By Josh Cahill
Penang is a place like no other! Many say that it is the pearl of Malaysia, a place that represents the country more than any other state. It is a place blessed with great history, a vast melting pot of cultures, and is probably best known for its mouthwatering street food. You should take at least a week to discover this unique island...
THE PERFECT GUIDE FOR A WEEK IN PENANG!
LET'S GET STARTED...
WHAT TO SEE IN PENANG?
You've made it this far, I'm glad. You must be interested in Penang! It's a place like no other in Asia. You've probably heard that before about other places, but it's true in this case. It is so unique that the guys from UNESCO announced its historical centre Georgetown as a World Heritage site in 2008...
It's probably not the kind of island you would visit for its beaches because they aren't that awesome but Penang's soul is hidden somewhere else. It's the magical streets, the hawker stands and the vast culture that has turned this place into a little gem. It's the kind of place you would love to get lost in, and its streets tell so many different stories...
A lot of people have left their very own mark of their cultures in Penang, whether they came all the way from Armenia, China, Lithuania or India. It's where different cultures meet and leave their own unique signature... this is the kind of place Penang is today...
Here are a few highlights you need to check out during your stay:
PENANG STREET ART
The heart of Georgetown is blessed with new and modern street art from both local and foreign artists. It's a very interesting story which actually all began in Lithuania.
A young backpacker named Ernest Zacharevic shared a little bit of his talent by painting a head of an "Old Man" on the facade of a house. It became quite popular and nowadays you can find his art all over Penang.
A lot of local artists now have the opportunity to share their work throughout the city as well, resulting in a colourful competition scattered all through Georgetown. Most of his art can be find on Lebuh Armenian ("Kids on bicycle"or the "Old man"), Lebuh Cannon ("Boy on chair") or the Chew Jetty ("The Boat").
There are a couple of so-called 'Street Art Tours' available and you should definitely join one - unless you wanna have the fun of discovering it it by yourself.
STREETS OF GEORGETOWN
Every time I walk through the streets of Georgetown I feel amazed. This is probably the reason why they've earnt themselves a place in the UNESCO World Heritage sites back in 2008.
Penang is a place of many different cultures and every one of them has contributed to the city, also architecturally.
Its architecture is very unique and cannot be found anywhere else in Asia. It is a mix of British Colonial Style and Asian Heritage.
You can find temples next to churches and every stroll through the streets feels like you've travelled back in time. You can feel that each street has its very own story to tell.
There is nothing more exciting than getting lost in the cozy center of the city. Guided tours are also fun of course ;)
PENANG NATIONAL PARK
Penang National Park is Malaysia's smallest national park by size and is also known as 'Muka Head'.
It is a 15 minute drive from Georgetown (depending on the traffic) towards Batu Feringghi. The park is a popular destination for anyone who enjoys a little bit of hiking, wildlife and experiencing the natural rainforests of Asia.
The best thing about it? It won't cost you a single cent! There is no entry fee. The highlights of the park? Definitely Monkey Beach, the lighthouse or its vast wildlife.
Monkeys, dolphins and even turtles can be found here. The park offers various hiking trails and they will all lead you to a different attraction.
My favorite is the Pantai Kerachut path which takes you through the jungle, past the seasonal lake which is only filled during the monsoon season, and to the beach where you can visit a turtle sanctuary.
If you're exhausted after the long trek you can take a boat back for around 30-40 ringgits.
PENANG STATE MUSEUM
The museum is the perfect place for a relaxed afternoon to learn about the extensive history and culture of Penang.
If you aren't a fan of museums then I wouldn't really recommend the visit but if you like to read and educate yourself then go and give it a shout.
The entry fee is only 1 ringgit (30cents) and you can easily kill an hour or two there. You can find more information on the official website: http://www.penangmuseum.gov.my/
THE CLAN JETTIES OF PENANG
Are definitely a 'must-see' in Georgetown, as the old Chinese settlements represent a century of heritage in Penang.
