Travel Money Diary: Penang, May 2017

I went on a solo trip to Penang, Malaysia from 6 – 10 May. The 10th was a public holiday in Singapore, so I resolved to finally haul myself off to Georgetown, a UNESCO heritage zone, and wander around and relax.

From what I’d read, depending on what one is doing, five days in Penang is a bit long. But I’d been needing a bit of a vacation and I decided to treat this trip as a mix between a sightseeing trip and a staycation. So while I go around to all the touristy sites (of course), I was also very lenient with myself and my schedule and I didn’t plan a lot of things to do or places to go, either.

Incidentally, this is my first solo trip where I did not plan everything to the teeth.

Pre-trip costs

I was thinking of doing this trip for over a year before, but it was only at the end of last year that I started saving up for it and earnestly researching for the trip. I set out with a S$ 500 budget.

I managed to get sale fares to Penang from Singapore sometime in February. AirAsia, S$ 81.66

Travel insurance — can’t go without it. The provider I use is almost perpetually on different levels of discounts. This time around I was able to get cover for my trip at S$ 25

Lodging took a while. I briefly contemplated a hostel, but chickened out (again). The AirBnb places I’ve seen seem to cost about the same as hotels I’d shortlisted in the area, so I didn’t see much point in going that route for this particular trip. I was very interested in two traditional/cultural hotels (including Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion), and one boutique hotel, but all were over my budget. The next month, I went back to look for options, and on a whim, revisited the boutique hotel which I was so interested in–there was free-flow wine and popcorn and ice cream (what can I say, I’m easy to please). And the adjusted pricing by that month was juuuust inside the maximum I had for my lodging budget! So I went and booked Le Dream Boutique Hotel. S$ 284.95

Pre-trip total: S$ 391.61
Budget left on the ground: S$ 108.39 (sans any shopping budget)

Day 1 – Arrival

I’m a coward at heart, and the whirlwind of activity before my trip have not afforded me enough time to wrap my head around/gird my loins towards taking the (very affordable) bus ride from the Penang airport to my lodging. I had always meant to do that; I was very pleased with the fact that my plane arrives at 3pm, which gives me plenty of time to arrive at my hotel with daylight to spare, so I didn’t have to worry about getting lost. But being mentally unprepared for the challenge, I took the easy (and expensive) way out by asking for a pickup from my hotel; to be paid on checkout. RM 60

I resolve to take the bus to the airport on my way back.

At the reception, I am also asked for RM 100 security deposit, where I am given a receipt. Since I’m getting my money back at the end of the trip, I’m not putting this down as an expense, but it’s worth a note here anyway.

After getting settled in, eventually I head out for a bit of a walk. My hotel is about 10 minutes away from Armenian Street, so I resolve to walk to the area, get the feel of the streets, and see if I reach all the way out to Chew Jetty. I do a quick skim of places to eat that are in the area in TripAdvisor.

I walk around. Lots of touristy kitschy stuff. Some street vendors selling juice. I am intrigued with nutmeg juice. I am tempted, but figure there may be more further in. There aren’t.

I eventually make my way past most of the tourist crowd and end up at a quiet street, and come across a quaint cafe whose name caught my eye in TripAdvisor (hence, remembered): The Book Sandwich Cafe. It’s still light out, but I go in and decide to have dinner anyway. Lobster sandwich and juice, which I pay for using my credit card. The server asks me if I’m Filipino, based off my name. I had been betting with myself from almost the start that she was probably Filipino (based on her accent). I win. Against myself. Never mind. RM 59

I walk back. I see the juice seller again, but now I’m full from dinner.

I pass by a different street near my hotel, and come across a series of interesting places: a wine and deli bar, a cafe, and a Thai massage place. I resolve to try the other two some other nights: I have plenty of time. (I ended up not having time to try them.) I book a two-hour massage almost on a whim. It’s right next door to my hotel! Also, the receptionist is Filipino. The masseuse is Thai. I am very effectively tenderised. RM 184.45 + RM 20

I sleep very pleasantly.

Transportation: RM 60
Food: RM 59
Activities: RM 204.45
= RM 323.45

Day 2 – Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi, Chew Jetty, The Camera Museum

I have breakfast at the hotel. Free! (Not really. But never mind.)

I walk back through the places I’d been through the previous afternoon/evening. I pop into Khoo Kongsi. I am tempted to buy a few things in Chew Jetty, but it’s still early in the trip, so I resist. Entrance to Khoo Kongsi, RM 10

On the way back, I have lunch at Jawi House. Lemuni rice with rose chicken, nutmeg juice, and arabian sherbet. I thought the “rose chicken” would be mild. It probably was, but not mild enough for me. Hence, the two drinks. Paid through credit card, RM 41

I head back to the hotel with a headache. Sleep. Which is also free.

