To buy the tickets you need to go to the group of shops which are nestled around the port entrance which sits opposite the Immigration and LHDN offices at the top of Beach St, Georgetown, across the road from the memorial. You can choose from any of the tour operator offices which are open as they all charge the same (RM 65 one way or RM 115 return) but I’d just go straight to the office of Fast Ferry Ventures (FFV) as, if you use one of the other operators, they just seem to skip out of their office to FFV, buy your tickets and come back??
Both Langkawi and the ferries can get busy at certain times of the year, especially around public holidays, so it is sometimes safer to buy the ticket(s) several days in advance. There is no seat reservation but the boats are rarely full. You may find it useful to book and pay for your return too (but see below) and there are two return times 2:30 pm which again comes back via Pulau Payar and one at 5:30pm which is direct. I prefer the early return as it gets you back to Penang at a better time to have the evening free but it will of course depend on your schedule and preferences.
When catching the ferry you need to be at the departure terminal about 30 mins before departure. The terminal gates are in Jalan Tun Syed Sheh Barakbah which is actually just a continuation round the corner from where you buy the tickets (and heading further away from the main port entrance). There are black gates clearly marked First Ferry Ventures. Bear in mind though that at 8am traffic in Penang can be heavy so don’t cut it too fine!!! There is quite a walk between the customs check point and the boat so if it’s raining, or likely to, I’d suggest taking and umbrella.
So, what was the trip like? Well, for me, so so. The boats used on these runs are a little old and they are the low sitting higher speed ferries where the seating is arranged quite near the waterline and is very similar to an aircraft, mostly in two rows of four. The seats are quite close together and the boats and facilities are very basic making the cabin feel quite cramped, claustrophobic and stuffy, despite the air-con that does a reasonable job of keeping it cool. There is a TV screen at the front of the cabin and a film of some sorts will be shown which may or may not be any good!! The boat on the way out was very utilitarian with steel floors and suchlike and the one on the way back only marginally better. The method of stowing anything bigger than a ruck-sack (e.g. suitcases or cabin baggage for longer term stayers) is also very haphazard and varies from boat to boat, either being on the floor or in baggage ‘parks’ designed to take only 25% of what they carry. This can lead to a massive traffic jam when disembarking as passengers struggle to find and retrieve their luggage. Overall the boats are functional, at best, but little more.
Boat design and facilities are however of less importance than one other factor, sea sickness. People will vary in terms of their susceptibility to this rather unpleasant consequence of sea travel but even that can also vary depending on the sea conditions. Many who feel quite comfortable on a calm day will feel dreadful once you dial in some rain and wind which tends to make the ride very choppy. On the outward journey it was VERY choppy indeed and I’d say that over 50% of the people on the boat were sick with another 30% battling with the situation and trying not to be. Many yacht skippers (of which I am one) will tell you to focus on the horizon as much as possible to avoid the onset of sea sickness (on top of taking any travel medication) and if it really DOES get a grip they will tell you to get below into a bunk and lay flat out, preferably parallel to the sides of the boat (e.g. lengthways). This then is the problem with these ferries, there is simply nowhere to go!!! At least on a yacht you can get on deck with fresh cool air!! I saw countless people having an absolute dreadful time of it all which got worse as more people responded to the sounds and smells of large numbers of people being sick!!! Luckily it’s not something I suffer from but it was not a pretty sight and would have been the perfect setting for a reality horror movie called “The Vomityville Horror’!! While the effects will often pass quickly once you get closer to docking and out of the open sea, 3 hours suffering with this is a LONG time. Added to this, the travel via the indirect route (essential if you want an early return to Penang) can be a pain as the boat will often drop anchor for 30-45 minutes before it can get into Pulau Payar further troubling those with sea-sickness as the boat just bobs about and bringing a whole new meaning to the word boredom!!! Yep, this is no pleasant holiday boat trip round a bay with a thrown in barbequeue of the type that you may be accustomed to!! This issue is something you should consider when buying a ticket, and indeed, whether to tie yourself into a return.
So, that’s the Penang / Langkawi ferry. Would it be my preferred option to travel there? No. At a cost of approximatey RM 110 for a return air ticket, booked in advance with Air Asia, in contrast to Penang to KL travel where I would rather use the coach (see previous post), I would MUCH rather travel to Langkawi by air. Yes you have to get to the airport (but you also have to get to the ferry terminal), and yes you have to check in 1 hour before (but the ferry is also at least 30 mins before) but for the speed of the journey, the relative comfort, the travelling conditions and the avoidance of the dreadful sea sickness (and being surrounded by it’s consequences and with nowhere to go), for me there is NO contest, air travel all the way!!! Your choice but forewarned is forearmed!!!