This exotic tropical island on the north-west coast of Malaysia presents a fascinating fusion of the East and the West. Penang managed to embrace the modern waive while still managing to preserve its traditional charm. This harmonious multicultural city today is one of the world’s street food capitals with an incredible mix of Chinese, Indian, and Malay food. However, after eating my way through Penang, I discovered that this place is much more than just an ultimate foodie paradise. One could argue that Penang, alongside Singapore, is the most multicultural cosmopolitan side in Southeast Asia. After all, Penang is called the Pearl of the Orient for a reason.
The beginning of the story
Everyone has a Penang story and mine begins in the cab. I was coming from a long flight and was literally dying for a smoke so I asked the taxi driver can we stop somewhere to buy cigarettes. He said: “can”. Now, if you visited Malaysia, you know that Malaysians, for some reason, don’t always use full sentences when speaking in English. And I was under the impression that people from Penang love to use the word can. The word which conveys the message that nothing is impossible. You will hear it from a lot of Penangites. It shows that they always have a will and will find a way to help you.
We’ve seen multicultural societies turning into chaos multiple times throughout history. Not only did that not happen to Penang but it also contributed even more to the easy-going lifestyle on the island. Especially in George Town which is a total fusion of Chinese, Indian, Malay, and western cultures. And if this incredible lifestyle found in a very few other places on earth is complemented by golden beaches and crystal, tranquil seas. All these things make Penang the ultimate tropical paradise that it is today.
How to get to Penang and where to stay
You can reach Penang by any form of transport. Penang has an international airport which is an hour away from Kuala Lumpur. You can also reach the island via a bus or train with the bus being the cheapest option. If you’re coming from Kuala Lumpur, the bus will take around 6 hours. Check out this article if you’re planning a road trip from Kuala Lumpur to Penang. Finally, you can also reach by boat, since Penang has one of the biggest ports in the country.
As for the accommodation, there are a lot of options to choose from. If you want to be close to all the clubs and the vibrant nightlife, the right place for you is George Town. For a place close to the beach choose either Batu Ferringhi (a more expensive option) or Tanjung Bungah ( a more budget option). If you are a nature lover and you want to stay away from the urban area, you can get the perfect accommodation in Bayan Lepas. Finally, if you love street food, sightseeing, and shopping, the best area to stay would be Gourney Drive.
The charm of the old world
Most of Penang’s inhabitants belong to the older generation and as such Penang remains a place with a more traditional way of life despite the wave of expats in the recent years. However, even the expats chose Penang because it refuses to give its safe away to the trend of fast-paced, high-density cities. Penangites like to keep it simple and they stick to their familiar way of operating instead of letting modernization take over. So visiting certain parts of Penang, especially around the heritage sites will make you feel like you traveled back in time.
Penang’s multiculturalism is a lot different than the one in the capital, Kuala Lumpur. In the capital, there’s a constant flux of newcomers looking for opportunities. However, Penang’s multiculturalism has been developed since the time Malaysia was still Malaya. Mixed marriages were always a thing at Penang and people never taught there’s anything wrong with multicultural marriages. A proof of this diverse multi-racial society can be found in the names of the roads all over the island. In Penang, it doesn’t matter where you come from or how long you will stay. You can be a local as long as you feel like one.
Penang is an Architectural goldmine
As I said, Penang is a place of tradition and heritage and you will find a lot of old and surprisingly well-preserved buildings. But these are not only colonial buildings. Penang always has been a multicultural place, so there will be a lot of old Indian, Chinese and Malaysian ornate buildings as well. At the south of the island, you will also find the authentic kampong village communities. Some of the most impressive architectural masterpieces at the island are the Snake Temple, the Thaipusam chalk-marked roads, the clock tower in the city center, and KOMTAR, the tallest skyscraper at the island and 6th tallest in Malaysia.
Related: A guide to discovering the hidden gems of Bali.
