Travelling to Penang shouldn’t be a dead end; there are some stunning places and experiences just waiting to be discovered a short flight away via the Penang International Airport in the southeast corner of the island. So once you have had your fill of Pulau Pinang, why not carry on with your Far East journey and embrace the wanderlust?
The food is always good in most Asian countries – however, the fine folks in Taipei have taken it to new heights. Hit the street vendors for delicious braised snacks called ‘lu wei’ or Lantern Hot Stew, where you pick assorted ingredients to be served in a special braising sauce; take a Western classic with a twist such as Taiwanese steak, usually served in beef or pork form on a sizzling hot plate over noodles; or push the boat out and try something more adventurous like stinky tofu.
Many of these tasty treats and more can be found at the Shilin Night Market, considered one of the biggest and best in the region. Accessible from the MRT Jiantan Station, the highlight here is the local cuisine on offer, most of which is concentrated at the food court in the west. The oyster omelette comes highly recommended, as do signature Taiwanese favourites such as bubble tea.
Aim to head to Taipei around the Chinese Lunar New Year, where locals mark the end of the annual celebrations by launching thousands of fire-lit paper lanterns or ‘Kong Ming Lanterns’ into the night sky ala the movie ‘Tangled’; a breathtaking sight. Otherwise, check out the Dragon Boat Festival around the end of May to early June to see muscle-bound teams racing ornate dragon boats to the finish line.
China Airlines is currently the only airline that flies direct from Penang – a five-hour trip – but many other airlines such as AirAsia, Jetstar and Malaysia Airlines also fly there with one stop at Kuala Lumpur, Singapore or even Hong Kong.
Sitting between the mighty Yangtze and Han rivers, Wuhan is central China’s most populous city and has been pivotal in the county’s history for almost 3,500 years. These days, Wuhan continues to play a central role in the country’s development with its status as the transport and art capital of China. It’s a great place to start your trip if you are looking to explore the Middle Kingdom or sample fantastic cuisine from the length and breadth of the country.
Travelling here in springtime (end of March to early April) is advisable to catch the Cherry Blossom Festival, which is when the cherry blossoms in the East Lake area of Wuhan erupt into full bloom. Known as the Wuhan Moshan Cherry Blossom Park, it is one of the most famous cherry blossom parks in China with Japanese cherry trees planted during Japan’s occupation of Wuhan. The area in general is a must-see for flora lovers with over 250 species of trees and thousands of flowers.
Another attraction is the rebuilt Yellow Crane Tower, originally constructed in AD223 and said to be one of the Four Great Towers of China, made famous through legends and an eighth-century poem by Cui Hao. In more recent times, Wuhan was also the birthplace of the Xinhai Revolution, which overthrew the last Chinese Emperor and established the Republic of China; you can find many museums and memorials to this historical event throughout the city.
You can fly Malindo Air thrice a week from Penang directly to Wuhan, which takes just four and a half hours. Getting to your hotel is up to you – a taxi is recommended as Wuhan is huge. However, if you are on a budget and have time on your hands, take the bus to get some lovely views of the East Lake and Yangtze on the way.
HONG KONG, CHINA
If life in Penang is moving too slow and you’re itching to go turbo, why not head to Hong Kong? The city attracts around 28 million tourists a year, which is more than all of South America combined. Literally translated as ‘Fragrant Harbour’ in Chinese, the city is famous for its high-rise dominated skyline and its legendary shopping; glitzy malls boast the biggest international brands while the Tung Choi Street hosts the Ladies’ Market – one of the most well-known street markets in town.
There are plenty of modern attractions to keep you and your kids busy too, such as the Hong Kong Disneyland, Madame Tussauds wax museum and the city’s own Ocean Park. For more traditional definitions of ‘parks’, visit the world-class Hong Kong Wetland Park with recreated wetland habitats or take in the ‘Bay Beneath The Sea’: Hoi Ha Wan Marine Park and its abundance of hard coral and coral fish via a snorkelling trip.
Head out of the busy city by taking the Peak Tram to the top of Victoria Peak and enjoy stunning vistas of the city and surrounding areas – or go even farther afield to islands like Lantau, Lamma and Cheung Chau, which each have unique sights to offer. While not strictly in Hong Kong, Macau is just a ferry ride away; besides testing your fortunes at the tables, the gambling capital of the world also houses some great Portuguese restaurants; a throwback to its history as a colonial settlement.
