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Penang the Pearl

Penang straddles part of the Malaysian mainland before breaking free and becoming its own tropical oasis in the Andaman Sea. Slap on the sunscreen and head straight for the beach resorts of Batu Ferringhi or Tanjung Bungah, where the most strenuous task of your day will be the short walk between the pool and the cocktail bar (to avoid such unnecessary exercise, book a hotel with a pool bar). If you can peel yourself from the sun lounger, get to Penang’s UNESCO World Heritage Listed capital, Georgetown, and bargain your way down Penang’s famous Chowrasta Wet Market, before sampling some spicy goods in Little India (Delhi without the Delhi Belly).

With so much natural and manmade beauty, it won’t be long until you understand why Penang is called ‘The Pearl of the Orient’. And when that realisation hits you like Enlightenment hit the Buddha, well, you won’t want to leave.

Penang’s Top 10

10. Snake Temple in Bayan Lepas is alive with swarms of venomous snakes, allegedly sedated from the strong incense. This temple experience is one to ssssavour.

5. Fort Cornwallis: Steeped in history, this well-preserved fortress is the site of Penang’s colonial conquest for Britain by Captain Francis Light.

9. Khoo Kongsi Temple: Located in Penang’s historic heart of Georgetown, this ancient Chinese clan house is the best example of Chinese architecture and history under one elaborate roof.

4. Penang’s Botanical Gardens is a 29-hectare garden paradise. Check out the ‘cannonball tree’, with its beautiful bright flowers and bulbous cannonball-like fruit.

8. Butterfly Farm:For all things fluttery, creepy and crawly, this conservation farm is an interactive animal oasis. Perfect day out with the kids, or a place to release the child within.

3. Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram:This restful Thai Buddhist temple houses a 33m-long gold-plated reclining Buddha.

7. Take a shuttle train up to Penang Hill or ‘Bukit Bendera’. It’s an ideal viewpoint to absorb the breathtaking views of Penang and its flourishing green countryside.

2. Masjid Terapung: Built in 2004, this ‘Floating Mosque’ (it’s actually supported by pillars) in Tanjung Bungah, can accommodate 1500 Malay Muslim devotees and is a glorious example of Islamic architecture.

6. Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion: Harness some of the positive Feng Shui of this ‘big blue house’. Commissioned in the 19th Century by rich Chinese merchant Cheong Fatt Tze (the original Fatt cat), the mansion showcases the best of Chinese artisianary in Penang.

1. Kek Lok Si Temple:The largest and most elaborate Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia. A visual feast of illuminated lanterns and bronzed Buddha statues abound. Make sure you dress appropriately when visiting.

Penang History

  • Kek Lok Si Temple – A Buddhist temple constructed in 1890, with Burmese, Thai and Chinese influences.
  • Eastern & Oriental Hotel – Historical building dates back to 1884, famous for its long Penang seafront.
  • Snake Temple – Constructed in 1850, this temple is famous for snakes said to be drunk on incense.
  • Tue Pek Kong – Originally started as a temple, it has been used for secret meetings, including the rebellious sort.
  • Pinang Peranakan Mansion – Former home of a 19th-century Chinese merchant with eclectic tastes.

Penang Art & Culture

  • Rumah Berhala Tow Boo Kong – A Buddhist temple constructed over a 29-year period.
  • Nine Emperor Gods Festival – Held on the ninth day of the ninth month according to the Buddhist calendar.
  • Wat Buppharam – This temple is a place for your questions to be answered.
  • Chinese Clan Houses – These houses were set up to help Chinese immigrants get established in Penang.
  • Sri Mariammam Temple – The temple is South Indian in design, treated as a clan house for Tamils.

Penang Shopping

  • Mydin's Wholesale Emporium – The place to go in Penang for bargain prices on everything.
  • Penang Pewter – Merchants of lovely pewter items of all kinds.
  • Gurney Plaza – This plaza holds everything from a cinema to boutiques to an Apple store.
  • Midlands Park Centre – The mall is eight stories tall with a rooftop pool.
  • Fuan Wong – This shop offers fused-glass creations from its artist namesake.

Gay & Lesbian Penang

  • Bagan Lounge – This mixed lounge offers fun Asian furnishings, jazz pop and a trans-diva.
  • Beach Blanket Babylon – This mixed club is suited to night owls.
  • Taman Hwa Seng – The riverside location provides a discreet place to chat up locals.
  • Batu Feringhi Beach – A hot beach populated by even hotter guys.
  • Mews Café – This gay- and lesbian-friendly cafe serves a variety of tasty regional goodies.

