The Rustic Charm of Batam: 12 – 14 March 2016

I have been to Batam Island many times and this was my first with my family (parents, sister and her two kids).  Explored much more this time and loved the rustic parts of Batam that I had not explored before.

Ferry – Sindo Ferry
Sindo Ferry goes directly to Waterfront Terminal with a stopover at Sekupang Ferry Terminal.  Ferry ride was about 40mins.  We were supposed to depart at 1130hrs from Harbourfront Centre but there was a slight delay.  It was a very busy Saturday morning and start of the one week March school holidays (go figure!).

Total cost of ferry ticket: SGD278 (5 adults, 1 child inclusive of taxes)

Tip: If you are returning from Sekupang Ferry Terminal, best to check at the counter that the ferry is not from Waterfront Ferry Terminal as the ferry will already be crowded and quite tricky for you to look for seats.  Batam Fast do have return ferry that goes directly to/from Sekupang.

Love the design and rustic feel of the terminal
Love the design and rustic feel of the terminal

Accommodation – Harris Resort Waterfront Batam
Unlike Harris Batam Centre which is located next to the Batam Centre Ferry Terminal, Harris Waterfront Batam is located almost at the end (and I can say remote part) of the island.  The hotel provides a complimentary 12-seater shuttle service from the ferry terminal to the hotel.  Will have to be patient as there is no queuing system and there was only one van at a time (loop service).

The hotel have two wings and our rooms were at the Trendy Wing (quite a distance from the reception/main lobby – no complaints).  As all the family suites are fully booked, I requested for a twin bed connecting room.  The rooms were very clean and spacious enough for an extra bed (shared a room with my sister and her two kids).  We had a spectacular view of the swimming pool from our balcony.  The pool is very clean and it is cleaned every morning (saw they clean it while having breakfast two days in a row).

Always loved staying at Harris because of the simple design, decor and also the vibrant colours.  The rooms were comfortable and the bed plus pillows were so comfortable.  The breakfast spread was great and they even catered to various tour groups – Chinese, Korean, Indians, etc.  The mini grocery store selling snacks, drinks, toiletries, etc were not over priced like most hotels do (and you can find Magnum flavours that costs only about SGD3 that are not available in Singapore)

The overall experience staying there was great.  Which was a huge relief for me as the correspondences I had when making the room reservations and the one day car rental for the six of us were very frustrating.  Almost had wanted to give up and change to Holiday Inn but following my gut instincts (which have yet to fail, so far) decided not to.

The resort is definitely suitable for families including families with small children.  There are activities that can keep everyone occupied (minus the gadgets).

Love the location of the resort.  The fact that it is located far away from the city centre (about 30-45 mins drive away) and located near the beach, it was just a perfect place to getaway from the hustle and bustle of a city.

Total cost: IDR4,400,000 (about SGD440 – two rooms inclusive of breakfast and an extra bed inclusive of breakfast).

Harris Waterfront - Low Tide
Harris Waterfront – Low Tide

Transport
It is advisable to book a car for the day if you are travelling in a group.  The hotel do provide scheduled shuttle service to Nagoya Hill shopping centre.  Reservations need to be made and it is on first come first served basis.  The hotel do have a fleet to taxis available if you missed the shuttle service and also able to provide a quote if you want to go to other shopping centres/places of interests.  We did not book any car upon arrival as the plan was just to go to Nagoya Hill for late lunch and walk around the area.  We had to take two taxis as they do not have any available MPVs.  Booked a MPV through the hotel for the next day and had a great driver.  The lady at the counter told me that he is the best driver from their company (could be because of a service recovery after the frustrating correspondences that I had with them).

Important to note that traffic at the city centre is horrendous.  And drivers will try their luck promoting their contacts for Kek Lapis (layer cake).

Total cost: IDR500,000 (about SGD50 ~ two return taxis hotel-Nagoya Hill-hotel). IDR700,000 (about SGD70 for 8hrs MPV rental from 1100hrs – 1800hrs).

Food
Everyone that has been to Batam will agree that you will be spoiled for choice.  The food is good, cheap and fresh especially the seafood.

