My First Solo Trip: A Visa Run to Penang

As I waited for my plane to take me to Penang it struck me that I hadn’t boarded an international flight alone in exactly 10 years.  It had been a full decade since that trip to Europe and even then I was meeting up with a friend.  Some of my favorite blogs are all about solo female travel (Alex in Wanderland, The Mochilera Diaries and Young Adventuress, to name a few).  But sometimes I can’t help but feel like I’m cut from a different cloth.  Since the age of 18 I’ve always had a travel partner in crime.  Aaron and I have traipsed around the globe together since the day we met and he is always right by my side during my jaunts around the world.  So, if I’m going to be honest, I have to say that I was a little nervous about my first solo visa run to Penang.

There were a few things that gave me pause.  I was scared not to have someone to bounce ideas off of in case the going got tough.  Big or small, something is bound to go wrong when traveling (and it did, but I’ll leave that for another post).  Another issue is that I have zero sense of direction (I’ve been known to get lost going in a straight line) so not having a partner to help me navigate the city and the bus system was going to be interesting.  Then there was the little fact that I wouldn’t have someone to entertain me.  I mean how could I possibly busy myself for three whole days?  But, by far, my biggest fear was having to eat in a restaurant all by myself.

Nerves aside, I was also relieved about the obligatory visa run.  Life in Jakarta has been good but two months in I still haven’t found a job.  With Aaron working full time I’ve been spending day after day looking for work, milling about and going just a little bit stir crazy.  Suffice it to say a getaway sounded really good, even if it was just a visa run.

In Indonesia most tourists visit on a 30-day visa on arrival (VOA) or a 60-day visa.  I was on the latter which can’t be renewed.  The only option is to leave the country.  So I always knew that as soon as my two months were up I would have to exit Indonesia and apply for another visa.  Since Aaron is employed in Jakarta, he doesn’t have to worry about visa runs.  So this time I would be flying solo.  I debated about going to neighboring Singapore – a country that always manages to elude me – but in the end Penang was the cheapest and most appealing option.  Not only had I been there before and loved it, but I’d already visited the Indonesian embassy in Penang in order to secure a visa during my year abroad earlier this year.  So it seemed like the perfect place for a girl who had nerves about her first solo trip.

A colorful facade in the colonial area of George Town, Penang.
A colorful facade in the colonial area of George Town, Penang.

I’m an anxious person by nature.  So it’s no big shock that my stomach was full of butterflies as I flagged down a taxi outside of my apartment in Jakarta.  But on the way to the airport I chatted away with my driver about California, Indonesian food and Obama (they love Obama here) and by the time I arrived at the airport I realized I wasn’t really that nervous anymore.  And the second we touched down in Penang all of those butterflies were replace twofold by pure excitement.  For the first time in two months I didn’t feel like an expat; I felt like a traveler again – and it felt good.  As I always do when I travel, I checked into my hostel, grabbed my camera and set out to explore the historical area of George Town.

If you don’t know this already, there’s nothing I like more than a city where I can spend the entire day just walking around.  People watching, finding cool street art and eating street food are among my favorite activities.  And I must say Penang is the perfect place for these things.

George Town was founded in 1786.  With its well-preserved colonial buildings and historical temples the central part of George Town is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  And it is bursting at the seams with beauty and character.  I spent the better part of three days strolling around the city and by day three I was still uncovering the city’s hidden treasures.

Hidden street art in George Town, Penang.
All around the city street art is found in the most unlikely of places.

Part of what makes George Town so special is its eclectic mix of cultures and religions, which coexist in the compact city of George Town.  Little India is one of my favorite places because it’s a total sensory overload.  There are trippy multi-colored Hindu temples to gawk at, flowing and sparking sarees are sold by every other vendor, and bright and fragrant garlands are arranged on every street corner.

Little India is loud too.  The sound of sitar-infused music blares from huge speakers, while hawkers constantly beckon passersby to buy their goods.  It’s beautifully chaotic.  And, I must mention that some of my favorite street food in all of Penang is found in Little India, from piping hot samosas to freshly tossed chapati (flatbread) to fruity beverages.  With all this hecticness going on around me I realized I was a fool to think I would be bored in such a vibrant city.

Colorful garlands in Little India - Penang, Malaysia

Little India - Penang, Malaysia

It still boggles my mind that just a few blocks outside of Little India lies Penang’s Chinatown. It’s so close, yet it feel like it’s worlds away.  The noise dies down, the storefronts all have Chinese characters, and the buildings are a little more rundown.  The smooth scent of incense hangs in the air, elderly men and women stand guard in their storefronts and ornate temples are sprinkled along the neighborhood’s streets.

Colonial buildings in Chinatown - Georgetown, Penang
There’s something beautiful about these aging buildings.

Chinatown - Penang, Malaysia

Every few hours the soothing sound of the Muslim call to prayer would fill the air.  I spent so much time wandering around the Buddhist and Hindu areas of George Town but the call to prayer was always a not-so-subtle reminder that Malaysia is in fact a predominantly Islamic country.  Women wearing headscarves and even burkas are a common sight here.  And the influence of Islam is made apparent by the beautiful mosques that are scattered around George Town.