Penang Outdoor

  • Monkey Beach – This is an ideal place for a fun day out at the beach.
  • Penang Butterfly Farm – See some of the most beautiful butterflies in Malaysia, all in one place.
  • Penang Tropical Fruit Farm – More than 250 kinds of fruit, many of them rare, are cultivated here.
  • Tropical Spice Garden – So much more than a garden, you'll lose track of time exploring the trails.
  • Penang Hill – This is a good place to escape from the heat and enjoy a nice view.

Penang Sport

  • Water Sports – Several options are available, including parasailing, jet skiing and water skiing.
  • Bukit Jumbal Country Club – This 18-hole golf course offers a challenge for all putters.
  • Penang Turf Club – See exciting horse racing, but gambling is not allowed.
  • Penang International Sports Arena – This impressive-looking arena boasts an Olympic-sized pool.
  • Penang Sports Club – This large sporting complex offers facilities for almost any sport.

Penang Local

Georgetown

Georgetown is an eclectic mix of the old and the new, the East and the West. Sacred and historical World Heritage sites mingle with cafés, hawker stalls and markets. Hone those haggling skills in Pulau Tikus wet market, where you’ll find live frogs and chickens next to ‘authentic’ Rolex watches and Gucci goods. The ramshackle, narrow alleyways of Little India (Lebuh Pasar) and Chinatown make for a claustrophobically wonderful shopping experience. Take care, though, because all the cars, buses, trucks, ancient trishaws and swerving scooters can make crossing the road a precarious business. If you can get past these minor obstacles, catch the funicular up to Penang Hill for a breathtaking panoramic view over Penang.

Batu Ferringhi is packed to the brim with sun-hungry tourists during peak season (December/January), despite its higher prices, murky water and almost unswimmable beach. The traffic on the water rivals that on Georgetown’s streets, and between dodging the jellyfish, jet skis and waterskiers, swimming here is almost more trouble than what it’s worth. Instead, laze poolside in some of the best beachfront resorts in Malaysia, and sample the best of Penang’s cuisine in one of their many bars and restaurants. At night, the Pasar Malam night markets come to life with a strong waft of PVC fake designer goods, but it’s not a trip to Malaysia without at least one cheap knock-off.

Tanjung Bungah Home to Penang’s Water Sports Centre, it is the 2004-built Masjid Terapung (‘Floating Mosque’) that captures most of the attention. Sitting stoically out to sea, with its minaret dominating the skyline, it’s cool in a slightly incongruous way. For something different, Penang’s Toy Museum has over 100,000 toys, figurines and collectables and is sure to incite lots of excitement (or extreme jealousy, followed by a nasty tantrum) in the kids.

Teluk Bahang
Its name means ‘Bay of the Glowing Amber’ – which couldn’t be more appropriate. At sunset, sip a cocktail and contemplate the wonders of creation, Nature or anything you believe in as spectacular swirls of orange and amber hues dance across the sky. This sleepy fishing village is slowly awaking to the tourist trade. Resorts are already moving in – which is why you can enjoy a sunset cocktail – but it hasn’t yet succumbed to the tackiness of overdevelopment.

Swimming here is a risky business due to jellyfish-ridden waters, but Teluk Bahang’s pristine rainforest surrounds make up for it. It’s here you’ll find the Butterfly Farm, a sanctuary for all critters that flitter, as well as other crawlers with too many legs to count. For a different type of educational experience, the peaceful Tropical Spice Garden offers Malay cooking classes, which will grant you some serious Masterchef bragging rights. Then you can work off your self-cooked feast with a hike along one of Penang National Park’s three walking tracks.

Beyan Lepus

A Free Industrial Zone and home to the island’s international airport, at first glance Beyan Lepus appears to be nothing but an overgrown hub of industrial factories of multinational corporations. But the true Westerner within us all will be dutifully drawn to – and ultimately satisfied by – Penang’s biggest shopping centre, Queensbay Mall. Once the credit card is sufficiently drained, head to the Bukit Jambul Orchid, Hibiscus and Reptile Garden, where you have two hectares of land take in the local fauna and flora. The main attractions include a 20kg albino python and a 100-year-old tortoise. For a more sobering experience, the Penang War Museum, which was used by the Japanese in World War II as a Malay prisoner of war camp, is a must for any military history buff.

