The northernmost areas of Malaysia offer a lot: From the bustling street art of George Town, impeccable temples and rainforest walks in Penang and, of course, an absolute multitude of white sandy beaches on Malaysian island, Langkawi. You are entirely spoiled for choice. So then, how do you get there and what’s it like?
We recently did the ferry crossing between Penang and Langkawi, and we’re here to give you everything you need to know about this short 3-hour journey.
Booking your tickets
Luckily the jumping off point from George Town (Penang) to Langkawi was less than five minutes from our hotel; a happy coincidence. For that reason, we were very confident in booking our tickets online, knowing that we had to just fall out of bed 30 minutes before to exchange our online confirmation for physical tickets. For others a little further from the Swettenham Pier, just get yourself a Grab taxi, which will be reliable and affordable.
There is only really one ticket option on this route: the Tourist Ferry with Express Bahagia that leaves at 8:30 am each morning, which we booked. Personally we thought it was convenient since you can get in breakfast beforehand and arrive into Langkawi just in time for lunch!
Getting your tickets
On the morning of the ferry, we walked over (our many backpacks in tow) past the beautiful colonial buildings and famous street art lanes, to the ferry office at Swettenham Pier to pick up those physical tickets. We found ourselves in the wrong office but, in true Malaysian style, those around us were more than happy to help direct us to the office three doors down the lane.
While travelling in other countries can be stressful and you should always build in time for getting lost and difficult situations, you can also rely on local people to help you. So, our advice? Never stress!
Pro tip: The Swettenham Pier is also the docking station for the enormous cruise ships that come into George Town. While it was quiet on our morning there, we had seen thousands of people disembarking two days before with hundreds of independent tour guides trying to sell them a day tour. If your crossing falls onto one of these days, just keep your cool. Keep your head down, push your way through the crowds and into the station to find the ticket counter.
Waiting for the ferry
The process to get on to the ferry was particularly smooth. A clearly marked ticket counter was where we handed over our new physical tickets and got confirmation of our seat allocation (written on the back of your tickets as you check in).
From there it was child’s play – following the bright yellow signage along walkways and through a slightly dilapidated but impressive pink-hued pier building and out onto the jetty.
Keep in mind that there are really only two places to buy food and snacks once you have entered the Pier building – a restaurant selling slightly questionable pastries, and then a ‘Point’ supermarket which has a few bags of crisps and cool drinks. If you need more sustenance than this, we highly recommend you stock up before your trip. There is also a small mall when you arrive in Langkawi which has essentials.
And we are off! Loading and leaving
Once you’re ushered onto the boat, the process remains silky smooth – large backpacks and wheeled suitcases are kindly taken off you by the waiting staff and packed away in a dry area (no need to put rain covers on your baggage). You wander around looking for your seat on one of the levels (there are two seating levels) and, once found, sink into it and try to relax for the journey to come.
Now don’t expect much in the way of entertainment. There is one older television screen which plays a scratchy safety briefing video and then launches into a 90’s style Warner Bros film. More entertainment is probably found from the staff walking up the alleys to offer you a bag of Twisties chips or checking that you’re okay.
For us, the trip was uneventful. Which, in traveller speak, is exactly what you want. The ocean was calm, guests on the boat were polite and quiet and we felt in safe hands. While the boat doesn’t offer amenities like Wi-Fi or charging ports, it’s still a very comfortable ride.
There is a stop made halfway that confuses many travellers – this is usually to drop off a few locals and some food supplies at the island of Pulau Payar. Incidentally, that island is a great place to go snorkelling and scuba diving if you are keen!
A few things to keep in mind when taking the ferry
This is an older ferry and the bathrooms are not really up to date; at times broken. Try to use the bathroom before you leave or pack wet wipes, tissues and hand sanitiser.
Like many other ferries in South East Asia, the air conditioning is cranked as high up as possible. At a minimum bring yourself a warm fleece and, if you can, a pair of warm socks. Even with both those things, we were cold!
As above, stock up on snacks if you can, and particularly if you are going on the ferry without breakfast.
Arriving into Langkawi
After three hours, you pull up into Langkawi and, just as swiftly as you boarded, you glide off there and disembark. The staff from the boat helped get our (very oversized) backpacks onto our backs and pointed us into the building. What a pleasure of a ride it had been!
Overall, the ferry ride was one of the better we have experienced. The seats were comfy enough, we both had a good nap, the captain seemed knowledgeable and the journey was over before we knew it.
And, if it doesn’t go your way and you’re still nervous, try and take an anti-anxiety or motion sickness tablet beforehand. You can also take a break at one of the small cafes (we sat down at a great Starbucks) to calm your nerves afterwards or get some lunch and kill that time before your accommodation check in!