A few beautiful days in Penang 

After I left KL, I felt like I’d packed quite a bit into a few days. I hadn’t planned it that way, but when there are interesting and fun things on offer, it’s hard to say no. I had a great time, but I did feel quite tired when I left and it was a reminder to take my time and not feel the need to do too much when visiting somewhere for a few days.

Before this trip, I was mindful about avoiding that holiday feeling that if you only have a few days somewhere you must do and see as much as possible. I realised quite a while back that I most enjoy spending time in a place by walking around the streets, seeing the buildings, watching the daily comings and goings, eating the food and meeting people. I don’t really relax into a trip if I arrive with a list of things to see and do, and I find I’m either exhausted from ticking off attractions or disappointed that I missed them if I run out of time, and who needs that pressure on holiday? At the same time, when I arrived in Malaysia on my own, I was determined to be open to trying new things and meeting new people, so my instinct was to say yes to everything (within reason!)

I’m glad I took this approach as I met some lovely people, had great experiences and ate plenty of delicious food. That said, it was a good reminder that one of the advantages of solo travel is that if something isn’t your thing, you can pass and go and do something else. Also, it’s really important to me to spend some time on my own, ideally doing something that relaxes me, whether it’s yoga, goign for a walk, watching a film or just sitting in a cafe reading for a while.

Travelling is a lot of fun and full of wonderful experiences, but if you don’t look after yourself and take some time out now and again, it can become tiring – physically and emotionally. Like most things in life, I’m finding it’s all about balance.

Next stop: Penang

When I arrived in Penang, I was excited about the beautiful street art, good food and the lush National Park and hidden beaches. I deliberately planned nothing, and opted to pass my couple of days there soaking up the atmosphere of George Town and exploring some of the forested section of the island.

On my first morning, I met a lovely Canadian girl called Sarah over breakfast in my hostel. She told me that she was planning to catch a local bus from George Town to the other side of the island to the National Park, and hike through the forest to a quiet bay called Turtle Beach. She invited me to join her and I happily accepted. She had written out directions on how to get there, so we loaded up on snacks and headed out.

The bus takes quite a while to wind round the island, but it’s air conditioned, not too crowded and once you’re on the coastal highway, it’s a really beautiful way to see the island outside of Georgetown. It’s also super cheap and cost us about 60 cent.

When we arrived at the National Park, we signed in, picked up a photocopy of the map and we were off. Having experienced national parks in Thailand where you get charged 200 Baht (about €5) to enter, I now appreciate the ease and convenience of this!

The hike through the forest to Turtle Beach was 3.5km, following a winding forest path with plenty of greenery and the sound of chirping insects all around. We came to a few fallen trees and gentle ups and downs, but didn’t encounter any tricky spots and it was a pretty gentle hike. We met only a couple of other people on the route and the beach was almost deserted when we arrived.

Turtle Beach

The beach isn’t safe for swimming because of the current and jellyfish, but it’s very pretty and quiet. We needed a rest after our hike in the humidity, so we happily sat and ate our snacks, and dipped our feet in the sea.

We headed back the way we came, and were hot, sweaty and thirsty by the time we reached the park entrance – I had run out of water about 20 minutes before we reached the end and it was mid-afternoon and about 30 degrees. We were so relieved to see a small shop with a bench outside it where I sat and drank probably the best tasting Coke I’ve ever had.

On the walk back through the park we talked about life at home, our families and what we both did. Sarah is a student in Canada and on an exchange programme in Singapore, and taking a short holiday. She was great company, and the walk back felt much shorter than the way out, as did the winding bus ride home.

By the time we got back to George Town we were petty tired. Sarah had some university friends arriving from Singapore that evening, so we got ready and waited for her friends to arrived while drinking beers on the porch outside our hostel, watching the world go by. That night it rained pretty heavily, but we braved the downpour and went to eat some delicious vegetarian Indian food. 

George Town is all about the detail

On the street art trail 

The next morning, I set off on my own to explore the town and see some of the famous street art. A few of the murals in George Town were originally commissioned by the government as part of a cultural initiative in 2012, and since then a number of others had sprung up. 

George Town street art

Armed with a free map from the hostel that signposted where some of the key paintings were, I set off into town to wander around and see if I could find them.

Hidden in the back of a seafood restaurant

I managed to see all the ones on the map, even a couple which were actually inside cafes and restaurants – thankfully the business owners were friendly and happy to let me in and snoop around.

Hanging out in Penang

I found the town so beautiful. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage zone, so many of the colonial and traditional buildings are preserved, with a mix of European architecture from the 18th century, Chinese temples, mosques, and decorative mosaic tiles and lanterns all over the town.

Out and about in George Town

Time out in the Botanical Gardens 

I thought I’d just chill out for the afternoon and was hanging around the hostel, about to head out to get some lunch when one of the guys staying there, another Canadian, named Kevin, invited me to join him and two other guys on a trip to the botanical gardens. 

They had rented scooters, so in the spirit of saying yes and getting out of my comfort zone, I grabbed the spare helmet, hopped on the back and after a quick stop by a stall in Little India to grab a bag of the best samosas I’ve ever eaten, we set off.

At the botanical gardens, with Canadian Kevin

The botanical gardens were beautiful, and I am sure will be even more so in a few months when the orchids are in blooms. 

We strolled lazily around and saw a number of fit looking joggers out for their early evening run. Clearly it’s a popular running route, out of the city ad with plenty of greenery and a clear path with very few people in your way.

Botanical Gardens

We headed back to the hostel where I showered and changed, and looked into my travel and hostel options for my next stop. I’d decided to Langkawi – an island north of Penang, off the west coast of Malaysia and near the Thai border. I didn’t know much about it other than that it has pretty beaches and is a duty free island – so it’s popular with people who like the finer things in life, ideally without the tax. It has a fairly nascent budget backpacker scene, and I figured I’d check it out.
That night I had dinner with Sarah and her friends at one of the hawker markets, and we walked down to the seafront, to a quiet spot hidden from the lights of the street food stalls around the bend. We looked out over the dark sea, and to our far left on the bright lights of the stretch of George Town that spread up towards the north of the island.

Seeing the city buzzing with life and light in the distance, I thought of all the people that lived there, going about their evening. I felt oddly comforted by it, reminded of the familiarity of being in the city where I live, part of the day-to-day fabric of things and close to family and friends.

I felt for the first time since I started my trip something I am sure I will feel countless times while I travel alone – the feeling of glimpsing into the life of a place, feeling at once connected to it, and still aware that it’s completely new to me and I am just passing through, scratching the surface as I go.

Soon after, we left the dark inlet and walked just around the bend, back into the lively scene of the hawker markets, the pier in full swing on Saturday evening, with families gathered, music playing and children running about the pier blowing and chasing bubbles. At once I was back in the thick of things and absorbing all that was going on around me on my last night in Penang.

Walking back to the bustling seafront of George Town

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