Sunday I began my trip to Penang Malaysia. It was a place we had discussed seeing, and at one point even discussed making Malaysia our destination instead of Thailand. Certainly the incentives by the Malaysia government make it much more attractive with their Malaysia My Second Home program.
We had heard from several people that the issue of tolerance would be a challenge there, despite the incentives. And I had been told that Penang itself was a very dirty and inhospitable place. But like everything, we have found that stories are sometimes based on a superficial experience, so it is always better to see for yourself. We have heard many stories about Thailand as well, and found them to be mostly untrue from our experiences. So I heared out alone on this trip, stil not having found a way to have the dogs and cat taken care of for us to both travel away for any period of time. Although we have located a place not far that looks promising.
Normally the trip to the airport costs about 800Baht (except when your arrive after midnight and they will try to charge you 1500 Baht). See the footnote on Taxi Wars at the end of this post for more current information......This time due to the short duration, I decided I could manage with a backpack and carry-on for the camera equipment. So I took the motorbike, which you can park for free in the motorbike parking area to the left of the airport. I managed to find this out through the Thai Visa Forum, as the Phuket Airport Web page is rather ambiguous about it. One piece of advise was to make sure you did not park under any tree's due to the accumulation of bird poop you may find when you get back. The alternative of course it to park in the open space and get on a bike with a super heated seat. I decided I could manage a hot seat better than riding a poop covered bike back home, so I opted for open space parking. The direction sign for the parking area indicates straight ahead, where you end up at a police road check, who kindly direct you back to the road where the straight ahead direction arrow is and you turn left, down that road, to park. Lesson learned for next time. I went to the terminal and tried to check in with Firefly airlines. I was directed to terminal 2. At terminal 2, I was directed to go back to terminal 1. Great, I thought, I will be at the airport in time, but not be at the check-out, on time. I have noticed that lately many airlines are closing their check in counters anywhere from 30-50 minutes prior to scheduled flight departure. Eventually I managed to find the check-in area, in terminal 1, and proceeded through Immigration, to the international departures area, and Gate 66. I mention this as it is the only double digit gate in the area and it seemed they were using this gate to load all flights departing from Phuket for international destinations. They even call the flights and have signs up showing which flights will be called in what order.
Promptly at the scheduled boarding time, you are processed, down a flight of stairs and into a bus, across the tarmac and board, the twin prop aircraft. Unfortunately I do not know the specific aircraft name or model, but it seats I estimate about 60 people with two rows of 2 seats on both sides of the aircraft. It seems the company is owned by a construction company, as each of the overhead storage bins have an advertisement for them, and the in-flight magazine is the company magazine primarily on their condo construction projects. A bag of peanuts, or some chocolate cake, a cup of Apple juice and one hour later you arrive in Penang. This time you off load from the back of the aircraft and walk across the tarmac to the terminal building, walk through the international departures lounges and duty free shops, to the immigration control. I am fortunate to travel on a Canadian passport, and as part of the Commonwealth Countries, I do not need a visa in advance and get an automatic 90 visitors pass. The process is fast and courteous. This is probably enabled by the fact that they give you your arrival/departure cards to fill out in Phuket before you get on the plane, and in case you forgot or lost it, they offer again on the flight. Right after processing at Immigration, the baggage carousel is right there, and my bag was already traveling around on the conveyor belts.
The airport is certainly dated, but it is fairly well marked and despite the somewhat tight confines, it is efficient. But I have to say the highlight of the trip was the part I always dread the most, getting a ride to my hotel. Too often I find myself swarmed by taxi drivers, sometimes legitimate, most times not, following or grabbing at you to take their car at many airports around the world. And if you have no idea of the price, you usually find you paid WAY too much. I have been known to head through the swarm to get away from them to try and collect my thoughts, only to find I have walked out to the middle of a parking lot, and gotten completely turned around. There was a memorable trip to Spain with Clive, which I learned to deal with it instead of run from it. Penang however has what I consider to be one of the best practices, and probably at other places in the world too, but my first experience with it; you go to the taxi stand inside the airport. No one is there to intercept you and you cannot hire a taxi without a paid receipt. The fares are standardized, you simply give the destination, it is punched into the computer and it spits out a ticket, that you give the next taxi driver in the taxi stand rank. No way for him to decided the fare it too little for him. It is a fare and he has to take you.
And so I was transported to my hotel in historic Georgetown, efficiently and by a very cheerful driver, who did not try to cross sell me on tours or going to a gem shop. I was initially surprised at the size of Penang. It is in fact a very large place, and what I had understood was small and quaint Georgetown is in fact a large vibrant city core.
The Taxi Wars In Phuket
As a side note, when I returned to Phuket, I see the taxi drivers here put up barricades last week at the cruise ship terminal again, due to them feeling they were being put out of business as the cruise ships were hiring tour buses, http://www.phuketgazette.net/archives/articles/2011/article10162.html The same thing happened with the US Navy last year when they hired buses for the servicemen to get around the island. The agenda for the vice counsels with the governor here is normally always about the issues of taxi's and pricing. For the traveller however, it is simple, there is a taxi stand at the airport in phuket, located outside the building to the right, go there, buy a ticket for a standard fare and get a taxi. Or take a metered taxi and have the driver turn it on. Contrary to some information I have seen, they do have metered taxi's here.