How long have you got?
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 “Street of Harmony” where you’ll find churches, Hindu temples, mosques and Chinese temples vying for space or one of the cultural enclaves such as Little India. Take our UNESCO heritage zone walking tour to string it all together in an easy join the dots jaunt although my take you more than one day to complete if you stop to visit every site.
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 be sure to fit in some grazing 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 Pinang Peranakan Mansion 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 (beware of selfie sticks) or simply take some time to observe daily life in the town’s narrow backstreets.
If you’re in town over the weekend, check out some of the popular markets including Hin Pop Up Market and Occupy Beach Street (Legally) and if your trip coincides with the last weekend of the month, many free activities and tours are on offer from LFSS. If your taste is for the Arts, try to catch the annual Georgetown Festival, a month long celebration and major Asian arts event or pop along to the Art Assembly at Hin Bus Depot for a workshop or enjoy some contemporary theatre at Sinkeh Arts Space.
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. 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 with the excellent The Habitat attraction with canopy walks and jungle treks. Continue on to the botanical gardens, but watch out for the cheeky monkeys. If you have plenty of time, you could hike the jungle path here between the Gardens and Penang Hill. Also within reach, the famous sprawling Kek Lok Si temple is worth a visit and on your way back to town discover two other Buddhist temples Burmese Dhammakarama Temple and Thai Wat Chaiyamangalaram opposite each other on Lorong Burma.
Alternatively head up to Teluk Bahang to the National Park where you can trek through the jungle to find unspoilt beaches or stop off at the resort area of Batu Ferringhi for some relaxing beach time and an array of water sports.
Venture south of the island to the atmospheric war museum, once a British fort and Japanese POW camp, and crawl though tunnels and underground bunkers then wander down to the traditional harbour at Batu Maung and see the giant footprint believed to have been left by 13th century Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He) at the Sam Poh Footprint Temple and on your return journey, stop to see some slithering serpents at the Snake Temple.
Get into the tastes and aromas of Georgetown’s culinary scene and sample the delights with a food tour. We enjoyed our tour with Mark Ng from Simply Enak, but remember to come hungry! You can then learn to create the flavours at home in a cooking class with Nazlina from Nazlina’s Spice Station Cooking School.
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.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
Our top 10 other sights and activities in and around Penang