Penang Eat & Drink

With Chinese, Indian, Malay and Mediterranean amongst a flurry of other flavours, it’s no wonder Penang is regarded as the food capital of Malaysia. Just a word of advice: pace yourself... there’s a lot to get through!

Opera Oriental Cuisine & Lifestyle Gallery Dark, moody lighting sets the sexy scene for this award-winning restaurant. Interesting takes on classic dishes such as Spring Rolls and Peking Duck Pancakes make it a popular haunt. Georgetown.

Agua Mediterranean Cuisine
Delectable Moroccan, Spanish, Greek, Italian and French specialties come together nicely in this seaside restaurant. Try the seafood paella (the signature dish) with a glass of sparkling Tyrrell’s. Salute! Georgetown.

Goh Swee Kee Teochew Restaurant Authentic Teochew cuisine that prides itself on traditional family recipes. Try the braised goose meat, homemade fish balls and fried tofu with chive dip. Georgetown

La Farfalla This elegant, award-winning restaurant is recognised for its superb Italian creations. Beef Carpaccio, antipasto and the pasta dishes are all delicious. Intercontinental Resort, Teluk Bahang.

Thirty Two at The Mansion Treat yourself at this always-popular venue, which serves up the perfect fusion of Continental/Asian flavours. Fine dining in a decedent, but unpretentious restaurant. Georgetown

That Little Wine Bar For a relaxed night out with friends, visit this casual boutique wine bar in Georgetown. TLWB also has a great selection of tasty share plates.

Edelweiss Café Get romantic the Germanic way – over Cheese Fondue and fat German Curry Pork Sausages. Set in a 150-year-old building, Edelweiss has a rustic charm and an old world feel. Georgetown

Hawker Food Not mentioning Hawker food would be an injustice to Penang’s food culture. Hawker stalls are all over Penang, in the historic streets of Georgetown, Gurney Drive and Chinatown. Take your cue from where the locals eat and enjoy the cheap delights of Penang’s street food.

Beach Blanket Babylon As the name suggests, Beach Blanket’s alfresco dining has a relaxed, beachy feel. A trendy cocktail bar popular with Penang’s groovers, the bistro menu is one of the best in town. Georgetown

Ferringhi Garden Restaurant: Dine in what feels like the middle of a tropical rainforest. A bit pricey, but well worth the delicious western/Chinese fusions and great service. Georgetown

Penang Events

Thaipusam Festival is a three-day Hindu festival, celebrated in either January or February. Colourful confetti parades are met with painful facial piercings as a kind of self-sacrifice. Worth watching, not trying.

See Penang painted red and gold for Chinese New Year, also in January or February.The Kek Lok Si Temple is the place to be during this event, then join the conga line of lion dancing, decorated trishaws and live bands banging and crashing through the streets.

Wesak Day falls in April or May. Thousands of Penang’s Buddhists take to the temples to celebrate the birth of Buddhism. Become enlightened watching the procession of monks, floats and flowers in and around Jalan Burmah.

The Sarawak Gawai Festival on 1 June celebrates the rice-harvesting season. Traditional costume performances are followed by a delicious feast and, most importantly, drinking of tuak, rice wine. It’s considered impolite to refuse it.

Also in June are Penang’s International Dragon Boat Races, held on Teluk Bahang Dam. A fast-growing sport with traditional origins, feel free to join in the excitement and competitive vibe!

Every July brings the Japanese Bon Odori Festival. Join Japanese expats at the Esplanade of Penang as they take part in this cultural carnival that pays respect to their spiritual ancestors.

Thetraditional Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival occurs in the seventh month of the lunar calendar (roughly August to September). The streets of Georgetown come to life with Chinese operas, puppet shows and concerts. Citizens offer food at temples to appease the hunger of the ancestral spirits who emerge from the Gates of Hell…

The Muslim Hari Raya Puasa Festival (August/September) celebrates the end of Ramadan. After a month of fasting, Penang’s Muslim community have built up quite the appetite!

The Hindu Deepavali (Festival of Lights) celebrates the triumph of good over evil. Falling between October and November, the three-day festival sees Little India bursting with flowers, colour and delicious feasts.

In December, Penang’s International Floral Festival is a week-long flower fest held in the Botanical Gardens. Enjoy the sights and scents of the exotic range of plant species.

