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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?