Tips for Travelling Overseas with a Baby

We’ve just returned from 2 weeks on the west coast of the USA with our 7 month old daughter. :D It was a different travelling experience to how we usually roll but I’m so glad we did it because we had a great time and most of the things I was most worried about weren’t even a problem! Below is some advice based on our experience.

PDX airport carpet

Go before your bub is mobile

Ideally before 6-9 months. It’s just one less thing to think about if they stay where you put them down! There are different benefits at either end of the pre-crawling age range: when they’re really little they nap easily and frequently and they don’t need a lot of entertainment; at the 6-7 month mark they respond to distractions (toys, food) which can be useful and milk feeds are speedy. Also consider where you might be with solids: before solids involves less stuff/mess, but once they’re starting to get the hang of it they can join in meals with you (baby led weaning is very travel-friendly).

Bassinet allocations are not guaranteed

The general rule seems to be that you can’t be sure you definitely have bassinet seats until you arrive at the airport. Even checking in online doesn’t confirm them – your best bet is to get to the airport as soon as your flight opens and cross your fingers. You can get bumped out of your bassinet seat if a younger baby is travelling on the same flight, which is fair enough, but sometimes airlines give bassinet seats to frequent flyers or passengers they want to impress because of the extra legroom. If you can’t get a bassinet sometimes if you ask nicely at the counter they might be able to put you next to an empty seat if the flight isn’t full – the extra space is helpful and it and can offer a bit more privacy.

Also note that different airlines have different sized bassinets with their own age/height/weight restrictions – check their website for details. You might also want to look into Etihad’s “flying nanny” service which is probably particularly helpful if you’re travelling on your own with the little one.

Babies don’t travel light

Luckily a lot of airlines will let you take up to 3 baby items (eg portacot, car seat, stroller) for free in addition to your checked baggage. You’ve still got to lug it all around though! We took a large suitcase full of her stuff and a portacot, but hired an infant seat with our rental car and used a Manduca carrier instead of a pram.

We had 4 flights: 2 long haul with Qantas and 2 domestic in the US. Because we booked all the tickets through Qantas our baggage allocation was the same on all flights – if we’d booked the domestic flights directly we would have had to have paid extra for checked luggage.

Carry on essentials

Take more nappies than you think you’ll need, wipes, nappy rash cream (under 100g), a change of clothes (and remember it’s often quite chilly on planes because of the air con), zippy swaddle or sleeping bag, cloth nappy/small towel and a variety of toys. If you’ve started solids it’s also handy to have a sippy cup for water (fill it up after you go through security) and some convenient snacks (eg crackers, cheese, fruit – bearing in mind you might have to throw out whatever is left on arrival depending on customs). Snacks and toys can help pass the time on a long haul flight.

I also find it really handy to wear a wrap on plane flights with a baby. They’re easy to pull bub in and out of in a confined space and can be used for naps and/or keeping your hands free during meals. Interestingly, I found that while Australian airport security makes you remove the wrap (even if your baby has fallen asleep in it, argh) American security lets you keep it on. Also, Australian airlines will make you put your baby in an infant seatbelt for take off and landing, but American airlines don’t use them. Both of these things make American airlines very baby-wearing friendly compared to Australian airlines!

Night flights could be the way to go

I thought a day-time long haul flight would be easiest, my theory being that if we didn’t get a bassinet and/or she didn’t sleep all we had to do was keep her distracted the whole time. This didn’t really work out because they still dimmed the lights for people to sleep to help them adjust to the new timezone, but it was too early for her to want to sleep so she just got confused and frustrated then overtired. We got a handful of short naps out of her in the wrap but she wouldn’t sleep in the bassinet. We had a night flight on the way back and she slept much better – 8 hours (made up of 3 naps) in the bassinet and another hour or so on me, hooray!

