Peninsular Malaysia is full of a variety of nature, culture, and history. There are many places around the country, where you can taste all of it in various ways. Some of these places are more representative, so they have become popular landmarks. One of these landmarks is Penang- a beautiful island near the west coast of the Malay Peninsula. Let’s make a journey to Penang and identify the places to visit, to get the best experience of this amazing place!
Basic facts about Penang
Penang is an island in the northwestern part of Peninsular Malaysia. Its main center is Georgetown, a beautiful city with a rich history, culture and strong British colonial influence. The urban part of Georgetown is located in the northeastern part of Penang and occupies only a small area of the island. The rest of it consists of mountains, plains, pristine beaches, jungles, agricultural fields, smaller towns, villages, and resorts.
The island is a part of a larger territory, called Penang State. It includes not only Penang Island itself but also a strip of land on the mainland Malaysia called Seberang Perai, as well as the small satellite islets around the main island. Georgetown is the capital is this state, and Butterworth is the main city on the mainland part of Penang.
Today, Penang is a colorful place, full of geography, history, and culture. It attracts millions of tourists, who want to enjoy its historical and architectural heritage, its multicultural atmosphere, its mountains, beaches, and parks, as well as its famous cuisine. But let’s back to the past and take a look at how all this has begun.
History of Penang
It is interesting to know that the „active” history of Penang is short, not longer than 250 years. But it is still rich, full of events and heritage. However, let’s make a trip back in time, to the dawn of the human civilization on the Earth, and see the ancient beginning.
Prehistory of Penang (before 1786)
Thousands of years ago, Penang Island and the mainland Seberang Perai were covered by lush equatorial rainforest. The first traces of human evidence indicate that the earliest people living in Penang were Melanesians, probably Negritos (now known as one of the Orang Asli groups in Peninsular Malaysia). And their traces are discovered only in Seberang Perai. Probably the island itself has been discovered gradually, much later by the humans of the nearby mainland.
Around 2000 BC the Austronesians (the modern Orang Asli group of Senoi) arrived on the mainland, then around 1000-1500 BC- the Proto-Malays, and finally around 300 BC- the Deutero-Malays. Hinduism and Buddhism gradually entered the Malay Peninsula, and its remains from the 5-6 centuries are discovered, again in Seberang Perai only.
Later, Seberang Perai gradually became a part of the Kedah Sultanate. But although Penang Island was (probably) included in the sultanate, it remained wild, maybe uninhabited, and still covered only by jungle. It was only mapped by the Chinese in the 15th century. Later, the island was used for only temporary landing by the British and the Portuguese, but nothing more.
The first constant settlement on Penang Island was established between 1734 and 1749 by the Minangkabaus, an ethnic group from Sumatra. They made a fishing village in what is now known as Batu Uban neighborhood, south of the center of Georgetown, and built a mosque. Today is it totally changed into a modern urban area (with the main bus terminal of Penang in the neighboring Sungai Nibon), without any „old town” or other traces of this fishing village.
Later, Arab traders also came to Batu Uban and mixed with the Minangkabaus. This settlement remained during the next century until it was gradually incorporated into the modern Georgetown suburbs, and its inhabitants mixed and turned into Malays.
British East India Company era (1786-1826)
The new era for Penang started with a man, called Francis Light. In the 1770s, the British East India Company started looking for trade opportunities in the region. At the same time, the Sultan of Kedah needed more protection from the neighboring hostile kingdoms, and from the internal rebels. So, Francis Light negotiated cooperation between the Sultan and the British, and the Sultan offered Penang Island as the British base.
So, in 1786, Francis Light arrived in the northeastern end of Penang Island, cleared the jungle and the swamps, and established the foundation of Georgetown (named after King George III of the British Empire). The new city quickly grew in size and population. It was given a duty-free status, attracting thousands of merchants, workers, and businessmen from various ethnic origins and cultures.
Georgetown became the starting point for the British colonization of the Malay Peninsula. In 1800, this British land expanded on the mainland, gaining a part of what is today Seberang Perai.
Straits Settlements era (1826-1941)
In 1826, the British authorities turned Penang, Melaka (Malacca) and Singapore in a special political territory, called Straits Settlements. These three places became a direct possession of the British Empire, while the rest of Peninsular Malaysia became a British colony mainly economically, preserving the existing sultanates.
During this era, Georgetown proceeded its growing and multicultural blooming. However, there were some riots and unrest, related to the growing crime rate. As a result, the British strengthened their military presence, and eventually, the rule over the Strait Settlements moved directly from London.
