I wasn’t sure what to expect with my return to Malaysia this year. The brief time I spent in the country in 2013 was a good experience overall, but it’s also the first place where I was aggressively groped in broad daylight.
Granted, gropings can happen anywhere, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t taint my experience while in the country.
It stuck with me so much that even today, four years later, when I hear a scooter coming up behind me I get a dose of adrenalin and and my sense of awareness goes into overdrive.
I knew I wanted to come back to Malaysia someday to have a more positive experience, and focus on all of the good that the country has to offer.
I also knew that I wanted to do it as a solo female traveler to show that a one-off negative experience does not mean that a whole country is unsafe for women.
Far from it, I’ve found that Malaysia can be an incredibly safe place for women, and it’s up there with Singapore in terms of its infastracture and modern amenities. Hence, it’s now a country that I regularly recommend for first-time travelers, or those who are new to Asia.
With this trip, I also knew that Kuala Lumpur was just never going to be my favorite place. So, I set my sights on a new city to base myself in for a good chunk of my time in Malaysia. That place was George Town on Penang Island.
I’d heard from countless travelers about this magical place, a place that my favorite Thai curry was named after (hint: it’s Panang), and I wanted to see it for myself.
Penang is a melting pot of religions, cultures, and the best food in the country. A place that has colorful street art, a vibrant history, and stunning nature a short bus ride away.
It was one of those places that had been talked up a lot, but regardless, I knew that it would end up being a special place to me before I even got there. And it definitely was.
Let’s first start with the basics of what area I’m actually talking about in Malaysia. People use the names Penang and George Town fairly interchangeably, so let’s break it down into three parts – the state, the island, and the capital city.
What’s in a Name – Is it Penang or George Town?
Penang is a state in northwest Malaysia and is made up of Seberang Perai on the mainland and Penang Island.
Penang Island is 113 square miles, the most populous island in Malaysia with a population of 700,000+, and has always been highly influential as a link between Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Its capital is George Town.
George Town is the capital city of Penang, and it’s the place where most travelers base themselves, and where there is the most to do in terms of museums, cafes, street art, Colonial history, etc.
When people say they were in Penang, they generally mean they stayed in George Town. Again, the two names are often used interchangeably.
So, which name am I talking about? I spent most of my time in George Town, but since most people know the name Penang as opposed to the name of its capital city, that’s the one I’m using to keep it simple.
And there are at least a few attractions outside George Town that made it on the list. So technically this post is about what to do on Penang Island, with a focus on George Town.
Okay, have I confused you enough yet? Perfect! Let’s get started.
I spent about a week on the island and these were some of my favorite experiences and hangouts, mainly based around George Town.
Keep in mind that I was also working full time while I was there, so you could also probably do most of this in a few days if you’re ambitious and short on time.
These are my top 12 things to do in Penang!
Things to do in Penang
Go on a Street Art Hunt
The historic streets of George Town are known for their quirky and colorful street art, and you can’t go to the city without trying to find some of the best masterpieces down random alley ways.
Most accommodations should have a street art map that you can use. This allows you to go on a scavenger hunt to find every official piece of street art in the city (this is what I did!).
Just be prepared for a long day, it took my friend and I something around 3-4 hours of walking to find 85% of the art.
If you prefer to be more spontaneous, you can also simply get lost and wander. You will still come across plenty of artwork, but if you want to see some of the most well-known spots it’s best to take a map for the maze-like streets.
Enjoy the Wacky Museums
It’s hilarious how many quirky museums there are around George Town, and the best part is that most of them are super interactive and fun.
With that said, they’re much better if you’re after a wacky experience or a new Instagram pic, not so much if you want serious historic information about the city. At least for the most part.
Again, some of them can be more gimmicky than others and all of them are fairly expensive by Malaysian standards, but if you’re looking for a good thing to do on a rainy day, or you want to experience the quirkier side to the city, head to 1-2 of the museums in town.
Be Spoiled for Food Choices
One of the aspects I love most about Penang is its melting pot of cultures and thus really, really good food. It’s arguably one of the best foodie capitals of Asia!
Whatever your heart desires, you will find a delicious version of it in Penang – that even includes hamburgers from a food truck!
Mouthwatering Indian food, vegan eateries, sizzling Chinese food, hipster cafes, Malaysian specialties, more noodle dishes than you can imagine, a variety of fresh ethnic markets at all hours of the day.
Penang is a place that does not stop when it comes to food, and most of the traditional and freshest dishes you can find in the city come at the price of about $2-$5 for a meal.