Shopping
Just like food, Batam is a shopping haven for shoppers (not me).  Not everything is cheap though.  Nagoya Hill is huge (first time there) and you can find practically everything.  The foodcourt is huge and you can find both local and international restaurants.

Went to DC Mall for the first time.  The first floor is catered towards Muslim/traditional wear.  The second floor consists of a mix of factory outlets and small boutique.  The driver also brought us to the Polo factory outlet and a boutique that sells clothes, bags and souvenirs that are made from Batik.

At the end of the day, I find all shopping centres are the same.  I always prefer to go to the local market.  Our driver brought us to the local market, which I think is near the Nagoya area.  As soon as we alight from the car, we were surrounded and followed by beggars and a lady who were holding a file that I saw was a document requesting for donations.  We just walked past them and went straight to a shop to purchase local snacks and preserved fruits.  They waited outside the shop and followed us back to the car.  Our driver was with us throughout and keep a lookout for us.

Always be aware of surroundings especially when shopping.  Personally, it is a good practice to separate the cash into several places just in case the inevitable happens.

The Rustic Charm
Born in a city, I always prefer to explore the suburbs and places that locals go to.  Driving along a route that is not busy, accompanied by stretch of trees that are not groomed, gorgeous blue and cloudy sky, it was so serene and natural.  The drive through the Barelang bridge was my favourite.  Despite the scorching weather, it was nature at its best playing with the different shades of blue on the sky and the sea.  The drive through the suburbs (which was a shortcut and to avoid the city centre traffic) on our way back to the hotel was another favourite.  And like I had mentioned above, the hotel area is just awesome, felt as if I am staying at a kampong.  There is just a rustic charm on this part of Batam that I had fell in love with.

Battle of the Beaches

2015 was an unplanned year of Malaysia beach breaks.

11-14 March – Gaya Island (Sabah)
Solo birthday trip.  Shortlisted a couple of beach resorts in Malaysia that includes Rawa Island, Pangkor Laut and resorts in Port Dickson but my heart and eyes were set on Gaya Island Resort.

You may think that it is sad to be travelling and celebrating my birthday on my own.  This was actually my second time.  The first was to Cairns in 2013, celebrating my 35th.  And I intentionally arranged for a sunrise hot air balloon ride on that day (the free and easy package that I bought included a hot air balloon ride).  I came to a hard realisation years ago that I should not depend nor have any expectations on others to make my birthday special.  And it is ok to celebrate on my own.  In fact, it is refreshing and quite revelating for it allows me the opportunity to reflect on the year that has gone by and what I want to achieve by the time I celebrate my next birthday.  This year, I just wanted to go to a beach resort where I can just chill and pamper myself.  And this year, intentionally arranged for the sunset tour on my birthday.  Was so glad that the weather permits for me to see one of the best sunsets so far.

Flew on SilkAir from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu.  It took about 15-20 minutes for the land transfer from the airport to the jetty.  And another 30 minutes from the jetty to the island.

Total costs:
SilkAir flight (SIN-BKI-SIN): SGD285.70 (promotional fare)
Full board at Gaya Island Resort SGD1,045.88 (Residents Package – RM2,677.72 inclusive of daily 3 meals, boat transfers, land transfers and guided nature walk)
Snorkelling & Conservation Fee: SGD30 (RM70)
Sunset tour: SGD150 (RM300)
Total: SGD1,511.58

18-21 May – Redang Island (Kuala Terengganu)
Been wanting to go back to this island for the longest time.  And when a friend whom regularly go back to Redang asked me along, immediately said yes.  The last time I was there was in 2004!

Thanks to AirAsia who stopped flying directly to Kuala Terengganu, had to take an 8hour overnight bus from Golden Mile Complex to Kuala Terengganu so that we arrive there on time to catch the scheduled 1hour ferry that departs at 0900hrs.  Had not done it for the longest time but kind of looking forward to it. Did have my fair share of concerns about travelling on the roads of Malaysia at night as most of the roads are not well lit and bus drivers tend to speed when driving at night.  We took AirAsia from Kuala Terengganu to return to Singapore (via KL).