I go out again in the late afternoon and walk to The Camera Museum. I walk past a few pubs, to some catcalling. I resolve to find another way back. I spend the next hour engrossed in The Camera Museum, and have a short chat with a fellow tourist who once backpacked across Europe with a Brownie camera. Entrance, RM 20

I have dinner at Two Buns. One of the best burgers I’ve tried, even if it has mushroom. Also a lychee-flavoured soda. Bliss. RM 31

Entrance fees: RM 30
Food: RM 72
= RM 102

Day 3 – Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Pinang Peranakan Museum

Breakfast at the hotel. Complain about the heat. Walk down Penang Road, visit a delicacies/souvenir shop, resolve to come back to buy pasalubong. (I don’t.)

I stand around for 15 minutes waiting for the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion to open for the 11am tour. In the heat. Spent the next hour walking through and listening to the guide’s stories. Entrance and tour, RM 17

I pop into the nearby Chocolate and Coffee Museum, which is free. I spend about 15 minutes going around and around the attached chocolates shop trying to figure out what to buy. There are too many options. There are too many people. My poor brain can’t handle it (or the crowd). I end up buying nothing. (I regret it afterward.)

I walk down Chulia Street in search of a restaurant I found in TripAdvisor. They are closed today. I end up in the one next door, Y Not Cafe Restaurant Bar. I sort of regret it, because nothing stands out to me for lunch. I end up getting a taco and mojito. The mojito is good. The taco is deconstructed, but also delicious. I feel self-conscious eating it because I was given utensils. You eat a taco with utensils meh? RM 33

I walk back. Have a headache. Sleep.

I go out in the late afternoon for Pinang Peranakan Mansion. I arrive shortly before 5pm, but the jewelry and textiles section close earlier, and a kindly lady hurry me into that section first, all the while talking me through some exhibitions. She told me about three times during the hurried tour that I should just come by again tomorrow morning, I still have my receipt, “don’t waste your money ah.” She gives me a rough layout of the rest of mansion, and I walk around the main house but have no time for the ancestral temple. RM 21

As usual, I walk back. I pass by Beans Heritage on Carnavon, which I’d been passing by all the previous days, and being quite a fan of soy milk and beancurd pudding, finally decide to duck in and check it out. I order my dinner and ask for soy milk, but they only serve soy products until 4pm. I am sad. RM 26

Afterward, I pop by the convenience store next door and get two packs of local cheese rings and a bottle of juice. RM 6.60

I arrive back at the hotel with 30 minutes to spare before the free-flow wine session ends. I get white wine and ice cream, what more could you want? I hang around until the movie starts, and I get a bowl of popcorn about 30 minutes early, but within 10 minutes of the movie, a smoking group sits nearby and I am downwind. I go back to my room and finish off a pack of cheese rings instead. Nom.

Entrance fees: RM 38
Food: RM 65.60
= RM 103.60

Day 4 – Pinang Peranakan Mansion part deux, leisurely strolls

I was going to wake up early and get on a bus and get to Penang Hill in time for the sunrise. I did not. It was also raining. So I had breakfast at the hotel instead. I’m so boring.

I did go back to the Pinang Peranakan Mansion again. As I approached the entrance, one of the guides said hello, and then, kamusta? I laughed. I approached the entrance counter. One of the guides recognize me. You’re here again! They try to wave me on inside without paying, talking in a mix of Tagalog and English. That I was here just yesterday, late in the day, I didn’t finish everything. I am given another sticker. I ask if I need to show my receipt–none of them have asked for it yet–but “he’s the boss”, the counter guy teased, referring to one of the Filipino employees who was very audible about how I can just go on inside without paying the entrance again. I don’t see the kindly auntie from the previous afternoon.

I take my fill of the Mansion. I join an ongoing tour through all three buildings, and then spend the rest of the morning just walking around the place. I’m happy I went back. I also pass by the gift shop and get some keychains for friends. RM 55

As I leave, what seems like all the Filipino guides say goodbye to me at the exit. One of the local guides was also leaving; he said he lived in the Philippines for many years–oh–he forgot to time out–wait here! And I waited while he went back to punch in his timesheet, and returned. We chatted for a bit and asked if I would like to join him for lunch. In retrospect, I should have agreed–eat like the locals, y0–but I am a traveling noob. I thank him but lie about meeting someone else for lunch, and after farewells, I walk on.

