There’s no denying that Penang is a photogenic island, and whether it’s urban perspectives, pastoral panoramas or seducing seascapes that float your camera lens’ boat, plenty of great vistas are to be found. Here are some of our favourite places from which to view Penang.
At around 830m, the apex of Penang Hill is the highest point on the island and if you go up on the funicular railway, it really feels like it: the track just keeps on going. At the top you can walk to several different vantage points which, when combined, offer views in every direction over the island and allow you to fully appreciate the layout of the land.
From the path leading up the hill from the funicular station you can make out the whole of Georgetown to the northeast, as well as all of the heavily developed east coast. Meanwhile, if you look west from behind the Hindu temple you also get a good sense of how green the island is, with its acres and acres of rainforest and the turquoise waters of the Melaka Straits beyond.
On a clear day, you can see far off over to the mainland, and you also get a great view of both of the Penang bridges – the latter of which will be open to traffic shortly.
Unless you are staying in one of the moderately expensive high-rise hotels on the periphery of Georgetown, it can be difficult to gain enough height to view the heritage zone from close quarters. The singularly ugly 232 metre-tall Komtar tower, which dwarfs the rest of the city, is currently closed to visitors and although a big-budget refurbishment is under way, the proposed external glass lifts will not be ready until 2015 or beyond.
In the meantime, you could always go to the viewing deck on floor eight of the nearby 1st Avenue shopping centre (Jalan Magazine; T: (04) 261 1121). Granted, it does not boast quite such an impressive height, but it still offers great views over Georgetown, with its shophouse-lined streets laid out below you like a map. When you see the extent of the heritage zone from this vantage point, you really get a sense of why its preservation in the face of continuing development has earned it a coveted UNESCO accolade. Best of all, it costs nothing, and when you’re bored of looking out, you can always go and catch a film at the TGV cinema, which is on the same level.
For a more impressive elevation, and for great views of the core heritage zone and Penang port, head to Three Sixty Revolving Restaurant and Rooftop Bar, at the top of the Bayview Hotel (25 Lebuh Farquar; T: (04) 263 3161). Open daily from 16:00 to 01:00, this is the perfect place for a sundowner on the outside roof terrace, or stay for dinner inside the restaurant to experience the full 360 degree rotation. It’s definitely not the cheapest place to eat or drink in town, but the views make the hiked-up prices worth it.
Penang is not exactly renowned for its beautiful beaches, but the coastline in the National Park deserves a degree of praise and gives some of the over-developed Thai islands a run for their money. Turtle Beach is actually very photogenic and its long stretch of white sand is flanked by pristine rainforest. For the best view, make your way up to the huge boulders at the far end and look back towards the jungly hills that plunge into the sea below. This beach also has the advantage of being sheltered from the worst of the water pollution that plagues the north and east coasts, so as long as you look out for jellyfish, you can swim here and take photos from the sea looking over the hills behind the beach.
One of the best ways to appreciate an island is to view it from the sea, and a boat trip lets you see Penang from a whole different perspective. There are various options to suit different budgets, but if you don’t mind paying a bit extra it is worth going to Straits Quay Marina and hiring a private boat for a couple of hours. You then have the choice of heading northwest towards the National Park to view the best of natural Penang, or else sailing southeast to see Georgetown from the sea and to get an up-close look at the clan jetties. Either way, the views are very special and will give you plenty of photo opportunities.
Bukit Genting, or Genting Hill, offers a completely different view to anywhere else in Penang, and looks out over the flat plain on the western side of the island. Compared to the east, it is sparsely populated and is where the majority of the island’s agriculture takes place, encompassing paddy and durian plantations.
It is not quite as high as Penang Hill but the views are no less impressive and it still feels like you are on top of the world. To the north you see the bulk of the island’s central hills, right over to the national park in the far northwest corner of the island, and you can also trace most of the 20km length of the west coast. Go at the end of the day to enjoy a cool beer and watch the sun go down over the sea, to the haunting polyphonic backdrop of the evening call to prayer from the mosques in the valley below.