Total costs:
Konsortium Bus (SIN-Shahbandar Ferry Terminal): SGD71
AirAsia (TGG-KL-SIN): SGD64.69
4D3N Fullboard at Laguna Redang: SGD486.35
Total: SGD644.04

22-25 Sept – Batu Ferringhi (Penang)
Ok, was not in Penang solely for the beach (read my other entry on Getting Lost on the Pearl of the Orient).  Since was there, wanted to explore as I had read a few blog posts and websites saying that Batu Ferringhi is a good spot to catch the sunset in Penang.

Accommodation: Gaya Island Resort vs Laguna Redang
Booked the Bayu Villa at the Gaya Island Resort but was upgraded to Kinabalu Villa.  Did make a request on the online booking form that I will be there for my birthday and requested for a villa on a second floor with a view.  Intention was not to be given a villa at the back which is too quiet and dark since I will be there on my own – my imagination can go very wild at such places and I may not be comfortable walking in such dark places on my own.  The upgrade was a total surprise and I was told that the room has one of the best view of both the sunrise and Mount Kinabalu, which I could not agree more.

As it is an exclusive resort, guests were assigned a personal guide upon check-in.  The guide will bring guests to the room and is the go-to person for any needs (eg reserving spa sessions, booking of tours, etc).  My guide, Jason was great and he checked on me daily to ensure I am enjoying my stay.  Find it interesting that each staff made an effort to know each guest name…I am so not used to it.

If not for the full board, the cost of the food is rather expensive or similar to the price of a decent restaurant in Singapore.  I only had my meals at the Feast Village as it was part of the package.  The serving was just nice and quality was not so bad (Hey, technically stuck on an island so can’t complain. Otherwise will need to hunt and build own fire to cook own food).  When travelling, food is the least of my concerns so I have no qualms given the same menu for the days I was there (different for lunch and dinner though).  There are more than enough options to try.

Stayed at Laguna Redang when I was there in 2004 and it has just opened then. It has not changed much except that now they have an arrival hall near the jetty where they conduct briefing, constructing new rooms and also added cafes that serves local food (an option for those who do not want to purchase their full board package). Glad to say that the management put in huge efforts in maintaining the resort.

Told my friend that we should just book the Deluxe Garden as don’t need the beach view as we will hardly be in our rooms and simply need to walk to the beach.  Kind of regretted that decision as it will be awesome if we had stayed in the Deluxe Sea View room as we could sit at the balcony at night listening to the sounds of the beach, staring at the stars or importantly (for me) catch the sunrise without needing to leave our room.

There are other cheaper resorts for divers located around Redang Island and also 2-3 high end resorts.  Will still go back to Laguna if I go back there again.

Was too excited to see the clear waters and also such a perfect weather to head straight to the beach, that I had totally forgotten to take a picture of the room.  The room still the same as I was there years ago – one king bed, two single beds and comes with separate shower and toilet.

The Beach – Gaya Island vs Redang Island
The monsoon just ended when I arrived at Gaya Island, hence the beach was not as clear nor clean as I hoped it was.  It was still a pleasant and a great beach to chill.  Batu Feringghi was just a beach to chill with a book, not for any water sports.  Redang is my favourite among the three, without any doubt.

Sunrise: Gaya Island vs Redang
It was a hard choice between the two, but my favourite is the sunrise at Redang.  Look at those colours!  Now I regret not catching the sunrise two days in a row like I did in Gaya Island, three days in a row.  And if I had stayed at the Deluxe Sea View room in Redang, I would’ve just do that! (Yes, still regretting the decision).

Sunset: Gaya Island vs Batu Ferringhi
I am not comparing apple to apple as I did took a boat out to the open sea to catch the sunset at Gaya Island.  It was a great way to celebrate my birthday, and with strangers for that matter.  Was on the boat with a retired British couple and a Korean couple.  The British couple was travelling Asia for two months and Gaya Island is their first stop before heading to other parts of Borneo.  Chatted with them for quite a bit and they are an adventurous travellers/explorers for their age (am guessing they are late 50s to early 60s).  Gaya Island is too slow for them but they did enjoyed their stay in Gaya.

I admit each beach has its own charms and it is not easy to say which is a favourite.  Beach break 2016 – where should I go???

