Trip Reports: Tour Bust in Penang, Malaysia

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I was super excited about seeing Penang for the first time, and eating was going to the be the focus. So I did my research and a month in advance I booked a private 8 hour culinary tour with Rasa Malaysia, which interspersed siteseeing with custom food tastings. Or at least I thought I’d booked it.

From their emails, I was under the impression that my tour was confirmed, no deposit was needed, I’d just pay the driver upon arrival. A week before I emailed to confirm my food preferences and send our flight information. Only to get an email back saying they had no availability! That was an important lesson learned. Apparently confirming in writing wasn’t enough — I should have confirmed multiple times?

I was upset that they had not contacted me before cancelling my reservation but I was even more panicked that we had no transportation or tour. With only a few days before we were scheduled to arrive and only being there 24 hours, I figured the options would be few. I got on Trip Advisor and found the name of a well regarded driver. I also sent a desperate tweet to @EatingAsia.

The tour guide got back to me in a few hours and was able to take us. @EatingAsia, my top choice, did an hour or two later, but unfortunately I had already confirmed with the driver. Firefly Airlines free beverage

Our Firefly flight to Penang went well and we landed at 10AM in the morning to find our driver waiting for us outside immigration.

The person I had booked had fallen ill and sent our guide in his place. A very friendly man, very talkative. In the first 45 minutes we were left with the impression that he only wanted us to be happy and would take us anywhere, tell us anything we wanted to know. The only problem was he rarely stopped talking long enough to listen.

Penang Hill View

After dropping our bags off at the hotel, we started the tour, beginning with Penang Hill. Both of us had the beginnings of a headache from the non-stop chatter, but couldn’t think of a polite way to ask him to tone it down. While we were exploring the hilltop we decided to cut the tour short — the butterfly farm we had wanted to visit was an hour and a half drive in both directions and we didn’t think we could handle it.

Instead we would ask to go to the Hawker stalls for lunch and the clan jetties, and call it a day. Maybe venturing out again in the evening. Our guide kept trying to dissuade us from seeing fewer things, in fact, kept trying to upsell us, so in desperation I claimed I was feeling ill from the heat, which was actually half true.

The disappointment on our side continued when we were told the hawker stalls didn’t open to the evening, instead he took us to a local version of a “food court.”

Penang Hill Hawker Stall

The food looked good and we were planning to try a bunch of things, but he then advised us not to finish everything was considered rude, so we’d want to be careful.

Even more crestfallen we settled for a delicious chicken and rice in clay pot dish and some spicy soup.

Penang Hawker Stall Soup

Penang Hawker Stall Rice in Clay Pot

Our guide was nothing if not enterprising, so because I’d claimed heat was the problem, he decided to take us on a driving tour of Penang’s art scene — which actually wound up being really cool.

Artists had been commissioned to paint various walls or sculpt metal and they had been amazingly inventive, utilizing multiple mediums.

Penang Malyasia Art metal rickshaw

My favorite was the kids painted to appear astride a motorcycle and bicycle.

Penang Malyasia Art Motocycle Boy

Penang Malyasia Art children on bike

The “Kung Fu” girl.

Penang Malyasia Art Kung Fu Girl

And other interesting scenes on random streets.

Penang Malyasia Art modern

Penang Malyasia Art reaching boy

Having successfully tacked on an additional half hour, the guide finally took us to the Chew Clan Jetties. For some reason I found the jetties quite beautiful and interesting, even though they’re basically historic fisherman homes set on wooden piers (not to over simplify).

Chew Jetty Penang Malyasia entrance

But just walking through was neat — lots to see and it didn’t take very long. And the guide did provide us with umbrellas for shade from the sun, which wound up being very helpful as I did eventually end up almost fainting from the heat by the end of the tour.

Keri Chew Jetty Penang Malyasia

Chew Jetty Penang Malyasia boats

The interior of a traditional jetty house.

