Penang Travel Guide
One of the first things that strikes you about Penang Island is the lush greenness of the countryside. The island is situated close to the North West Coast of Malaysia across the Penang Strait from the Mainland. It has an area of 293 square kilometres (113 square miles) with many pristine beaches particularly along the north, west, and southwest of the island. It is connected to Peninsula Malaysia by two long bridges. Penang is home to nearly three-quarters of a million people. Georgetown, Penang’s capital is the second most populated city in Malaysia.
Many of Penang’s numerous colonial structures were built between 1786 and 1957. The time when it was directly or indirectly under the British rule. Some of the churches in Georgetown were closely designed along the lines of those found in English towns and villages.
Since 1957 Penang has been an important state in the Federation of Malaysia. It has a lustrous, fertile landscape with highlands in the interior and a picturesque coastline. It is a popular holiday destination for Malaysians and overseas visitors alike and has a wealth of hotels for all budgets.
The local population is divided between ethnic Malays, Chinese, Indians and minority groups. While the national religion of Malaysia is Islam, freedom of worship is guaranteed by the government and religious sites for many doctrines can be found here.
How to Reach Penang
Penang is served by an international airport at Bayan Lapas in the South West of the island. As well as frequent flights to Kuala Lumpur you can fly directly to many major Asian cities including Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh City. Long distance buses travel to Penang from major cities throughout the country.
Getting Around Penang
Local taxis are plentiful and reliable and drivers invariably use their meters honestly. There is also an efficient bus network which runs throughout the island. In Georgetown, it is still possible to hail a tricycle rickshaw. These days these are tourist curios but they are a remnant of Penang’s colonial past. In the tourist area, it is possible to hire a car or more inexpensively a small motorcycle. The motorcycles provide an excellent option for touring the island, but of course, care should be taken, and by law, you must wear a helmet. In Malaysia, the traffic drives on the left and the standard of driving is generally good.
Language and Currency
Bahasa Malay is the national language of Malaysia. It uses the Roman alphabet and it is quite easy for the visitors to learn some useful words and phrases, which will delight the friendly locals. The nature of the diverse population means that you are just as likely to hear Chinese or Tamil spoken. English seems to be the second language of most people in Penang and it is widely used and understood. The currency of Malaysia is the ringgit and notes come in denominations of 1,5,10,20,50 and 100. Most of the tourist areas have exchange booths where rates are clearly shown. You will need your passport if you are changing banknotes.
Penang Island has a tropical rainforest climate and it is hot throughout the year, with frequent heavy bursts of rain. The driest months are between December and March. The temperature rarely falls below 25 degrees Celsius and is often in the thirties. You should wear a hat and adequate sun screen and ensure you drink enough water to keep hydrated. The wettest months are September and October, which can get up to 18 or 19 wet days.
Top Things to Do and Places to Stay in Penang
Georgetown is a very interesting city with bustling streets of colonial style shops. It is easy to get a sense of History as many of the shop facades have not changed in years. Of course, the goods for sale have kept abreast of the times. Elaborate fabrics and batiks are good souvenirs, as are locally made bags and local Art in its different forms. There are several old bookshops and shops which sell curios from Georgetown’s interesting past.
Overlooking the city is Fort Cornwallis which was built by the British in the late 18th century. It was built to look out to sea for possible invaders. Nowadays you can examine ancient weaponry and wander into the underground prison cells to get a sense of what life might have been like for the poor souls locked up in the stifling heat. There is also an aged lighthouse and a coffee and souvenir shop.
A large number of the local people are Muslims. Therefore, you will hear the Imam’s call to prayer reverberating across the city at frequent intervals. Muslim women, of course, wear the hijab and in Penang, you will also see some women who choose to wear a burka and veil their faces. Religious groups in Penang live harmoniously alongside each other.
Many visitors to Penang stay in one of the hotels in the tourist beach strip of Batu Ferringhi to the north of the island. Here there are hotels to suit all budgets with most of the famous luxury chains represented.
If you want a taste of the past, however, you could visit the now aging but still luxurious Eastern and Oriental Hotel (The E&O). The E&O opened 1885 and it still strives to show off something of the elegance of the British Colonial era – even down to the dress of the waiters – starched white shirts and shorts and pith helmets. Call in for afternoon tea and you will be transported to another era.
For a panoramic view of Georgetown and the surrounding countryside, it is worth taking the historic funicular railway to ascend Penang Hill. First operated in 1923, it has been modernized but at the top, you can see some of the original carriages and view photographs of Colonial Penang.
Food in Penang
The nature of Penang’s diverse population has resulted in a good choice of restaurants but the island is particularly famous for its street food. There are many places to try this but perhaps the biggest with the most choice can be found in Georgetown’s Gurney Drive. Well known Malaysian street dishes include fried rice cake strips, spicy coconut noodle soup, and oyster omelets.
If you want a beach holiday in fertile surroundings with the opportunity to explore the past, then Penang is for you.