 

 

Getting Lost in the Pearl of the Orient: 22 – 25 Sept 2015

There is more to Penang than just food.  This is an exploration of two siblings (my brother and I), travelling together for the first time (and without killing each other).

The Accommodation – St Giles Wembley
There are plenty of options to stay in Penang and you will be spoilt for choice. There are 5 star hotels, budget hotels, famous hotel chains, boutique/themed hotels, homestays and heritage hotels.  Accessibility is an important factor for me when deciding where to stay especially if the transport system is not fully developed. After months of searching and indecision – Tanjung Bungah vs Gurney Drive vs Georgetown and type of hotel ie homestay vs heritage hotel vs themed hotel, finally decided on St Giles Wembley.  It was recommended by one of my colleagues upon his return from Penang a month before I depart.  Had booked two other hotels (with free cancellation within 72 hours of course) and once I received great feedback from him especially on the location, immediately booked St Giles and cancelled the other two.  St Giles is located opposite Komtar and walking distance to 1st Avenue Mall, Prangin Mall and Komtar Walk.  In fact, I found it to be centrally located as you can walk to Penang Times Square and to most areas including to two of the street art location.  The bus terminal in Komtar within walking distance is really a huge plus for me.

The Streets and Exploration
Day 1 – 22 Sept (Tues): Batu Ferringhi and Tanjung Bungah
From my web research, there are great spots in Batu Ferringhi to catch the sunset and there is a local night market in Tanjung Bungah every Tuesday night.  Being a sucker for sunsets (and sunrise for that matter) and everything local especially night markets, decided to kill two birds with one stone.  Took Rapid Penang 101 (RM2.70) from Komtar bus terminal to Batu Ferringhi.  The journey took about an hour and I love bus journeys as it is a great way to explore, see the area along the bus route, take note of landmarks and best of all see spots that are not on the maps.  Was unsure where to alight but the bus driver announces ‘Batu Ferringhi’ when we reach the main Batu Ferringhi bus stop.  It was about 4pm or so and we are so in need of caffeine.  There are few shops and coffeehouses around the area where we alight but nothing caught our eyes.  Decided to walk down the stretch to look for the beach and realized that we were walking along the Batu Ferringhi night market area.  None of the shops were opened as it was still early.  And most of the restaurants serve Middle Eastern or Mediterranean food.  We stumbled upon Starbucks (located next to Holiday Inn) and decided to have our caffeine fix there (I know…so original).  The Starbucks are huge and links directly to the beach.  Sat on the outdoor upper deck and it was truly a nice place to just chill, watch sea sport activities like parasailing, jet ski, etc and spend some quiet time.  Unfortunately, our peace was disrupted by two separate large groups of teenagers who have to shout while talking even when they sat next to each other.   As sunset draws near (and couldn’t tolerate the noise any further), went down to the beach.  Great to see families spending time together on the beach and even though the water is not as clear as others I had seen before, it still quite a nice clean beach.  Was trying to enjoy the sunset but was disrupted by touters promoting horse riding and also stray dogs scavenging for food.

As soon as the sun sets, we walked to the night market.  It is just another touristy night market with most shops selling almost similar items at touristy prices.  There was only a shop that sells tongue-in-cheek and unique design T-shirts that caught my eyes and of course had to bought one.

Board 101 from the opposite bus stop from where we alighted to go to Tanjung Bungah (RM1.40).  Again, unsure where to stop and had to keep a lookout throughout the journey as I read that there is a small road that leads to the night market.  Fortunate for us, the bus driver stopped the bus at the Tanjung Bungah bus terminal as he need pump some gas.  Following my gut feel after I saw tents, lights, and locals carrying plastic bags from a small road, we decided to alight.  We bumped into the bus driver and he said that he was looking for us when he stopped the bus but couldn’t see us and thought that we had alighted.  He couldn’t see us because we were standing behind few burly tourists.

