Other than visiting the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, Penang is probably the most popular place to visit in Malaysia. Surprisingly though, the typical Southeast Asian backpacker hasn’t yet invaded Penang which has currently other types of tourists flocking around including some surge of visitors on days that a cruise stops by the island.
How can I say this… Penang has dramatic landscapes, beautiful beaches, it is flooded with colonial architecture, and some of the most mouth-watering food on the planet. Not only that, the melting pot of cultures makes it even better! I won’t spit it all in this intro, here are actually five reasons why we want to inspire getting that ticket to Penang in your hand…
1. Delicious food
What should you know about Malay cuisine? Its influences are far and wide, mixing Malay, Chinese, and Indian cuisines.
We LOVE Thai and Viet street food, absolutely love it, but Malaysian street food is another type since it offers that multi-ethnicity. Penang is probably the best place in Malaysia to go for foodies. We have met many locals from Kuala Lumpur saying that they themselves love to come to Penang just for its food. No wonder why Penang is touted as one of the best street food cities in Asia or even in the world. Little India, Chinatown, Gurney Drive, Long Beach and Air Itam in Penang are home to many special dishes you will need to be on the lookout for! There are a few key places to get the dishes we will mention, often can have a queue, but wherever you go for it, the dishes are still quite great!
- Char Koay Teow: Pretty much all food stalls in Penang have it. It is a Chinese dish of fried rice noodles, spice and seafood, mostly prawns and sometimes with fried eggs. Almost similar to some Pad Thai but every merchant has its own way to cook it. Siam Road Char Koay Teow is the most popular in town and we literally waited one hour and a half for it. Was it worth it? Honestly, we don’t like to queue for food, it’s never really worth the time, but YES it was absolutely delicious. We loved it.
- Chendul: This dessert is quite popular in South East Asia among the Asians but somehow Penang has made it a dessert you MUST try and discover for all tourists in town. You will find all the time a line up to get this dessert, but the pro-tip is to go eat at the Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendul restaurant to eat your lunch and get a Chendul too and avoid the queue as the staff will go get it straight up for you! While you are there, in front of on of the doors of this restaurant, there is a guy selling a ton of fried food from sticky rice, banana to sweet potato, GET SOME, it’s 2 Ringgit per piece, soooooo worth it!
- Penang Laksa: Penang has its own version of the famous Laksa soup made out of round rice noodles in a spicy and sour, usually tamarind-based, fish broth. We had it only once at the Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendul and it was great but not as much as Curry Mee! If you are planning to visit the Kek Lok Si temple, you can try this Air Itam Laksa joint recommended by Mark Wiens. We didn’t have the time to eat there but passed by to snap a few photos!
- Curry Mee: Curry Mee is also known as Curry Laksa in the Southern part of Malaysia and in Singapore. It is creamy soup infused with coconut milk added with some spiciness created by chilli and fragrance of spices. There are many takes of the Curry Mee. The ingredients in Curry Mee tend to be slightly different from one vendor to another. We have tried many but our favourite being the Two Sisters Curry Mee, a must if you plan to visit the famous Kek Lok Si temple in Penang.
2) Stunning street art
Penang has a lot of street art, but not like the ones you find everywhere around the world. The street art is a combination of historic stories and also great for local tourism as travellers make it a mission to find a lot of them! Asia isn’t known for its street art but Penang sure is among the best quality of it! All the metal sculpture/street arts you will find around George Town’ colonial district depict life on the island in a lighthearted and fun way.
In 2012, Penang’s municipal council hired London-trained Lithuanian artist, Ernest Zacharevic to work on some Penang wall art and revive the rich history of its streets. He was commissioned to do six Penang wall murals inspired by the everyday lives of the locals, capturing the lively spirit of the city through quirky, interactive and relatable scenes. You can read more about street art in Penang on our other article.
3) Multicultural and historical architecture
Penang has a lot of historical buildings in George Town, many of which are still abandoned and other beautifully refurbished. It reminded us a lot like Havana, but without the classic cars and different style of architecture. You will also notice that Penang is home to a melting pot of cultures, resulting in many different temples and churches. If you are into them, make sure you select only a few to visit because there are literally too many. Penang was a British Crown colony from 1946 to 1957, which also influenced a lot in the architecture. Here are a few places you should take time to see in Penang, as we have selected the best to fit a 3 days journey in Penang:
- Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion: Also known as “La Maison Bleu”, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion is a Qing Dynasty Chinese merchant house with a distinguished design painted in an eye-catching blue. It was also featured in a scene in Crazy Rich Asians, if you have seen the movie. This historical site now is now a boutique hotel, a must stay if you are lucky to book and available room, but also open for historical visits. The daily guided heritage tours are in English. Tours start on time at 11 AM, 1.30 PM and 3 PM, don’t come late as they do everything on the clock! The admission fee is RM16 per person, which is a little less than 4$US. Other than going for a drink at the bar, the mansion is not open to the public outside these hours.