It might also be better to fly on an older, noisier plane (eg a 747) than a new, quieter plane (eg A380). I suspect the noisier plane might have provided better white noise, and it did a better job of covering up grizzling/crying. ;)

Adjusting to the timezone

Baby jetlag was my biggest worry about the trip but we were incredibly lucky in this department. Even though she didn’t get any decent sleep for about a 24 hour period on the way over she fell into the -17hr timezone surprisingly quickly and adjusted just as easily on our return! I think it was probably mostly luck, but the most useful things I took from the articles I read were:

  • Don’t plan anything for your first day – you might have to write it off
  • Let them nap when they want to, but for no longer than 2-3 hours at a time
  • Make sure they get lots of sunlight and active play when they’re awake, especially for the first day or two
  • Keep the bedtime routine consistent

We didn’t bother attempting to adjust her schedule in the week before we left. You might decide not to fully change your bub over to the new timezone – eg it might be more convenient for them to go to bed a few hours later than usual so you can go out for dinner and get a little sleep in in the morning (although we found that regardless of what time we put her down she generally woke at around 7am).

Road trip it

We love rail travel but driving might be a better way to get around with a little one. You won’t have to worry about disturbing other passengers, you can pull over for a break and feed/change in privacy whenever you like, there’s a good chance they’ll be able to nap and it carries all your stuff for you (no lugging all your items from accommodation to tram to platform to carriage etc). Try not to plan any more than 3-4 hours of driving a day – err on the side of less so you’re not rushing and break it into a morning and afternoon drive so bub can nap and you can stop somewhere for lunch.

Pay for convenience

It’s a little painful if you’re normally a budget traveller, but it’s worth it. Fly with a good airline at times that will work for your baby. Rent an airbnb apartment with a bath, living space and bedroom instead of staying in a single hotel room so you can give your bub a bath as part of their bedtime routine then put them down in the bedroom while you spend the evening in the living area. Find an airport transfer service that uses a mini bus or can offer an infant seat (taxis don’t) unless public transport will take you from your door to the airport (I recommend Simon Says in Portland!).

Have fun!

Most importantly, enjoy yourselves! The long haul flights were long and it was a more expensive trip than usual for us, but I think our little one enjoyed taking in new sights and sounds, charming people in queues and cafes, and spending extra time with the two of us. I’m not sure where our next trip will take us yet (possibly somewhere closer to home), but I’m looking forward to it already. :)

Lower Yosemite Falls

38 countries in 2.5 years

I added up all the countries we visited in the two and a half years we were away from Australia and the total came to 38. (Or a nicer, neater 40 if you could England, Scotland and Wales separately. ;) Here is the grand rundown!

38 countries - 17% of the world

(Cities listed are those we stayed overnight for one or more nights and don’t include day trips or other places we visited on the way from one to another.)

JULY – DECEMBER 2010

Before settling in the UK we spent almost half a year travelling around Europe. This was something we’d always wanted to do and we thought once we’d achieved it we’d feel a sense of satisfaction and completion – gotten it out of our system, so to speak. Buuut, if anything, it only made us want more.

  • SINGAPORE
  • THE UK: London, Bristol, Wales
  • THE NETHERLANDS: Rotterdam, Amsterdam
  • BELGIUM: Brussels, Bruges
  • FRANCE: Tours, Toulouse
  • SPAIN: Barcelona
  • PORTUGAL: Lisbon, Porto, Faro
  • SPAIN: Seville, Granada
  • GIBRALTAR
  • MOROCCO: Fez, the Sahara desert, Dades Gorge, Marrakesh
  • ITALY: Milan, Levanto, Rome, Sant Agnello
  • CROATIA: Zadar, Mukinje, Split, Dubrovnik, Zagreb
  • MONTENEGRO: Kotor
  • BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA: Mostar, Sarajevo
  • HUNGARY: Budapest
  • AUSTRIA: Vienna
  • CZECH REPUBLIC: Prague
  • POLAND: Krakow
  • GERMAN: Berlin, Bremen, Hamburg

(flickr collection)

Total travel time: 21 weeks
Total cost including all transport, accommodation, food and expenses: ~AU$16,000 per person

2011 – JULY 2012

We then lived and worked in London for 19 months but we tried to squeeze in travel whenever we could. After all, it’s easier to pop over to Paris for a few days from London than is is from Melbourne, so we had to make the most of it while we were over there! As well as weekends and day trips to various towns around the UK (and a week each driving around Scotland and Cornwall) we also visited:

JULY – DECEMBER 2012

By this time I’d started this blog and did my best to post at least once for every country we visited. If you kept up on this second trip by travelling along virtually with us via this blog, thank you and I hope you enjoyed the ride!