Meanwhile, the transportation was improved. On the mainland (Seberang Perai, called also Province Wellesley), the city of Butterworth was established. The first railway was built, as well as a new ferry connection with the island. On Penang Island, the culture flourished more, as many intellectuals moved to Georgetown. Among them, the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen came to Georgetown (and you can visit his house there), from where he managed his activities against the Qing Dynasty in China.
Japanese occupation, Malayan Union and the way to independence (1941-1963)
The Japanese arrived in Penang on December 19th, 1941. They ruled over Penang until their surrender in 1945, and their rule was a disaster for the island. They committed atrocities against the Chinese residents. The British retreated, evacuating only the European population, which was considered a moral failure.
After the Japanese surrender, the British back and restored the Strait Settlements rule. But it didn’t last long. Only a year later the Strait Settlements were replaced by other political forms of rule. Penang passed through various steps and status levels, as the whole Malay Peninsula. Various issues had to be resolved, especially those related to the multicultural and multiethnic nature of the whole country. In general, all of it led to the independence and creation of a new country- Malaysia.
Modern Malaysia era (1963 until today)
The first years of Penang in the modern Malaysia era were not always smooth. Malaysia was a newborn country with a lot of issues to resolve, and Penang was affected by this too. In 1969 Georgetown lost its duty-free status, and it led to its slow decline during the next decades.
But the local government made a lot of effort to stop the city’s decline. The first bridge was built to connect the island with the continent. A lot of investment was made in the industrialization. And the first skyscraper, called Komtar was raised. All of this produced its good fruits for Penang in the 21st century.
The decline of Penang proceeded until the end of the 20th century, leading to economic crisis and pollution. But some organizations successfully intervened in this situation, promoting Penang’s cultural significance. As a result, Georgetown was proclaimed as UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. The tourism started to grow rapidly, and Penang quickly returned to its former glory, becoming one of the most representative destinations in Peninsular Malaysia.
Our trip to Penang
For this reason, we included Penang in our Peninsular Malaysia itinerary. We traveled to Peninsular Malaysia for the first time, and we wanted to cover the most essential of the country, so Penang „took its place of honor” on our trip.
There are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Peninsular Malaysia, that are quite similar in their theme- Penang and Melaka (Malacca). But we had to start our trip from Kuala Lumpur, and these two cities are located on both sides of the capital. That’s why we decided to draw our route, starting through Melaka, and ending through Penang. Thus, we had to reach Penang from the Cameron Highlands– another famous place of the country, representing the high mountain nature and culture.
But before we visited Penang, we had to plan our Penang itinerary- what things to do, and what places to visit there. We had one afternoon, one whole day and two nights, then we had to leave for Kuala Lumpur early in the morning after the second night. So, our time definitely was not too long, and we had to choose the most important, the most essential and the most representative of Penang. Here is what we visited and did, and what more we would like to visit and do if we had more time.
Places to visit in Penang
Penang is not so large island, but it is full of places to visit- places of various themes. In general, it can be divided into two parts- Georgetown, and the rest of the island. Georgetown is only a small part of Penang, and it is a place for history, culture, art, and entertainment. And the rest of Penang is more natural, more proper for those who seek jungles, beaches, and local rural areas. But these natural features can be seen in many other areas in Peninsular Malaysia (there are much more beautiful beaches and much wilder jungles than those in Penang), while Georgetown is unique- besides Melaka (Malacca), there is no other place like this. That’s why we focused on Georgetown, and let’s look at it now.
Today, Georgetown is a large city. Most of its center consists of a typical „Old town”, as well as the Esplanade- a seaside place with the historical Fort Cornwallis. The rest of the center is a more „modern” area, with the skyscraper Komtar, some malls, and other places not different than any other average city. Then, there are suburbs, situated mainly along the eastern coast of Penang (one of them is Batu Uban)- again modern residential areas. There are some places of interest in these areas too, but the most essential and representative place of the city is the Old Town, so let’s start with it.
On the streets of the Old Town
This is a very colorful place. The whole Old Town with its quiet streets, old houses with beautiful traditional architecture, cafes, religious sites and a lot of art, is a great place to visit- just by walking around it. Its different parts have different tastes- some are more Chinese, others- more Indian, more European, or more Malay, some are just mixed. And you can enjoy the unique atmosphere with the beautiful street views.
There are many places in the Old Town, which you can stop and visit during your walk. You can go shopping in some of the souvenir shops, you can stop in a cafe or at a stall with street food. But there are also some specific tourist spots that are worth to visit and explore. Let’s see more of them.