Kapitan Keling mosque, Georgetown - Penang, Malaysia

As it turns out Penang was an easy place to travel solo.  The city is endlessly entertaining.  One thing I relished about my first solo travel adventure was that I could take my time.  I could move slowly and snap as many photos as my heart desired.  My horrible sense of direction ended up working to my advantage because it just so happens that George Town is the perfect place to get lost.  I didn’t have a map, or a phone, or a guidebook.  I went wherever my feet steered me.  I spent my days admiring the crumbling colonial buildings, finding beauty in their chipped paint and mold patina.  I sought out the city’s hidden street art, dodged eager vendors, sampled delicious street food, and stumbled across hidden gems like a centuries-old Protestant cemetery.  In the end I even conquered my fear of eating alone.  And, as it turns out, it wasn’t so bad.  After all, a girl’s gotta eat and Penang is famous for its food.  And for a vegetarian like me Penang is pretty much a dream come true.  The Indian food and Chinese Buddhist vegetarian buffets were nothing short of amazing.

Crumbling colonial buildings - Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

A couple example's of Penang's funky street art - George Town, Penang, Malaysia
A couple examples of Penang’s funky street art.
The Old Protestant Cemetery - Penang, Malaysia
The Old Protestant Cemetery is over 200 years old. It’s not a big tourist draw but in my opinion it’s well worth a visit.

Aside from the taxi ride from hell coming back to my apartment in Jakarta (more on that later) my trip went off without a hitch.  That visa run offered me a much needed getaway.  And traveling solo – learning to depend on myself a little more – was a great experience for me.  And one that’s opened me up to the idea of traveling alone more often during my time in Indonesia.

So how about you – do you prefer flying solo or traveling with a partner?  Why do you prefer it?

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

18 thoughts on “My First Solo Trip: A Visa Run to Penang

  1. I agree that Penang is pretty awesome, no matter what kind of traveler you are: solo/couple/family, foodies, artsy, wanderer, shopper, photographer… I’ve visited twice and every time I’ve visited, I’ve discovered something new about the place, even though it’s not very big at all.

    I’ve never really done the solo travel thing either and, given that I’m married, I’m not sure I ever really will. I do respect the women who travel on their own and I wouldn’t be averse to doing the same, but despite being an introvert, I think one of the things I like most about traveling is having someone to share my experiences with. I know it probably sounds lame, but if I were going to be by myself for a couple of days, I probably wouldn’t spend those traveling, I’d be more inclined to do stuff like read a book or take long bubble baths, etc.,

    Anyway, I’m glad your time flying solo was a success and that you enjoyed Penang as much the second time as you did the first!

    1. I’ve been with my boyfriend for a very long time and because we met when I was 18 I’ve never really considered the whole solo travel thing. I agree that having someone to experience the ups and downs of travel with is something I really enjoy. There were more than a few occasions when I missed having Aaron there — mostly I missed having someone to laugh at the all funny things that happened to me. But, all in all, the solo travel experiment was a great experience and it’s totally something I would consider in the future, that is if Aaron can’t come along! Ha, if I had a bathtub (or hot water for that matter) here in Jakarta I would probably take my alone time to do the same thing!

  2. Hmm, on my recent travel, I’ve been debating this with myself. Personally, I love travelling solo because it’s all on me to make the decision.
    Perhaps I’ve been off travelling since my last trip in Jan but it took me some time to find my “travel legs” so to speak and also to adjust to travelling with a friend.
    I don’t know. I suppose, for me, it really depends on the place and whether it is receptive to solo female travellers.
    I would be just as nervous if I’m going somewhere that I’m not familiar with alone too so kudos on getting this done on your own…
    sha recently posted…Stairs in Seoul – The Bane of my Existence

    1. Thanks Sha! I was proud of myself for proving that I could depend on myself while abroad. But I was also happy that I actually really enjoyed the experience. Since you’re such a seasoned solo traveler I can see how traveling with others can be an adjustment. Aaron and I have been traveling together for so long that it’s just second nature to have him around. But when I’ve traveled with friends and family in the past it has been a huge adjustment, mainly because our travel styles and interests are different.

  3. I’ve never traveled solo either… always with girlfriends and now usually with Dan (my hubby). My biggest fear is that I’m soooo extroverted, I have to externalize everything – who would I talk to? lol! I’d totally be that crazy lady no one wants to get stuck with… I love the doorways and street art in your pics – so gorgeous! Hope you got your visa renewal was smooth, except for that taxi ride (?)! And I hope you found salsa 😉
    Katie recently posted…Oktoberfest Zinzinnati (that time I ate a lot of balls)

    1. I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who has never traveled solo! Haha, it’s funny that your biggest fear is that you’re too much of an extrovert. My biggest issue is that I’m too much of an introvert. It would do me some good to meet someone like you on the road because you would pull me out of my shell 😉 I had zero issues getting my visa, so I’m good to go for 60 more days. Ugh, I’m going to write about the taxi ride very soon. I was not fun! Oh, and speaking of salsa – Aaron and I finally found cilantro and we made a huge batch of salsa this weekend! We’ve almost eaten all of it 🙂

  4. In the past, I’ve greatly enjoyed solo travel and I will probably continue to do solo travel (My desire to do solo travel was sparked by a 2004 trip with friends to Thailand that left something to be desired). But recently, my father came to visit me in the U.K. and I greatly enjoyed showing him around my bit of Yorkshire. So I realized how fun group travel can be.
    Rashaad recently posted…A (somewhat unexpected) visit…

    1. I took to being on my own way better than I thought I would and I would love to take more solo trips in the future. I actually really enjoyed myself. Traveling with friends and family can be so wonderful. But it can just as easily get really frustrating. I personally love having people around. But, like you, I suppose I’m open to all different types of travel!

