10 Essential Places to See in Penang
Penang, the north-west Malaysian state that boasts UNESCO Heritage Listing, diverse flora and fauna, and numerous industries.
Penang is a melting pot of cultures, while it includes Butterworth on the mainland peninsula, the capital George Town is found on Penang Island and is where one should head to explore jungle, beaches, colonial architecture, rows of shophouses, and durian farms.
Visitor numbers have increased since 2007 and it’s easy to see why - year-round sunshine, some of the best street food in Malaysia, and a wealth of activities for people of all ages.
Catherine MacLean is lucky enough to have called Penang home for the past 15 months and here she shares her top recommendations for visiting the island.
1. Street Art
Following on from George Town’s UNESCO listing in 2008, the George Town Festival committee invited famed street artist Ernst Zacharevic to transform several public walls prior to the 2012 festival. His pieces quickly gained traction and new artworks by various artworks continually pop up around the city. One can pick up a guided map from many hotels or through many an online blog, or you will inevitably stumble across these larger-than-life artworks while wandering the streets of picturesque shophouses.
2. Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion
Crazy Rich Asian fan? Well, you might recognise this mansion as the location for the mah-jong scene where Rachel and Eleanor have a heated discussion. However, the house has a far deeper story having built in the 1880s by Cheong Fatt Tze, a Chinese immigrant who took himself from rags to riches.
Today, you can experience it through a tour (Monday- Friday 11am, 2pm, 3:30pm, Weekends 11am and 2pm. Arrive 15 minutes early or book online for a ticket. RM18/9.5), dine at the first floor restaurant Indigo, or stay the night in one of the 18 rooms.
3. Sun Yat Sen Museum
Not all guides mention this museum, but that simply means you are more likely to have it all to yourself. The shophouse has been beautifully restored and tells the story of Dr Sun Yat Sen, the leader of the Chinese revolution in 1911 that created the republic of China. This house was his home for six months in the year prior to the uprising and held many important meetings in preparation. Entry is RM5 with staff on hand to answer any questions.
4. Penang Hill
Families have been escaping Penang’s heat up on the hill since 18th century. At the top, there are several small attractions to accompany the spectacular views. The newest edition is The Habitat (RM53/31.80) with the highest structure on the island, the Curtis Crest Tree Top Walk, offering panoramic views across the island.
The most popular and iconic way to travel up is by the funicular (RM30/15 standard return tickets), a far faster method of transport than the sedan chair used by the British colonists. Arrive at the lower station in Air Itam early to beat the queues and look into booking tickets online.
Alternatively, it is possible to walk from the Botanical Gardens (start early and allow several hours) or hire a 4WD jeep (around RM60 per car load) to take you up in 15 minutes.
5. Kek Lok Si Temple
Nearby the lower funicular station is Kek Lok Si, the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. There are several small temples to step into and moongates to walk through, with stunning views across George Town on a clear day. Entry is free other than the small cable car up to the highest level (RM3 one way).
Up there, view statues of each Chinese zodiac character and marvel at the sheer size of the 36.5m-tall bronze statue of the Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin. The temple dates back to 1890, but is still growing in size and beauty. Come Chinese New Year (February), the temple is illuminated each night for two-three weeks with thousands of lights and lanterns.
6. Sunday Market at the Hin Bus Depot
A disused bus depot has received a new lease on life having been converted into a community space. With cafes, a yoga studio, and giftware shops permanently occupying the various buildings throughout the week, Sundays from 11am to 5pm is when the Hin Bus Depot really comes into its own.
The space becomes alive with children’s activities, food trucks, and live music. Vendors vary week to week, but the rows of stalls often display a range of pottery, books, jewellery, gifts, and food. Pick up some thoughtful souvenirs or just escape the city for a couple of hours.
7. Tropical Spice Garden
Penang became a spice haven in the early 19th century, with nutmeg and clove flourishing in the tropical environment. The Tropical Spice Garden is a botanical sanctuary with more than 500 species of flora.
Entry (RM31/18) gives you a comprehensive audio guide as you meander beside streams, smell your way through the spice and herb walk, sip tea in the tea garden, and relax on the giant swing. When you are finished, head up to Tree Monkey Restaurant right next door for fresh Thai food up in a tree house.
Tours, night walks, and school holiday activities also run to make sure you inquire before you visit about what is available.
8. Taman Negara Pulau Pinang
If you really crave some greenery, then a hike through the Penang National Park is a worthy (if sweaty) way to spend the day (free entry). There are several trails that wind through the 2.5 hectare parkland, although it is important to check all are open when you sign in at office upon entry.
If you head to Monkey Beach, you can reward yourself with a cool coconut from one of the stands. Yes, do be aware of monkeys, never feeding them or looking them in the eye. Continue on up to the lighthouse to gain spectacular views back to Batu Ferringhi and over the other side of the island.
Alternatively, the Turtle Beach track brings you out at a more quiet beach and turtle hatchery. If hiking isn’t your thing, then there are plenty of boatmen to negotiate with to take you out or bring you back (RM50-100).
9. Hawker Stalls
Some would say that I have left the best until last. It is not uncommon for Kuala Lumpur residents to drive up Asian Highway 2 for a weekend just to eat. Lonely Planet rated George Town as Number 1 destination for food in 2014.
With hundreds of stalls across the island, hawker fare is hard to miss. Grab a table first, order, and pay as your food is delivered to your table. Some top recommendations would be Pulau Tikus, Lorong Baru, Red Garden, and Gurney Drive.
10. Penang Khoo Khongsi
Located in Georgetown, Khoo Khongsi (also known as Dragon Mountain Hall) is a Chinese clanhouse for individuals with the surname Khoo. This impressive building represents good luck and weath with artwork, carvings and murals.
By Catherine MacLean (@thewanderlustingexpat)