Most of the streets in the Old Town are nice and attractive, but if we make a „chart”, for many people Armenian Street (Lebuh Armenian) would be No. 1. Maybe because the buildings on both sides of the street are the most splendid of all. Or maybe because there are most attractions. As its name suggests, there were many Armenians involved in the development of the street’s business, life and atmosphere. Today, many of the attractions of the Old Town are located on this street. One of them is Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi (although its entrance is from the crossing Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling street).
Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi
A long time ago, before the founding of Georgetown, there were Chinese merchants, known as the Leong Sang Tong clan. They came to the Malay Peninsula in the 17th century. Later, in the 19th century, a part of this family called Khoo moved to the young Georgetown in Penang. They were a wealthy family, one of the wealthiest people in the whole of today’s Malaysia.
So, the Khoos built this splendid complex. It is a gorgeous architectural masterpiece, presenting the Chinese culture in Penang. Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi is a clanhouse, including a temple, which is the main part of this complex, but it had a significant role in the cultural presence of the Chinese. Today, it is one of the popular attractions of Georgetown. Entrance fee: 10 RM for adults, 1 RM for children between 5 and 12 years old.
Sun Yat-Sen House Museum
This house was built in 1880. In the beginning, it was just one of the rich family houses of a local Chinese family. But in 1910 the Chinese revolutioner Dr. Sun Yat-Sen arrived in Georgetown and set this house as his base, working on his plans to overthrow the Qing Dynasty of China.
Later the house became a possession of a Hokkien merchant family until today, and in 2001 it was made a museum, presenting artifacts from Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s life and activities here, as well as the local Chinese lifestyle from that era. Entrance fee: 5 RM
Kapitan Keling Mosque
Let’s move aside from Armenian Street. From the Sun Yat-Sen Museum reach Jalan Kapitan Keling, and turn left. Soon you will see a big mosque on your left, inside a large yeard. This is Kapitan Keling Mosque. Unlike the „normal” mosques, this one is more than just a religious center. It has historical and cultural value.
Kapitan Keling Mosque was raised at the beginning of the 19th century (British East India era), by an Indian Muslim headman („Kapitan keling”), hence the name of the mosque. It presents a beautiful dome-shaped minaret, separated from the main mosque building- all influenced by the Moorish architectural style.
It is an active religious place, but it is opened for tourists, and there is no entrance fee. However, you can’t enter the main building on your own, but you will be required to wear something to cover your legs, and they will give a scarf for the women. Then a guide will take you on a 5-10 mins walk around the mosque and will introduce some basic Islamic practices, instead of the mosque’s history. However, the mosque itself is still beautiful and worth to visit, as it became one of the Georgetown’s landmarks.
Penang Street Art
Let’s back to Armenian Street and proceed southeastward to the seacoast. You will reach the crossroad with Beach Street. But before you cross it, look on your left. You will see a wall with a mural of two children riding a bicycle. The children are painted, but the bicycle is real, so you can become a part of this scene too. And this picture now has become one of the symbols and landmarks of Penang.
But there are more pictures in this style. They are created by the Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic in 2012, who was hired by the local government to bring a unique art inspiration on the streets of Georgetown. If you keep walking around the Old Town, you can see many more mural scenes. Painted children stretching hands from a window to a bicycle, painted children swinging on a real swing, a painted man riding a motorcycle are among the most popular scenes.
Move northeastward to Church Street. When you reach it and walk on it, you can see many beautiful buildings, some of them more than a century old. One of them is painted in green, and it looks outstandingly gorgeous. This is the Peranakan Mansion– a house, where you can look into the Peranakan culture lifestyle.
Peranakans are descendants of the first Chinese settlers in the Malay Peninsula during the 15th century, who mixed with the local people. After the establishing of Georgetown, some rich people of this ethnic group moved to Penang. And at the end of the 19th century one of them, called Chung Keng Quee built this mansion.
The mansion presents artifacts of the Peranakan lifestyle and traditions. Both the architectural style and the interior, as well as the furniture, are in a unique mix of Chinese and European styles. In 1990 it was turned into a museum, and today it has become one of the multiple Georgetown’s landmarks. Entrance fee: 20 RM
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion
Now, let’s move to the northwestern end of the Old Town. When you reach Leith Street, you can see a beautiful blue building behind a fence. This is Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, another landmark of Penang, called also „The Blue Mansion”.
The mansion was built at the end of the 19th century by the Chinese merchant Cheong Fatt Tze. Like many other rich families’ mansions, this one presents wealth and luxury in the spirit of that era. Its style is again a mix of Chinese and European influence and presents a lot of lifestyle artifacts.
