Monday, April 21, 2014

How to choose a holiday destination: Penang thanks to our Malaysian friends

Over the years I've done my share of choosing destinations based on famous places I want to see but if I look at my last couple of years of travels, the biggest deciding factor on destinations seems to be related to our friends and relatives. Our entire Europe trip last year was inspired by our Australian friends spending six months in Inis Meain and included visits to other friends and relatives in Slovakia, Germany and Switzerland.

More recently, my son and I spent a fortnight in Penang during the long school holidays and there was a very simple reason for this: my friend from Penang (who now lives here in Perth) was spending a couple of months there with her son (the same age as mine, and a friend of his too!) - it was a no-brainer! Even though Penang hadn't really been somewhere I'd thought of visiting - perhaps because the little I knew about it had made me categorise it as a bit of a resort-style, relaxation holiday destination (which is not my style) - but as soon as I heard my local friend would be there I was utterly drawn to the idea, and so glad we were able to make it happen.

So, my idea is that choosing a destination for a trip based on being able to visit friends or spend time there with friends is one of the absolutely best ways to make a travel decision ... and here are some of the many reasons why.

Local friends have local knowledge (and so do their parents)

Knowing a local takes you a very big step closer to knowing lots of locals. Although my friend doesn't live in Penang any more, she grew up there and her parents and other relatives still live there. This gave us access to such a treasure trove of knowledge.

A great example of this was our lucky timing in being in Penang for the Thaipusam festival. This is celebrated in a truly huge way in Penang and my friends parents helped us out so much by not only giving us lots of tips on how to see the best of it but by actually picking us up and driving us to the best spots. The roads were so crowded but they knew a great shopping centre to park at and a perfect street to watch the parade go past (and get involved in smashing coconuts, too!). This was a huge contrast to the experience of other Australian friends of mine who happened to be staying in Penang at the same time - the driver who took them from the airport to their resort told them it was just too crowded and crazy at Thaipusam time and they should just stay at their resort. I'm so glad we didn't do that!

Pretty costumes, and piles of coconuts, from our Thaipusam Festival experience

Trying new foods and drinks is easier with a local friend

I found the same thing in Japan - once I'd made friends with some Japanese people I felt confident to try many more new kinds of foods - plus there are always so many kinds you don't even know about and can't even ask to try until a local has pointed you in the right direction.

In Penang, my friend was able to give us detailed descriptions of dishes on the menus and of course give us small tastes of the more exotic things she ordered which we weren't quite game to risk a whole meal on. It was like having our very own specialised food guide the whole time and it was wonderful (and delicious).

There was no shortage of delicious food in Penang. So many amazing choices!

Choosing your accommodation with local knowledge really helps

I'm not a big resort fan, in the sense that I don't want to stay in a huge hotel complex full of activities and feel like I don't want to go out and see the rest of the place I'm staying in. My friend knew that and was able to give me plenty of good tips when booking our hotel.

For example, if I look at the Penang accommodation options at My Holiday Centre, I can see there's a resort in Batu Ferringhi and one at Tanjung Bungah. When I first started looking for a place to stay I came across both these locations they both sounded good - especially as a map clearly showed both were on the beach. Which one works for me, then? My local friend was able to explain to me that most of the resort lovers were out along Batu Ferringhi and that Tanjung Bungah was only about ten minutes from the city - so obviously that was the spot for us and if I returned to Penang I'd stay in that some area again as it had the best of both worlds. It would have been hard for me to work that out properly for myself without having been there before.

View from our hotel in Tanjung Bungah, Penang, Malaysia. I still miss this view!

Our two weeks in Penang were so fabulous that I'd return again - especially with my friend and her son - and we even will let our husbands come next time! I'm sure that if I'd gone alone, my experience would have been totally different and definitely not as good. So now I'm just trying to pick a few more destinations where I can visit some friends or travel together with them and get all these advantages again. Suggestions, anyone?


This post is sponsored by My Holiday Centre but my thoughts and opinions are all my own, as always!

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