific rules depending on many different variables and each country issues different kinds of visas. Your eligibility to obtain visas in certain countries is also largely dependent on your nationality and the political relationship your home country has with the country that you are visiting.
Whenever you go to a new country, it is important to have a deep understanding of what visas are available, what they cost, how long they permit you to stay in the country, how you can renew them, etc.
I am currently residing in Vietnam and my visa was going to expire so I needed to exit the country and re-enter in order to get a new visa. Historically, I have traveled to Bangkok, Thailand because I lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand for a year and know my way around Bangkok as I have been there numerous times.
This time, I wanted to try traveling to Malaysia as it is relatively close to Vietnam and inexpensive to fly to.
Whenever I want to fly somewhere, the cost of airfare is always something that I want to consider. I usually start with going to Skyscanner.com. This is a great site that allows you to compare different airline carriers. There are several variables that you can use to filter flight offerings, such as cost, flight duration, number of stops, etc.
Another option for searching multiple flight carriers is using Google Flight Search. This is another great free tool that allows you to compare different airlines, prices, flight duration, number of stops, etc. Below is a video that I put together, to help you understand its features.
Once I have found a decent flight based on my search criteria, then I go directly to that airline to purchase the flight directly. I do this because you may save some costs when booking directly with the flight carrier rather than through a 3rd party site.
After researching flights, I decided to book with Air Asia. They are a dominant budget airline in South East Asia and I have flown with them many times.
Saving Costs While Booking With Air Asia
Air Asia is a dominant low cost flight carrier in South East Asia. Although, their flights are inexpensive, they offer many up-sells in their online sales funnel. I have flown many times with Air Asia and have been content with their service.
I made a quick video to walk you through their online sales process and some tips on how you can save money while booking a flight with them. You can check it out below:
Malaysia Tourist Visa
One really nice thing about traveling to Malaysia as an American is that they make it super easy. You do not have to apply for a visa before you arrive and there is no fee to enter the country as a tourist. When you go through immigration, they issue a standard 90 day visa stamp. Therefore, you can stay within the country for 90 days before you have to leave. Nice!
***Keep in mind that countries can change their immigration policies at any time so be sure to check the current policies before traveling there. You can research the current visa rules on the Malaysian Immigration Website.***
Traveling To Penang, Malaysia
Penang, Malaysia is an island off the coast of Malaysia and is a short flight from Kuala Lumpur. It is also super cheap to fly to assuming that you book a little in advance. I paid $30 USD for a round-trip ticket from Kuala Lumpur. I spent 4 days in Penang which turned into 2 because of flight delays… and 4 days in Kuala Lumpur.
I had heard through different groups that traveling to Penang is a popular place to renew your Thai Visa and an interesting place to visit in general. I went because I did not want to spend all my time in Kuala Lumpur and I wanted to see what all the hype is about.
After arriving to the airport in Penang, I started by getting a Malaysian Sim Card so that I could have 3G coverage… also known as the internet. As long as your phone is unlocked and you do not have a contract then you can switch sim cards very easily.
I paid $6 USD for a sim card with a data plan which would last a week while I was in Malaysia. I would highly recommend getting a sim card as it makes travel much easier. After getting my phone configured, I needed to get to Georgetown which is the touristy part of the island and where I had booked an accommodation at [eafl id=6447 name=”Tido Penang Hostel” text=”Tido Penang Hostel”].
Alternatively, if you are in a hurry or simply don’t want to use the public bus then you can always take a taxi or Uber (yes, they have Uber).
Embassies and Consulates
You can reference the map below for a list of embassies and consulates for various countries that are based in Penang.
Tido Penang Hostel
Prior to arriving, I wanted to make accommodation arrangements and I booked with [eafl id=6447 name=”Tido Penang Hostel” text=”Tido Penang Hostel”]. I choose them because of their central location, price, atmosphere, wifi, free breakfast, professional online presence and positive reviews. I was really happy with my stay although there were not many other travelers that I met, that were simultaneously staying at the hostel at the same time.
The hostel is 6 floors and features both private and communal rooms with bunk beds. A continental breakfast is included. They also offer motorbike and bicycle rentals.
[eafl id=6447 name=”Tido Penang Hostel” text=”Tido Penang Hostel”] offers several different kinds of rooms including bunk beds or private rooms. I reserved a private room with a shared bathroom. The room was very clean and spacious with a view of the city. The bed was also very comfortable.
One down-side is that none of the rooms have a private bathroom. This may be a deal-breaker for some people because they like their privacy. The bathrooms that they have are really clean and well-maintained. Each bathroom features a toilet, sink and shower with an electric on-demand hot water heater. Each floor has bathrooms so they are convenient and only a few steps from the rooms to get to.
The hostel has 6 floors, my room was on the 2nd while the top floor is a communal area where breakfast is served. It also serves as a nice lounge with couches and stools for seating.
There are also awesome hanging chairs if you want to curl up with a good book. The wifi was decent and there is also power outlets to charge electric devices (make sure to bring an [eafl id=6573 name=”Amazon Adapter” text=””]).
What To Do In Penang?
Penang is a relatively large island. It is a lot bigger than I had anticipated. While the most touristy part of the island is Georgetown, I would encourage you to explore other parts of the island as there is a lot to see. But! There is a lot to see in Georgetown too!
My personal preference to explore a new place is to walk around. Although, it can be easy to lose your sense of direction very easily in a new place; it allows you to observe things and see everything at a leisurely pace.
Malaysia is an extremely multi-cultural country and Penang is no exception. There is a large and prevalent Malay, Chinese and Indian culture. Along with these diverse cultures is a diverse set of religious communities, including, Muslim, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christians and more.
What I found particularly interesting is that although certain parts of the island have a larger population of people from different cultural and religious backgrounds; everyone seems to get along peacefully.