I planned to eat at this cafe in Armenian Street, but I passed by Black Kettle on the way back, and it looks so deliciously hipsterish that I decided to try it. Love the environs (also, free wifi); the baked rice, not so much. I did enjoy my watermelon lychee smoothie. I am also talked into getting a soup appetizer. YOLO? RM 58

I walk down Chulia to The Postcard Shop, where I pick out and send a bunch of postcards. RM 20.40

It’s past mid-afternoon by this point, so I just go back to Two Buns and get a “spiky caramel milkshake” and an “Obama”. The milkshake has rum, and bacon as garnish. The “Obama” is a brownie a la mode. Ahem. This is the not so nice thing about traveling alone: there is so much food to try, but I can’t possibly eat them all. I take a while finishing everything. RM 33

I head back to the hotel, have my free-flow wine and cookies and ice cream and popcorn and movie. And the rest of my cheese rings are finished off while I pack.

Food: RM 91
Shopping/Pasalubong: RM 75.40
= RM 166.4

Day 5 – Return

It’s still raining. There is nothing much for today; initially I had planned to take the bus back out, but Google tells me taking the public transportation is going to take me 2 hours. Because of all the stops? I back out and ask for a taxi to be called for me. This is unfortunately because my hotel is only a few minutes away from Komtar. RM 50

I have a light breakfast, and hop into the taxi amid the rain. I head straight into departure after I pick up some coffee (half for me, half as pasalubong), which I could have probably purchased for cheaper at the Chocolate and Coffee Museum. Oh well. Hindsight is 20/20. RM 36

I board the place, and goodbye, Penang.

Transportation: RM 50
Shopping/Pasalubong: RM 36
= RM 86

Final Totals

Airfare ~ RM 254 S$ 81.66 ~ ₱ 2,924
Lodging (4N) RM 874.80 S$ 284.95 ~ ₱ 10,074
Travel Insurance ~ RM 78 S$ 25.00 ~ ₱ 895
Transportation RM 110 ~ S$ 35 ~ ₱ 1,253
Entrance fees RM 68 ~ S$ 22 ~ ₱ 788
Food RM 287.60 ~ S$ 93 ~ ₱ 3,329
Activities RM 204.45 ~ S$ 66 ~ ₱ 2,363
Shopping/Pasalubong RM 111.40 ~ S$ 36 ~ ₱ 1,289
Total ~ RM 1,988 ~ S$ 644 ~ ₱ 22,915


I’m obviously quite a ways off budget, although I could “cheat” and say that the massage shouldn’t really be included, because massages isn’t really something I habitually do while…while on a tr…okay, fine. I’ve realized I go for some form of massage whenever I go on a trip in Asia, even if it’s just my feet. So, fine. :P

I also grossly underestimated food, or rather, overestimated my bravery in trying (presumably spicy) local street / hakwer food. As such, the RM 55 per day rough food budget I was able to scrounge from the interwebs is a bit closer to a per meal budget, especially with my daily hunt for air-conditioned places to eat in.

Amusingly, my transportation budget ended up being pretty spot on, mostly because while I had underestimated my airport transfers (or overspent–taking the bus to/from the airport is only RM 2.80), I had budgeted a return taxi trip to Penang Hill. I had also underestimated that cost if I had taken a taxi (again, the bus would have only been RM 2), but I didn’t go anyway, so…it worked out?

Since I didn’t include shopping in my budget, it’s not exactly correct I included it (RM 111.40) in the final total; however, I’m still over the budget after removing S$36, so that doesn’t count for much.

As conclusion, I think it’s very easy to do Penang on a budget, especially if the weather is nice (read: maybe sometime in October, or so my friends tell me). There was so much that I could have done that I faintly regret it now (Penang Hill, for one), but as they say–there is always, always next time.

Five foot way at Georgetown


Three days in beautiful Batanes

I don’t think any place on Earth, so far, has been as over-hyped to me as Batanes, Philippines, had been. The few months of planning and the weeks leading up to my multi-day Batanes tour felt like everyone was telling me how amazing Batanes was going to be. They were so excited for me! Take lots of pictures! Oh, you’re going to love it there. Eat coconut crabs! Oh, it will be so amazing.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that I started my short vacation last week, but it was still difficult to shake off the excitement and expectation I’d built up. I couldn’t help but be so expectant, but it felt like disappointment was inevitable.

But…there wasn’t any.

All aboard Sunrise over the clouds First glimpse of Batanes

Don’t get me wrong, there were some things that could have dampened the experience. Typhoon Meranti (Ferdie in the Philippines) wreaked havoc on the local cell sites and mobile data was nonexistent, and extra for lodgings (if they had any). Even text messages had problems getting through. Also, I did not do my due diligence and confirmed that our Batanes tour package was private. I only found out a few days before our trip that it was a small group tour package (my fault of assumption). So, between having my parents with me, and the tour group dynamics lottery, so many things could have gone wrong. There was even a local fiesta on our last night and the restaurants that were open were packed to the gills, and we were stranded without a ride back to our lodgings. I mean, how’s that for mishaps?