I was in legitimate foodie heaven. If you’re not spending 75% of your time eating while you’re in Penang, you’re doing something wrong.
Appreciate the Colonial Architecture
George Town is one of those cities that is perfect to get lost in. Every street has its own vibrant draw, the architecture has a life of its own, it feels like you’ve stepped back into Colonial times as you explore the alleys, the twists and turns of downtown.
I’d recommend getting lost for an afternoon. Don’t have an agenda, just appreciate how magnificent the scene is around you. I’ve never come across a city that is so fascinatingly full of history, culture, smells, and an equal mix of Asian, Middle Eastern, and European influence.
Indulge in the Cafe Culture
I’d argue that George Town has one of the best cafe cultures in Asia. There are countless trendy coffeeshops around town, and most of them have quality baristas and coffee beans.
There’s just nothing better than people watching and sipping on a rose mocha while sitting in a cafe that’s housed in a beautiful crumbling Colonial building.
And if that sounds too hipster for you, they also have a cafe that makes 3D coffee – yes, it’s just as amazing as it sounds.
Experience the Clan Jetties
There are actually three separate areas in Penang that can be considered “Chinatown”, and I urge you to visit all of them, but my favorite was the Chinese Trades Neighbourhood I found on the jetty.
I’ve never come across a Chinatown on a jetty before, and maybe it was simply the novelty of it, but I really liked the one in Penang. It was hectic, crammed, and full of life. When you get to the end of the jetty, you also get a great view looking out over the water.
It’s a great place to watch the sunset if you don’t want to trek up to Penang Hill and deal with all of the crowds.
Since this is where a lot of Chinese businessmen and merchants hangout, if you time it right, you might even come across a bunch of them drinking beer, gambling, and having a grand old time out near the jetty. It’s a very festive atmosphere.
Visit the Gangster’s Paradise of Pinang Peranakan Mansion
Aside from the wacky museums around the city, if you’re a true history buff and you want to dig a little deeper than colorful Instagrammable experiences, there are a few proper museums around George Town.
And I’d recommend trying to get to at least one or two historic museums, because there is a lot of fascinating layered history behind this part of Malaysia.
One of these museums is Pinang Peranakan Mansion, the house of the Chinese gangster and tycoon, Chung Keng Quee, who was one of the most powerful and wealthy men in Penang in the 19th century.
Besides being able to walk through a huge ornate historic home, the mansion has thousands of Peranakan artifacts and antiques and an explanation of family customs from way back when.
They offer free guided tours with admission cost (RM20), and I’d recommend hopping on one of these to wrap your head around the history and the many Chinese antiques.
Stroll along the Penang Esplanade at Night
After we were bursting at the seams from another wonderful Indian meal one night, my Belgian friend Jeremy took me to a more local spot near the water, the Penang Esplanade.
We were the only foreigners around in this little square that was packed to the brim at 10pm. There were local children running around, live music, carnival snacks being sold, and a romantic walk alongside the water to be enjoyed.
I’m not sure if they have local events happening in the square every night, or if we just lucked out, but regardless it’s a cool local hangout that’s very different from the vibe you’ll find in the middle of George Town.
If you want to experience another side to the city, this is a place that’s not too far away and where you can interact with more locals.
Catch the Best View in Town from Penang Hill
I didn’t actually get to experience Penang Hill myself, but my friend loved it so much he went twice, so that counts right?
But in all seriousness, this is one of THE most recommended things to do in Penang. Some say it’s overrated, but everyone agrees that it’s a great view from the top, and who doesn’t love great views?
Penang Hill, called Bukit Bendera by locals, is about four miles from George Town and it’s a part of the last patch of tropical forest that exists in Penang. Since it’s a protected area, people come to enjoy the fresh air, nature trails, and 100 species of bird life that coexist on the hill.
It’s also open at night if you’re more into those twinkling lights and cityscape views.
There are two ways to get up the hill. You can either do a steep one hour hike from the Moon Gate (between the post office and police station) at the Botanical Gardens, or take the Penang Hill Railway.
Just keep in mind that the railway usually has long lines, is a very slow moving vehicle that was made in 1923, and takes about 30 minutes to do its full ascent. Tickets cost RM30 (US$7.35) per person.
Take a Day Trip to Kek Lok Si Temple
Another attraction that I didn’t get to personally, but which I heard rave reviews about is Kek Lok Si.
Built in 1891, Kek Lok Si is a Buddhist temple and one of the most impressive structures in Penang, or so I’ve heard.
It’s meant to be one of the largest temple complexes in Southeast Asia. Its pagoda is famous because it was built in three different styles – the base is a Chinese style, the center is Thai, and the top is Burmese. And the view from the top is supposed to be stunning.
