When I arrived in Penang, the sun was glaring overhead and I couldn’t get the sweat from pouring down my face. On my first morning waking up in this new country, I headed over to a toes-in-sand cafe across the street from the apartment I was renting and sat down for a cup of hot tea.
I stared out at the Andaman Sea and felt a wave of relaxation flow over me that I hadn’t previously felt in the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, my previous destination. I was relieved. I could see water at last.
I felt the warmth of the sun and I slipt my feet into some sand while eating a delicious plate of roti canai and chicken curry for breakfast. No tourists in sight. Could this really be real?
I’ve conjured up a short list of the pros and cons of traveling in the low season. It’s not always unicorns and rainbows.
Pro #1: There aren’t very many tourists around the island.
When people see you they look at you as if they have never seen a Westerner before in their life. Perhaps they might even be staring a little too long? Yup. It’s definitely the low season. They weren’t expecting you for another six months. And it’s great. You feel like you’ve discovered country xyz all on your own (truth be told you have definitely not). You get to enjoy laying on the beach without it being overcrowded. When I went to a fast food indian place that I found in Lonely Planet I was expecting to see lots of foreginers but instead I realized I was the only non-local. People gawked at me as I eat my lunch off a banana leaf and thought to myselft, “Where are all the tourists?”
Pro #2 Things are much cheaper.
The price of a room in a hostel or renting an apartment are all cheaper during this time of year. Shopping for souveniers or items that just catch your fancy can also be a had for a bargain. Due to the lack of crowds in the off season, sellers are more likely to lower their prices because the demand is low and the supply is high. Walking down the vast aisles that line the sidewalk in Batu Ferreingi’s night market, dozens of hawkers holler at you to sell their goods. Most stalls carry the same thing and it is very common to acquire prices from various sellers and settle on the lowest bidder. Do note that hawkers truly appreciate the art of negotiation and are experts in this field. I’ve found that offering ¼ of the value is usually the sweet spot.
Pro #3 Attractions aren’t overcrowded.
On my way to Kek Lok Si, I was preparing to elbow my way through hoards of crowds, but I soon realized this wasn’t the case at all. The most popular temple on the island was pretty much empty making it the perfect opportunity for a photo-op. I was able to get through the whole temple grounds in roughly two hours which I was told is very fast. I was able to quque up in a line and place my wish on a tree (a little tree that holds fabric slips of paper holding specific wishes the person prays for). It was an enjoyable outting mainly due to the fact that it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. Like a kid in a candy store, except replace the lolipops with many minature buddhas.
Pro #4 The weather is not bad at all
A little rain won’t hurt you. Of course it does rain almost every day during the off season, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I once heard the quote that there is no such thing as bad weather, just wrong gear and I couldn’t agree more. It rains mostly late at night which makes it convenient to go out in the daytime to do all of your sightseeing and chores. If it does rain during the daytime, it’s usually for no more than 15 minutes at a time in which you can dip into a coffee shop for an espresso or walk around using an umbrella. Just think of it as a cozy time of year. Plus, the rain allows for a cooler temperature which is pleasant when combined with the sea breeze.
Pro #5 You get to experience festivals like a local.
Everyday is a holiday in Penang, or so it seems like. One perk of visiting Penang in the off season between May through through early November is that you’ll be able to see a side of Penang few tourists get a chance to see.
In August, the Hungry Ghost Festival takes place which is a ghoulish time of year for the Chinese population on the island. Giant six-foot incense sticks painted bright neon colors are burned in grass fields and outside temples, Chinese operas pop-up all over town in makeshift tents and stages with elaborately clad actors wearing traditional outfits.
Next up is Nine Emperor Gods which is a Taoist festival in which men skewer their cheeks with sharp swords and breath fire all while tasty vegetarian food is sold everywhere. And lastly, the Hindu festival Deepavali is just spectatular. Imagine cows decorated with colorful flowers walking around town and candles everywhere lighting up the city while Bollywood-esque music blares from every street corner.
Pro #6 Eat Mooncake
A Chinese tradition to celebrate Autumn. Round, sweet and delicious. Need I say more?
Pro #7 Experience the madness of Durian season
You know that stinky fruit that smells like a rotting corpse mixed with garbage? Yes, that one. It’s popular here. Really popular here. If you arrive in May or August, there will be plenty of durian to go around. If there is one thing I learned, it is that locals are passionate about their durians.
If you bring up the topic of durian with a local, they’ll talk your ear off. Durians grow everywhere here on private lots of land that border the highway stretching and curving their way through the thick jungle greenery.
One cab driver told me that if a Durian falls on its own onto the highway, it is legal for a citizen to claim it because it is on public territory. At a night time hawker stall, you’ll see Durian being trafficked and sold much like illegal drugs. It’s all about who has “the good stuff.”
Con #1 The apocalyptic “Haze” will force you to wearing a gas mask
Indonesia burns their Sumatra Rain forest every year (during the off season) to grow more trees for palm oil. In turn, this illegal “slash and burn” technique causes a hazardous amount of smog that carried in the wind over to neighboring countries such as Singapore and Malaysia.
I wasn’t aware that Malaysia technically had a burning season until I got to here and experienced it for myself. And it’s bad. Really really bad. When I look out my window, all I see is a blanket of white smoke engulfing the country.
Con #2 Cloud seeding is kinda creepy
While searching “Penang Haze” on google I came upon a news article warning citizens about the government’s recent cloud seeding campaign to counteract the haze. What is this? Cloud seeding is a controversial technique in which chemicals are dispatched into the air in order to initiate rain.
The problem is that the Malay government has been accused of using harsh chemicals which may be harmful to humans. It is advised to wash your skin immediately if rain comes into contact with you. And that sir, is very creepy.
The sad part is that the cloud seeding actually does make the haze go away (it really does work) so there are two sides to every argument. You can either suffocate in smoke or deal with caustic rain.
Con #3 The bars are empty
Sometimes you can’t have your cake and eat it too. With not that many tourists in town, the bar scene can be kind of lacking at times. Of course there is always live music at China House so we sort of became regulars here.
The bands change daily and so do the food specials. One thing I learned about Penang’s drunk scene is that people love eating cake while getting smashed. I don’t know why. But it’s a thing. Order five giant slices of cake and ten shots, and see what happens I guess.
So as you can see it’s actually kind of hard for me to come up with a lot of cons when it comes to visiting Penang in the off season because I just love this place so much and it’s hard to say anything bad about it. In conclusion, I would have to say that the “haze” is so incredibly terrible during this time of year that it actually out weighs all the good. It’s serious business.
Schools shut down due to the Air Pollutant Index readings being so high. It’s just no fun if you can’t walk around town or you feel sick because your throat and lungs hurt so bad. It makes going outside into the tarred air a mission rather than an adventure. So sadly, I would advise definitely skipping this time of year for traveling to Malaysia until Indonesia decides to stop burning their rain forest.