The cultural diversity is very evident while walking around Georgetown as there are many different religious places of worship, international restaurants and multi-cultural people.
While walking in Georgetown, be sure to check out local markets, Red Garden, Little India and more! There are also a lot of wall murals that are very impressive. They are hard to miss while walking around Georgetown. I wish that I could have explored more but I only had 2 days. I hope that I can return and see more of what Georgetown has to offer.
Driving Around Penang By Motorbike
To get a better feeling for the island of Penang, I came up with the idea to drive around the island on a motorbike.
***I would like to offer a strong word of caution that you should only rent a bike and drive if you have previous experience driving motorbikes in Asia. I have been living in Thailand and Vietnam collectively for over 2.5 years and therefore feel very confident on a bike.
If you do not have any driving experience or limited driving experience than I would strongly caution against it. There may be tours or other transportation options available, if you want to explore more remote parts of the island.***
Since my accommodation had already rented all of their bikes for the day, I walked down the street and rented from a local shop. In order to rent you have to have your passport and driving license from your home country. I rented a 150cc motorbike for 24 hours which costs 50 Malaysian Ringgit or 12 USD. In addition, you have to pay for petrol which cost an additional 6 Ringgit or 1.50 USD.
Fortunately, the traffic in is quite good, especially compared to Vietnam. Penangs use of horns is far less, they stop for pedestrians that are crossing the street, they stop at red lights and the list goes on. : )
Regardless, you still need to be on guard and aware of your surroundings at all times when driving. Another point to note is that there are more cars on the road compared to Vietnam and so as a driver on a motorbike, you need to be extra cautious.
Prior to my departure from Georgetown, I had asked locals approximately how long it would take to drive around the island. Most locals told me it would take anywhere between 4-8 hours depending on how many stops I made, etc.
As I headed off, it started to rain which was sub-par as I did not bring a rain jacket which was very poor planning on my part. I was able to find cover and wait out the rain which lasted about 15 minutes. I started by heading Northwest toward Batu Ferringhi, which is a long beach and popular touristy area.
The road towards this area starts off as a four lane road and then becomes a narrow 2 lane road. There are some really tight turns and large busses that drive the road frequently so as always you need to stay alert!
I pulled off the road to get a glimpse of the beach and enjoy a watermelon smoothie. The beach was really nice and it was relaxing to stare off into the water and hear the ocean lap up onto the beach.
I could have easily stayed longer but wanted to continue on my island circumnavigation so that I could make it back at a decent hour.
Teluk Bahang Dam
The next stop was at Teluk Bahang Dam which is southwest of Batu Feringghi. It is right next to the road and is difficult to miss. It is an artificial dam and was nice as I was the only person around. I would recommend that you make a stop here for a nice view.
After passing by the dam, the road starts to climb into the mountains and the next touristy stop is a Tropical Fruit Farm. I decided to skip the farm even though it sounded fantastic for the sake of time. If you like tropical fruits, then I would recommend stopping there! Check out this page for the packages that they offer.
After the fruit farm, the road continues to climb and there are many locals selling fresh fruit on the side of the road. I did not make many stops as I wanted to make sure that I got back before dark. There are not many great outlooks to get a good view along this route and the road can be narrow at times.
Once you pass the fruit farm, the road continues to climb and then descends quite drastically. If I had more time, then I would spend more time exploring the west side of the island which does not see many foreigners and has a really local vibe. My favorite part of traveling is getting off the beaten path and exploring these areas.
Since time was not on my side, I continued to ride while staying on the main road back to Georgetown. If you do the same ride, I recommend going to the southwest corner of the island as it is the most undeveloped part of the island and I have heard from locals that the water is very clean and offers great swimming.
After reaching the southern most part of the island, the road starts heading back in the direction towards Georgetown. This side of the island is the most developed and has really tall apartment buildings everywhere! I was surprised to see many manufacturing plants for companies such as Western Digital, Intel and more.
In conclusion, if you are comfortable driving a motorbike then I would strongly recommend making a trip around the island of Penang.
Penang National Park
Penang National Park is located in the Northwest corner of the island. It is a great place to visit for the day and explore. You can easily take the islands public transportation to get to Penang National Park. If you decide to take public transportation than you can head to Komtar tower which has a rapid transport hub at the base which you can get on many different buses that go to many parts of the island.
Once you reach the entrance to the National Park then you can either choose to take a boat to Monkey Beach or there is a trail that you can take to walk. I was with a group of other travelers whom I had met and I had to head back relatively early therefore we did not have enough time to make it to the beach itself. There are also tour operators that run tours to the park.
The entrance of the park has an interpretive center with signs and information about the park. This is a great way to get an idea of where you may want to go and how long you need to get to various areas.
We still were able to walk into the jungle a bit and see monkeys in the wild! The trail is well maintained and it makes for a nice walk. It is really hot and humid so be sure to bring water and snacks.
The trail starts out as a paved path and then as you walk further the trail turns into a well-maintained trail. The trail is well-marked and there are many signs so getting lost would be quite difficult to do.
Overall, it makes for a great day trip and I would like to return so that I can actually make it to monkey beach and the Muka Head Lighthouse which is past Monkey Beach.
China Town Night Life
The map above includes places that I never was able to visit but heard about from locals. Even if you do not have a map or anything to use as a reference, you can always walk around and stumble upon a place. This was my method as it was a great way to get a feel for the neighborhoods too.
Definitely check out the Bayview Hotel which has a restaurant and bar on the top of the hotel with a great view. You are going to pay higher prices but still very reasonable compared to western prices.
Overall, my trip to Penang was fantastic and I am thankful to the people that I met and was able to share experiences with. I definitely understand why it is a popular place to do a visa run! I hope that I can return and explore some missing gems on the island.