(flickr collection)

Total travel time: 20 weeks
Total cost including all transport, accommodation, food and expenses: ~AU$18,300 per person

(I feel like we actually travelled more cheaply in 2012 than we did in 2010 but I think the reason we spent more money is because the second trip included some particularly expensive countries (Scandinavia, Japan, etc) and the Trans-Mongolian leg cost a lot because it was privately organised tour and we also had to secure three pricey visas to undertake it.)

occasionally asked questions »

Return to Aus

We landed back in Australia on the 10th of December 2012, setting foot on home soil for the first time since we left on the 20th of July 2010.

To stretch out our travel time for as long as possible, we flew into Brisbane where we caught up with friends and family before hiring a car and driving down the east coast to Newcastle over the course of a week. We stopped off at various places along the way and spent a couple of nights each in Byron Bay, Coffs Harbour and Tuncurry. It was the first time I’d been to any of those places and we were particularly impressed with Byron Bay. We knew it was popular and expected it to be packed out, but luckily we must have beat the main summer holiday rush because it wasn’t busy at all. The town has a nice laid-back vibe and the many beaches certainly are beautiful: some of the nicest, clearest water I’ve seen at an Australian beach.

Clarke's Beach, Byron Bay

Alex stayed on in Newcastle to be with his family over Christmas and I ducked down to Melbourne to spend it with mine. It was wonderful to see them again after so long! My dad came over to visit while we were living in London but I hadn’t seen my mum since we left Australia so it was particularly nice to see her again after all this time.

And, much to my delight, our cat Jonty (who has been living with my parents while we were away) remembered who I was! (And he didn’t hold our extended absence against me as I’d feared he might.)

Reunited

So what’s it like being back in Australia after all this time? It was a bit strange at first, mostly because we didn’t go home straight away. Spending our first week and a bit travelling through parts of Australia that were new to us gave us the strange sensation of things seeming both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

The main things I’ve been struck by since our return are things I used to know but had forgotten in the meantime. Some random observations and impressions…

  • Houses and property that locals consider small seem almost enormous to us after living in apartments for so long.
  • Likewise, pet dogs are often bigger than we must have been used to!
  • People seem to apologise more than they do in London, just for the sake of being polite. It’s refreshing – I don’t think people do it as much in London because for fear of inviting blame.
  • Some chains commonly seen in Britain have made their way to Melbourne – spotted Zara and WH Smith in the city. Bring on H&M!
  • People in retail shops are too friendly. ^_^; I don’t really want to respond to two or three “hello”s and “how are you”s when I’m just sticking my head in a shop for a quick browse. I used to work in retail myself so I know they’re required to do it, and it’s really just a common courtesy, I guess I just got used to being ignored in shops. :P
  • Eating and drinking out is so expensive – up to $40 for a main meal and up to $20 for an alcoholic drink! Of course it’s not always as bad as that, but it is pretty bad in general…
  • Internet is painfully capped and expensive to boot.
  • Petrol is cheaper than in the UK though!
  • Dan Murphy’s has an excellent range of international beers that we can enjoy while reminiscing about our travels (as long as we don’t compare the price between here and where it comes from).
  • James Squire seems to have overtaken Coopers as the Aussie beer de rigueur.
  • Also, alcoholic ginger beer seems to have become quite popular in Australia (yay!), as have flavoured ciders.