The Tanjung Bungah night market was really a local night market and located next to the wet market.  Satisfied from the food loot, we took 101 (RM2) back.  And it was the same driver when we took the bus from Komtar.  Little we know, 101 will not drive into the Komtar bus terminal and we are to alight at the bus stop opposite Komtar (common sense no longer working at 10+pm that night).  We ended up at the Weld Quay Bus Terminal (aka Jetty Bus Terminal) and took the free CAT (Central Area Transit) since it stops at Komtar.  Funny story – we actually saw our hotel as the bus turn towards the road opposite Komtar and both pointed ‘that is our hotel’, continue the ride and assumed that it will turn in to Komtar.

Day 2 – 23 Sept (Wed): Hunt for the Mee Goreng, P Ramlee Museum, Penang Hill,  Unplanned Walk and Gurney Drive
Original plan was to go to Penang Hill in the morning to avoid the crowd and before it gets too hot.  But by the time I woke up it was raining heavily and was very cloudy thereafter.  It was almost noon when we left the hotel with first order of business – hunt for food.  First walked to Jalan Transfer for Prata (known as Roti Canai in Malaysia).  This was recommended by a blogger.  Next, walked to Lebuh Keng Kwee for the famous Teochew Chendol stall.  Decided to share a bowl (RM2.50), as we just had breakfast and wanted to reserve space for other food that we may have stumbled upon.  We walked around for quite a bit to search for the famous Mee Goreng stall.  Based on the map, web research plus blogs, it seems that it is within walking distance from the chendol stall.  But after a while gave up and walked back to Komtar bus terminal to take the bus to P Ramlee Museum.

Decided to pay a visit to the birthplace/museum of one of my favourite storyteller and songwriter.  Took 206 (RM1.40) from Komtar to Jalan P Ramlee.  A Chinese lady on the bus was kind enough to tell us where it is when she overhears our conversation.

Since the weather clears up, think it is best to go to Penang Hill that day instead of next day.  Originally planned to take 206 back to Komtar to take 204 to Penang Hill. But as we waited, saw 204 that ends at Penang Hill stops at the opposite bus stop.  It costs RM2 each from that Jalan Dato Kramat stop to Penang Hill and the journey took us about an hour after waiting for about 20 minutes.  Were quite surprised that it was crowded with locals as it was eve of Eid Adha.  Penang Hill is much more developed that I was there in the 90s.  Regardless of the development, it is still rustic and has it charms.  The view and breeze was great.  Another great spot to chill and get some quiet time, provided you get a great spot away from noisy tourists or couples whispering sweet nothings.  Entrance fee for tourist (adult) is RM30.

When we were on 204, we saw a huge Chinese temple and  few residential areas along the way (which later I found out that is the Kek Lok Si temple and the area is Ayer Itam).  Out of curiosity, we decided to walk and explore instead of taking 204 back to Georgetown.  With no maps or any other form of guidance, had to depend solely on our memory of the bus route and what we had seen/landmarks while on the bus.  Brings us ‘joy’ whenever we see 204 as that meant we are on the right track.  For me, this unplanned exploration was one of the highlights of the trip.  We stumbled upon a bread factory, a self-sufficient Malay kampong (village) that is preparing for Eid Adha celebration (brother can even point out that there is a cow at the back of the mosque forgetting that Eid Adha is the next day), small towns with shop houses, food courts and other residential areas.  As we walked pass the residential areas and especially the kampong, it gave me a sense of simplicity, serenity and a sense of community living.  Even though the kampong is not a ‘real’ kampong with wooden houses but in fact a block of flats, the atmosphere just brings back memories of block 2 Geylang area during Eid Fitri celebrations and that it feels homey.  This walk reminds me to grasp, absorb the environment and enjoy every little things in life.

We walked till after sunset and once it gets too dark decided its time to get on the bus to head back to Georgetown as some parts of the roads are not that safe to be walking in the dark (actually not quite safe even with light) – no walking pavements and not much street lights.  Had to look for the bus stop, as everything looked so different when it turns dark.  We thought of asking for directions at one of the restaurants when noticed that there is a bus stop next to it and luckily we can board 204 (RM1.40) from there.  Think we walked for about 2 hours and didn’t realize how far we had walked till we were on 204 as recognized other landmarks like the Masjid Negeri Pulau Pinang (the main mosque).  Took 204 to jetty terminal with the intention to take 103 or another bus (which I can’t remember) to Gurney Drive for dinner, assuming that both buses are available at the terminal.  Luckily we saw that 101 passes Gurney Drive the day before and from one of the maps, found out that number 11 goes to Gurney drive as well.  There is a board indicating the estimated time of arrival and departure of the buses. And found out about 1.5 hours later that the information is not reliable at all!