But the place, the people: it was everything they said, and how. It was a step back in time into a place yet untouched by many things people take for granted in the cities; a visit to a people whose simple lives, while difficult, felt so much more meaningful and purposeful to me than the helter-skelter of city life.

No mobile data? Who cares?

Who cares, when you’re in the middle of all these amazing views, just soaking in the soft, cool breeze and the cheery sun? We soaked it in, and even in the evenings, we talked and rested and just turned off from the hyper-connected lives we’ve usually led.

View from the radar station Saying hello to Mt Iraya Vayang rolling hills Look up Morong Beach Malakdang lighthouse Me Cows on a hill

Tour group lottery? No problem.

Question of luck aside, there was something in the air, with the locals we interacted with, that I think mellowed out everyone in our group. Each one of us was just happy to be there and had hearts full of the beauty and vastness of the place. Because the locals around us had such unassuming friendliness, and the environment had such a cheery laid-back-ness (totally a word) to it, I feel that we were in a state of perfect openness and agreeability.

My friends told me our group was “large” by Batanes tour group standards (aside from my parents and I, there were also three couples with us). Because each group in our tour had their own ten-or-so-minute photo taking care of our guide, we spent a fair amount of time “waiting” for all four sub-groups to be done with photos before moving on to the next place, or finding out more about where we were.

But the size did not matter; the wait did not feel like waiting. We were all perfectly content just to be there: quiet, basking in the sights, or sharing words with one another.

Our group Basco lighthouse Toploading The group :O San Jose de Ivana Church ruins Honesty Coffee Shop Our group

Photo finish dinner mishap? Serendipitous!

Even the last dinner mishap turned out for the best. The restaurant recommended to us was closed; the restaurant we returned to was full up and we ended up waiting an hour and a half or so for a table and food. But once again, we had each other, and our fellow dinner hopefuls, to talk to, to share, to enjoy the ludicrousness of the moment in.

And at the end of the evening–late by Batanes standards–every tricycle driver seemed to be out at the fiesta. Walking was out of the question–it was far, and the streets were dark, so that even if we had known the way in daytime, we would surely get quite lost then. But we did not feel worried at any point, and we ended up even having a chat with the restaurant’s owner before a kindly man came by (straight from the fiesta) to bring us back to our hotel in his quaint wooden sidecar.

Sidecar 08 Yellow tricycle Bikes around Ivana Stone houses

It was–is–the perfect getaway. Cool wind to soften the bright sun; the cheery ‘good mornings’ and ‘good evenings’ that lighten the heart; the simple, fresh, and delicious food; the clarity of the air and water, and the wide expanse of land and sea that just begs the mind to expand as they do. As the days went by, it felt like I was also traveling back in time to an age when I didn’t worry so much, when things were clearer, simpler, straightforward.

The way we went: Batanes tour itinerary summary

We flew out of Manila to Basco (the capital) at 6am on the Sunday, and came back Wednesday morning. (All commercial flights to/from Basco are in the morning.) The official Batanes tour started at noon of the first day, giving us plenty of time to lounge about and rest after our very early morning rise (with my dad’s penchant for being early, that meant 2am rising for a 6am domestic flight…and, uh, I had just been on a 6am Singapore-Manila flight as well just the previous day).

Day 1 Sunday
North Batan island tour – In and around Basco and Mt Iraya, the highest peak in Batan island.

Day 2 Monday
Sabtang island tour – 6am pickup for a 7am, 30-minute ferry to Sabtang island. (It was lucky our guide decided to switch this around from our official itinerary, because the next day proved to be windy and moody, which would mean a more turbulent ferry ride.)

Day 3 Tuesday
South Batan island tour – covers the southern municipalities of Mahatao, Ivana, and Uyugan.

Batanes islands

I regretted that I couldn’t extend my stay. It would have been great to just spend another day or two just going around and returning to the spots we loved best. The rest of our group did stay behind for a few more days, and one couple opted to do a homestay in Sabtang when we nipped over there for the second day.

Still, there is always next time. At some point I would love to visit Itbayat (a 3-4-hour boat ride, or an 8-seater plane). I’ve also found out there is the Vakul Kanayi Festival over at Sabtang on April 25-27, if anyone’s interested in an almost-impromptu trip. ;) Regardless, Batanes was an amazing way to rest and recharge and I will definitely try to come back.

Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind. – Seneca

Souvenirs Coconut crabs Coconut crabs Yawn At Fundacion Pacita House of Dakay Morong Beach Chamantad Tinyan Viewpoint