To get there, continue walking down Lebuh Culia and you will reach the most tourist-friendly one, the Chew Jetty.
Each of the jetties are named after a Chinese clan. To date a bunch of families still live there and it's a great spot for photos and for sure a unique place.
THE BOTANICAL GARDEN
If you fancy a little break from the concrete jungle of Georgetown then why not give the Botanical Garden a visit? It offers great hiking possibilities and a vast variety of flora and fauna.
You will encounter heaps of monkeys, monitor lizards (yes the huge ones!) and many pretty birds. It is well maintained and it's also a superb place for any kind of workout. So don't be a lazy bum and go for a jog around!
WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO DISCOVER?
The largest Buddhist temple in South East Asia. The highlight is definitely the 30, 200m bronze statue of Kuan Yin. You can also overlook most of Georgetown from atop the temple's plateau. Kek Lok Si is a very popular destination during Chinese New Years as the whole complex is covered in bright and colorful lights. A real must-see!
One of the first British settlements of Penang. The fort is still intact and can be visited every day from 9am - 7pm. It's located just next to the waterfront.
The oldest Anglican church in South East Asia, built in 1817. A very small and classic church not very far from the historical center of Georgetown.
If you enjoy Buddhist temples and you wanna visit one of the largest reclining Buddha statues in the world, well then this is the place to go. It's a very popular spot during the Thai New Years celebrations also known the Songkran Festival. If you don't mind getting wet then join in the celebrations.
You can a enjoy a great view from up there. The Funicular Train will take you all the way to the top, unless you are a Sporty Spice, then you can of course hike there yourself.
Here you can find Penang's most popular beaches. It's only a 15 minute drive from Georgetown. Most of the resorts are located here and you will find a lot of western families here on their annual holiday. If you are a fan of the Hard Rock Cafe chain then you should come here and try some of their awesome burgers.
A temple dedicated to a mysterious Medicine man. If you wanna see some snakes, this is the place to go.
Built on the remnants of an old British fort. It features a few relics from the wars that have passed Penang.
WHAT TO EAT IN PENANG?!
MEET RICK THE PENANG STREET FOOD EXPERT!
Rick is a real foodie and there couldn't be a better place for him to live his passion for food. He has travelled all over the world and has been able to discover many cuisines around the globe, but he says Penang is still very unique when it comes to food thanks to all the different cultures that have influenced Penang over the years.
Georgetown is a place of many cultures and you cannot only see it but also taste it. Whether it's Malay, Chinese or Indian cuisine, you will find some of the most amazing and mouthwatering dishes there...
Rick was born and bred in Penang and is an absolute expert when it comes to street food.
He introduced me to the best beef soup in town and Penang's legendary Char Koay Teow.
But even though you can find these dishes all over the city, Rick explains that it doesn't necessarily mean that the quality is always great - you gotta find the right places.
Luckily after 40 years of eating his way through Penang, Rick was able to take me to the secret places! Here are the seven dishes you have to try while staying in Penang:
CHAR KOAY TEOW - THE LEGEND
When it comes to Malaysian street food, an authentic Char Koay Teow is hard to beat. Now while this famous rice noodle dish can be found all over Malaysia, the Penang version definitely reigns supreme.
The mouthwatering aroma from Char Koay Teow hawkers that waft through the streets of Penang is something that you have to experience yourself!
ASAM LAKSA - THE PENANG VERSION
Laksa is a spicy noodle soup dish that has many different variations - the two most popular being Curry Laksa, which uses coconut milk, and Asam Laksa, which has a sour tamarind base.
Even though laksa is considered to have Chinese-Malaysian roots, it is a dish that can be found throughout South East Asia, and every region will have their own delicious version.
HOKKIEN MEE - PRAWN NOODLES
While Hokkien Mee originated in China, it has been made famous by Penang street hawkers by enhancing the ingredients and the overall flavor.
The secret to this fragrant stock are - shrimp heads! Lots and lots of shrimp heads incorporated into the stock is the only way it will taste even remotely authentic, as is sworn by many of Penang's street food experts.