Otherwise it’s been strange but nice seeing familiar sights again, especially with fresh eyes. I also noticed a lot of changes around Melbourne – new shops and restaurants, and a lot of the ones that are still there have been rebranded. (Looking good, Commonweath Bank.) I went on a bike ride with Dad on Boxing Day which culminated in a view of the city skyline from the bridge near the MCG. Every time I come back to Melbourne after time overseas this sight brings an automatic big smile to my face: that little handful of skyscrapers – so small compared to so many other cities, but it’s home.

Melbourne skyline

I came back up to Newcastle to join Alex and his friends for New Year’s eve and we’ve been up here since then.

We both officially return to Melbourne on the 10th of January.

So, the next task is to settle back into Melbourne and return somewhat to The Real World. I don’t have any New Year’s resolutions but I do want to get back into swimming, cycling, cooking, baking and knitting, most of which I neglected while we were living in London. My Mum also recently introduced me to Zentangle which I’ve played around with and find inspiring. Then there’s that wedding to plan, and I’m sure our travelling days aren’t over. And I’d like to keep blogging, of course – I’ve got a few ideas up my sleeve. :)

Singapore stopover

The last country we visited on our 2012 five month world tour was Singapore (5-9 December). Singapore makes an excellent stopover for anyone heading in or out of Australia: not only is Changi the best airport I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting, Singapore has just enough great attractions for you to comfortably see in about four days. We spent a few days in Singapore on our way out of Australia in 2010 and were keen to come back on the return journey. Visiting at the start and end made Singapore feel like neat bookends to the stories of our 2.5 years away from home.

ArtScience Museum

Accommodation

The budget traveller will find accommodation frightfully expensive in Singapore. Anything under SGD$150 is likely to land you in a dodgy budget hotel and the decent ones only start at around SGD$200. There are quite a few hostels with funky modern interiors which look nice and are cheaper than hotels but they seem to specialise in enormous dorms of 20+ beds (our personal limit is 6).

My current favourite source of accommodation, Airbnb, provided us with the perfect solution for Singapore. Sarah’s apartment is located right above the Chinatown MRT stop and has three rooms available to travellers. The facilities are excellent, the price is reasonable and Sarah is a very accommodating host. And check out the view!

Chinatown

Top 10 things to do in Singapore

  1. Singapore Zoo and Night Safari. If you want to get there by public transport take the MRT to a nearby station then a bus. When you exit the MRT touts will try to get you to take one of their private minivans, but you’ll save money (and feel triumphant) if you can find the local bus.
  2. Singapore Botanic Gardens. Free to visit (except for the orchid section) and a beautiful place to spend some time over a picnic lunch or with a good book.
  3. Chinese and Japanese Gardens. These two themed gardens are right next to each other and also very nice to explore, although they are a bit more exposed than the Botanic Gardens so try to avoid them at the hottest part of the day. You can also visit The Live Turtle and Tortoise Museum in the of the Chinese Gardens.
  4. ArtScience Museum. An excellent new museum that features an interesting program of exhibitions fusing elements of art, science and design. While you’re in the area you can also walk across the distinctive Helix Bridge which offers excellent views of the museum as well as the famous Marina Bay Sands building.
  5. Marina Bay Sands SkyPark Observation Deck. The view from the top of this famous building is impressive but pricey at SGD$20 per person. I felt it was only worth doing if the weather was really nice, which unfortunately it wasn’t when we were there. Visit the website for info about ArtScience Museum combo tickets and the free guided tours available.
  6. Vivo City. Singapore has many mega malls but Vivo City is the biggest. You could happily while away an afternoon here if you need some relief from the heat.
  7. Sentosa Island. From Vivo City you can take the to Sentosa Island. It features a whole host of attractions but you don’t have to spend a lot of money if you don’t want to. There’s plenty to see just wandering around and it also has the closest thing Singapore has to a beach (well, it is a beach, but it’s man-made).
  8. Little India. Take a stroll around the streets to witness lots of local character with colourful sights and sounds. You can also visit Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple and the big 24 hour Mustafa shopping centre.
  9. Cycling tour. Bike Mike told us about the tours he was planning to start in Singapore when we met in him in Copenhagen earlier this year. Unfortunately the tours hadn’t started by the time we got to Singapore but they seem to be running now. The price is rather steep but I think it would be a great way to see the city, and Mike is quite a character.
  10. Clarke Quay. Worth a wander in the evening for some people-watching and night photography, but avoid the multitude of bars and restaurants which are touristy and expensive.