It’s a trek to get out to the temple and back if you’re staying in George Town, so give yourself a day to appreciate the temple complex and the journey there and back.
You can get there on the public bus (Penang actually has a really good transit system), which takes about 30 minutes, rent a scooter, or hire a private taxi.
If you’re taking the bus, you can take it from the main bus station in George Town, Komtar Bus Terminal. And look for buses that are going to Air Itam, #203 or #204.
Get Outdoorsy at Penang National Park
One of my favorite experiences in Penang was spending a day hiking around the national park.
About a 45 minute drive outside of George Town, the park is full of nature trails, beautiful beaches, cheeky monkeys, and lookouts that make you feel like you’re at the edge of the world.
The park is actually Malaysia’s smallest and youngest national park, at only 1o square miles. What it doesn’t have in size, it makes up for in beauty though. And to be fair, I actually liked its manageable size.
Jeremy and I spent the afternoon hiking around the park (about six hours) and it felt like we got through a good portion of it. We even came across a couple of mama monkeys with their babies hanging off of their stomachs. It was adorbs.
There are two main trails you can choose in the park, we chose the one that went to the right and followed it down to Monkey Beach (where we saw the monkeys, surprise suprise), and to the second-oldest lighthouse in Malaysia.
We went up to the top of the lighthouse to eat our packed lunches and had a 360 degree view of lush forests and blue-green ocean. Not a bad lunch view at all.
We took an Uber to the park, because we got a late start, and public transit back. The park is actually really easy to reach by public transit, just take Rapid Penang Bus 101 to Teluk Bahang.
All visitors have to register at the information center before entering the park, but entrance is free.
Drink Like the Locals at Antarabangsa
And finally, another favorite memory from Penang was drinking like the locals do. At some point during the week I was there, me and a few hostel mates figured out that there was one spot where all of the locals seem to go every night – a liquor store.
This liquor store is run by this hilarious Malay man, who usually rings up alcoholic drinks with his shirt off, rubbing his big belly and letting out throaty laughs now and then. They have a ton of red plastic chairs and tables set up outside the liquor store, and everyone just buys cheap six-packs and drinks around tables.
Sometimes there’s live music, or Indian fried chicken, or some other type of entertainment. I’ve never come across anything like it, the atmosphere is electric, buzzing with the hot air and groups of locals. It was my favorite way to end every night in George Town.
The liquor store is called Antarabangsa
Also be forewarned that if you have to use the tiny bathroom, you might come across two random turtles swimming in a small tub. Hey, when in Malaysia, right?
THINGS TO WATCH OUT FOR
- Huge holes in the sidewalk, uneven pavement. This is an ongoing hazard in the city, don’t text and walk here or you may end up down a big hole.
- Bag snatchers – this unfortunately happened to my friend when she was walking down one of the main streets in George Town. And I’ve heard it has become much more common in George Town with its increased popularity. Similar to the bag snatchers in Ho Cho Minh City, these guys wait until you’re not paying attention and grab your bag from behind while they’re on their motorbike. If you hold on, you can be seriously injured because they don’t slow down when they snatch your bag. Be extra cautious with your belongings when walking around at night. Better yet, don’t even bring a big bag if you don’t have to.
WHERE TO STAY
There are numerous hostels and boutique accommodations on offer around George Town.
I was really happy with the clean and trendy hostel I stayed at right in the middle of downtown, called The Frame Guesthouse. They offer free breakfast, a cool TV/lounge room, kitchen, and dorms as well as privates.
It was also housed in an old Colonial building and that’s always a win in George Town.
HOW TO GET TO PENANG
From Kuala Lumpur, you can fly, bus, or take the train up. Because the overland transport is so nice in Peninsular Malaysia, the bus or train are both good options.
I took the train up there and the bus down. The bus is slightly less expensive and they both take about the same amount of time – 4 hours.
If you’re taking the train, KTMB has a service that goes up to Butterworth station. From Butterworth, it’s a short walk to the ferry terminal to take you over to Penang Island.
If you’re taking the bus, you’ll be dropped off at Sungai Nibong bus terminal, that’s about 7.5 miles outside of George Town (approx 30 minutes driving). A taxi to the city centre costs RM20 (US$5) or you can take the Rapid Penang bus #401 to KOMTAR or Pengkalan Weld (Weld Quay).
For both, but especially the train, I recommend booking online a day or two before you go. Those seats fill up fast.
Have you been to Penang? What’s the coolest melting pot city that you’ve been to?
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