- Pinang Peranakan Mansion: After the blue mansion, meet the green mansion! This mansion is a museum dedicated to Penang’s Peranakan heritage. Located on Church Street, it was once the residence and office of a 19th-century Chinese tycoon, Chung Keng Quee. Entry to this mansion is RM20, about 5$US. The visit to the mansion is more worth it with a guide so you can actually know what it is all about! Interesting fact, the original owner-rebuilder Chung Keng Quee was actually not Peranakan but of Hakka descent. He is the well-known leader of the Hai San secret society (ie. Triad) with business monopolies in tobacco, liquor, opium and gambling in the neighbouring State of Perak. He acquired the property from his former rivals, the Ghee Hins, and remodelled it extensively to become his home and office. What you see today is more thanks to the current owner Peter Soon, which is an actual Peranakan himself, who bought the house from the Chung family and restored it lovingly from 2000-2004 and then filled it with his huge personal collection of Peranakan paraphernalia.
- Kek Lok Si Temple: It is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia situated in Air Itam, 15 to 20 minutes motorbike drive away from the centre of George Town. It features a very interesting seven-storey pagoda built in three different styles, the bottom being Chinese, the middle Thai, and the top Burmese. It is is also an important pilgrimage centre for Buddhists from Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore and other countries in Southeast Asia. The most amazing time to visit this temple is during Chinese New Year and at night time so that you will be able to witness one of the most beautiful colourful temples during nighttime!
There are two ways to go to this temple, one is walking the stairs. You will come across a turtle pond which is amazing. The other way is by taking the inclined lift. The first lift costs RM16 and the other one costs RM6 one way. Actually, there is a third less popular way to get around that temple, it is by motorbike! You can drive all over to the top temple first, then drive to the level down to visit the rest of the temple and also where you can buy the extra RM2 ticket to go up the main white tower pagoda. Parking for our motorbike at the second level only cost us RM1.
- Kapitan Keling Mosque: The Kapitan Keling Mosque is 19th-century Indo-Moorish-style mosque built in the 19th century built by Indian Muslim traders in George Town and featuring distinctive Mughal-style domes. Non-Muslims are welcomed at all times except during prayers. If you are not properly dressed, you can borrow a robe/headscarf if you are wearing shorts, etc. Apart from the Mosque, there is a cultural centre that showcases the culture and history of the Indian Muslim community as they play a big part in Penang. The mosque is open to visitors daily from 11:30 AM to 1 PM except on Friday and on weekend afternoons.
4) Hiking trail in Penang
With food, street food and architecture being so good in Penang, we quickly forget about its beaches and hiking opportunities. Pin down Penang Hill on your maps and itinerary and save yourself a morning to do this! The early morning is best so you can avoid the heat. Penang Hill is the highest point of the island and is just 20 to 30 minutes from the centre of town by car. There are many hiking trails with sweeping views of the island you can embark on. If you are a fan of the outdoors, you can go on the northeastern side of the island to spend some time at the Penang National Park. It is a dense rainforest with two main trails: one leads you to Turtle Beach and the other at Monkey Beach. Whichever you choose will lead you through sweeping island views, white-sand beaches, flora, and wildlife. You can arrange with some men to pick you up with their boats at the end if you don’t fancy doing the 1 hour plus hike back.
5) That a dip in the sea
Penang is not the top destination for beaches in Malaysia, but if you are looking for nice landscapes with giant boulders, look-a-like the ones in Seychelles, there are many beaches you can spot with those. We saw them as we were driving the whole road to the National Park on our motorbike. Penang’s most famous beach is Batu Ferringhi. Although, it is the nightlife, including Penang’s most popular night market, and stretch of luxury hotels that are more the attraction than the beach itself. Do stop by Long Beach for the street food, it is inexpensive and delicious.
To see Penang’s nicest beach, it will have to be the Monkey Beach on the edge of Penang National Park in island’s northwest corner. If you don’t want to hike, it is accessible via a 20-minute boat ride from Batu Ferringhi. The hike will take you two hours from Teluk Bahang.