Penang travel guide: The ultimate Pearl of the Orient

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 and this Penang travel guide will show you why.

Penang travel guide: 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.

penang

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. While we’re at it, if you’re looking for the cheapest flights to Penang, use this Qatar Airways discount code to save 20% off on your flight. Alternatively, 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.  You can also reach by boat, since Penang has one of the biggest ports in the country. Finally, you can rent your own car and drive on your own. If you’re planning to do this, get 30% off with this Sixt special offer

penang sunset

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.

Related: check out my guide to hidden gems in Kuala Lumpur.

travel to Penang

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.

travel to Penang

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.

travel to Penang

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.

The food

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…

Penang travel tips

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.

travel to Penang

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.  Penang travel tips

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.

Thaipusam Festival

You probably have never heard of this festival before. Many people for some reason haven’t but it’s one of the most unusual festivals in 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.

Helpful resources for traveling to Penang

For the cheapest flights to Penang, this Qatar Airways discount code can get you up to 20% off on your flight. I use it when booking all of my flights to Asia and it helped me save a lot throughout the years.

If you’re a student, you can get 15% off on your flight to Penang with this STA Travel offer.

For the best travel insurance deals on the market, check out World Nomads.

For some amazing, budget-friendly tours in Penang, I recommend Intrepid. Use this link and get 15% off on all tours in Malaysia. 

If you want to rent a car in Penang, save as much as 30% off with this Sixt special offer.

To save on all bus, train or ferry rides in Malaysia, book with Bookaway and save big on all transportation bookings in Malaysia.

To save on accommodation in Penang, use this Booking.com discount code to get discounts on all accommodation rentals in town.

Finally, don’t forget about the visa requirements. Malaysia’s visa regime is quite liberal but if you’re from a country that requires a visa, you can get an eNTRI visa here quickly and hassle-free.

 Did you like this Penang travel guide? Do you think there are some things I forgot to mention? Let me know in the comments!

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34 thoughts on “Penang travel guide: The ultimate Pearl of the Orient”

  1. I am looking forward to my upcoming Southeast Asia trip and this post made me even more excited about it. I wasn’t initially planning to but I will definitely make a stop at Penag too.

    Reply
  2. I would love to visit Penang! One of the main reasons is the incredible melting pot that has created its unique cuisine, I would love to try that! The genuine openeness to multiculturism is all too rare in this world. I love the weathered and historical old town buildings, what glorious architecture to enjoy while seeking out the famous street art.

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  3. Ah Penang! I was born in KL and we used to go to Penang for holidays. I haven’t been back for over 20 years but have heard it has changed so much and yet it has remained the same. The food in Penang is one of a kind, even for those born anywhere else in Malaysia. I remember just constantly eating all day, no matter if we were hungry or not! I have yet to see all the street art there. Very Banksy like aren’t they!

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  4. I love exploring Georgetown’s streets and hunting for their street art. I enjoyed their food, being that it’s cheap but delicious and as you said, they are everywhere. I haven’t heard about the Thaipusam festival, though. It would be a great reason to come back to Penang and witness this interesting event.

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  5. Penang is surely such a beautiful place, all credit goes to UNESCO-listed Georgetown. It is a completely instagrammable location. I can keep clicking pictures there forever. I mean it is actually so much of fun. Plus, Penang also has the beaches. That makes it a great place to visit in Malaysia when you are here.

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  6. I’m so gutted I didn’t visit Penang when I was last in Malaysia, it looks awesome. My mouth’s watering from the sight of all that delicious food, it looks spicy however, but I’ll give it a try! And those street paintings are so iconic, will have to return one day soon.

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  7. Penang is such a melting pot of cultures. I loved it when I visited it last year. So much to see just by walking around Georgetown. And yes, I loved Penang hill too…the mini rainforest right up there.

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  8. Visiting Penang a tropical island must be fun which has nature, beautiful architectures, colorful streets and delicious authentic cuisines. I would love to take funny pictures with 3D paintings on the walls of George town. I never knew about tamilian festival in Jan/Feb but it is really interesting to know about Lord Murugan’s story of killing a demon. Thanks for sharing all details

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  9. You’ve got me drooling thinking about all the delicious food I had in George Town. I thought I was very well going to kill myself eating at the night market because I wanted to go to every single stall and try something there. I also had one of the best noodle soups I’ve ever had on one of the piers in George Town – I think it was called Big Bowl Noodle or something like that. I’d love to go back and check out more areas of Penang outside of George Town, like the parks and beaches.

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    • The food is indeed amazing! Penang is the ultimate gourmand paradise 🙂 I think I know which noodle soup you’re talking about and if it’s the same- it was exquisite

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  10. Penang seems to be a very charming city. I love how the people in Malaysia use the word can, showing that things are possible. It also looks like a street food haven. I would be trying out the delicacies on my visit to Penang. The architectures and the George town is really interesting. Definitely looking forward to a trip to Penang.

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  11. I just visited Penang this year and did blog about it. But sadly I didnot have much time to visit many places as you. Nice to know there are more places in Penang to visit next time 🙂

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  12. Penang is the best place for quality food and affordable lifestyle.
    I spend a few weeks there.
    I wish to visit that amazing place again.

    Thanks for your amazing content and your photos are interesting.

    Reply

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