ArtScience Museum

Good eats

Singapore is more expensive than Malaysia but food can still cheap by most European, and certainly Australian, standards. For the most authentic experience immerse yourself in its hawker-style food courts.

  • The one at the base of the People’s Park Centre in Chinatown was the cheapest and least busy one we visited (make sure you go inside the sheltered area, not just around the outside which can get quite crowded).
  • There’s a popular one near Bugis which gets pretty packed (be prepared to swoop on and defend a seat) but if you don’t mind the crowd the food is good and the stalls offer a little bit of everything.
  • Lau Pa Sat is nice but costs a little bit more than the two above.
  • The food court at Newton Circus is well known but quite touristy and touty as a result.

Make sure you try chicken rice, any combination of pork and/or duck meat with rice (my favourite ♥), char kway teow and a good laksa.

Also, Ananda Bhavan in Little India (I believe they have other locations too) is a superb vegetarian restaurant where you can sample south Indian cuisine as well as the more well-known northern dishes. Try going there for a hearty Indian breakfast that will keep you going for most of the day!

Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, Little India

[more photos 2010 / more photos 2012]

A week in Sri Lanka

The main reason we went to Sri Lanka (28 Nov – 5 Dec) was to visit Alex’s cousin Matt and his family. It was great to see Matt again and wonderful to meet his wife and absolutely adorable son. Then as luck would have it we also got to meet their brand new daughter who arrived three weeks early! We spent most of our time in the country relaxing and hanging out at Matt’s place in Colombo but we also did some sightseeing around town and spent a few days down south to see more of the country.

Statue and carving at Gangaramaya Temple

Things to do in Colombo

  • Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple. Entry is 125 rupees, shoes off, and your knees and shoulders needs to be covered to enter but it’s a fascinating place to visit. It’s a fully functioning temple with people at prayer but the sprawling complex feels more like a museum, chock full of random items that have been donated including statues, ivory, old cars, piles of coins and rusted locks, old bank notes, old radios, old printing presses… even a live baby elephant.
  • Simamalaka shrine. Also part of the Gangaramaya complex but situated nearby on an island in Beira Lake. It’s particularly picturesque lit up at night.
  • Viharamahadevi Park. We didn’t get a chance to visit this park but Matt recommended it and it’s near the temple and shrine mentioned above.
  • The park is also just north of the National Museum, National Museum of Natural History and National Art Gallery. We didn’t make it to these either but the National Museum is supposed to be very good and I believe the National Art Gallery is free.
  • Barefoot. A big, lovely shop full of great gift ideas including tea, clothes, books, beauty products, homewares and handmade linen toys. They also have a nice cafe out the back.
  • Gallery Cafe. A beautiful restaurant housed in the former offices of the late Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. You walk through a small gallery to reach the main restaurant area and a nice gift shop is attached as well.
  • Geoffrey Bawa’s Colombo residence itself is also open to the public and available for tours. I’m afraid this is another lovely thing that we didn’t get around to doing in Colombo but you shouldn’t miss out if you’re there!
  • Go for a walk along Galle Face Green. It’s lined with old cannons, food stalls and locals taking a stroll along this seaside promenade.
  • Galle Face Hotel. Even if you’re not staying at this illustrious establishment at the southern end of Galle Face Green you can visit the very pleasant outdoor bar out the back by the water for a drink. It’s an oasis of calm and has received praise from endless famous international visitors… but at the same time it’s a little bit unreal. You won’t find any locals here.

Food stalls on Galle Face Green

Hikkaduwa

On Matt’s suggestion we took a couple of days off to visit Hikkaduwa in the south. We stayed at Hikkaduwa Nature Resort which is tucked away in a mangrove swamp on the edge of a lake and very peaceful. It’s a great place just to sit and do nothing but read, drink from king coconuts and watch monitor lizards swim by.

