The island of Penang is one of my favorite parts of Malaysia and I recommend it to nearly everyone. Not only is it home to the UNESCO-designated Historic City of George Town but also beaches, rainforest, traditional villages and farms, modern high rises, and some of the tastiest food in Southeast Asia. While having a guide will make any visit richer, there’s much that can be explored on foot, by taking city buses, or calling a Grab driver (Grab is the Southeast Asia equivalent of Uber). And ultimately, I recommend having a mix of guided days and solo time. If you’re a first time visitor, here’s what to do in Penang.
Find the Art
The city of George Town is littered with art including iron rod sculptures that provide background on the city’s history – the result of a 2009 competition related to the city’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can pick up a map showing where these are located around town or just keep an eye out as you explore. If you’re looking for something more colorful, watch out for crowds of people gathered against walls. There’s a good chance they’re posing in front of one of the city’s many murals such as those Ernest Zacharevic was commissioned to paint in 2012. While many of his original works are deteriorating, other artists have joined the party in the intervening years so there’s still plenty to hunt down.
Eat, eat, eat
Malaysians and Singaporeans flock to Penang for the food in George Town and those in the know follow suit. Whether it’s a steaming bowl of assam laksa or any of the other soups on offer, sizzling skewers of sate, freshly made roti canai, sweet-salty rojak salad, nasi kandar, fried noodles, banana leaf rice, or an icy bowl of chendol, you’re bound to find something in this city to delight your tastebuds. Street food and hawker stalls are a great way to try the options without committing to a whole meal but the best way to learn what’s what is on a walking food tour. A really good one will introduce you to the highlights of George Town’s culinary staples and the city’s multicultural history. When you book travel to Malaysia with Fleewinter, I’ll make sure you get an excellent guide.
Head Up Penang Hill
George Town’s streets can feel swelteringly hot so at least once during your visit, get out of town. A short ride from the heart of George Town, Penang Hill is easy to ascend by funicular. At the top, walk the paths or take in the views that stretch across to mainland Malaysia. Pay a visit to The Habitat to immerse yourself in 130-year-old rainforest and check for dusky langurs munching away on the leaves. The views from the Canopy Walk of lush green forest will make you forget the heat of George Town in an instant.
Go to the Beach
Penang doesn’t feel like a tropical island but when you get away from the built-up areas, you’ll see that’s exactly what it is. Batu Ferringhi is the island’s most well-known beach which means it’s also the most crowded. You’ll find watersports, restaurants, and plenty of people trying to sell you things here. If you’re looking for something less busy, try taking the bus or a taxi from George Town and when you see a beach that looks appealing, ring the bell and find your way to that slice of sand. Not everywhere is safe to swim and you’ll need to look out for monitor lizards and jellyfish but if you just want to sit in the sand and look out over the ocean, there’s plenty of coastline to choose from.
Get Your History On
Penang is full of historical buildings and sites with stories begging to be told. Check out the Khoo-Kongsi Clan House, Cheong Fatt Tze’s Blue Mansion, Pinang Peranakan Mansion, Fort Cornwallis, Kapitan Keling Mosque, Sri Mahamariamman Temple, Goddess of Mercy Temple, and St George’s Church, all within a day’s walk including plenty of stops to escape the heat along the way. You’ll learn about the Straits Chinese, Indian, Malay, and British colonial history of Malaysia as you move through those stops.
Meet Mr. Lee
Joss sticks burn at every Chinese temple in Malaysia. In George Town is a man who makes them by hand, using all natural ingredients. Mr. Lee is around 90-years-old and his son helps him run the business these days but Mr. Lee remains the heart of it. Pay him a visit, ask about the Chinese calligraphy he does, and learn about this traditional craft before it dies out.
Stop and Smell the Spices
Back in the 1700s, people on the island of Penang started cultivating pepper plants and over time, the island became home to nutmeg, clove, and other spice production. The Tropical Spice Garden is a living museum of the spice trade and the story of how plants have shaped history in Malaysia and around the world. Walking the paths listening to an audio tour, stopping on benches, swings, or hammocks in the shade to breathe it all in, and learning about our world through plants makes for a great few hours. Once you’ve worked up an appetite or thirst, grab something at the Tree Monkey Restaurant and look out over the ocean.
Look for Wildlife
Head over to the island’s National Park to cruise through mangroves and walk the trails looking for sea eagles, kingfishers, monitor lizards, macaques, and other wildlife. There’s even a beach where Green and Olive-Ridley turtles nest so if you’re lucky, you may spot a few. It’s a ways outside town and with the time it takes to explore, you’ll want a whole day for this so bring a picnic, swimwear, and a sense of adventure.
Pray with Pit Vipers
If the temples elsewhere in Asia haven’t held your interest, check out the Snake Temple where pit vipers, allegedly rendered harmless by the ever-burning incense smoke, coil around alters and slither through trees. Legend has it that the temple was built to honor the memory of monk, healer, and shelterer of snakes, Chor Soo Kong and that when it was completed, the snakes arrived of their own accord. Today the snakes are de-venomed so even if the incense isn’t keeping them docile, you’re unlikely to be bothered as you ogle the colorful temple and its reptilian residents.
There’s far more to do in Penang and some downright lovely hotels in George Town so if you’d like help planning a trip, drop me an email at the boutique travel company I work with and I’ll plan you an amazing holiday.