But unlike Peranakan or other house-museums, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion offers a real-life experience. It functions as a hotel, offering 18 extravagant rooms, where you can spend a night diving into the atmosphere of the mansion. Have in mind that it is relatively expensive- expect prices over 450 RM per night. But if you don’t want to visit Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in this way, you can join a tour. There are 3 tours every day, and the price is 25 RM. For more information see Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion’s website.
Let’s go to the eastern seacoast of Georgetown. After crossing Pengkalan Weld Blvd, you will enter another area with wooden houses, souvenir shops, and cafes. The narrow lanes between the houses are wooden too, and you can see the ground below them. Depending on the time of the day, if you proceed walking further, you will suddenly see the water covering the ground. Finally, you will discover that the whole wooden village is built on wooden pillars on the water.
This is the Clan Jetties area, a part of Georgetown, established on the sea by the Chinese pier workers. The area’s name comes from the several jetties, built by several Chinese clans- Yeoh, Tan, Lee, Lim, Chew and more. Of them, Chew Jetty is the most popular place for tourists. And when you reach the end of the wooden platforms, you can enjoy stunning views to Georgetown, its ferry piers, the mainland at Butterworth, and the strait between the mainland and Penang Island.
Church Street Pier
From the Clan Jetties go northward on Pengkalan Weld. You will reach the pier area of Georgetown. And the first pier on your way is the one, located at the end of Church Street. Not the pier itself is of interest, but its gate from the street- a beautiful double arced church construction.
This is the Church Street Pier, built in 1897. It functioned as a pier for small vessels until the end of the 20th century. Then it was closed, and there were attempts to revive it, but without much success. Currently, the pier is still not working, but its gate remained as a landmark and a tourist attraction.
Victoria Jubilee Clock Tower
Proceed on the Pengkalan Weld Blvd, which turns left and reaches a roundabout with another landmark beside it. This is Victoria Jubilee Clock Tower- a 60-feet tall tower with a fountain in the center of the junction circle. It is built in 1897, in honor of the British Queen Victoria. And the height of 60 feet symbolizes the Queen’s 60 years of reign.
Go behind the Victoria Jubilee Clock Tower. There is a fortress wall, surrounding Fort Cornwallis, a bastion raised to protect Penang from enemies. Located in the northeastern end of Penang Island, it is the largest fortress in Malaysia.
Fort Cornwallis is built at the end of the 18th century, thus it is one of the earliest constructions in Penang since the establishment of Georgetown in 1786 by Francis Light. During its history, it has never involved in a serious battle, so later it was used by administrative departments, rather than military units. At the end of the 20th century its historical value was recognized and today it has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Penang. Entrance fee: 20 RM.
Esplanade and City Hall
Go behind the Fort Cornwallis. There is a large field west of the fort, called Padang, like a large square, covered by grass. It is a part of the Penang’s Esplanade- the place where Francis Light arrived in 1786 and started establishing the new possession of the British Empire.
West of the field, you can see a splendid white building in Western (Edwardian Baroque and Palladian) architectural style. This is the City Hall, built in 1903 and served as a headquarter for Georgetown’s municipality. Today it is still an active administrative building, so you can’t enter inside like in a museum, but you can enjoy it from outside.
There is a road between the field and the seacoast, consisting of an automobile street and a pedestrian promenade. You can see a monument beside the promenade, right north of the City Hall. This is the Cenotaph- the War Memorial of Penang, commemorating the heroes from the WW1- one of the landmarks in the Esplanade area.
St. George Church
Now, let’s leave the coastal area for a while and go to Farquhar Street. There are three significant places to visit, two of which are churches. The first church (the nearest to the Old Town one) is called St. George. This is an Anglican Church, the first one of its kind in Southeast Asia (but not the first in Penang). It is built in 1818, with a purpose to serve for the first British colonists in Penang.
The church is built in Neo-Classical, Georgian and Palladian architectural styles, and as most of the colonial buildings in Penang is in white color. Today it is declared as a national treasure of Malaysia and is one of Penang’s landmarks.
Penang State Museum
Right west of St. George Church is the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery. Again, its building is in a similar architectural style like the nearby classical masterpieces, and it is again white. The museum presents a lot of artifacts from Penang’s history, as well as street scenes, photos, and an Art Gallery.
Currently, the museum is in renovation, so its artifacts are temporarily moved to another place- the Penang State Museum branch at No.57 Macalister Street, behind Komtar skyscraper. Its original building is expected to be opened again at the end of 2020.
