By August 16, 2012 Read More →

Malaysia: What to do in Penang?

Penang Past to Present

Penang has an interesting history from its days as part of the Sultanate of Kedah, through to the ‘leasing’ to Captain Francis Light and the East India company in the 18th century, Japanese occupation in the Second World War, its dominance as a Freeport and eventually its independence to become the Penang of today.  One of Malaysia’s most densely populated cities, a bustling economy where ethnic Chinese form the majority of the population.  Penang has a thriving arts community, some artists were probably drawn to stay here by the inspiring architecture reflecting the multicultural heritage of this place. George Town was awarded a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing in 2008. Penang is a popular tourist destination, as well as a place for those travelling on a long-term basis to take a room and enjoy the many attractions it has to offer.

Penang Culture

Penang island is an interesting cultural melting pot with a mix of Chinese, Indian and Malay people with their religions intermingling to produce a unique and intoxicating place to visit.

As you wander about you see Hindu Temples next to Mosques, Buddhist Temples next to Christian churches and a diverse population that appear to get along without any tension, strife or trouble.  Newspapers and the local television channels print and broadcast in English, Chinese, Indian and Malaysian on the same channels and within the same newspapers.   Penang seems to offer the blueprint for a multicultural society, evident in the calm and harmonious way in which the Penangites go about their daily business.

This all leads to a very safe, welcoming and friendly place to invite visitors of any culture.  There are the some ‘tourist focussed’ cafes and restaurants, offering visitors the opportunity to mix with other travellers.  You can easily find a menu in English, and are assured a warm welcome just about anywhere, even on the street food carts.  If not, someone nearby will speak English and help you out, so there really is no need to miss out on any of the local delicacies, just because you are not sure what they are.  In Penang prices are fixed, and nearly always displayed so unlike many other destinations in Asia, you will not be charged an inflated tourist price. Dining out is very much a way of life in Penang, the quality of eateries is exceptionally good and prices are comparatively cheap.

Penang provides a stimulating visitor experience in a measured hassle free environment.  Some people compare Penang to Chang Mai in Thailand.  Although they do have many things in common, we think Penang is unique enough, so its best not to compare it with another destination.

Sightseeing In and Around Penang

While Penang doesn’t feature any ‘not to be missed’ attractions, it certainly has enough to entertain any visitor for a few days or weeks.  This will be ample time to make their way through the tastes and flavours of its food offerings in between admiring the heritage buildings that dominate the Georgetown area.  There are markets and plenty of shopping malls, all very competitively priced for those who want to shop for a bargain.

We spent a very pleasant four days in Penang, and entertained ourselves by visiting:-

  • The ‘floating’ mosque at Tanjung Bunga – we had a welcome from the Mosque Imam and the loaning of a gown to wear to go inside and take pictures, well worth a stop on the way to or from the beach (Bus 101)
  • The Beach at Batu Ferenggi is about an hour from the city, but seems a world away.  You can get your feet wet, feel the sand between your toes or for the more active enjoy some water sports. There is plenty of accommodation available for those who want to experience some beach time. (Bus 101)
  • The temple at Kek Lok Si is probably our must visit recommendation here, set on a hill overlooking Penang harbour and will keep you entertained for hours wandering around the stunning colourful temple buildings.  (Bus 204)
  • Penang Hill is also well worth the trip and is on the same bus route as the Kek Lok Si temple so if you make an early start you can combine both in one day.  The views are spectacular, as is the mode of transport used to ascend to the peak, a very fast funicular.  On the peak you can enjoy the cool air whilst taking some refreshments.
  • A trip to the botanical gardens is a place to let off some steam, and stretch your legs in a very peaceful location.  The gardens themselves, are well maintained but true botanists may be a little disappointed by the variety of flowers on display.  Although there are many specimens of trees. One bonus of visiting here is the number of different types of butterfly and monkeys you’ll spot going about their business in the wild.  We felt the gardens and collections were not really up to much, but ten minutes away is the new Waterfall temple rebuilt and newly consecrated this year, an impressive Hindu temple on the hill. (Bus 10)
  • There is lots to see walking around Old Georgetown that include, St Georges Church (closed for two hours during midday, just as we arrived!), the old Town and City Hall colonial buildings at the Esplanade  and some wonderful temples and mosques about the main town.
  • The Penang Museum, next to St George’s Church is worth a quick tour.  It charts the history and cultures of Penang through the ages, and has a fascinating section on the ethnic origins of the many cultures that make up modern Penangites.
  • We also wandered down to the old clan stilt houses on the harbour which have been home to traders and fisherman since the 19th Century.

Penang Transport

Getting around Penang is very easy.  Georgetown can easily be explored on foot or by push bike, the traffic is not too manic, certainly by Asian standards and all the main UNESCO Heritage buildings, temples and mosques are relatively close to each other.
To get around the island you will need to hire a motorbike, car or pay for taxis, prices are negotiable.   If you are backpacking or flashpacking, you will need to rely on Penang Rapid Transport.  It is anything but rapid, but when a bus does arrive, you will be whisked slowly ferried  to your destination.  Fares are very cheap and buses will cost you no more than $1 to most destinations.  Buses are modern clean and comfortable with air-con and some even have free wifi (route 101 to the beach).

Penang Food Heaven

I have saved the best bit of Penang till the last.  The food.   I am afraid no one has yet invented a web app so you can taste and smell food, so you will just have to believe me when I say it is fantastic.   It is ridiculously cheap; nor does cheap mean bland.  You can eat like a Lord for no more than US $5 at the hawker stalls and local coffee shops that are on virtually every corner.  The Chinese Dim Sum (or Tim Sum as it is referred to here) is most definitely the finest we have ever tasted.  After chomping our way through 15 dishes we went to pay the bill  and paid US $11 for the meal.

If you want to sample some Indian delights a wander around Little India will allow you to eat with the spices and flavours of India for a similar cost.   In between this you can snack on sweet treats, snacks and pastries from the many bakeries and finish it off with a feel good cup of medicinal herbal Chinese tea.

Whatever your budget, Penang really does offer something quite unique and is an excellent place to indulge your senses in a magnificent Malaysian destination.

Penang is now firmly in the top three food destinations for our flashpacking trip alongside Japan and it’s Kaiseki and the wonderful Vietnamese Bun Cha.

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5 Comments on "Malaysia: What to do in Penang?"

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  1. I will be in Malaysia either later this year or early next. Was thinking between the east coast or the west.. might give Penang a visit after reading your article Craig!

  2. Lord, I want some of that Dim Sum. Penang seems like my kind of destination!

    • John says:

      You don’t need to travel around the world to try all the different foods as Penang offers them all. From Indian to Japanese cuisine.

  3. willey says:

    That was a very useful article Craig, got to know more about Penang, i would surely love to visit some time later this year, i was looking for few places to stay and i found few hotels to put up with, also few have these panomroma tours which gives us an overall look of the hotels, which i found much helpful Other than being put up in a wrong place, anyways hotels such as danna have these features hopefully it would help people visiting penang like me, also could anybody help me with the most feasiable transport system that i can adapt to move around in penang?