I’m in Penang! And it is so, so good.
As spontaneous as my decision was to book a flight here, I knew the minute I arrived in Georgetown that I had made the right decision. Standing on the crowded public bus, I watched as the increasing glow of dawn slowly illuminated the old pastel shophouses. Motorscooters weaved their way through traffic, and people crossed the street at will, almost as if the cars weren’t there at all, the way I’ve only ever seen in Southeast Asia. Even at sunrise, the air was already so humid that it clung to my skin like a damp sheet.
It was a world apart from Australia. It hit me hard and fast, and I relished it.
I’ve been here now for a week and a half. It’s been full of travel highs, along with some serious lows — but hey, shit happens, right? Here’s my life in travel right now: the good, the bad and where I’m going next.
Here in Penang, I feel like I’ve returned to my travel roots.
I left the United States for the first time way back in 2010, when I boarded a seventeen-hour flight to Mumbai to spend a month in rural India. A few years later, after graduating from university, I moved to Thailand to teach English and travel around Southeast Asia. If it was that first trip to India that finally made all the travel dreams I’d grown up with real and attainable goals, it was living in Thailand that convinced me travel had to be a serious part of my lifestyle. After that year, I knew that the usual one or two weeks of vacation time allowed by most full-time jobs back home just wouldn’t cut it.
Which brings me here. Arriving in Penang immediately stirred up nostalgia for my time in both India and Thailand. It’s a multicultural hub, influenced mostly by Malay, Indian, Chinese and English colonial cultures, as well as by the Thai, Arabs and Burmese. As sleep-deprived as I was by the time I finally made it to my hostel in Georgetown, I grabbed only a quick shower and coffee before hitting the streets with my camera. I wandered around the historic district and got lost, ate samosas and drank spicy chai tea the likes of which I haven’t tasted since India. For me, that first morning in Penang was more than simply a refreshing change from Australia — it was a re-energizing dose of the familiar inspirations that first motivated me to travel.
The hostel I chose also turned out to be a big win. The longer I’ve traveled, the more I’ve realized how much the backpacking scene can change from country to country and hostel to hostel. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve figured out that not every backpacking scene is my scene — which is perfectly okay! Still, I have to love it when the right strangers seem to come together in the right place at the right time. That kind of hostel magic can absolutely make a trip, and here in Penang, I’ve been seriously lucky with the people who’ve crossed my path. Already, I know I’ve met heaps of people I’ll be seeing again in my travels.
For all the good I’ve found in Penang, my time here hasn’t been all smooth sailing.
There was, first, the matter of my actually getting here. My early wake-up in Melbourne led to an eight-hour flight, a six-hour layover in Singapore, another late flight and — because I arrived in Penang just after midnight and couldn’tcheck into my hostel until the next morning — a long six hours of waiting at the airport with the night cleaning staff. Luckily I had some chats with friends back home to get me through it, but between that and my full day of excited exploration in Penang, it made for a very long couple of days without sleep. The things I’ll do to get the cheapest flight!
Much worse was the food poisoning.
Admittedly, after a night of catching up with an old friend from Melbourne at a bar that serves free drinks for ladies for five hours everyday (seriously!), I thought that I was merely suffering the world’s most agonizing hangover. Then I got these excruciating abdominal cramps that very nearly rank as the worst pain I’ve ever been in, which is when I realized that choosing a fried egg that had likely been sitting in the sun for awhile at the buffet-style food cart where we had brekkie was most definitely not a good decision.
It wasn’t the only time I’ve had food poisoning, but it was one of the worst. After three painful days and mostly sleepless nights, I’m finally on the mend. You can bet that I won’t be giving up street food — it’s one of the reasons I came to Penang! — but I will be a little wiser with my decisions. (As a sidenote, Jodi from Legal Nomads published an excellent post about how to eat street food this week. Definitely don’t be scared of eating street food! It’s usually the best stuff around, and in all of my travels around India and Southeast Asia, the handful of times I’ve been sick were more often from restaurants than street food. This was an exception, and my mistake.)
Bottom line? Travel isn’t always glamorous, my friends.
WHAT’S TO COME
For now, I’m slowing things down. After an amazing long stretch of travel at the end of my year in Australia, I’m going to make Penang my home base for a little while. I’ll be catching up on work and writing, exploring this island to my heart’s content and letting my bank account take a much-needed breath.
You can expect to see a lot more of Penang coming up — in fact, I’ll be starting a series of posts from here tomorrow! I’ve decided to mix things up a little bit on the blog. Instead posting everything Australia, I’ll be posting from my current travels in Asia on Mondays and continuing sharing my (mostly) chronological travels from Australia on Wednesdays. Fridays will be be a little bit of a mixed bag, alternating between these biweekly updates and whatever else I can’t wait to share.
As for what’s next? After spending my last couple of months daydreaming about a dozen different combinations of travel destinations, I’ve finally set my sights on two: the Philippines and Borneo! I’m honestly ecstatic about both of these, the Philippines being the country I most regretted missing during my last trip around Southeast Asia, and Borneo being the most recent of my outdoorsy destination obsessions. I know that hiking and diving will be my biggest priorities, but I’m looking for any and all suggestions! Have you been? Send your tips my way 🙂
Right now, I’m in the middle of Richard Flanagan’s Tasmania-based novel Gould’s Book of Fish. I’m reading it with my mom, who sent it over with my sister as a Christmas gift. I’ll get back to you when I’m finished, but so far, it’s a beautifully written and darkly funny read.
I’ve been playing Flume’s “Never Be Like You” and Boy & Bear’s “Man Alone” over and over this week. There’s also been a lot of Justin Bieber in my life lately, more because he’s in such heavy rotation at my hostel than because of my own choice.
& Feeling Inspired by…
Last week, I Am Aileen shared this dive operation’s article about why not to swim with whale sharks in Oslob. I’m a big advocate of doing your research before signing up for any activity involving animals, and I’m definitely against any tour that involves baiting wildlife. After years of scheming to swim with whale sharks, doing so responsibly is on my must-do list in the Philippines. The internet’s also been giving me lots of reasons to get excited about going home (you know, temporarily) in April. Most recently, National Geographic named Richmond, Virginia — where I spent my high school years — as one of its top foodie destinations for 2016. I’m definitely planning on reacquainting myself Richmond’s food-and-drink scene when I visit my dad there this summer!