Church of the Assumption
This is the third white splendid treasure on Farquhar Street, west of the State Museum. It is the oldest church in Penang, built immediately after the arrival of Francis Light. Today it belongs to the Catholic denomination. The church passed through several renovations until it became one of the beautiful landmarks of Penang.
In general, these are the main landmarks in the Old Town of Penang, in the UNESCO World Heritage area. There are also many other buildings with minor significance, as well as many other religious sites (temples, mosques, churches), shops, cafes, and restaurants. But the most attractive of these additional spots in the area are the thematic museums.
More white classical buildings
There are more buildings of this kind- white, gorgeous and splendid. Of them, I would mention the City Court, located between the City Hall and the State Museum. Another building of this kind is Eastern & Oriental Hotel, located at the northern seacoast of Georgetown. If you proceed on the same road (Sultan Ahmad Shah Rd), you can see more white gems. One of them is called Millionaires Row, again with its own history.
And if you want to see buildings in the same style, but in a different color, you can see the Town Hall, located right next to the City Hall. It has white and yellow-colored walls and ornaments.
Penang thematic museums for fun
There are several thematic museums in Georgetown. They are different than the „classical” museums, presenting history and culture (and they don’t have such value, at least for now), they present various forms of entertainment. Also, they are more expensive than other sites. But if you look for something fun, you can choose one or more of these museums, and you would not be disappointed.
- Upside Down Museum. More like a playground with rooms and furniture hanging from above. There is a staff of young people taking photos of you upside down, so it looks like you are hanging upside down, instead of the room. Entrance fee: 27 RM for adults, 16 RM for children.
- Ghost Museum. Something like a „House of horrors”, presenting modern and folklore horror images- ghosts, zombies, etc. Entrance fee: 28 RM for adults, 16 RM for children.
- Penang State Museum and Art Gallery. A place with strange 3D images, combined with specific light effects in darkness. Entrance fee: 35 RM for adults, 25 RM for children.
- Wonder Food Museum. Penang is famous for its food, so this museum is designed as an attraction with meals made much larger than in reality for fun. Entrance fee: 25 RM for adults, 15 RM for children.
- Penang 3D Trick Museum. A house with rooms designed with illusions for fun. Entrance fee: 25 RM for adults, 15 RM for children.
- Penang Tunnel Museum. An attractive museum, presenting historical and comics scenes, providing also educational information. Entrance fee: 29 RM for adults, 16 RM for children.
Now, let’s go out of the Old Town (The UNESCO World Heritage Site) of Georgetown, and to explore the „normal”, modern part of Georgetown, as well as its suburbs. One of the most iconic landmarks in this area is Komtar.
This is the highest building in Penang. Komtar is a 12-sided skyscraper, completed in 1986. It is 249 m (817 ft) tall, with 68 floors. It is combined and surrounded by malls, transport companies, restaurants, and the nearby old traditional houses of the Old Town. Today it is renovated and used not only for offices but also for attractions.
The skyscraper is not so attractive from outside, but if you enter inside, you can enjoy its attractions. On the top, you can walk on the glass Rainbow Skywalk for 68 RM (for adults) and 48 RM (for children). There are also attractions like Jurassic Research Center, 7D Discovery Motion Theater, Tech Dome Penang, Ocean Explorer, Penang Boutique Aquarium, and The Gravityz.
Dharmikarama Burmese Temple and Wat Chaya Mangalaram Thai Temple
In the northwestern suburbs of Penang, beyond the last white classical building, on Sultan Ahmad Shah Rd (which in this section is called Kelawai), you can see two exotic temples, separated by a side street- a Burmese and a Thai temples. They are both Buddhist temples and present outstandingly rich ornamentation, with golden pagodas, Buddha and other statues, halls, and other details.
The Burmese temple is built in 1805 and is the oldest one in Malaysia. And the Thai temple is built in 1845. While the Burmese one looks a bit more exotic, the Thai one is famous for its „Reclining Buddha” statue. Entrance fee: free for both temples.
Kek Lok Si Temple
The Burmese and the Thai temples are beautiful, but there is another temple in Penang, which is the largest one in the whole of Malaysia. This is Kek Lok Si Temple located in a far western suburb of Georgetown, called Ayer Itam, on the foot of the Penang mountains. It is a whole complex of monasteries, pagodas, statues, gardens, as well as some tourist entertainment and shopping areas.