When To Go

Penang enjoys a tropical climate all year round, just like the other parts of Malaysia.

The average temperature is between 31°C (88°F) and 32°C (90°F) for most of the year.

Penang’s wet season is between April to May and October to November.

Humidity is between a steamy 70-80%, so your air-conditioned hotel will be your saviour.

What To Miss

Heavy downpours occur every afternoon, usually between 4 and 6. Perfect time for a pre-dinner nap!

Avoid shopping around midday – it’s so hot you will give up long before the markets have been adequately prowled. Shop early in the morning or later in the afternoon. Or stick to the air-conditioned malls.

Malaria. If you’re planning on spending lots of time on the island, particularly in the National Park areas, avoid the nasties and make sure you’re up to date with vaccinations.

Getting Around

Rapid Penang is the local bus service that travels between the airport, Georgetown and all the major beach resort towns. Buses are new with air-con and even wi-fi connectivity. Not as fast as a taxi, but a hell of a lot cheaper.

The trickshaw is a great way to get through the traffic and see the sights. Its snail-like pace makes it great for happy snappers. What’s even better is your driver, more often than not, doubles as a tour guide.

Taxis in Penang are pretty expensive, especially in comparison to its buses. Even though they are equipped with meters, most drivers refuse to use them. Negotiate a reasonable price before getting aboard, or prepared to be ripped off.

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1 Sunway Hotel Georgetown

4 stars
3.8 / 5 38 reviews

33, New Lane (off Macalister Road) Map

Sunway Hotel Georgetown is an elegantly appointed accommodation that offers convenient access to cultural and corporate sites of Penang. While on a Penang holiday, tourists should not miss a chance... More

2 Evergreen Laurel Hotel Penang

5 stars
4.1 / 5 34 reviews

53, Persiaran Gurney Map

Evergreen Laurel Hotel Penang is the right choice for those who are looking for quality accommodation and service in Malaysia. Penang Botanic Gardens, Kek Lok Si Temple and Penang Hill are some of... More

3 PARKROYAL Penang Resort

5 stars
4.2 / 5 37 reviews

Batu Feringgi Beach Map

Travellers looking for tropical retreat in Malaysia find ideal base in the luxurious PARKROYAL Penang Resort. Aside from wading in the warm waters and lounging on white sand of the palm tree-dotted... More

4 Hard Rock Hotel Penang

4 stars
4.3 / 5 26 reviews

Batu Ferringhi Beach Map

Presenting standard facilities and luxurious comfort, the Hard Rock Hotel Penang offer intimate hospitality and friendly services for an unparalleled retreat. GeneralHard Rock Hotel Penang... More

5 Eastern and Oriental Hotel Penang

5 stars
4.7 / 5 25 reviews

10, Lebuh Farquhar Georgetown Map

Eastern and Oriental Hotel invites leisure and corporate travellers to luxurious accommodations set right in the centre of Georgetown, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From this all-suite hotel,... More

6 Golden Sands Resort by Shangri-La

4 stars
4.2 / 5 15 reviews

Batu Feringgi Beach Map

Golden Sands Resort By Shangri La Penang offers luxurious accommodations perfect for holidaymakers wanting a tropical island getaway in Penang. Beach lovers can enjoy the sun, sea and sand at Batu... More

7 Hotel Royal Penang

4 stars
4.0 / 5 3 reviews

No 3 Jalan Larut Map

Hotel Royal Penang offers upscale accommodations located near the financial district, suitable for corporate and leisure travellers visiting this side of Malaysia. Tourists at this Penang hotel can... More

8 Lone Pine Hotel

5 stars
4.5 / 5 6 reviews

97, Batu Ferringhi Map

Lone Pine Hotel Penang offers modern service and is a perfect place for both business as well as leisure travellers. Tourists can plan a day trip to the attractions such as Penang Butterfly Farm,... More

9 Shangri-La's Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa

5 stars
4.9 / 5 8 reviews

Batu Feringgi Beach Map

Situated on a lush 30-acre garden, Shangri-La's Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa makes for an ideal holiday retreat with its luxurious accommodations, attentive service and idyllic location. This beach... More

10 Holiday Inn Resort PENANG

4 stars
4.4 / 5 25 reviews

72 Batu Ferringhi Map

Holiday Inn Resort Penang is situated on the island of Penang, which is steeped in cultural heritage. This property also provides access to some of the local attractions like Penang Museum, Fort... More