22 July 2019.
Penang is no stranger to change.
From its days as the centre of spice production to time under British rule to its near destruction during WWll, today Penang has been rebuilt and cemented itself as a firm favourite along Asia’s tourist trail.
It has become a burgeoning hub for digital nomads, a centre for culture and street art, a place where the melting pot identity of Malaysia is truly epitomised and, of course, it remains a place where gobbling up its food is one of the greatest past times.
Beautifully timeworn streets fill the old town, marked by peeling paint in dusty blues and faded yellows, splintered wooden shutters, arched streetside corridors and intricate mosaic walkways. Wide boulevards that would once have been rather grand now show the scars of time and decay and yet, their crumbling state makes them all the more intriguing.
But of course, Penang is far more than just the grid of streets that make up the UNESCO World Heritage Area of George Town, despite what Instagram and the hoards of map-toting tourists that flood down Armenian Street in search of its street art may suggest. Venture a little further and you can expect to find thick jungle where monkeys call from the canopy, stunning hilltop views, sandy beaches and some of the best street food you’ll find anywhere in Malaysia.
Kick off your trip to Malaysia’s most interesting island with these things to do in Penang and George Town.
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Given the incredible popularity of Penang’s street art, I had quite wrongly assumed that it had been apart of the island’s tradition for some time. But, as it turns out, these wildly iconic pieces are actually a relatively new addition to the city.
In 2008, when a pocket of George Town was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Area, the local government launched ‘Marking George Town’, an initiative to physically brand the city.
Initially, this led to the creation of 52 steel sculptures that were used to tell the stories of these timeworn streets – their people, shared history and unique cultural identity. Some are devastatingly honest, most are rather amusing.
From there came a collection of iconic interactive murals that adorn various alleyways, street corners and homes throughout the old town. These pieces transformed the landscape of George Town, depicting the beautifully mundane moments from everyday life, and have arguably become Penang’s biggest attractions.
Ernest Zacharevic is the artist behind several of the most prominent pieces, while Louis Gan and Julia Volchkova are responsible for several others.
TOP TIP | Looking for all those famous pieces you’ve seen on the ‘gram? Pick up a copy of the ‘Marking George Town’ map from the information centre or virtually every accommodation in town or download it here (mine eventually ripped in half from overuse so a digital copy isn’t actually a bad idea). This marks all the artworks in the historic centre as well as all 52 of the steel sculptures and a collection of other main tourist attractions. Essentially, it’ll become your bible for finding street art in George Town.
A number of the most famous pieces are concentrated around Armenian Street with several others just a short walk away, inlcuding my personal favourite, ‘The Indian Boatman’ located in a tiny street near Love Lane.
Want more street art? These are a few other places worth checking out.
Art Lane | Repurposed from an old iconic longhouse, this series of large rooms and narrow corridors is now reserved exclusively for art and houses some fantastic pieces that blur the lines between run-of-the-mill graffiti and genuine, thought provoking art.
Art Lane cuts between Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street) and Lebuh Victoria. It’s free to enter and explore and features a number of local artists with relatively high turnover. Open between 9 a.m. am 7 p.m. daily.
Balik Pulau | This small suburb on Penang’s western front now plays host to a series of enormous murals by both Ernest Zacharevic and Julia Volchkova. Far fewer tourists make it to this part of the island than the buzzing streets of George Town’s centre, but it’s well worth the visit if you’re a street art enthusiast and looking to escape the tourist crowds.
To get there, buses #502 and #401E leave from Komtar every half hour bound for Balik Pulau. #401E follows the coast before ducking around the mountain, while #502 takes a slightly more scenic route between the island’s hills. Bus #502 also travels through Air Itam so could be paired with a trip to Penang Hill or Kek Lok Si temple.
Penang National Park sprawls across the north-west tip of the island, marked by a tangle of dense jungle and burnt orange trails, where the high-pitched screech of insects is unwavering and the grizzly bark of macaque monkeys filters down from the canopy.
It makes a wonderful day trip from George Town and is a great way to escape the city bustle, stretch your legs and experience a very different side to Penang.
Since a landslide back in 2017, the once popular Monkey Beach remains off-limits to hikers with no plans for the route to be restored, but it’s still possible to visit Turtle Beach on the far side of the park. It’s a 4 km or 1-hour walk through the jungle and is mostly flat with a few small uphill sections to contend with.
Nearing the beach, take the trail forking right past the meromictic lake and across the suspension bridge to the beach. Supposedly the layers of water in the lake separate and take on different hues though it looked just like a regular lake to me.