PENANG CURRY MEE
This is one that's already been mentioned before, and is also well known by its other name - Curry Laksa.
I prefer this version of laksa as opposed to the Asam version, because the creaminess and silkiness of coconut milk adds a completely new element compared with other soups. Real Curry Mee enthusiasts insist that it's not a proper Curry Mee without pig's blood cubes (!!) in the soup.
NASI KANDAR - THE LOCAL
Nasi Kandar is something that is born and bred in Penang, and locals claim their version cannot be replicated as the water used to boil the rice is sweeter in Penang than anywhere else.
Penang's first Indian street vendors used to sell their wares by carrying the nasi (rice) on a kandar (wooden pole) on their shoulders. The rice can be served with a variety of different curries which "flood" the rice.
BEEF NOODLE SOUP - THE BEST!
Beef Noodle Soup, or Beef Koay Teow as it is known in Penang, is served as a clear, rich broth that has been slowly stewed on a low fire for hours.
At first glance some may compare it to Vietnam's Pho, however Penang's version is much heartier than its delicate Vietnamese counterpart.
This soup can include a variety of beef parts, as many as you like, such meat balls, brisket, and even stomach! My favorite :)
MEE UDANG - MALAY PRAWN
Mee Udang, or Malay Prawn Noodle, is another example of Penang's love of seafood. Being an island, Penang's hawkers stalls sprawl across the waterfront, and the prawns used for this dish are fresh from the sea.
This dish usually has an abundance of large prawns, egg noodles, and a sour-ish tomato based gravy. You will find different versions throughout the country but the Penang one is definitely the best, that's what they say :P
These are just a handful of dishes you should try while discovering endless food opportunities in Penang. It would probably take you a lifetime to eat your way through Georgetown but this is for sure the perfect start for a first time visitor to this truly great part of Malaysia. If you want Rick to take you to all of the best places then drop him an email: Rick.firstname.lastname@example.org
WHAT TO DO IN PENANG?!
RENT A BICYCLE OR A SCOOTER...
As you might have already figured out, there is a lot to see on foot. But you just might want to do some fun things on two wheels! I understand, after all the street art and street food there is some action needed...
You should rent a bicycle and cruise through the heritage side, it's heaps of fun and you might burn some calories as well ... hahaha... seriously, it's fun to see all the Chinese tourists trying really hard to stay on their bikes. Why don't you go and chase them, it's good fun :P
If you wanna discover a little more of the island by yourself, why don't you rent a scooter? That's what I did back in 2009, and while you might need a little while to get used to the traffic, you can have a great time exploring the island with fellow travellers.
If you do decide to rent a scooter or a bicycle then you should go to either Chulia Street (Banana Hostel) or Armenian Street. You will find a lot of places advertising their rental services. The price for a scooter can vary from 20RM - 35RM for 24 hours.
ROAD TRIP TO TITI KERAWANG WATERFALL
In 2009 I went for a really awesome scooter trip, through the mountains and to one of the finest places in Penang. We all met up in the morning to get our bikes and then headed to the Western part of the island, up the mountains and experienced a really adventurous drive.
It takes an hour to get there but it's totally worth it as the drive itself is heaps of fun. Once you get to the waterfall you can go for a little swim or get some food from the local stands there. It is probaby not the most amazing waterfall you'll ever encounter but it's fun to hang around and have a little swim.
TRY A TRISHAW!
A very relaxed and typical way to explore Georgetown is by a trishaw! What? Yes, a trishaw. Yes your first thought was right, it's something like a rickshaw, just Penang style! The drivers are mostly old men, will drive you and your partner around the city for an hour for just 30RM.
It's not really what I prefer because I always feel very sorry for the old men hitting the pedals in the sometimes very dry and humid Penang heat. But they look fun and I'm sure it can be very romantic at times but I'd rather stick to my bicycle.
WHERE TO PARTY?
