A few miles off the west coast, you’ll find Penang: a paradise of ex-colonial architecture and legendary cuisine. Penang is a mecca for foodies; the mixture of Indian, Chinese and Malay cuisine is a delight for the palate. It’s also the home of the indigenous fusion of Baba Nonya food, Eurasian dishes from the times of Portuguese imperial control. Penang’s unique history and mingling of cultures make it a constantly surprising and intriguing destination.
Georgetown is the largest city on the island, one of the biggest in Malaysia (with 600,000 inhabitants!) and is also where you arrive straight off the ferry from the mainland port of Butterworth. It’s polluted and teeming with car exhaust fumes, but luckily makes up for this by being full of cultural surprises. Penang offers something for even the biggest cityphobe – just outside of the city edges you’ll find sprawling beach resorts at Batu Ferringhi and quiet fishing villages such as Teluk Bahang.
Rickshaw driver taking a rest in the sun
Places to stay:
Love Lane: A quiet lane hidden in inner Georgetown makes a great little backpacker area – and the most popular place to stay in Penang. While things can get slightly seedy by night, Love Lane offers some great budget rooms, right in the middle of the World Heritage Site borders.
Chinatown: Sprawling Chinatown is locally known as ‘Backpacker Alley’ and, as the name suggests, there are loads of cheap places to stay which aren’t bad looking either. Dorms will set you back around 7-10 RM a night, and private rooms start from 18 RM. While a few can be on the grubby side, the colours are always bright and you’re never far from a party.
Lebuh Chulia: A bustling road, and one of the oldest in Georgetown, Lebuh Chulia has a few more upmarket options with rooms starting from 50 RM a night.
Things to do:
- Tuck into the local cuisine: Undeniably the food capital of Malaysia, Penang is a treat for all the senses. Hawker centres line the streets, with an abundance of tasty, cheap local dishes on offer. With a unique mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures, there really is something for everyone within the local ‘Baba Nonya’ fusion cuisine… You’ll find everything from fresh seafood, noodle dishes and BBQ stalls to frog leg porridge (trust us, it’s not as bad as it sounds!). Wash down your dinner with a bottle of ice-cold Tiger and it’s easy to understand why this island is so famous for it’s grub!
Dishes to try:
- NASI LEMAK: Rice cooked in coconut milk with pandan leaf.
- SATAY CELUP: Chicken, mutton or beef skewered on bamboo sticks and cooked over hot charcoals. Best eaten fresh on the street, dipped in a rich peanut sauce. Yum!
- CHAR KOAY TEOW: A simple but tasty plate of stir fried flat noodles with seafood, egg, bean sprouts, a healthy amount of chilli and a splash of soy sauce!
- CURRY MEE: Noodles serves in a curry sauce with bloody clams (cockles), prawns or shrimp and beansprouts.
- NYONYA LAKSA: A spicy-sour soup packed with thick rice noodles, in a tamarind-based fish sauce.
- TARI BURGER: A famous style of chili burger, sold in street-side joints.
- LOR BAK: Marinated minced pork, rolled in thin soybean sheets and deep fried, served with chilli sauce.
- CHING PU LEANG THANG SHUI: A local delicacy, and a healthy dessert! Made with sweet potatoes, red beans, jelly, white fungus, sago, atapchi, longan, ginkgo, winter melon, rambutan and many more fruits, all served in a sugary syrup.
And for the more adventurous:
- CLAYPOT FROG LEG PORRIDGE: Tender frog legs delicately stewed in a claypot of fragrant broth. Tastes similar to chicken, but even juicier.
- FRESH OYSTERS: Caught just off the coast of this foodie island, oysters are an expensive, but delicious treat here. Knock them back with a squeeze of lime and a drop of tobasco sauce. No chewing allowed!
- CHICKEN FEET: Grizzly, bony, chewy… well what else would you expect from a chicken foot? Give us the breast or a nice juicy leg any day!
- BLOODY CLAMS: Chewy, plump things about the size of a half-dollar, oozing dark juices from inside their rough, crenellated shells, tasting something like shellfish fortified with strong beef bouillon. Sound worse than they are.
- Take a bus / or motorbike around the island: The bus means easy access to some stunning viewpoints, as the mountainous round-island road from Georgetown runs for 74km and offers panoramic views of the ocean and island.
- Visit Titi Kerawang and its famous waterfalls: The waterfalls are a great sight and the view of the Indian Ocean from Titi Kerawang is second to none. There’s also a freshwater pool filled from the waterfall, a refreshing swimming spot.
- Go to the beach: The beach calls out to Penang’s visitors, notably Baut Ferringhi in the north, which is great for activities and is becoming one of the most popular beaches in Malaysia. It’s a must for a slice of luxury, with everything from air-conditioned steak houses to traditional Hawker centres.
- Trek through Penang National Park: Surprisingly beautiful, untouched national park with trekking trails to waterfalls, natural pools and deserted beaches.
- Get some peace and quiet: If the hustle and bustle of Georgetown or Ferringhi beach gets too much, head 6km down to Teluk Bahang – a far quieter beach area. On the way there you’ll pass the Tropical Spice Garden, a quiet haven on a hill with a lovely tea shop.
Getting to Penang is easy by boat from the mainland jetty at Butterworth, or alternatively you can fly into Penang International Airport from most major capitals in the region.
Where to go next?
Langkawi: Hop on a boat from the port at Georgetown to take you straight up north to the island paradise and tax-free haven that is Langkawi. Not only are the beaches a stunner, but you can visit the 99 other beautiful islands in this cluster. Read more about Langkawi here.
Sabah: Fly across to Borneo and head to Sabah, where you can take on the challenge of climbing the awesome Mt. Kinabalu – the highest mountain in South East Asia at a staggering 13,445 ft. Read more about Malaysian Borneo here.
Thailand’s Southern Islands: You’re far north enough to make the trip to southern Thailand, head up to Alor Setar and hop on the train over the Malaysia/Thai border, to experience the famous islands of the Andaman Coast. Read more about Thailand’s southern islands here.
By Alisha Rouse