Marine turtles come to nest on this wide swath of sand and you can visit the small turtle sanctuary at the far end of the beach where there’s a hatchery, a small information centre and series of live displays. While these creatures appear rather sad swimming about their tiny enclosures, I was assured that they were only kept here temporarily to recover from injury and would be released back into the wild.
By the time you arrive, chances are you’ll be drenched with sweat and the blue ocean will look rather tempting, but try to refrain as large jellyfish patrol these waters and their stings are vicious.
To return, either take the path through the camping ground, or wait at the jetty for a boat back to the national park entrance (around RM100, €21.50 one way). You’ll also find plenty of shaded tables in the camping area which would make a nice spot for a picnic lunch.
To end your day, either head back to George Town or hang out for the Batu Ferringhi night market, one of Penang’s most popular spots for souvenirs and street food. Things kick off every evening at 7 p.m.
How To Get To Penang National Park |
From George Town, bus #101 will drop you right near the entrance to Penang National Park. The trip takes a little over an hour along the scenic coastal road and tickets cost RM3.40 (€0.75) with no change given so be ready with the correct bus fare.
When you arrive at the national park you’ll need to register at the office before entering.
Those still eager to visit Monkey Beach can get there by boat for 50RM (€11) each way.
One of the best ways to get to know old George Town is to walk its streets.
In this small grid of pulsing roads and hidden alleyways, it’s far too easy to run from one mural to another without actually taking notice of the beautiful streets unfolding beneath your feet. But put aside the map, allow your feet to wander aimlessly and you’ll quickly realise this place is rather pretty.
Cultures collide, as old colonial streets shift between Chinatown and Little India. Beautifully timeworn facades rise high above the pavements dressed with big wooden shutters and peeling paint. Beneath them, arched walkways provide a much needed respite from the searing sun and intricate mosiaced floors hint at the grandiosity that once existed along these streets.
Enticing aromas of sweet and spicy waft from hidden shop fronts while alleyways filled with colourful markets call you to deviate from your planned route.
George Town is an undeniably busy city, but it’s also the kind of place where its not hard to escape the chaos and slip in to the backstreets that reveal unexpected delights, be it tranquil laneways, cute cafes or even more curious art works.
The verdant green mound that rises high above the skyscrapers on the outskirts of George Town offers up some of the best views in Penang and a much-needed reprieve from the sweltering city heat.
At the top, make a beeline to the small circular Sky Walk overlooking the jungle that wraps around the city, the bridges that disappear into the haze that clings to the mainland and the ant-like boats that whizz across the channel.
There are a few other attractions up here but mostly it’s an unfortunate mix of gimmicky souvenirs and overpriced tourist traps. Take a stroll around, but after enjoying the views I thought most of these places could easily be skipped.
How To Get To Penang Hill |
You can reach Penang Hill by funicular, on foot or a combination of the two.
For the funicular, bus #204 departs every half hour from George Town centre and stops at the lower funicular station for just RM2 (€0.40). The funicular itself is fairly pricey by Malaysian standards at RM15/30 (€3.20/€6.40) for one-way/return tickets.
Queues can be very long at peak times and on weekends so try to arrive by mid-morning or shortly before sunset to avoid the crowds. Otherwise, there are fast track tickets which allow you to skip the queue for around three times the price. For more information on tickets and opening hours, see here.
To visit on foot, there are two trails leading out from the Botanical Gardens – the road and the stairs. Both are around 5km and take 2 to 3 hours to the top and 1.5 hours to get down. Bus #10 will get you between the Botanical Gardens and the city centre though it leaves only every hour.
For the best of both worlds, I’d suggest taking the funicular up and walking down as, if you’re anything like me, scaling hundreds of steep stairs in the searing Malaysian heat might not sound all that appealing.
A short way from Penang Hill lies the Kek Lok Si, the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia.
Cascading down a small hill, the complex is made up of several large prayer halls, a turtle pond and flower garden, the seven-story pagoda which you can climb to the top of and an enormous bronze statue of the Goddess of Mercy which is reached with a small funicular.
The complex is free to visit but it will cost an extra RM2 (€0.40) each to climb the pagoda and visit the goddess.
Given the temple sits at the base of Penang Hill, it makes sense to visit both in the same outing. If you’re visiting Penang Hill by funicular only, I’d suggest doing that first and then walking or taking a Grab to the temple.
If you’re planning to walk down from Penang Hill, better visit the temple first before taking the funicular up to the top. Bus #203 from George Town centre will drop you in Air Itam from where its a short walk to the temple.
While you’re here, don’t miss the opportunity to eat at some of Penang’s oldest and most iconic street food stalls. The famous Air Itam Laksa sits on the corner of Jalan Pasar and Jalan Paya Terubong and serves up bowls of funky, sweet and sour Asam laksa for just RM5 (€1.10). Choose a seat and they’ll come to you.
