As one of the major settlements in peninsular Malaysia, there is more to do on Penang than your average small island. Georgetown’s fascinating fusion culture and architecture draw hundreds of thousands of tourists a year, while many make the pilgrimage to the country’s ‘food capital’ simply in order to stuff themselves with the huge variety of celebrated local dishes. The question remains, however: how long can one reasonably spend on Penang?
The most important thing to understand about Penang is that although it is a tropical island, it is not an archetypal deserted paradise. Some areas, particularly the east and north coasts, are heavily developed and urbanised, and the pollution and swarms of jellyfish in the surrounding seas make swimming and snorkelling a less-than-appealing option. Although there are a few nice beaches to be found, the main resort of Batu Ferringhi is neither particularly beautiful nor lively, and could never rival the Thai islands a bit further north, so this is probably not the place to come for a party-packed week-long beach holiday.
That said, there is plenty to recommend Penang, and depending on what you want to get out of your visit, you might well find yourself adding extra days to your itinerary. Here are some suggestions for how to prioritise your sightseeing for the time you have available.
Penang is only a three-hour ferry ride or 20-minute flight from Langkawi, so it is perfectly possible to do an overnight trip from there, or else make a stop-off on the road from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur. A day is enough to give you a taste of Georgetown’s unique culture, architecture and food, and to take in highlights including the famous clan house temples, the clan jetties, the Street of Harmony and Little India. Make some time to chill out at one of the trendy cafes on Lebuh Muntri in order to soak up the atmosphere of the bustling old town, and check out Red Garden Hawker Centre on Lebuh Leith (open daily from 17:00) or Joo Hooi Cafe to sample the best of Penang’s dishes, including char kway teow and Penang laksa.
Staying a couple of nights will give you the chance to explore more of Georgetown and perhaps take in some of the museums. The Peranakan Museum and Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion provide a taste of what life was like for the wealthy Chinese community during Penang’s tin-rush heyday in the 19th century. Alternatively, why not hire a bike, tandem or even a buggy and check out the street art trail or simply take some time to observe daily life in the town’s narrow backstreets.
Three to five days
A longer stay will allow you to take things a bit easier and perhaps give you the chance to enjoy Georgetown’s burgeoning cafe culture, including Daily Dose, Mews Cafe, Mugshot Cafe, China House and Cozy in the Rocket (the latter two are both on Lebuh Pantai, near the junction with Lebuh Armenian). You will also have plenty of time to venture out of Georgetown, so this is a good opportunity to do a day trip to Ayer Itam to explore the bustling street market and visit nearby Penang Hill and the famous Kek Lok Si temple, or else head up to Teluk Bahang to the National Park, where you can trek through the jungle to find unspoilt beaches. In the same area, families will also enjoy the Butterfly Farm, and for the energetic, why not let off some steam at Escape eco-friendly theme park. You could also head up to Batu Ferringhi for some relaxing beach time and an array of water sports, or get a day pass to the popular Park Royal hotel to use the pools, waterslides and sun-loungers.
Six days or more
By day six, you will probably have exhausted most of the island’s major attractions but if you find yourself staying on Penang for this long, the chances are you will already have been seduced by Georgetown and its vibrant yet laidback community. There is so much to experience, so it’s worth taking time to walk around, observe and submerse yourself in it all.
By Mark Thompson
Last updated on 2nd January, 2014.