  5. Nice article. Glad you discovered the famous street art of Penang. I didn’t visit that cemetery, but I can relate to you regarding the continuous call to prayer, sometimes as early as 4am! It’s just the way of life there, although it takes a while for an outsider to get used to! 🙂 btw, I cannot comment or ‘like’ these posts on WordPress anymore, do you know why not?
    Backpacker Lee recently posted…The Mekong Phenomenon

    1. Thanks Lee! I love, love street art. That might be one of my favorite things about Penang. Next time you’re there you should go to the cemetery. It’s really cool. I’ve lived in Jakarta for two months and the call to prayer still stops me in my tracks. I think I’m adjusting to it but I wonder if I’ll ever get completely used to it. As far as the comments go, I moved to a self-hosted site a few weeks ago. I’m pretty sure my posts don’t show up in the reader anymore! Sad 🙁

  6. Woohoo, first solo trip! It’s funny that eating alone was one of your biggest fears about it, so many people seem to be uncomfortable with that idea–but I agree, it’s not so bad! It’s nice to just people watch and have quiet moments to yourself. Happy you enjoyed it and that you’re up for more solo travel, it can be immensely liberating! And thanks for the shoutout, girl! 😀
    Leah recently posted…Friday Snapshots: Flowers of Costa Rica

    1. It’s like an initiation! Ha, eating alone was not something I was looking forward to. It’s funny, even my mom (who is a super independent person) said that eating by herself would be the one thing that would make her uncomfortable. I guess I get it from her! I ate my first meal at an empty Indian restaurant and I got a little weirded out when another guest came in and set directly across from me. But, it was just fine! I’m happy I liked flying solo too. I should probably take advantage of being unemployed and travel while I can 😉

    1. I can’t believe it took me so long to try solo travel! I can see why you love it so much 😉 Penang is so full of character. Seriously wandering the streets there never gets old; there’s always something new to discover. Little India is one of my favorite areas in Penang. I love the chaos of it and the food is to die for!

  7. Haha, so funny! Penang is the one place I’ve been solo too! Though it was only for 24 hours, cuz my friend left earlier… and I was so sick all I could do was make it the acupuncture down the street and back to the airport! 😉

    I definitely do not like solo travel though…I’m far too introverted to wander around by myself in a strange city. I just feel so uncomfortable! I totally understand the benefits, but it’s just not for me… 🙂
    Shelley recently posted…7 Places to be Dazzled by Fall Foliage in Korea

    1. How funny that you went solo there too! Ah man, it’s no fun being anywhere when you’re sick. I feel you on the solo travel thing. I honestly wondered how I would take to it. I kinda envisioned myself staying in my hotel room for three solid days, being too self-conscious about being alone to enjoy myself. But given that my hotel was undergoing construction and located night next to a concert stage, it was far too loud to hang out in. And I kinda enjoyed wandering around by myself. The eating alone thing probably isn’t for me though. Maybe I just need practice 😉

  8. Hey! Ive actually got a question about the visa run itself! Im heading to Indonesia later this year and planning ahead as Im sure ill need to do one in order to have enough time to do all the things I want to do!
    How long were you in Penang for and do you know if theres a certain amount of time you need to be out of Indonesia before you can return with a renewed visa?
    Did you go to the embassy in Penang and get a 60 day visa (Ive just heard its a good place to do so whereas London where Im from is apparently a nightmare!) or did you just fly back into Jakarta and get a 30 day VOA?
    Glad your trip was good, I liked this article since Ive been travelling a few years but with someone the whole time and this upcoming trip will really be my first to somewhere new ALONE!

    1. It really depends on how long you want to stay. If you want to stay for 60 days, then you should either arrange a 60-visa at an Indonesian embassy outside of the country OR get a Visa on Arrival when you get to Indonesia. You can extend the VOA ONE TIME for 30 more days. Then you have to leave the country and repeat the process. If you do want to extend your 30-day stay, make sure to purchase the VOA before you go through immigration. You can also get into the country for 30 days without a visa, but there’s no way to stay longer if you don’t purchase the VOA (this is a new thing).

      Arranging a 60-day visa was easy in Penang (but I haven’t done it recently). I think it took like 1-2 days?

      You don’t have to be out of Indonesia for a specific amount of time to do a visa run. You can basically just fly in and out of Indonesia the same day if you’re going to do a visa run.

      I hope this helps. Good luck and happy travels 🙂

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