We stayed in one of the three water bungalows. The staff went out of their way to make sure we had a good time but there were a couple of aspects about the room pricing that were not quite right. When we booked the options were for BB, HB or FB (bed & breakfast, half or full board) and my advice would be just to book BB. It’s significantly more expensive to book additional board and you end up choosing the included meals from a menu that plainly shows it would have been cheaper just to buy them. Also, they recently added air conditioning to the biggest bungalow but it’s noisy, you can’t control the temperature and you can’t really use it at night because it shorts out the site’s power supply, so it’s not worth paying extra for (request one of the two smaller bungalows).

There’s a beach a short tuktuk ride away that looked like it would have been a wonderful place to snorkel, but it’s a bit difficult to relax with a stream of people coming up to you trying to sell clothes or an overpriced boat trip or invite you to a nightclub.

Hikkaduwa is couple of hours by train from Colombo (the ride being a fun experience in itself!) and if you have the time while you’re down there you could also visit Galle which is nearby.

Hikkaduwa Nature Resort

A few pieces of advice

It’s a familiar story: the tuktuks have fare meters but not all drivers like to use them. Before you get in, point to the meter and ask “meter?” If the driver is going to use it they’ll just switch it on straight away without a word and you can hop right in. If they start saying anything else you’re not going to be able to convince them to use it – you’ll either have to negotiate a fare or find another tuktuk (of which there are plenty).

To get to and from the airport it’s much better to book a private taxi transfer through an official company. The prices are set depending on what part of Colombo you’re travelling to but vary between different companies.

Exchange your rupees before leaving the country as few currency exchanges will touch them outside of Sri Lanka. Your last chance to do this is at the airport before you proceed to the check-in area (there are several options). If you think you may want to buy anything at the shops and eateries after this point, exchange your rupees for US dollars which are accepted by the airport shops and easily exchanged anywhere in the world. (The only place we’ve come across that will exchange SL rupees outside of SL so far is the Low Cost Carrier Terminal in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.)

Tuktuk ride, Colombo

[more photos]

Malaysia: food, glorious food

Next up after Japan came Malaysia (19-27 November). This started off in planning as a stop over on the way from Japan to Sri Lanka, where we would be visiting Alex’s cousin and his family. But the more we read about Malaysia the longer we wanted to spend there, and in the end we spent more time on the Malaysian “stop over” than we did at the Sri Lankan destination!

Petronas Twin Towers

Kuala Lumpur

We started our 9 day visit to Malaysia with 3 days in KL. We stayed at BackHome, a hostel with a very cool and modern interior design. We booked a private double room with aircon and it was spacious, comfortable and incredibly cheap. They have a partner cafe next door called LOKL Coffee which has a similar interior style and some pretty tasty food on offer, and you get a 10% discount if you’re staying at the hostel.

Most of what I read about KL wrote it off as a shopping destination, and while we did spend a reasonable amount of time in malls recovering from the oppressive humidity outside there are other things to do in KL apart from shop:

  • Malaysia Heritage walking tour. If we’d been a bit more organised we would have arranged to go on this tour but it requires booking in advance by at least one day. It sounds like a great overview of the city but make sure you take plenty of water!
  • Kuala Lumpur Bird Park. “The world’s largest free-flight walk-in aviary” is a great place to spend half a day and put your camera’s fancy zoom lens through its paces. Don’t miss the highly entertaining bird show!
  • Petronas Twin Towers. One of KL’s iconic landmarks. We didn’t go up to the viewpoint (pricey) but there’s quite a good mall at the base with a Kinokuniya and a cinema showing the latest blockbusters (and some Asian films) for 14 ringgit a ticket (~AU$4).
  • Berjaya Times Square. Another huge shopping mall – so big that it contains an indoor theme park complete with roller coasters! Incidentally, this is also a great place to get a bargain haircut (around 40 ringgit – less than AU$13), no appointment necessary.