A block away you’ll find the legendary Lim sisters of Sister Curry Mee who, now in their 80s, have been ladling up their staple dish, marked by homemade chilli paste and creamy cuttlefish curry broth, from their humble street-side stall since the 1940s. The stall opens at 7:30 a.m. and closes at 1 p.m. or when the curry is sold out.
From trendy cafes that will satisfy any smashed avo cravings you may be harbouring, to hole-in-the-wall bakeries serving up morish sweet treats to, arguably the best of the lot, the plethora of hawker centres and humble street side stalls that have existed here for decades, filling your belly is without a doubt one of the best things to do in Penang.
But with so many dishes to try, the real problem is where to start.
Unfortunately I didn’t eat out nearly as much as I had expected during my time in Penang, instead caving to my newfound mangosteen addiction or, overcome by heat and hangriness while out and about, simply eating at the closest place I could find.
I did eat some excellent meals in Penang, but I’ll leave this one to those more expert for guiding your tastebuds.
Jutting out into the channel that separates Penang Island from the mainland lie the clan jetties which have existed here for over a century.
These communities of stilt houses were born from the growing activity and development in the port and settled by rival Chinese communities. Each jetty is named after its respective clan and to this day, none of the families that live here are required to pay tax as they don’t live on land.
Today, while some jetties have undoubtedly cashed in on the tourist trade, others remain largely as they once were and offer up an intriguing glimpse at this era of Penang’s history as one of the last remaining enclaves of old Chinese heritage in the area.
Chew Jetty is by far the most popular and touristy with garish souvenir and ice-cream stalls crowded along the rickety walkway, but stroll across to the neighbouring jetties and you’ll find that they are remarkably quiet and still feel well and truly lived in. Traipsing down the often teetering planks can be a little unnerving but it’s fascinating to see the city from this perspective.
Across the water, families play with pets on the patio, men fix motorbikes in the sun or lay on the bare wooden floor watching tv as the water sloshes about beneath their floorboards.
Away from the hubbub of the rest of George Town, this historic corner feels like a lifetime ago. As always, keep in mind that these are people’s homes so be respectful of their properties and privacy. I saw a handful of people opening gates to pose in doorways and on front steps which is not cool.
Penang is a major transport hub and is well connected to the rest of the country through plane, bus, train and ferry.
By Plane | The Penang International Airport lies south of George Town and can be reached in around 30 minutes by car or 1.5 hours by bus. Flights serve all of Malaysia as well as destinations in Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and South Korea.
For nearby domestic destinations, however, consider travelling by land if the travel time is comparable so as to minimise air emissions.
By Bus | Generally Malaysia is easiest to travel overland with regular connections to all major cities. Penang is serviced by two major bus terminals – Sungai Nibong south of Penang Bridge and Butterworth on the mainland directly opposite George Town.
Typically long-distance buses will stop at both stations and so it’s usually fastest to jump out at whichever you reach first as travel time between the two is around an hour.
To get to or from Sungai Nibong Bus Terminal, buses #301, 303 and 304 travel to Komtar in George Town around every 20 minutes and take 1 to 1.5 hours.
Butterworth (also called Penang Sentral) sits across the water and is modern and well-organised housing the bus, train stations and ferry terminals. Ferries to and from Butterworth leave every half hour and are only charged on the way to Penang (1.20MR, €0.25), travelling toward Butterworth is free.
Honestly, even if you’re not visiting the bus station, the ferry offers up a great perspective on George Town with the backdrop of Penang Hill and if the weather is decent, it’s well worth taking the trip purely for the view.
At the bus station, you’ll find ticket counters, ATMs and a large Harold’s bakery for any last-minute road snacks.
As neither bus station is near the city, I’d suggest buying tickets online before you travel, especially on routes that have just one service a day and are likely to fill up, or you’re travelling over peak holiday periods.
By Train | Train travel in Malaysia isn’t all that common, but between major hubs like Penang and Kuala Lumpur, it is often actually faster to travel by train. Penang’s Train Station is housed inside the Butterworth terminal and can be reached from George Town following the instructions above.
By Ferry | Most travellers leaving Penang by ferry are bound for Langkawi with two daily departures from Swettenham Pier.
Penang has plenty of accommodation options to suit any budget, whether you’re after a lively hostel, cosy guesthouse or luxury highrise hotel. Search for rates and availability here.
Airbnb is also an excellent option with a number of beautiful apartments scattered throughout George Town and Penang Island that provide excellent value, especially if you’re travelling as a couple or family. Check rates and availability here.
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