You can fly direct to Hong Kong from Penang via Dragon Air, Cathay Pacific or Malaysia Airlines. The journey falls just short of four hours. Once you touch down, get a Sold Tourist Octopus card and use the excellent public transport to get around. Be aware that the taxis serve different areas according to colour: blue for Lantau Island, green for New Territories, and red for most of the rest.
HO CHI MINH, VIETNAM
Vietnam has played centre stage to some of the most poignant moments in the last century, and Ho Chi Minh in particular is a must-visit for history buffs. The city is home to the War Remnants Museum, which plunges visitors into a no-holds-barred experience of the brutality of war from both the local and US sides of the story.
Take time to visit the stunning Jade Emperor Pagoda, built in the early twentieth century to honour the highest of the Taoist gods. This atmospheric multi-faith temple is also used by the city’s Buddhists and has many beautiful effigies and carvings, including the famous Hall of Ten Hells. Also check out the Notre-Dame Cathedral, a stunning piece of redbrick architecture nestled among the skyscrapers – in 2005, the Virgin Mary statue in front reportedly shed a tear down her right cheek.
Foodies will love Ho Chi Minh for its international fine dining restaurants, delicious street food and local delicacies unique to Vietnam, and the top floor of An Dong Market features many handicraft stalls run by skilled artisans for authentic Vietnamese souvenirs. Lastly, the city is the ideal starting point for petrol heads wanting to complete the infamous ‘Top Gear’ challenge, where the hosts drove the length of the country between Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi on motorbikes.
Fly from Penang and you will land at Tan Son Nhat Airport, approximately a 45-minute bus journey (Number 152) from the city centre. Make sure you have plenty of local currency when leaving the airport and if taking a taxi or calling an Uber, beware of touts. It costs 10,000 Dong to leave the airport; if they ask for more, you know they are pulling your leg. AirAsia is the only airline that flies direct – a two-hour journey – with flights generally in the afternoon, four times a week.
Need to take a load off and relax after stuffing yourself in the food paradise that is Penang? Look no further than the pristine white beaches and jungles of Krabi. Famous for its crystal clear waters and excellent diving locations in the warm waters of the Andaman Sea, Krabi is a must for recent expats looking for the epitome of tropical paradise.
Ao Nang is one of the most popular beaches in Krabi, and you’ll find massage parlours, spas, hair and nail salons by the dozen around here for relaxation options. Otherwise, join an island tour to go snorkelling around the nearby islands – one of which hosts Maya Bay, filming location of ‘The Beach’ in 1999 that starred Leonardo DiCaprio. On a speedboat, you can venture further out still to the more remote and exotic destinations of Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta.
A must do when not beach-bound is Tiger Cave Temple or Wat Tham Suea. Sitting high up in the northeast corner of Krabi, it is one of the holiest sites for Buddhists in the region. One can expect to feel wholly out of breath by the time you climb the 1,200 steps to the summit, but the view by the giant golden Buddha of the sprawling countryside is worth any pain.
There are direct flights to Krabi from Penang on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday with Firefly. Krabi Airport lies four miles east of the city centre; if you don’t have a ground transfer to your hotel, taxis are easy to get from the counter at a fixed price. They are very used to tourists and a lot more chilled out than the taxis you would find in Malaysia.
The former capital city of Myanmar (Burma), also known as Rangoon, Yangon is slightly under-developed compared to other cities in Southeast Asia. However, it has managed to maintain many of its original British colonial buildings while introducing plenty of development into the city centre over the past two decades.
It’s easy to see why Yangon was called the ‘Garden City of the East’, with its leafy avenues and cool lakes surrounding the numerous stunning golden Buddhist pagodas in the city. The Shwedagon Pagoda is the largest of these and the most sacred, said to be adorned with hairs from Gautama Buddha himself along with no less than 27 metric tons of gold leaf, diamonds and precious stones.
Spend a half day or more at Bogyoke Aung San Market or Scott Market, which houses over 2,000 shops, and you’re sure to pick up a good deal on local clothes, handicrafts or a sham bag – except when it’s closed on Mondays. If you’re feeling adventurous, book a trip or rent a motorbike to one of the beach resorts five hours away on the Ngapali or Chaung Tha beaches; while they’re popular with the locals too, on weekdays you should have the long strips of white sand pretty much to yourself.
Flights operate twice a week through AirAsia to Yangon International Airport. If your hotel doesn’t provide transfers, a taxi costs between 6,500 Kyat (8 USD) to 8,000 Kyat (10 USD) and if possible, book through the booth rather than taxi touts to avoid excessive charges. Don’t expect luxury as most taxis are old and the road surfaces are not the best.