If you've been in Thailand for any amount of time, you've probably had to do a moderately unpleasant visa run to Vientiane, Phnom Penh or Kuala Lumpur. They're all worth visiting of course, but let's be honest - wouldn't you rather go somewhere with a beach? That's just one reason we're huge fans of Penang. With stunning colonial architecture, a huge array of delicious food from a half dozen different cultures and prices that won't break the bank, a visit to Penang is more a vacation than a visa run.
(If you want to check out other visa run options, take a look at our list of destinations here)
With a population of almost 750,000 and a dynamic blend of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures, Penang's capital of Georgetown feels like an international metropolis. The island itself is only about 15km across, so beaches, resorts and a national park are all only minutes away. Icing on the cake? Everyone speaks English.
How do I get there?
From Chiang Mai, the easiest way to get to Penang is a flight to Hat Yai and a minibus across the border. Air Asia has a regular CM -> Hat Yai flight that takes about two hours and costs 3500b round trip. From the airport, you'll take a minibus to a tour agency in town (100b, it's far) and from there more minibuses run straight to Penang every 30 minutes (400-500b). The trip takes between four and six hours, depending on how congested the border is, and the minibus will drop you right at the doorstep of your hotel in Georgetown. On the return trip, just book a minibus with your hotel or guesthouse.
Make sure to book your flight from Chiang Mai before 10am to allow time for the bus trip to Penang. Your minibus back from Penang should also be around 8 or 9am, which will easily allow you to catch a 4pm flight from Hat Yai back to Chiang Mai.
There is an airport in Penang as well, saving you the crappy minibus ride, but they're about twice the price and you have to transfer in Bangkok.
What should I do?
The old town is a UNESCO world heritage site and you could spend days just wandering. Museums abound - including ones dedicated to chocolate, coffee, and old cameras - and neighborhoods like Little India will give you a taste of Malaysia's crazy diversity. There are also several beaches around the island. The most famous is Batu Ferringhi, lined with resorts and fancy restaurants, but if you're looking for something more out of the way there are a few beaches in Penang National Park you'll have to hike to.
Public transportation is cheap and foreigners can buy a "Rapid Passport" for unlimited travel, but if you're looking to save time any guesthouse can arrange transport. You can also rent a motorbike, though it's highly recommended that you have a license from your home country.
Check out the wikitravel page for more.
How much does stuff cost?
A bit more expensive than Chiang Mai, but not much. As a bonus, the conversion rate is almost exactly 10 baht to 1 ringgit, so you don't even have to think about it! A guesthouse runs between 300-500b for a single room, and a cheap hotel is under 1000. Street food is about twice the price as it is in CM, so a small meal is about 60b and a large one about 100. Indian food is slightly more expensive than Chinese or Malay.
One thing to keep in mind: Malay ATMs don't take cards without a chip and if your passport is at the consulate you won't be able to use it at the bank. If your credit/debit/bank card doesn't have a chip (Americans, that's probably you) make sure to bring plenty of baht.
Where should I stay?
Accommodation in Georgetown is reasonable, but it's worth checking out as many options as you can.
Most guesthouses are clustered around the backpacker's area of Love Lane, right in the middle of the old town. Single rooms range from about 300 to 500b and dorms can be as cheap as 150 depending on the facilities and season. Note that most are in old colonial buildings, and as such most of the rooms use shared bathrooms and many don't have windows.
There are a lot of old, crumbling hotels in Georgetown that offer killer deals, but the only one we found with reliable wifi in the room is the Oriental Hotel. Single rooms are 870b and the staff are really, really nice.
If you're gong for opulent, there are plenty of pricey, world-class hotels in G-Town that'll make you feel like a British colonialist.
How do I get a Thai visa?
Provided you have the right paperwork, all types of visas can be processed at the consulate in Penang, including education, business and non-imm O. If you're looking for a standard two month tourist visa, you'll need two passport photos and 1100b.
You can go to the Thai consulate, wait in line for two hours and go pick up your passport the next day, but we recommend just using the visa service at a guesthouse. Banana Guesthouse will do it for only 300b, which is probably less than you'd pay for taxis and frees up several hours you could be spending at the beach. Plus, if you drop off your passport before 9am it'll come back the same day.
Have you been to Penang? Do you think we missed anything? Let us know at [email protected].