The vibrant and capturing street art of George Town
I was surprised that a lot of people thought so highly of George Town before visiting. However, after my visit, I can say that Georgetown is arguably the most fascinating city in Malaysia. George Town is the capital of Penang. Once an important international trading hub, George Town will blow you away with its stunning street art, bustling shops, historic buildings, amazing nightlife, and of course, multiculturalism. Hence, you will find an array of old shops where multi-ethnic artisans sell traditional handicrafts, including Chinese signboards, Indian folk items, Muslim skullcaps, Taoist art, and so on. Walking down the streets of George Town feels like a Mini-Asia of itself where people don’t hold grudges against people from different ethnicities and religions.
The city was listed as a UNESCO Heritage site in 2008 and has been become really popular among tourists ever since. You will see amazing street art all around the city. I have never seen such vibrant street art and honestly, I never thought I’ll find that in Malaysia. The murals in George Town will keep tickling your brain inviting you to explore more streets just to see more of this breathtaking street art. These murals are an irreplaceable part of George Town’s charm and are here to remind you again of the island’s ever-lasting multiculturalism.
When I said Penang is the World’s street food capital, that wasn’t an over-exaggerated statement. Street food is everywhere in Penang with stalls cooking everything from dim sum to bak kut the (pork soup) 24/7! And you can have an amazing meal for as low as $1.50. The legendary Kimberley Street has a lot of hawker stalls and so many different mouth-watering choices that you will really have a hard time deciding what to eat. Multiculturalism is present in Penang’s cuisine as well. That gives you a lot more options to choose from and makes the food scene of Penang so amazing. Some of the traditional things that you must try when you visit Penang are Char Koay Teow noodles, Penang Assam Laksa, Lor Bak, Nasi Candar…
Now when I started counting I think that there are a lot more things that are a must try. So I’d rather stop here and write another article just about the food in Penang. The world’s street food capital certainly deserves that.
Places to visit in Penang
Some of the most interesting places to see on Penang include the sandy beaches of Tanjung Bungah a d Batu Ferringhi, the view from the top of Penang Hill and the national park. Another must are the vipers in the Snake Temple and the stunning temples of the South Seberang Perai District. I already wrote about Georgetown’s vibrant street art but forgot to mention the Tropical Spice Garden – only one of its kind in South East Asia. Penang also has a lot of interesting, traditional flea markets where you can get some good deals.
The best beaches in Penang
There are three primary reasons why Penang is known as the pearl of the Orient. Their names are Batu Ferringhi, Tanjung Bungah, and Pulau Kendi. These are the ultimate getaway places on the island to avoid the hustle and bustle of city life. These beaches are a real slice of heaven that draws more and more beach lovers every year. Its sandy white, pristine coast and the mixed azure blue waters surrounded by the palm trees will create the perfect environment for beach lovers that lack vitamin sea.
Penang Hill and the world’s smallest national park
The highest point of the island is a must for hiking lovers but it’s also reachable via a funicular train that takes around 10-15 minutes from the city center. This is one of the very few places in Malaysia that offers both, greenery and water activities featuring Penang’s National Park. Here you will find some of Southeast Asia’s rarest flying mammals, which are just a part of this 130 million-year-old ecosystem.
However, don’t be fooled by the size of it. This might be the smallest national park in the world but it consists of 417 flora and 143 fauna species. Additionally, the twisting terrain offers some of the best views of the island, from its sandy white beaches all the way to the top of the hill.
You probably have never heard of this festival before. Many people for some reason haven’t but it’s one of the most exciting festivals in the whole of Asia. It’s held either in January or February (the Tamil month of Thai). This festival features an 8 km procession from George Town to the Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani at the top of the hill. These festivities commemorate the Lord Murugan’s fight against the demon Soorapadam.
Devotees have a couple of different ways of celebrating the festival. The softest form includes carrying kavadis, which is a big pot of milk over their head. The most severe form includes piercing their cheeks and tongues with skewers to stop themselves from talking during the next month.
Finally, for more useful information, check out this article about backpacking in Malaysia.