Gurney Drive
Total meal costs about RM59. Only the fragrant Nasi Lemak with freshly fried chicken (RM6.50) and the Pasembur (RM22 becos of huge squid) are great. The grilled fish is raw and didn’t eat it (wouldn’t want to take any chances) and the satay was too sweet for our taste.

Totally starving upon reaching Gurney close to 10pm, had to rush through our dinner as preferred to take 101 back.  Gurney is just another tourist spot (similar to Lau Pa Sat in Singapore) which can give a miss.  The only thing I enjoyed was the fragrant Nasi Lemak with freshly fried chicken (RM6.50).  You can choose the chicken cut and all are at the same price.  It was so good that we (more of me) had second helping of the fried chicken (RM2).

It was a risk waiting for the bus as we had no idea what time the last bus departs from Teluk Bahang terminal.  Seeing that there were still buses travelling on the opposite road, we decided to gave it a chance to wait…and we wait and we waited till about close to midnight (after an hour of waiting) that I said to my brother “if the bus is not here by midnight, we’ll take a cab”.  The next thing I know, 101 appears (RM1.40).  Smarter and with a semi full tummy (part of it had been digested while waiting), we didn’t end up at the jetty terminal like the previous night.

Day 3 – 24 Sept (Thu): Chowrasta Market, Street Art, Clan Jetties, Penang Times Square, Cakes and More Cakes…
Walked back to the Teochew Chendol Stall to have another round of the chendol together with the Assam Laksa (RM5).  The combination was a match made in heaven.  The Assam Laksa was just nice – not so sour nor spicy and the texture of the noodles were different than those I had before.  I believed it was handmade.

Chowrasta market was just down the road which was a disappointment as it was undergoing renovation.  Most shops were closed as expected as it was public holiday for Eid Adha.

Took the CAT from bus stop no. 12 – Chowrasta to bus stop no. 14 – Lebuh Carnarvon which is a walking distance to Lebuh Armenian where majority of the street art is.  Exploring Lebuh Armenian is the other highlight of the trip.  The mission for the day is to find all the 18 street arts – majority are located around Lebuh Armenian area but there are 4-5 that are located elsewhere (not too far off though).  I loved exploring this area even though it is a tourist spot.  There are so much history, loved the mix of colonial and Peranakan architecture, street stalls and of course cafes (there are loads of it!).

The Pangkalan Weld (also known as the Clan Jetties) are also walking distance from Lebuh Armenian area.  Interestingly if you want to locate all the street art like we did, you may end up walking towards the Clan Jetties.

Day 4 – 25 Sept (Fri): Komtar, Komtar Walk and Home Sweet Home
As our flight was in late afternoon, we decided to walked to Komtar after checking out from our room.  There was nothing much there except for souvenirs and some food joints.  Had our last meal at Georgetown White Coffee and head to Maxim’s to takeaway some of the old school cakes back home.

wpid-picsart_09-27-12.35.45.jpg
The bus tickets from the two days (22 – 23 Sept). Day 1: 101 from Komtar to Batu Ferringhi (RM2.70), Batu Ferringhi to Tanjung Bungah (RM1.40) and Tanjung Bungah to Komtar (RM2.00). Missed the stop at Komtar and ended up at the Weld Quay stop. Took the free CAT back to Komtar station. Day 2: 206 from Komtar to Jalan P Ramlee (RM1.40). 204 from Jalan P Ramlee to Bukit Bendera (RM2.00). 204 from Air Itam to Weld Quay Terminal (RM2.00). 101 from Weld Quay Terminal to Gurney Plaza (RM1.40) and 101 from Gurney Plaza to Komtar (RM1.40)

The Transport System
Bus
The transport system in Penang is not that fully developed but it is still accessible if you are adventurous enough to avoid taxi and take local bus.  Rapid Penang is one of the leading bus operators in Penang and it also operates the free Hop On Central Area Transit (CAT).

