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Why You Should Visit Penang

Published 30 March 2016

Sandy Dhaliwal

With the beaches of Bali, the sky scrapers of Bangkok and an embracing South East Asian culture, it’s not hard to see why Malaysia is becoming the new hot holiday destination. Sandy Dhaliwal fell in love with Penang on her holiday in Malaysia, and it’s not hard to see why.

Why Penang?

With its lively fusion of East meets West, Penang manages to perfectly embrace modernity while holding onto its humbling customs, long standing traditions and delightful old world charm.

Reflected harmoniously through its multiracial community, well-preserved temples and historical buildings, vibrant street art, colonial architecture, breath-taking landscape and more; this turtle-shaped island located on the north west coast – much like the rest of Malaysia – epitomises that notion of a cultural melting pot. 

Where to stay

Base yourself in Penang’s capital Georgetown, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site since 2008. Lively Chulia Street and its surrounding streets and lanes are packed with accommodation options to suit all budgets and tastes. Here you’ll also find is where most of the action is, populated with a plethora of shops, restaurants, bars, transport links, museums, places of interest and more. Staying here will mean you can easily tackle what’s nearby first, then head in other directions and explore further.

Getting around

Most of Georgetown’s sights are walkable, and seeing the city by foot is the best way anyway. Otherwise the buses are easily navigable and will take you to most of the sights further afield. I would avoid taxis though as they tend to overcharge; although they are of course a great convenience if you’re a bit short on time.

Things to do

Street art, artists and galleries

Explore Georgetown’s renowned street art, dotted across the city. With over 50 diverse pieces to find, the vivid wall paintings, quirky installations and intriguing sculptures wonderfully chart Penang’s history and wide ranging cultural influences. As a bit of a central creative hub, you’ll also find local artists selling their unique prints, artwork, handicrafts, jewellery and more.  Finally there are several galleries that focus on different techniques, mediums and more. A favourite of mine was the Batik Painting Museum for its rich history and knowledgeable and friendly guides.

Colonial and cultural architecture and places of worship

Penang’s diverse community is beautifully reflected in the buildings that line the streets; with a dramatic mix of styles including Islamic, Chinese, Indian and European architecture. Explore the vibrant Hindu, Chinese Buddhist and Burmese temples, intricately detailed mosques, grand colonial mansions and churches, contemporary modern skyscrapers inhabiting the island’s shores on Gurney Drive and the century-old Fort Cornwallis, built to guard the island’s cape.  

Penang Hill and the island’s landscape

Enjoy the breath-taking views at South East Asia’s oldest British hill station, Penang Hill. The popular attraction can be reached by a scenic funicular train ride to the summit, which stands at 830 metres above sea level.  On a clear day you’ll see spectacular views of the island, plus have the chance to explore the rainforest-like foliage and wildlife, temples, museum, eateries and gardens. Nearby is also the spectacular Kek Lok Si Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in South East Asia. The vast and stunning grounds boast an array of landscaped gardens, panoramic views from its seven –tiered pagoda, elaborate artwork, statues and architecture, ambient monasteries and prayer rooms and more. The calming atmosphere, coupled with the rich heritage of both sights, are definite must-sees during your stay.

Penang is also home to a national park, botanical gardens, tropical spice garden, wildlife parks, dams, jetties,  and fishing villages which all display Penang’s unspoilt natural beauty in all its glory.

Eating, drinking and shopping

There are too many places to eat and drink across Penang, from the quirky art cafes and colonial bistros and bakeries throughout the Georgetown lanes and delicious street food in the atmospheric Little India – that actually make you feel like you’re in India with its pumping Bollywood tunes and delicious aromas coming from every direction – to the Chinese, Malay and Eurasian fusion restaurants dotted along Upper Penang Road and Campbell Street and the fresh seafood selections at the island’s markets, night bazaars and along the seafronts. There really is something for every pallet.

You’ll also find hole in the wall bars here where locals will be happy to chat to you about island life and make you feel more than at home. A favourite of mine is the laid back Reggae Club on Chulia Street, where the owner will often link all the tables up so you can make friends fast with other visitors.

Upper Penang Road, Chulia Street, and Campbell Street are all perfect shopping destinations for art, clothing jewellery and more.  There are also large-scale shopping malls further inland if you’re interested in fine dining, picking up electronics or designer labels.

Where to next?

Penang has excellent transport links which make it perfect if you’re planning to head to other parts of Malaysia such as the capital Kuala Lumpur, the jungles of Taman Negara, the Cameron Highlands and Langkawi or Perhentian islands. 

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