Formerly home to one of three British settlements along the Straits of Malacca (Malacca and Singapore being the other two), Penang has a long history of being at the epicentre of a mix of cultures, first as a port, and today as a major tourist destination. As a significant port over the years, this island, also known as the Pearl of the Orient, has seen an influx of those of Indian and Chinese descent, to say nothing of the Malay residents that inhabited the area before the British even arrived.
All of these nationalities brought the best of their culinary traditions, and nowadays, it has resulted in one of the major draws for visitors: mouth-watering food available for prices unheard of in few other places in the world. Try getting a $4 (12 RM) Indian feast anywhere else other than in Penang or India. You’ll be looking for a long time.
In addition to the excellent cuisine, Chinese and British entrepreneurs have left an amazing wealth of architecturally significant buildings in the island’s biggest centre, Georgetown. It has been granted UNESCO World Heritage status, and your DLSR camera will be getting a workout as you creep from street to street through this remarkable town.
Finally, you are on a tropical island. As such, there are beaches, jungle, and other natural assets to explore and check out when you have exhausted the main sights of interest on your itinerary.
Get your memory cards and your appetite ready, as they will be getting a workout during your stay here!
After disembarking from the Butterworth ferry, finding your guesthouse, and dropping off your bags there, it’s time to go wandering through the streets of Georgetown. Of note, Lebuh Pantai, Lebuh Chulia, Lebuh Armenian, and Lorong Love (Love Lane) are great places to start your adventures, but any street in Georgetown within the core and buffer zones will be full of architectural surprises. Specifically, check out the Kapitan Keling mosque, Pernanakan and Cheong Fat Tze mansions, the latter structures of which are both testimony to vast amounts of wealth made peddling goods to the West, and importing exotic western goods to Malaysia.
Next, head down to the waterfront street, Pengkalan Weld, and after carefully dodging traffic, follow the shore side of the street until you arrive at the Clan Jetties. Home to various Chinese clans that immigrated to Penang hundreds of years ago, they lived off the sea, and because of this, as well as their modest financial means, they built only where they were able to – over the shallow waters just off the east coast of Penang. If you are so inclined, there are several homestays available in the Clan Jetties, so you can immerse yourself in the life that residents today experience, including the spectacle of being a living, breathing tourist attraction.
Next, hop on a Rapid Penang bus (203 to the end of the line, Air Itam) and head to the other side of the island, where Kek Lok Si – The Temple of Supreme Bliss – awaits your arrival. This mammoth temple is reputed to be the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia. It sits atop a hill, requiring a funicular to access the top. Attractions include a stupa that incorporates elements of Chinese, Khmer, and Thai Buddhism, and a 37 metre high statue of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy.
Finally, when you have worked up an appetite and are ready to eat every scrap of food in sight, head to Lebuh Chulia, start at the north end and work your way south. Start with some legendary Nasi Kandar at Line Clear, progress to some Mee Hokkien or Char Kway Teow from a street cart, and then smother what’s left of your hunger with a massive spread of Indian Food at Restoran Kapitan. Note that this itinerary barely scratches the surface of the Penang food scene; foodies may be stuck in this city for a while. A long while.
While Georgetown holds many attractions for the wandering traveler, eventually the equatorial heat will begin to break you down, aided and abetted by the concrete and asphalt that predominates in the city centre.
Escape the city by taking Rapid Penang Bus 204 to Penang Hill for starters. Up here, get an excellent view of the city below, while taking relief in the slightly cooler air 800 metres above sea level. Active types can hike up instead of taking the railway, but take plenty of water, as the tropical sun can be unforgiving.
Double back to town, and then catch bus 201 to the northern part of Penang. Those who crave a touristy beach resort atmosphere will find it in Batu Ferringhi, with tonnes of international restaurants and power watersports on offer at the beach. Those seeking a more secluded, quieter beach experience should continue on to Penang National Park, at the end of the Rapid Penang 201 route. From here, either hike 1 hour and 15 minutes through the jungle, or take a boat (10 RM, $3.30 USD one-way) to Monkey Beach. Here, you can relax and cool off in a peaceful, wild corner of what is a very urbanized island.