It is fun to explore on the local bus because (1) there will be quite a bit of guessing game as most times you will not be sure as to where you will need to alight hence no idea where you may end up.  Only the main terminals like Komtar or the Weld Quay Terminal  have boards listing the bus routes.  However, it only states the name of the main road (for example Jalan P Ramlee) and there could be a lot of stops along that stretch.  (2) get a chance to interact with the bus driver as you will need to let him/her know where your destination is, for him/her to be able to advise you the fare and if you ask him/her nicely, he/she will be able to advise you or call out your destination upon arrival (3) a guessing game if you are waiting for the bus at the right bus stop as there are some stops with no board indicating the number or the route (4) get to see areas that may not be listed on the map and where locals go to.

We only took the Rapid Penang buses on first two days of the trip.  On the third day took the free CAT throughout.

Rapid Penang: http://www.rapidpg.com.my/

Taxi
We saw a lot of taxi but decide to explore on the local bus.  We only took taxi from the airport to the hotel (RM44.50) and from the hotel to the airport with advanced booking at the concierge (RM53).  Rapid Penang 102 goes to the airport but we would not want to take the risk as unsure how the traffic will be on a Friday.

Walk
The best way to explore.  However, as I had mentioned above, there are areas that are not so safe to walk especially at night as it is not well lit or no proper walking pavements.

The Food & Shopping
Everyone that I know who went to Penang said the food was awesome.  Personally, I find most of the food was just great or just ‘ok’ or it is similar to what we can get in Singapore.  Perhaps the places that I went to are not famous for the food.  Yes, it is cheaper than in Singapore (the exchange rate then was SGD100=MYR300) but cheap does not mean good.  Also perhaps, this trip is about exploring Penang, not a food hunt and food was on the last of our list – if we found it, we’ll try it.  If not, ate because we need to eat.

We did not shop much and there are quite a bit of interesting souvenirs but as usual it is a tourist trap.  My brother and I are not shoppers and again, we prefer to spend the money on the experience of exploring rather than lugging things just because it is cheap unless of course we can’t find it back home.

The Skies
Just look at the skies and those clouds.  These were taken on various days and times.

Skies & clouds of Penang
Skies and clouds of Penang

There is really more to Penang than just food.  The exploration and experience travelling for the first time with my brother was priceless.  The Penang I experienced and the one others had shared with me about their Penang trip greatly differs.  Will I go back there again?  I will but not anytime soon…I think.

Traveling Solo – The First Need Not Be the Hardest

Traveling solo is an adventure itself and one should not procrastinate to travel solo once the thought hits.  Because with procrastination, “sometimes later becomes never”.

My first solo travel happened by chance after a planned trip to Spain with a friend had to be cancelled.  Went to Cairns, Australia in 2013.  Prior to Cairns I had a semi-solo trip in Busan in 2012 where I extended for three days on my own after a business trip.  That was a test for me if I can survive a solo trip as I had always wanted to try going on a solo trip.

Solo travel is addictive, trust me.

These are my thoughts when planning first solo trip.  However, some may apply to subsequent solo travels and travel with others.

1) For first solo trip, think about going to a country that speaks your language.  No doubt it will make a very good story that you went and survived a trip to a place where you don’t understand or know how to read a single word, you should be enjoying your first solo trip.  Stressing yourself trying to figure out where you are, how to get from point A to point B and seeking help from the locals who may not really help, is not the first solo trip that you would want to remember.  Of course, the other side of the spectrum is – if you survived all through that, you may pick up new things and/or learn something new about yourself.  Follow your gut feel when planning your first solo trip.  I think being able to be comfortable on your own in a foreign country is key.  I decided on Cairns partly because of the language (English), saw a free and easy package that I really liked and it is kind of ‘exotic’ as compared to Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Tasmania or Brisbane.  And whenever I mentioned Australia, these are usually the few that my friends would mention, but not Cairns.