Chew Jetty Penang Malyasia traditional interior


View from the end of the pier


Temple view from Chew Jetty Penang Malyasia

But during this time, the narration rarely ceased and we were exhausted when we left the jetties and asked to return to the hotel. The guide was clearly disappointed in us that we didn’t want to add-on to our tour and we were pretty disappointed that we couldn’t wait to get away.

He only charged us for the 3 1/2 hours we’d toured, though the place had a 4 hour minimum and agreed to meet us back at the hotel the next morning to take us to the airport. When he picked us up he told us his boss had pointed out the 4 hour minimum and he had to charge us for the extra half hour ($5), which was fine, but rather left a bad taste in our mouth from the whole experience. We weren’t trying to cheat him out of anything that was owed him but we had felt like we were constantly having to decline constant upsells and ways he could get a kickback.

The most notable was right after I had told him I wrote for a travel advice website, he told me I should contact him before our next visit and he would book our hotels for us. And it was clear the ones he was recommending were the ones that would give him referral credit. Sigh.

Anyway, he was a nice guy, but we did not enjoy our day in Penang and fervently wished we could have taken the tour with Eating Asia.

These things happen, you’re not always a good fit with your travel guide. I do need to get better about being polite but firm. Does anyone have any tips on approaches that have worked well for them?

More posts from the trip:

Checking In and Air France Lounge at IAD
Korean Airlines First Class IAD-ICN
Hyatt Regency Incheon: Great Service, Hard Beds
Accidentally Seeing Seoul Like a Native
Tight Quarters at the Park Hyatt Seoul
Worth a Hike — Bukchon Hanok Village
Checking In for a Flight from Downtown Seoul 
Korean Airlines First Class Lounge Incheon Airport
Korean Airlines First Class Seoul to Kuala Lumpur
You Don’t Get Massaged By a Blind Paralympic Everyday...
Great Value at the Le Meridien Kuala Lumpur
Flying Firefly Airlines from Subang to Penang
Is Penang Hill Worth It?

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  1. Susan

    July 2, 2014 at 6:54 pm

    I don’t know…. other than the incessant talking, it sounds to me that your ‘tour’ took you to some places and experiences that another ‘regular’ tour may not have…. It looks like the little art/grafitti tour was great! I also think, that in an effort to please (as many do in Asian culture), your tour guide was talking. Can you blame him when he has two attractive young ladies to show around his city? You really can’t blame the man for the heat nor your headache. And his advice to you about the food may have been spot on. You wouldn’t have wanted to offend the cook, wouold you?
    It may not have been what you wanted, nor what you expected, but if you felt that bad, I doubt if eating your way around the City would have turned out much differently.

    • Keri Anderson

      July 2, 2014 at 7:42 pm

      Hahaha, no I don’t blame him it was just an unfortunate pairing. 🙂 I think I probably would have been tired no matter who took me but in all my Asian tours I’ve never had a guide who sucked the energy out of me. He would have been a good fit for tourists who haven’t read much in advance and like to do the common tourist things.

  2. Robyn

    July 3, 2014 at 2:57 am

    Thanks for the mention, so sorry I missed you. And I can assure your commenter Susan that eating your way around the city would have turned out MUCH differently. I don’t have a well-rehearsed script, for one thing. 🙂 The sights you visited are not unique or hidden, they’re in every guidebook. The point of my food walks is to show a different side of Penang, specifically in George Town.
    I hope that your experience didn’t put you off Penang in general and that you’ll consider visiting again.
    In the meantime, happy travels.

  3. danny

    August 4, 2014 at 12:34 am

    We are booking a trip to penang, do you think its best to hire a private tour guide to maximize time there? I’ve heard that george town is quite walkable

    • Keri Anderson

      August 4, 2014 at 12:40 am

      Yes, no need for a guide in Georgetown! If you want to venture farther afield and do the butterfly farm, etc and don’t want to rent a car, then hiring a driver would be useful. If you want to do a food tour, I’ve heard amazing things (I wish I could have tried)

      Eating Asia — http://eatingasia.typepad.com/

      Penang Food Tour — http://www.foodtourmalaysia.com/packages/

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