As a foreigner in Thailand, you’ll always have to worry about updating your visa every couple of months. A couple of days ago, it was that time again to get a new visa. While I enjoyed going to Vientiane last time, this time I thought it would be fun to visit Penang in Malaysia. The Thai consulate there is known to have a relaxed visa policy and it gives me the chance to enjoy this beautiful Malaysian island at the same time.
The train from Bangkok to Penang
There are several options to get from Bangkok to Penang. One of the cheapest ways to get there is by night train, which is less than half the price of going by plane. It costs only 1,210 Baht for a lower berth seat (about 30 EUR). In the evening these seats will be changed into beds so you can get some sleep. The upper bed is much smaller than the lower one and quite hard to get into, which is why they are cheaper.
Taking the night train seemed like an adventurous way of travelling and it’s also a good opportunity to see more of Thailand’s mountainous landscapes. The night train crosses all the way through South Thailand and passes all of the large cities there. It takes a total of 22 hours to get from Bangkok all the way to Butterworth. From there a ferry will take me to the island of Penang.
Leaving from Hua Lamphong station
This train must be one of the slowest in the world, cruising at 60 km/h at the max. It took about an hour to get out of Bangkok itself. There are so many people living on the sides of the rail track that it would be dangerous to go any faster.
It seems like there’s a never ending amount of stations along the way. Even deep into the night the train keeps making stops. Street vendors come in to sell their food and when the border gets close, people will offer to exchange Malaysian money at poor rates.
When you’re flying to Penang, you’ll miss most of the beautiful landscape
Arriving in Malaysia
The ferry from Butterworth to Penang is only 1.20 Malaysian Ringgit (0.30 EUR) and the ferry back from Penang is completely free.
This time I didn’t book a hotel but just wanted to look around on the spot. A friendly Malaysian guy told me where I could find a cheap one, only a 10 minute walk from the ferry. I booked one night first but when I checked later, this seemed to be the cheapest hotel on the island. It cost me 30 RM per night, around 7 EUR.
The view from the ferry between Butterworth and Penang
My room was very low budget, with only a fan and the toilet and shower had to be shared. Hygiene wasn’t their highest priority it seems, with a rat running around the hallway in front of the rooms. I came eye to eye with it several times when walking out of my room. I even pointed out its hiding hole to the hotel staff but they didn’t seem to care much about it.
The visa situation
Because I already have 2 double entry tourist visa’s in my passport, I thought it would be better to use a visa agency. There are several of these around the Georgetown area where I was at and they charge very different prices. They all told me that I had to pay some extra ‘under the table’ money because the officials will not give me a new visa otherwise. The amount of this bribe varied a lot from one agency to another.
The cheapest agency I could find cost me 290 RM total (about 80 EUR). This includes 150 RM for the application, 40 RM agency fee and then 100 RM bribe money. I was initially charged 240 RM but the official seemed to be greedy this day, or I just got ripped off. It was still cheaper than many of the other agencies. Some of them charged 300 RM for the bribe money alone. Maybe these people are just bad bargainers.
I could have gotten the visa by myself probably but I would have been interviewed about the reason of my stay. The agency makes it a lot easier and it also avoids me a wait in line at the consulate in the early morning hours. I got my passport back 2 days later with a new Thai visa, allowing me to stay another 3 months in the country.
Along the coastline of Penang, there are some beautifully constructed jetties that are home to several Chinese families. These jetties have a history of over 100 years and are a way for them to live an independent live in these stilted houses. They don’t even have to pay tax to the country because they are not living on Malaysian ground.
There are still some Chinese families living in the jetties today and they’re enjoying the extra money that the flock of tourists are bringing them. It’s very touristy at some jetties where soft drinks and souvenirs are being sold door to door.
There is one jetty that didn’t seem to attract any tourists at all. It has a pathway going into the sea for about 100 meters. It gives a great lookout over the sea all the way to Butterworth and I was the only one there to enjoy it.
There’s not much highrise in Penang, when compared to Bangkok. This means a lot less shade so I got a little sunburned on the first day out here. Maybe next time I’ll bring my sunscreen.
Walking a bit beyond the jetties there’s the Hean Boo Thean Temple. It’s free of charge to visit and I was again the only tourist there. It’s build on the seaside with a stunning view over Penang on one side and Butterworth on the other.
Chinese migrants have been going to Penang for many centuries in hopes of making a better living here. Their influence is very visible throughout the Georgetown part of Penang with Chinese shops and restaurants all over the place. In some areas it actually feels like being in China. Building clanhouses was a common thing around the 18th century and several of these still exist today.
The Choo Kongsi clanhouse was recently completely renovated and is in perfect shape nowadays. It only costs 10 RM to get in there. Clanhouses functioned as a meeting place for clan members where they could worship their ancestors and relax by playing some Mahjong or even by smoking opium.
The entrance doors of the prayer hall are painted with colorful images of deities. They are very similar to the ones portrayed on the entrance doors of the Chen Clan Academy, which I visited in Guangzhou.
Malaysia has been a popular place for settlers from all over the world as it had to be crossed by boat expeditions passing from the East to the Western part of the world. The mix of different influences from several continents is still very visible in Penang.
There’s architecture in English style, many different types of food from around Asia and people from many countries are still living here. Malaysia’s own culture and traditions seem to have suffered a bit from all of these several influences.
The location of my hotel was in the part of town which they call Little India. It’s an area of about 5 street blocks with only Indian restaurants and shops. Malaysia has a very tolerant immigration policy, making it interesting for these people to try their luck here.
The food in Penang
When I was in Kuala Lumpur a couple of years ago, there were a lot of buffet restaurants with a lot of food to choose from. These types of restaurants can also be found in Penang. The food is really cheap at those places and you can start eating right away. I paid only 6 RM for a plate of rice with 3 different types of food.
Many of the dishes contain potatoes in one way or another. Potatoes are very rare in Asian dishes so it’s nice to be able to eat them again. Just like in Kuala Lumpur there are also some restaurants here that specialize in Nasi Goreng dishes. Some of the restaurants will have over 30 different variations of this dish.
One of the most famous Malaysian dishes is Cendol. It’s actually a dessert and it’s sold by many street vendors. The best quality Cendol can be found at Penang Road at the Teochew Chendul restaurant. This restaurant has a history of over 80 years and has perfected the Cendol recipe over that time.
Cendol is a mix of rice noodles, red beans, coconut milk, palm sugar and shaved ice. It’s a welcome refreshment after a day of sightseeing in the heat.
Another refreshing dessert which I forgot the name of
Being in a hotel so close to Little India makes it very tempting to eat Indian food everyday. There was even an Indian restaurant right across my hotel that’s open 24 hours a day. My favorite place to get an Indian Thali is NR Sweets. They are specialized in Indian snacks but their Thali’s are also very good and diverse.
The biggest Thali only costs 16 RM (3 EUR). It has 7 different foods, rice, bread, 3 sauces and is completely vegetarian. A drink is also included in the price and ice cream afterwards. Great value.
Going back to Bangkok
The train back to Bangkok skips a lot of the stops on the way back. So much even that it takes 6 hours less to get back.
I’ve noticed firsthand that safety regulations on trains in Thailand are not that high. I almost walked out the door of the last coupe in the middle of the night, not knowing that this was the end of the train. It surprised me a bit that these doors could be opened manually without any security system kicking in. I’m sure there’s been some people in the past who left the train prematurely this way.
Bye bye Malaysia