On your way to Penang Island from the Malaysian mainland you cannot avoid the ferry crossing from Butterworth to Georgetown. These eyesores on the water are not the finest example of Malay transport, but usually they get the job done by ferrying passengers and vehicles across the sea and closer to the great beaches nearby.
After a comfortable train ride from KL on the modern and sleek ETS train system, it is something a let down to exit Butterworth train station, walk round the corner to the port, and have to board these kind of ferries. I saw blue, yellow, and green ferries, but regardless of the colour they all looked really old and unwelcoming with little customer service present from staff – yet what do you expect for just 1.20RM for a return ticket?! If you pay for the journey over to Penang Island, just keep your ticket safe (and dry) and you can return to Butterworth on the ferry whenever you please. All tickets are ‘returns’ and it is not possible to buy a mere ‘single’ ticket.
As I discovered onboard as a pedestrian, the vehicles on the lower deck of the ferry are packed like sardines, with drivers allowed to sit in their cars for the duration of the crossing (only 20 minutes). When the time comes to disembark at Penang, there is a free-for-all to get off, with drivers often using their horns to intimidate other drivers to let them leave first!
Unless you choose to fly to Penang (in which case the airport is already on the island), most backpackers will probably experience the Penang ferry as a pedestrian. Ferries leave Butterworth port very early in the morning, around 5am, and they run every 30 minutes or so until around 10pm. Some ferries run later than this, but they are not the most reliable. Besides, would you want to be on this ferry in the dark, anyway?! Staff were quite rude, and there seemed to be very little order – just chaos – from anybody in authority. It reminded me of some of the dodgier boat journeys I had made in Indonesia over the years, but I had expected a little more from Malaysia…
Still, after nearly 20 minutes on the water I had now made it to the port in Georgetown to begin my second ever visit to Penang! The ferry crossing may look dodgy enough but it is safe and reliable with many ferries each day making it impossible not to catch one near your desired time. I think the ferries stop operating in rough seas, but this is a godsend as I wouldn’t fancy my chances in a storm on one of these old things!