Flamingos, KL Bird Park

Kuala Lumpur eats

You have to try a little harder in KL to hunt down tasty cheap eats than you do in Penang. Our top three spots would be:

  1. Kak Som, Kampung Baru. Kampung Baru is apparently one of the last remaining Malay pockets left in KL. It’s quite central so it’s incredibly valuable real estate but the original occupants don’t want to sell out. Visit Kak Som and order nasi kerabu (blue rice), then pick and choose your own toppings such as fried chicken and fish. Depending on what you add you can feed two people (two mains and two juices) for less than 20 ringgit (~AU$6).
  2. Soong Kee’s Beef Ball Noodles. A quick and tasty meal for 5-6 ringgit per person (less than AU$2).
  3. Little India.  You can get some tasty thosai, roti canai or any other number of Indian dishes in KL’s Little India. There are also some Chinese-style hawker stalls nearby on Jalan Thambipillay.

In Little India

Penang

When I was researching how much time to spend in Penang the results consistently replied, “Well, how many meals do you want to eat?” Since one of our greatest travel joys is enjoying local food, reading about the food haven that is Penang was terribly exciting. And it did not disappoint!

Food is definitely the number one reason to visit Penang but there are also lots of interesting things to see while you’re digesting in between meals:

  • George Town. The core of Penang’s capital is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s filled with historic buildings such as the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (otherwise known as The Blue Mansion) and Chinese clanhouses such as Khoo Kongsi. Along the water’s edge some are the famous Clan Jetties.
  • Penang Hill. Ride the funicular railway to the top on a clear day for a panoramic view of George Town.
  • Kek Lok Si temple (white pagoda) and Wat Chayamangkalaram temple (reclining Buddha). Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit either of these temples but if you do they look spectacular.
  • Batu Ferringhi. Hit the beach across the road from the Hydro Hotel (less touristy) during the day and central BF in the evening to soak up the atmosphere of the night market. On the opposite side of the road from the market there’s a plethora of cheap massage parlours – we enjoyed (powerful!) 60 minute massages for 50 ringgit each (less than AU$16).
  • Teluk Bahang National Park. Entry is free but you need to register how far you intend to trek before you go in. You’ll probably see monkeys near the entrance and if you’re lucky you might see monitor lizards and turtles inside. The walk does get pretty heavy going after the second bridge though, especially in the heat.

(All of these are easily accessible by public bus but the buses only pass by every 20-30 minutes so it’s not as convenient to pop back and forth all over the place, especially if you’re staying  outside of George Town and need to make all your connections at KOMTAR. As with the Greek islands or Malta, try to avoid doing too much in one day.)

The beach, Batu Ferringhi

Penang eats

Right. Well. First off, head to the tourist information centre to pick up the latest copy of their Food Trail brochure. This lists recommended restaurants and hawkers stalls, but more importantly it lists all the specialty dishes that make Penang famous. We basically used ours as a “to do” list and tried to tick off as many of the dishes listed as we could.

Penang food hunter tips! The dishes are usually not overly big, which is great because it leaves more room to try more dishes. If you’re travelling with a friend or partner, order different dishes and go halves with each other so you get to sample more. When you visit a food court you don’t have to order all your dishes from the one stall – feel free to order as many as you have room for from as many different stalls that tempt you!

You can’t really go wrong with where you eat on Penang, but our three top recommendations are:

  1. Gurney Drive. A huge, super cheap open air hawker’s food court. A great place to tick lots of dishes off your “to eat” list! There are several stalls doing yummy fresh juices too for only ~2 ringgit / AU$0.70.
  2. Line Clear Nasi Kandar, George Town. Nasi kandar is one of Penang’s most famous dishes and Line Clear is one of its most famous restaurants. Join the line and when it’s your turn you can ask for “kari campur” (mixed curry) then choose any meats or veg to be added on top (I recommend the fried chicken). Wash it all down with a refreshing glass of “teh o ais limau” (iced lemon tea without milk).
  3. Seafood restaurant, Teluk Bahang. I’m not even sure what it’s called but you’ll come across it within about a 5 minute walk after leaving the national park. We went there to eat crab. The price depends on the market but when we were there we enjoyed two whole crabs for 26 ringgit each (~AU$8).