2) Research and planning.  This includes any travel documentation (ie visa, passport validity, vaccination, etc), latest news on the places that you are planning to visit, weather conditions, list the places that you want to visit and how to get there, safety precautions, major events etc.  As much as it is more fun to go with the flow, having an itinerary does help.  No matter how much you planned a trip, Murphy does love to throw a curveball every now and then.  Best to have a plan/itinerary and change it along the way once you are there.  Internet is a great source but information can be outdated.  And it is best (I think it is important) to find out what are the travel documentation you need and most importantly that your passport is still valid before you buy your ticket.  I have a friend who found out that she needs a visa when she checks-in at the airport for her first solo trip to Myanmar and another friend who realised that her passport only valid for three months when she checks-in at the airport for her first solo trip to Seoul.

3) Leave a copy of your itinerary together with contact number of your hotel, tour agencies, etc with your loved ones.  Bring a hardcopy with you and save an offline copy in your phone (or any other gadgets that you will bring along).

4) Do check if your Foreign Affairs ministry (or equivalent) provide a service where you can register your travel itinerary.  For instance, Singaporeans can register their travel itinerary with MFA eRegister.  This is a volunteer and free service. . The information provided will allow the MFA to contact you in case of emergencies.  A great example would be the recent earthquake in Nepal and in Kota Kinabalu.  Upon submission, a notification will be sent either via sms or email (depending on the option selected) together with the nearest Singapore Embassy/Consulate contact details. Another ministry that provide such service is the  Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

5) How many of us subscribe to data roaming?  If you don’t and there is free WIFI, do post on your social media account(s).  This is to let your loved ones and/or friends know that you are still in one piece. Of course you may have friends who would envy you sitting on the beach sipping coconut juice while they slogged at work.  If you don’t feel like posting, sending a WhatsApp/LINE/Viber/WeChat etc works too. And if there is no WIFI but network coverage still exist, why not send a simple message? I WhatsApp my sister daily before I leave the hotel for tours/activities and when I’m back to the hotel.  Will post pictures or check-in on my Facebook as well.  As much as I love to be disconnected when on holiday, I would not want my loved ones to be worried especially if there are reported news of incidents either before or while I am there.  Hmm..but what if there is no network coverage?

6) Upon arrival, breathe and take it all in that you had arrived! And it is time for you to explore and begin your solo adventure.  It is good to have a copy of local maps as I mentioned earlier, sources from internet can be outdated.  When you are exploring, it is important that you look confident and pretend that you are familiar with your surroundings.  If you show that you are a tourist and on your own, it may attract unwanted attention.  If you need to open a map, look for a place where it is not that obvious.  If need to go online, look for cafe that offers free WIFI – most times you may need to purchase a drink or so.  On my third day in Cairns I was approached by a lady asking where is the nearest supermarket.  Fortunately I found and went to Woolsworth on my first day and managed to show her the directions.  While shopping at an aboriginal arts store on my last day, the shopkeeper thought I was from Melbourne.

7) Local day tours are great.  Not only you will be able to meet new people, the local guides may take extra care of you and you get to do whatever you want to do. I bought a free and easy package in Singapore to Cairns that includes all the activities that I wanted to do – snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef, hot air balloon over Atherton Tablelands and white water rafting at Tully River.  In addition to this, booked a half day city tour with an online agency and cultural performance plus dinner at the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park.  Each of these days tours are operated by different agencies.  Totally had a blast not only from each activities that I had signed up for but also meeting the visitors and locals alike.  Met an awesome and funky grandma who is in her 60s who was the first to jump off the cliff at Tully River.

8) Eating alone is not for everyone.  And when you travel alone you may be forced to eat alone.  You must be comfortable and able to enjoy your own company.  If eating alone at public places for the first time is difficult for you, pack your food and eat it in your room.  I usually use this time to observe the locals, visitors or simply bask in the surroundings (while enjoying the food of course!) For local tours, they will normally pair up solo travelers with other solo travelers.  When I was at Tjapukai, they paired me up with another solo traveler from Hong Kong.  Interestingly, she was on the other hot air balloon at Atherton Tablelands (there were two balloons that day). We chatted quite a bit on that night and shared travel stories.

Have you traveled solo before?  What advise would you give for first time solo travelers?