When it comes to visiting Penang, there are plenty of reasons why the island should be included on a Southeast Asian sojourn, but determining when to come is perhaps a little more difficult. The weather, the tourist season and the local festivals can all have a big impact on how much you enjoy your experience of the island, so here is a guide to help you work out the best time of year for you to visit Penang.
As a general rule, and as you would expect of the region, it is hot and humid almost all the time in Penang and the average year-round temperature is a fairly steady 28 degrees. However, things really heat up in February and early March. The extra few degrees, accompanied by the humidity, can make extended wandering around Georgetown a little hard-going unless you stick to early morning or late afternoon. At the same time, however, these months are normally blessed with cloudless blue skies, and this offers great photo opportunities. There is also very little rain at this time, so this may swing the balance for you.
On the subject of rain, you also need to take account of the monsoon which, on the west coast of peninsular Malaysia, rears its rather damp and ugly head between May and early November. At either end of this period, May and October are the two wettest months, with 25 and 39 centimetres of rain respectively, and there is an increased chance of general dampness in the intervening months. This is not to say that it rains all day, every day between June and September, but the skies are definitely greyer. On the plus side, however, the temperatures are lower and the humidity less oppressive.
December and January are considered a good time to visit weather-wise, since it’s not too hot but there’s plenty of sun. However, be warned that like elsewhere in the world, the weather patterns in Malaysia over the last few years have been unpredictable, to say the least, so the above should only serve as a general guideline. One final thing to consider is that any time between April and June, Malaysia can suffer badly from haze caused by deforestation in Sumatra and Borneo. Apart from ruining your chances of taking any form of landscape photography, the air can also be pretty nasty to breathe.
It stands to reason that the months with the best weather attract the most tourists and December and January are very much high season in Penang. Christmas and New Year are always very busy, making things very lively in the hostels and bars over this period. However, it also means that there are fewer opportunities to enjoy quiet moments strolling around Georgetown because you have to share the streets with throngs of tourists, and accommodation prices can shoot up as much as 20 percent.
At the opposite end of the scale, low season falls between May and October, so if you don’t mind risking rain you can get some much better deals at the hotels and hostels, although if you are keen on meeting fellow travellers this is not, perhaps, the best time to come to Penang.
Penang’s diverse community means that just about every religious festival you can think of is celebrated here, and this can be a very good reason for making your visit coincide. Joining the crowds during colourful and chaotic Thaipusam celebrations, or experiencing dragon dances, Chinese opera and puppet shows over Chinese New Year, can really make your visit and give you a completely different insight into the varied culture of the island. Popular festival dates in 2014 include Thaipusam (January 17), Chinese New Year (January 31 and February 1), Wesak (May 13), Hari Raya or Eid al-Fitr (July 28 and 29), Hungry Ghosts Festival (September) and Nine Emperor Gods Festival (November).
At the same time, some of these festival periods get extremely busy and attract lots of tourists, which makes accommodation less available and more expensive. The traffic on the island is also notoriously bad at any time of year, but especially on festival days, which may well interrupt your travel plans. Finally, at Chinese New Year, many shops and restaurants across the island close down entirely, as people go home to spend time with their families, which can leave parts of Georgetown feeling a bit dead.
We reckon timing your visit in February or late November/early December makes a lot of sense, since you can take advantage of some of the island’s best weather, there are enough other travellers around to make Georgetown slightly more lively, and you can avoid high season prices. If by any chance it rains, be assured that there is still plenty to do and if all else fails, you can always just spend a day eating your way through Penang’s famous cuisine.
By Mark Thompson
Last updated on 11th January, 2014.