Who doesn't enjoy a good night out? If you want to do so then you should go to Upper Penang road, just opposite the E&O hotel. You can find a few bars and clubs there, even a German beerhouse. The audience is decent mix of locals and foreigners. Some famous places are Slippery Senioritas or the Soju Room at Penang Times Square.
If you'd rather explore some Malay indie bands then you should pay the China House a visit on Victoria Street. Also, Wednesdays are Ladies Nights. That means that all females and the ones who think they are can enjoy half priced drinks, sometimes even for free.
Or maybe you prefer to hang out at the beach and enjoy the sunset while having a cold beer? Bora Bora is the place to be then. Located in Batu Ferringhi the Bora Bora bar is a hotspot for locals and tourists alike. You can literally sit on the beach and listen to the waves with a nice cold drink. It's a great place with nice staff too.
PENANG - THE FESTIVAL STATE
There is a lot to celebrate every year in Penang. It's full of great events, cultural and religious celebrations and awesome festivals. Almost every month there is something happening and you can be part of it. In 2008 when Georgetown was announced as a UNESCO World Heritage site the city decided to celebrate it each year with a month-long festival called The Georgetown Festival.
It usually runs from June to July and has attracted a lot of attention around the globe as one of the leading arts festivals in the region. It's all about art, music, dance, theatre and culture. You should definitely not miss out on this yearly highlight.
CHINESE NEW YEARS
Penang has a long and rich history of Chinese culture and since there many generations of Chinese-Malaysians in Penang, Chinese New Years celebrations there are especially boisterous. The celebrations are held around late January or early February for fifteen days, but preparations for the big cultural festival begin around a month beforehand. Be aware that most Chinese businesses and hawker stands around this time usually close, as they return to their homes to eat, drink and celebrate with their families. There are loads of different parties and parades, games, performances, and classical and cultural dances that you can go to and participate in. If you happen to be in Penang around that time, don't miss out, it's a lot of fun!
THAI SONGKRAN WATER FESTIVAL
This is a very popular festival that is celebrated by the Penang Thai community as the traditional Thai New Years. It is celebrated in various locations in Penang usually in mid-April for two days. This festival is all about cleansing, and the people take to the streets and splash water on each other as a customary practice of washing away negativity and bad luck for the year. Be prepared with your water guns and have a great day!
WHERE TO STAY IN PENANG?
Penang has a lot of good priced and decent places to stay. Most of them are in pretty great locations and are in great condition! I have found you some really good deals :) Have a look here and I'm sure you'll find the perfect place for you as well.
Kimberley House | 59 Kimberley Street | from US$7.40
Dorm, Air Conditioning, Shared Bathroom, Free WiFi
D Mo Inn | 286 Lebuh Chulia | from US$13.21
Double Room, Air Conditioning, Shared Bathroom, TV, Free WiFi
Red Inn Heritage Guesthouse | 15 Love Lane | from US$4.76
Dorm, Fan, Shared Bathroom, Free WiFi
A LITTLE BIT MORE PRIVATE
Thirty Three Stewart House | 33 Stewart Lane | From US$12.04
Single Cube, Air Conditioning, Shared Bathroom, Breakfast, Free WiFi
Day & Night Guesthouse | 319 Chulia Street | From US$7.13
Single Room, Fan, Shared Bathroom, Free WiFi
Crystal Guesthouse | 294 Lebuh Chulia | From US$13.21
Double Room, Air Conditioning, Shared Bathroom, TV, Free WiFi
THE REALLY NICE PLACES TO STAY
The Armenian House | 35 Armenian Street | From US$42.12
Superior Room, Air Conditioning, Shared Bathroom, Free WiFi, Breakfast
Pavillion Coffee Guesthouse | 26 Lebuh Presgrave | From US$29.15
Double Room, Air Conditiong, Bathroom, Free WiFi, Breakfast
Apollo Inn | 7 Jalan Sungai Ujong | From US$43.61
King Size Bed, Air Conditioning, Bathroom, Free WiFi, LED TV, Safe box