In 2009, when I first visited, I hunted in vain for a information on what to do in Penang. There was so little information available then which frustrated me enormously. I had to use the old school way and carry a heavy book with me. Do you remember those days? Now I wouldn’t dream of it. All my travel info is digital and I’m sure that yours is as well. How the world has changed.
My primary reason for visiting Penang was to enjoy the amazing food on the island. I arrived late at night from Kuala Lumpur and checked into the beautiful Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion boutique hotel. I woke up in the early hours of the morning feeling queasy. I should never have had that chicken pie at the airport!. The next 2 days I was violently ill with food poisoning.
I had to at least try and see the island so I hired a driver for the day. I managed the morning and then I was done. Early the next day I flew out to Hanoi. I was bitterly disappointed. I had managed a bowl of very plain noodles during my stay and not much else. A few years later I was in KL with my husband. I was determined to visit Penang again, so off we went.
What to do in Penang
Penang is in the Strait of Malacca which was an important trade route for India, China and Europe. One of the main reasons for Penang’s development was the role of the monsoon. Ships waited until the winds were favourable and they could set sail.
The British arrived in 1786 in the form of Captain Francis Light. The town that was established grew quickly as it was ideally situated on a trade route. Soon the Chinese and the India traders arrived with wares to sell. Naturally, their cultures and cuisine played a big role in the development of the town. These influences are still prevalent today and this fusion can be seen all over the island which makes it such a wonderful place to visit.
It’s no secret that I love street art and Penang doesn’t disappoint. It is a treasure trove just waiting to be explored. Expect the unexpected! There are wrought iron caricatures, painted walls and art installations all over the city. 52 Caricatures made of steel rods were commissioned. They tell tales about traditions and history and are also a lesson in the diverse culture of the island. Take time to read the descriptors as they are very good explanations of the work.
The city abounds with fabulous murals as well. These include works by Ernest Zacharevic and Russian artist Julia Volchkova. The Penang Tourist office can provide you with an excellent map to help you hunt down all the best work.
You can’t visit Penang and not have at least one “white coffee”.
White coffee was introduced by the Chinese migrants in the 19th century who came to work in the local tin mines. Legend tells of a Hainanese coffee roasting master who began roasting beans this way in the old town of Ipoh and the rest is history.
The term does not refer to the colour of the coffee, but rather the way that the beans have been roasted in margarine which intensifies the caramel flavour and results in a lighter coloured bean.
You will find outlets all over the island to relax and savour the delicious toasty, nutty coffee. You can even buy some to take home with you to transport you back to your island holiday when you having a tough day at the office.
The Penang Heritage Trail
Georgetown, the capital city, has around 12 000 old buildings and was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2008.
The Penang Heritage Trail covers the heart of the old town. Most of the buildings are clustered around the historic Lebuh Achen area so it is quite easy to explore.
You can get a good map for the trail from the tourist offices. There is so much to see, but obviously, depending on your level of interest you can spread it over 2 days or just a couple of hours. A good place to start the trail is in Armenian Street. This was used as a setting for an old musical film called Anna and the King. Its exotic charm is perfect for a movie.
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion
I have to mention this hotel again as it forms part of the Heritage Trail. Having stayed here previously I can highly recommend a tour of this beautiful old mansion. The interior is ornate with a gorgeous courtyard in the centre of the building. There are daily tours if you are keen to find out a bit more of the history of this stunning house and have a peek at what life must have been like at the beginning of the 19th century for an extremely wealthy merchant.
The Clan Jetties
The Clan Jetties are also part of the Heritage Trail. These are unique Chinese settlements that have been around since the 1880’s. There were 7 different Clans jetties, but one was destroyed by fire. I found them vaguely interesting, but not particularly exciting. People still live here so you need to respect their privacy as they go about their daily life.
Visit Fort Cornwallis
The fort was built in the late 18th Century, by Francis Light, to defend the island. It was originally built out of timber, but after the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars, it was decided to convert it to stone at a cost of USD 80 0000 in 1810. It’s a good place to learn about the history of the island, but if I am honest it didn’t rock my boat either.
You can be forgiven for thinking that you have been transported to Delhi or Mumbai. Little India is colourful with bright saris, Bollywood music and the aroma of curry and spice wafting on the breeze. I loved this part of town and would have liked to spend more time exploring. We did find time to sample some snacks from the hawkers. If you like Indian food head for a restaurant and indulge. For sweet treats try Gulab Jamun ( an Indian doughnut) dripping in syrup, Kesar Peda ( fudge) and my favourite, kulfi which is a very sweet ice-cream.
Tropical Spice Garden
The garden was originally an abandoned rubber plantation. It is spread across 8 acres of jungle and it took 18 months to complete. As the name suggests the emphasis is on spices and houses more than 500 different types of trees and plants. You can do a tour, a night walk or take a cooking class in the gardens surrounded by the jungle.
This beautiful road snakes along the ocean. If you fancy a walk then this is the perfect spot to take in the views and watch the sunset. This area is also known for very good hawker food at the hawker centre.
Dharmikarama Burmese Temple
This is one of the largest Buddhist temples on the island. The Burmese population of the island worship here. It is the only one of its kind outside Myanmar. It is colourful, ornate and worth a visit if you have the time. Built in 1805 look out for the two Panca Rupa, or mythical creatures, that are the guardians and protectors of the world.
Relax at Batu Ferringhi
We stayed not too far from this beach. It is a hive of activity with restaurants lining the strip and a night market. It is a wonderful spot for a cocktail as you watch the sunset.
If you are a foodie then one of the obvious things to do in Penang is to explore the huge variety of delicious food available all over the island. In Batu Ferringhi, there is a hawker centre selling divine street food. They have a huge selection of local favourites. I loved char kway toay, a local noodle dish with shrimp, cockles, lap cheong ( Chinese sausage), egg, bean sprouts, chives and soy sauce. It is such a unique taste I was hooked! Another delicious dish to try is the oyster omelette and of course Laksa, which has a totally different taste to anywhere else in Malaysia.
Hopefully, you are now inspired and full of ideas on what to do in Penang. If you are a foodie, or a history buff, or just looking to chill Penang is the perfect getaway. If you are in Kuala Lumpur it is a short journey to paradise so don’t miss out!
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