You're traipsing through Peninsular Malaysia and have time for just one west coast island and the two most frequently considered are Penang and Langkawi -- but which should it be? In an ideal world we'd say stretch your leave form for another week and visit both, but if you really only have time for one, here's our take on which you should go for.
Are you a beach bum?
If you're primarily looking for slow time spent lazing on a beach, with some afternoon watersports and the occasional cocktail thrown in, then Langkawi wins hands down. It has, by far, the better beaches of the two islands. Plus it is surrounded by a cluster of other smaller islands that can be visited on day snorkelling and diving trips. Even without leaving the main island there are plenty of beaches to choose from -- from Cenang to the more isolated and almost lovely Tanjung Rhu.
Penang's beaches on the other hand are really quite ordinary. Batu Ferringhi is seriously overrated and while there are a few other strips of sand on the island, Penang just isn't in the same league as Langkawi when it comes to beaches.
Langkawi 1; Penang 0.
Are you a food lover?
What's the point of having great beaches if there's nowhere decent to eat? Penang, and in particular Georgetown with its strong Chinese influence, excels when it comes to food. We can't recall ever having an ordinary meal here (never ever have the guesthouse breakfast!) which isn't something we can say for Langkawi. Georgetown boasts fantastic street food and there are also excellent Georgetown food walks and cooking classes that the culinarily inclined will want to savour.
Langkawi's food scene is far more a meld of Malay and tourist fare -- and none of it done especially well. We're not saying you won't have a decent meal here -- you will -- it's just that it's as likely to be a pizza at a beachfront bar as a steaming plate of street food.
Langkawi 1; Penang 1.
Are you a culture vulture?
Langkawi's history is wrapped in legend and mystery -- of which today there is precious little evidence. Skull Sand beach isn't littered with skulls -- though the sand is nice. Langkawi was the first part of Southeast Asia to rise from the sea (some 500,000,000 years ago) but, well, there's just a big (and impressive) mountain today.
Penang, on the other hand, is a living museum, with a rich culture you can observe and, to an extent in Georgetown, participate in. While it fights an ongoing battle with culturally challenged developers who'd seemingly like to demolish and concrete over half the old city, the heart of this area is an intriguing area to explore -- and that's before we even get to the real museums. Langkawi has some museums, but Penang wins this race.
Langkawi 1; Penang 2.
Are you an outdoor enthusiast?
When it comes to outdoor pursuits -- be it mangrove exploring, jungle trekking, waterfall hiking, snorkelling, diving or even banana boating, Langkawi wins on all counts. Langkawi's cable car is simply breathtaking and we'd say that alone makes Langkawi worth visiting.
Penang has its botanical and spice gardens and Penang Hill of course, but it is not an outdoor enthusiast's playground.
Langkawi 2; Penang 2.
Are you a honeymooner?
Ahh, this is a difficult call. Both islands have terrific upper-end properties that would ideally fit with a romantic honeymoon. In Georgetown, Love Lane remains one of our favourites, while for a more resort style hideaway, the Datai on Langkawi's rugged jungly north coast delivers the goods. For those looking for a more affordable romantic spell, both islands also have options that fit the bill. We've covered some of our favourite places to stay in Georgetown here and Langkawi has plenty of comfortable flashpacker options. We'll call this a draw.
Langkawi 3; Penang 3.
Are you a budget traveller?
We think that Langkawi unfairly has a “package tourist resort” reputation, when in practice it's no more resorty than any other popular island in Southeast Asia. That said, if you're on a tight budget, Penang is where it is at -- it boasts cheaper rooms, cheaper food and it's cheap to get around on. Langkawi costs a little more in almost all respects, but as it is a duty free island, you can pick up some mighty affordable booze. If you're on a tight budget we'd say visit Penang and save your pennies for a beach fix on the Perhentians (season allowing).
Langkawi 2; Penang 3.
Overall, the decision really depends on you and what your priorities are. Or just make the whole thing easier and prolong your stay by another week!