Location: Batu Ferringhi Beach, Penang
Rate: 120-150 RM per night

Ali’s Ferringhi Guest House in Batu Ferringhi, Penang, is probably one of the better places to stay on a budget in Penang. In fact it’s ranked Number 6 of 18 B&Bs in Batu Ferringhi on TripAdvisor, but I’m not sure we’d ever go back there. The photos on TripAdvisor are more than a bit misleading because they tend to show the beach-side facilities which are good, but most travellers will end up over the road in the older building.

We booked at Ali’s because it’s owned by a friend of a friend of my brother, who had stayed there a couple of years earlier. I personally felt the main accommodation building would be a death trap if there was a fire. Narrow staircases leading to creaky wooden rooms with no alternative exits. Despite its rustic charm and comfortable beds, I could not help but be a little nervous here. The charm also quickly wore off having the amplified songs of the Mullahs in the mosque next door wake us up at 4:00 every morning.

2011 UPDATE: The old building at Ali’s guest house, which I had worried was a fire trap, was destroyed by a fire on Christmas Day 2010 – 9 months after our visit. It was completely destroyed, along with another guest house (Shalini Guest House) and four private houses around midday on Christmas Day.  Although thankfully no guests were killed or injured in the fire, many lost their belongings, their identity documents, travel documents and money. They were at the beach when the fire broke out in the kitchen. Turns out the place was not legal and had no insurance. Someone reporting staying there on TripAdvisor recently, but I think he might have been confused.

The rooms were reasonably well set up, but they do smell musty and there are often lots of mosquitos to deal with. If you happen to book an air-conditioned room, you may find that the AC unit will keep you awake, shaking the room at regular intervals when the compressor kicks in.

The guest house itself is well located. Batu Ferringhi is to Penang what Sanur is to Bali. It’s where people in the know used to go for holidays … a long time ago. It has one of the best beaches in Penang and for that reason it’s a very popular area to stay and there are lots of good places to eat and drink in the area. Ali’s beach bar, over the road from the guest house on the beach, is a nice place to chill out and catch up on your emails.

Batu Ferringhi itself, though, is at risk of becoming a crumbling ruin. The roads and footpaths are cracking up and you have to be careful not to fall into the sewage drains when walking around. Just near Ali’s place, Jalan Batu Ferringhi turns int0 Jalan Tanjung Bungah, the main road into Georgetown, and it’s very busy.

Some of the nicer looking cafes on the main road seemed to be closed down when we were there, perhaps permanently. We mostly ate in an outdoor food hall about one kilometre towards Georgetown on the beach side.

We hired a motor scooter from Ali’s and explored Penang for a couple of days, riding around the island, up and down the mountains and we even rode across the monstrously long and busy bridge into Butterworth to buy our onward rail tickets to Bangkok, Thailand. For anyone who’s ridden in Thailand or Bali it’s quite easy to ride in Penang. You just have to be careful of the peak traffic times.

We found Batu Ferringhi itself to be tired, dirty, with decaying tourist infrastructure and increasing religious focus. It really looks like Penang, and perhaps the whole of Malaysia, is starting to abandon western tourists in favour of Arabic-speaking travellers from the Middle East looking for somewhere exotic to take their families (or mistresses). At least that was my take.

We were, however, lucky enough to be in Penang for Chinese New Year and many of the beachside bars and restaurants apparently got together and arrange lion dancers to come and “bless” them for the new year. This was a nice touch to stumble into.

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Tony and Tracy Gilbert are veteran Asian travellers with experience living and travelling in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and other Asian countries. Tony is a former journalist and editor who writes for many travel websites.