Kek Lok Si Temple is built in 1890 by a Chinese Buddhist, called Beow Lean, and presents the Chinese version of Buddhism, including the goddess Guan Yin, and there is a huge statue of Guan Yin in the complex. It is a touristy place, due to its historic value. Entrance fee: 2 RM.
Nattukotai Chettiar Temple
This is another temple with historical value. But this time it is a Hindu temple. It is located in the far western suburbs of Georgetown, again on the foot of the Penang mountains. The temple is built in 1854 by the Hindu Chettiar community, in the chokkattan style.
During the years, it was renovated several times, and today is also used as the ending point of the procession during the religious Thaipusam festival, which starts from Little India in the Old Town.
This is the last religious site with more special significance. It is called Masjid Terapung, and as its name „Floating Mosque” suggests, it is built on pillars from the bottom of the sea (yet close to the coast). It is located in the far northwestern suburb of Tanjung Bungah.
The first version of the Floating Mosque was built in 1967, and later it was expanded. But in 2004 it was heavily damaged by the infamous tsunami disaster in the Indian Ocean, and the mosque that you can see today is a new one. It is made in Moorish architectural style, featuring a high minaret with its specific design, and provides great panoramic views to the coastal area around.
More places of interest in Georgetown and its suburbs
In general, that’s the most interesting in Georgetown to visit, and it is already a lot. But if you want more, you can find some spots with less significance, where you can still enjoy your visit.
One of these places is the Islamic Museum. It is located in the Old Town and presents artifacts and other educational information about the Islamic religion in Malaysia.
The Penang Jewish Cemetery is the main trace of the Jewish presence in Penang. It is established in a small area with more than 100 tombs. The first one of them dates back to 1835. Unfortunately, due to the government’s antisemitism, there is almost nothing else remained from the Jews in Penang, and in the whole of Malaysia.
There is also another cemetery in Georgetown- the Protestant Cemetery, again with some historical value. This is the place where the early Christians in Penang were buried.
Rumah P. Ramlee was a popular Malaysian actor. He has lived in Penang, and today his house (Rumah P. Ramlee House) is turned into a museum- a typical Malay traditional house, worth visiting.
Places to visit in the rest of Penang Island
Now, let’s explore the rest of Penang Island. It is beautiful countryside with a variety of places- mountains, jungles, beaches, rural areas, towns, and villages. And there are some nice places to visit, but they present mainly nature and entertainment. As I mentioned above, we skipped this area, because due to our limited time, we wanted to focus on the unique part of Penang- Georgetown and its Old Town. But if you have more time…
The mountain areas of Penang
The northern part of Penang Island’s interior is its mountainous area. There is the highest point of Penang Island- Penang Hill. This area is covered by lush rainforest, but a large part of it is turned into a park zone. In general, there are several main places worth exploring there.
- Penang Hill. This is the most popular place in the mountainous area of Penang. The top of the hill is 833 m (2733 ft) high. It is a touristy place with a lot of attractions, among which the most popular is the funicular train to the top. But the reason that makes reaching the top worth is the spectacular panorama to Georgetown, the rest of the island, the sea and the mainland from above.
- Penang Botanical Gardens. This is an exotic park, created in a valley west of Georgetown. It presents a lot of interesting plants, as well as some animals like monkeys, squirrels, etc. There are also some beautiful waterfalls.
- The thematic gardens and farms. The mountains and hills of Penang are proper for some thematic gardens and farms, such as the Entopia Butterfly Farm, the Tropical Fruit Farm, and the Tropical Spice Garden. All they are located in the northwestern part of the island.
- The wildest jungle areas. If you are looking for something wilder, the best area is in the far northwest, between Penang Hill and the sea coast. There is the northwestern promontory, the territory of the Penang National Park– the smallest national park in the world. This is a place with rich flora and fauna, with nice hiking trails. And it is surrounded by beautiful pristine beaches and rocky seacoast.
The beaches of Penang
If you are looking for beaches, you have to search them at the northern, southern and western coast of Penang Island. In general, the beaches of Penang are small, narrow and short. And the coastline between them is rocky under the hilly areas or flat, with mangrove forests in the plain areas. I would group the beaches into three types.
- Resort beaches. They are located on the northern coast of Penang. The most popular of them is Batu Feringghi beach and resort- the favorite place for those who are looking for a crowded and touristy place to relax. There are some other beaches of this kind in the northwestern suburbs of Georgetown too, such as the beaches at Tanjung Bungah.
- Beaches near small towns and villages. They are mainly at the southern and western coast of Penang, in residential areas such as Rumah Murah, Teluk Kumbar, and several smaller.
