James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

In Transit: Arriving in Penang

In Transit: Arriving in Penang

When people (most tourists and visitors) talk about Penang, they mean Penang Island, or Pulau Penang, with its World Heritage Site capital, George Town. Malaysia’s Penang State is made up of two parts: Penang Island and Penang Mainland, the industrial part of the state located on Peninsular Malaysia, as the western part of the country is called. Penang Island lies about 10 miles across the Penang strait,  linked to the mainland by a ferry service and two bridges.

Arriving by train and bus
Mainland Penang’s largest town, just across the strait from George Town, is the main point of entry for Penang island from mainland Malaysia. Trains from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok terminate in Butterworth Railway Station, and Butterworth Ferry Terminal, linked to the railway station by elevated walkway, runs ferries to George Town. Penang Sentral bus terminal and a taxi stand are also nearby, within walking distance. (A new Penang Sentral station, tipped as an integrated hub for rail, road, and sea transportation, plus a new cable car running between the mainland and Penang, is perennially under construction after several delays. In the meantime, long-distance and local buses serve the temporary Penang Sentral terminal next door.) Long-distance buses from Malaysia and Singapore arrive at Penang Sentral, and at the Sungai Nibong Express Bus Terminal on Penang Island, which is roughly midway between George Town and the airport. From Sungai Nibong you can take local buses, operated by Rapid Penang, to the rest of the island.

Penang International Airport
You could take the bus from Kuala Lumpur, but a one-hour flight with Air Asia is nearly the same price and saves you five hours of the intense air conditioning preferred by Malaysian bus drivers.  Plus, transiting Penang International Airport is exceptionally easy. The airport is small, so within minutes of landing you can push your way out the glass doors into the swampy heat and wait 15 minutes to catch the next Rapid Penang bus into town for 2.70 ringgit (70 cents). You’ll get to there in just 45 minutes or an hour–30 minutes if I were willing to shell out the 50 ringgit for a taxi or Uber–because the airport is just 10 miles south of George Town. It’s the kind of airport that lets you just get to where you’re going without killing your travel enthusiasm.

Penang International Airport was built in 1935, making it the oldest airport in Malaysia, but it’s also one of the country’s nicest. An expansion in the 1970s followed by two renovations in 2009 and 2013 has given it a sweeping, modern façade, a cavernous upper floor, and shiny marble floors.  The downstairs is cozier, with ATMs and kiosks for renting a car or getting a local SIM card tucked around the escalator.

A few straggling taxi drivers wearing collared shirts and slacks may ask in impeccable English if you desire a ride, their faces sinking when you inform them you’re taking Uber or Grab or the bus.  But likely, they’ll be so overwhelmed by the rush of Chinese tour groups that no one will talk to you. Compared to the cat-calling welcome of Bali and the crushing lines of Bangkok’s Don Mueang, a welcome at Penang airport can feel a little lonely. Doesn’t anybody want your tourist dollars?

They do, there are just plenty of tourists in Penang. Over six million passengers transited the airport in 2016, with more driving over the 13-mile-bridge connecting Penang to mainland Malaysia. Domestic tourists will drive up for a weekend or even a single day to grab a famous meal and turn around. The new super speedy train line, the ETS, has made weekend food warriors even more active in Penang, since they can now arrive to Butterworth Station—the large terminal on mainland Penang across the water from George Town—in just four hours from Kuala Lumpur. From the train station, it’s an easy 20-minute ferry ride across the strait into George Town.

The ferry is also popular with backpackers on the overnight train from Bangkok, which arrives between 2 p.m. and never. It’s not uncommon for the train to stop at random and put everyone on a bus to Butterworth Station. The unreliable train schedule, the fact that you have to change trains at the border, and the cost, which is nearly the same as a flight, are all reasons that taking the train is involves a specific desire to take the train. Even the super speedy ETS costs nearly the same as taking a flight, making it more of an experience than a practicality.

Entering Penang Island by ferry costs 1.20 ringgit, and entering by car costs 7 ringgit, but you can leave for free.

Eating and drinking
Air Asia has done its best to persuade you to order food on the plane. Their meal options are reasonably priced and local (how about chicken rendang or a cup of teh tarik?) but really, it’s only an hour flight from Kuala Lumpur and a 1.5 hour flight from Bangkok, so hold onto that appetite.

Food snobs won’t find many satisfying options in the airport, although coffee lovers may be happy. The shiny upstairs is dominated by an oversized McDonald’s as well as not one, but three local coffee chains. The Starbucks is inside security, but again there are plenty of other coffee options.

The most authentic local food is hidden downstairs in the Arrivals Hall. Head down the slightly creepy hallway toward the bathrooms and you’ll see a staff canteen on your right.  It’s a good choice if you get stranded at the airport, but most likely you’ll arrive with a food destination in mind and depart with an overly-stuffed tummy, so airport food is not really a high priority.

Air Asia has computer kiosks where you can print your boarding pass, but the lines are often long. Instead, download your e-boarding pass and glide straight to the security lines. You’ll still want to give yourself 75 minutes before departure, because security can sometimes be unexpectedly swarmed by large Chinese tour-bus groups.

That said, Air Asia rarely boards more than 10 minutes before the scheduled departure, and often boards late, yet somehow still arrives on time. So you’ll likely find some extra time to enjoy a 3 ringgit chair massage, pick up a souvenir box of Pneah Sar biscuits, drink a last cup of teh tarik, and discover that the water fountain behind Nelson’s Corn In Cup is out of order again. Luckily there’s functioning airport Wi-Fi, so you can settle in and Instagram all the food you ate during on your trip.

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