Part of the joy of visiting Penang’s Georgetown is wandering its streets and taking in the sights, sounds and smells of its UNESCO-protected heritage townscape. However, getting the most out of Georgetown requires some degree of stamina when it comes to putting one foot in front of the other, simply because the hot, humid Malaysian weather is not always particularly conducive to spending lots of time walking and exploring under the beating sun. You could just put up with the sweat and fatigue, but for those who would rather not, help is at hand thanks to the enterprising people at Townbikes.
Townbikes does exactly what it says on the tin. It is by no means the first place to pedal the concept of self-guided bicycle tours around Georgetown and the mildly irritating convoys of tourists wobbling their way through the streets indicate that bike hire is big business in Penang. However, Townbikes trumps all other competition because as well as hiring out regular bikes for 10 ringgit a day, it has gone one step further and has invested in some sets of wheels that make pedalling not just a way of getting from A to B, but a real event.
To be fair, the terrain in Georgetown is not particularly hilly or rugged, but the roads have their fair share of potholes and you may, therefore, be tempted to go for one of the hi-tech mountain bikes, for a smooth, shock-absorbed ride. You can set the gears to give you maximum output for minimum exertion – perfect for holding the sweat at bay – and these bikes also have the advantage of looking a bit cooler than some of the decrepit contraptions from other hire shops. Although they are a bit more expensive than average, at 20 ringgit a day (a maximum of seven hours between 10:00 and 17:00) it’s a small price to pay for some two-pedal street-cred.
Alternatively, if you really want to stand out from the crowd and be sociable with it, you could go for one of the two tandems. That way, one person can steer while the other navigates, and you have the advantage of being able to talk to each other easily and share the experience (with the potential for a few laughs along the way if, as we did, it takes you a while to get yourself coordinated). Crucially, the tandems come with a most thoughtful accessory, in the form of a canopy. All of this catapults it quite high on the comfort and practicality scale and for 40 ringgit a day, it is a great deal.
However, for the big mama in pedal-powered style and luxury, you have to opt for the buggy. The real name of this vehicle still remains a mystery and even the people at Townbikes couldn’t elucidate, but it looks like a cross between a golf cart and a pedalo. Not only does it allow you to sit side-by-side with your fellow traveller or loved one, but it is fully canopied and has a basket on the front in which to stow your bags and purchases. It costs 50 ringgit for one hour, or 80 ringgit for two hours, which when compared to the prices charged by the pedal rickshaw drivers, actually represents quite a good deal.
Townbikes’ distinctive red-and-yellow pedalled vehicles will no doubt become an increasingly popular fixture on the streets of Georgetown, since the concept is such a great one and lends itself to so many possibilities, including a tour of the clan temples, exploring Little India, taking in the Street of Harmony or following the street art trail. It is also a great way of witnessing life in Georgetown’s streets in a sedate, relaxed manner.
If you choose to hire a bike or buggy, try to avoid some of the busier roads since Penang’s car drivers are notoriously unaccommodating towards smaller vehicles. In addition, be aware of where you park: at the time of writing, we are not quite sure whether pedal-powered vehicles are liable for fines, but anything is possible in Penang. Finally, keep an eye on your bike if you leave it parked on the road, since although Penang is not exactly a bike or car crime capital, these vehicles are quite desirable. However, none of the above should put you off trying what has to be the best way to get around Georgetown.
By Mark Thompson
Last updated on 23rd September, 2014.