- Wild beaches. These are the most beautiful and pristine beaches of Penang. Although they are still behind the tropical paradise of Perhentian, Redang and Tioman islands, they are still worth to enjoy. On the north, there is Monkey Banana Beach. On the western coast, the best beaches are Pantai Keracut, Teluk Kampi, and Pantai Pasir Panjang. There are several smaller beaches on the southern coast too.
The rural area of Penang
This area can be found mainly in the southwestern part of Penang Island. There are no special places to visit there, but it is just nice to rent a bike or motorcycle and circle around the villages and rural fields, which can bring you a specific pleasure. However, you can also visit some spots near the Penang International Airport which might be interesting for you, like Relau Metropolitan Gardens, Penang War Museum, or Penang Snake Temple (yes, its name is literal, there you can see alive snakes on the trees!).
The small satellite islands of Penang
There are several small islands beside the main Penang Island.
- Tikus Island is a tiny piece of rocks and mini-forest, the only islet near the north coast of Penang. There is only a lighthouse and a grave of a Muslim proclaimed as a saint.
- Betong Island, located near the western coast of Penang consists of two small rocky islets, covered by forest, not larger than a playground. They are uninhabited, and only some fishermen go there for their job.
- Kendi Island is a narrow long islet near the southwestern tip of Penang, again visited only by fishermen. It is again rocky, covered by jungle.
- Rimau Island is again the same kind of islet, located near the southeastern tip of Penang. There is an old, but currently working lighthouse, and is visited mainly by its workers
- Gazumbo Island is a small man-made islet near the first bridge connecting Penang with the mainland. It has a small beach and a mangrove forest.
- Finally, Jerejak Island. It is the largest satellite island of Penang, located near the eastern coast of the main island. It is also called „the Malaysian Alcatraz”. The island is covered by lush equatorial rainforest, and there are some beaches with resorts beside them. It makes Jerejak the only touristy satellite island.
There are two more islands, that belong to Penang State, but they are closer to the mainland, rather than Penang Island. They are Gedung and Aman. Again, they are covered by rainforest, and Aman is the only inhabited island in Penang State, with a small fishermen village on its northern tip.
In general, that’s all of the places to visit in Penang Island. Here I don’t count some interesting places in Seberang Perai, the mainland part of Penang State. This area is much less interesting, but if you have more time, you can explore it too. However, let’s focus on another famous feature of Penang- its unique local food.
Food of Penang
Some people consider Penang as the „Food capital of Malaysia”. And indeed, you can find the best variety of food in the whole region. Malaysia is a multicultural country, so the food is influenced by the cuisines of all the ethnic groups. But it seems that in Penang this tasty variety is at its peak.
There are Malays, Chinese, Peranakan, Indians, Europeans, and some other minorities living in Penang- all with their specific meals and intercultural influences. Introducing all their specific meals would need a whole separate blog post, and I would recommend this one.
But not only the food itself is important. If you want to feel and taste it better, you need to add a specific atmosphere. This means that I would suggest you go to the specific local neighborhoods, presenting its own traditional food.
Little India is a part of the Old Town, a neighborhood with the Indian community. There are shops, restaurants, and many other kinds of business of the local Indians. So, I would suggest you go there and try the local Indian food there. The best place that I would recommend is a „fast food” type of restaurant. It is called „Kapitan”.
If you are looking for more Chinese food in a more Chinese environment, go to the southwestern part of the Old Town, between Komtar, Armenian and Chulia Streets. Peranakans are more concentrated around the Peranakan Mansion. And Malays are more in the rest of the Old Town, as well as outside of it.
When we talk about local food, most of it is very cheap and you can find it in many street stalls and small fast-food restaurants. There are larger, more luxurious and expensive restaurants too, but still, the best atmosphere is on the street.
Transportation in Penang
As usual, let’s not skip these two important elements of every itinerary- transportation and accommodation.
There are several entry points for Penang, depending on the type of transport that you use. If you arrive by plane, your entry point is Penang International Airport, located in the southeastern part of the island. Many travelers arrive by bus, then their entry point is the Terminal Bas Ekspres in Sungai Nibong. Or you can arrive by ferry from the mainland or Langkawi to the main ferry terminal in Georgetown. And if you come by your own transport, you would enter Penang from one of the two bridges crossing the Penang Strait.
So, what options do you have, if you don’t have your own transport (rental car, or a car from your friend), and you don’t come on an organized trip? Needless to say, you would have a lot of options in such a touristy place.