Gurney Drive open air food court

Malaysia in a nutshell: cheap, delicious and highly recommended!

[more photos]

To rail pass or not to rail pass – Japan edition

As opposed to a European rail pass, it’s pretty easy to calculate whether a Japan rail pass is going to save you money:

  1. Decide whether you are more likely to spend 1, 2 or 3 weeks in Japan
  2. Plug the trips you plan to take into Hyperdia (make sure Nozomi, Private Railway and Airplane are not ticked under “Search Details”)
  3. Add up the total cost of these routes (note the total cost of each journey is made up of the fare + seat fee)
  4. Compare the grand total with the price of a rail pass for the duration of your stay

(Personally I don’t think it’s worth paying for Green (superior) class as the regular class on Japanese trains is already of a very high standard.)

If it’s a close call it’s probably still worth getting because it makes it easier to take extra day trips and some of the subway lines in major cities (e.g. the Yamanote Line in Tokyo or the Osaka Loop Line) are also covered so you’ll be able to travel on them for free.

(Note that private subway lines are not covered, but you get the bulk of your value from a JR pass by travelling on shinkansen (bullet trains) and local intercity trains.)

We bought JR passes for our recent 3 week visit to Japan and in our case it certainly saved us money:

  • Number of trips taken: 20
  • Average cost of short distance journey (e.g. day trip): ¥390
  • Average cost of long distance journey (e.g. shinkansen/intercity): ¥12,000
  • Total travel value used: ¥88,690
  • Cost of pass: ¥57,700
  • Money saved: ¥30,990 (approx AU$360 or £235)

This is a significant saving, but it’s still a pretty big outlay in the first place. If you want to travel on a tighter budget it might be worth looking into a long distance bus pass as a cheaper alternative. I’ve not travelled this way in Japan myself but we met a couple that were doing it and they said it was comfortable and convenient. They normally took night buses so by the time they woke up they were in their destination, killing the two birds of transport and accommodation with the same stone. (And I don’t know about you, but I certainly sleep more easily on a bus than I do on a plane.)

Tip 1: seat reservations

It’s free to make a seat reservation using a JR pass and you can do it up until minutes before you actually board the train. Sometimes the reserved cars are sold out but if this is the case you can more often than not get a seat in one of the the unreserved cars. However, sometimes the entire train is made up of reserved cars only. If you absolutely must take that train and all the seats are booked out you can try to book “standing only” tickets.

At the end of the day I do think it’s worth the extra effort to make a seat reservation as it just eliminates any uncertainty.

Tip 2: buying a pass while travelling

The biggest rule about a JR pass is that you cannot buy one in Japan. You have to buy a voucher for the pass before you arrive, then you exchange it for the actually pass at any major train station in Japan. This is all good and well if you’re travelling from your home country to Japan and back again, but what if you’ll be on the road for more than 3 months before you hit Japan? (After 3 months a voucher that hasn’t been converted into a pass expires.) We encountered this exact snag on our recent visit.

The good thing is, while you can’t buy a pass in Japan, you don’t have to purchase the voucher in your home country. The official website lists worldwide agencies that you can buy a voucher from, but if you’re having trouble tracking one of these down you could try what we did in South Korea. (This might be less effective for countries that are further away from Japan.)

We were able to request, purchase and collect JR pass vouchers from a desk at the Tourist Information Centre in Seoul (to the right of the main information desk). The only conditions were we had to do so on a week day during normal business hours (the rest of the centre is open longer) and it took 24 hours to turn around. (Also note that this particular desk may be on lunchbreak for an hour at any time between 12:00-14:00.) But apart from that the whole process was very easy, and those passes saw us travel all the way from Shimonoseki in the west up to Sapporo in the north.

Shinkansen