Hop on-Hop off
Hop on-Hop off is one of the easiest ways to explore Georgetown. It is designed as a tourist journey and its route passed by most of the interesting places to visit around the city. However, it is relatively expensive. Tickets for adults- 45 RM, for children- 25 RM.
Public bus (Rapid Penang)
Rapid Penang is a well-developed public bus network in Georgetown. The buses are relatively frequent, and for 2 RM you can travel around the city and its suburbs, and even to the towns and villages in the southwestern part of the island. So, it is the cheapest way of transport around Penang, although it is a bit slow. There are two main bus terminals- Komtar and the Ferry terminal, and there is a free CAT shuttle between them too.
This is a flexible, fast, but expensive way of travel. Many drivers refuse to use the taximeter and some of them would seriously surcharge the price of their service. If you take a taxi for a route, where public buses travel, you can pay 40, 50 or more RM, instead of only 2 RM by bus. However, there is a much better option- Grab.
For everywhere in Malaysia, I strongly would recommend you download Grab. First- it is usually much cheaper than taxis. And second- this service is clear and transparent. When we arrived in the main bus terminal in Sungai Nibong, we traveled to the center of Georgetown by Grab for only 19 MR, and the price within the center of the city was usually no more than 6-7 MR.
Rental motorbike and bicycle
Traveling by motorbike is a nice way to explore Penang Island. It is more proper for the areas outside of the urban areas of Georgetown, especially for the rural and mountain areas in the western parts of the island. There are some motorcycle rental companies (you can see them in Google Maps), or you can ask your hotel for assistance. Normally, you can expect prices around 35 RM per day.
A good option to explore the Old Town or other parts of Penang is by bicycle. Some hotels and hostels offer rental bikes, as well as some bike rental shops, which you can easily find in the Old Town. You can expect prices between 10 and 20 MR per day. A cheaper bike rental option is Link Bike- you can see their blue bikes in some bike stations in Georgetown. You can ride such a bike for a whole day for only 2 MR (but don’t expect too much of their quality). For more information see here.
Attractive ways of transportation
When you walk around the Old Town of Georgetown, you can’t miss the trishaws. They are everywhere. For around 30 MR per hour, you can have a nice experience around the old streets, taking photos and learning from their drivers who are also good guides.
Another attractive way of transportation is the funicular train, ascending to Penang Hill. Now the price for a return ticket is 30 RM for adults, and 15 RM for children. If you want to buy only a one-way ticket, the price is half. Here you can book your ticket online.
We walked around the Old Town, and when we reached the Queen Victoria Tower, we saw many men offering car service for the day, to guide us around Georgetown. And they proposed prices like 150, 200 or even more MR. Maybe for the distant areas of Penang Island, it would be comfortable, for those who don’t mind spending more money. But for touring the Old Town- I don’t think so.
The best way to walk around the Old Town remains your own two legs. The streets are often crowded with tourists, the places of interest are too close between each other, you would stop at every 100 m for photos, visiting a place or buying something. So, everything that is different than walking can’t give you this impression from the place. On foot is the best way to explore and taste it.
Another area that on foot is the best way to travel is the jungle in the mountains or in the Penang National Park. Actually- not the best, but the only way. And again, the experience from this way of traveling is really worth it. So, when we talk about transportation in Penang, just exclude the Old Town (except using trishaws, just for attraction), and the jungles.
Accommodation in Penang
This is the other important element of your Penang itinerary. And again, here I would not recommend „the best hotel” (with two luxury exceptions- Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion and the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, which are not just places to sleep, but attractive destinations), but I will focus on the location.
We chose Rainbow House, a cheap hotel like a hostel (with shared bathrooms), in the heart of the Old Town. There are many other hotels and hostels in this area, but most of them are a bit expensive. But Rainbow House is not only cheap but in an excellent location. And it was still nice, clean and comfortable, full of tourists who have discovered it. So, if you want to focus on the Old Town as the most important area to visit in Penang, find a place inside it- thus you could explore this place at any time of the day when you are in your hotel- just by walking around, while you go out for breakfast or to buy something from the nearby supermarket.
Penang was the last destination of our Peninsular Malaysia itinerary. We successfully saw and tasted the most essential of this amazing place. On our second morning, we had to leave it by bus to Kuala Lumpur. The bus crossed the Penang Strait on the southern bridge, revealing some stunning views to the strait, Penang Island, the small islets nearby, and the mainland. Finally, Penang remained in our past, but its impressions and experience remained in our life.
Get more impressions from the video below!
Check some travel books about Penang and Malaysia!
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