Penang, also known as the pearl of the orient, is one of the most touristic locations of Malaysia. The island (285 square meters) is situated on the northwest side of the Peninsular Malaysia. There are loads of activities and sights on the island. Hanging around on the beach is also considered a fine option. About 700.000 people inhabit Penang Island, of which 59% are Chinese, 32% are Malay and 7% are Indian (2% are of other origin). The state of Penang has a population of 1,5 million (of which 43% are Malay and 41% Chinese). Penang has an eventful history; the diversity of the inhabitants clearly indicates this. Penang is especially known as the best place to enjoy wonderful local dishes; it is seen as the food capital of Malaysia. There are many hotels and resorts on the island, most are located in and around the city of Georgetown and around the towns Batu Ferringhi and Tanjung Bungah.
- Check out our Penang Island picture sets at Flickr.com here and here.
Our pages on Penang
On this page:
Slideshow Penang Island
Get the Flash Player to see this rotator.
Pearl of the Orient
Penang played an important role for merchants and pirates in the distant past. Partly because of the earlier mentioned diversity of inhabitants Penang is famous for its beautiful cultural diversity. With the majority of the inhabitants being Chinese the island has a very Chinese 'feel' to it. This gives the island something 'typical Asian', which cannot be seen as clearly anywhere else in Malaysia. Penang is a great destination, absolutely worthy of a visit. Not so much because of the beautiful beaches, but because of the great melting pot of cultures. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations within Malaysia. For years the island is referred to as 'The Pearl of the Orient'. Georgetown is the vibrant capital of Penang. The island is a good location for a holiday at the beach, or for example as part of a holiday package.
Most hotels are found on the north side of the island. This is the more developed part. The south and southwest still have a lot of old fashioned kampungs and other small authentic villages. A lot of hotels can be found in and around Georgetown. If you are only going to stay at Penang Island for a few days, it might be handy to stay at a hotel in the city of Georgetown. If you however plan on staying for a longer period of time, it is much nicer to book a hotel at one of the resorts at Batu Ferringhi or Tanjung Bungah.
For Malaysia's best beaches Langkawi is the place if you are only visiting the western part of Peninsular Malaysia. The eastern coast of Malaysian (Perhentian or Redang) and Borneo has even more beautiful beaches. For a lot of tourists the food and the cozy atmosphere is the main reason to come to Penang Island.
Ever since the 20th century pepper, tin and rubber became the main merchandise. Over the past few years Penang grew to become the Asian version of the American silicon-valley. Georgetown gained the status of 'Cybercity' in 2005. Especially in the area of Bayan Lepas one can find a lot of well known manufacturers of electronics and other components. Giants like Dell, Intel and AMD all have (or used to have) their Asian HQ on Penang. An important reason for this is the safety and the favorable financial conditions Malaysia has.
Shopping at Penang Island
Tourists are abundant on Penang, and local Penangites have one of the highest GDP's in the country; so multiple luxurious shopping malls are a logical consequence. The malls are mainly situated in and around the city of Georgetown. Chinatown is only a few 100 yards away from the Komtar complex. Just like other Chinese neighborhoods the streets are most lively during the evenings. A lot of leather wear and counterfeit watches can be found at these hours, during the day a lot of butchers and fishmongers can be found in this area. Tourists generally enjoy Penang's night markets (pasar malam). There are a few of them in Georgetown, but the most famous is the one from Batu Ferringhi. Loads of counterfeit clothing, watches and pirated DVD’s can be found here. The temptation to buy some of these goods can be quite big. But you will soon find out that it is a waste of money, for example if pair of socks at the shopping mall as oppose to the night market they will last a considerable amount of time longer. Same goes for the watches as they usually only last a few months. Read more shopping in Penang.
Cities and villages
Batu Ferringhi, which means 'foreigner's rock', is on the north of the island and is the most touristic resort found in Penang. The village is no more than a street full of hotels. A walk along the beach is not an option here; the hotels all have their private beaches. In the centre of the village, take a left turn at Bayou Road to find a public beach. So if you are not staying at a Batu Ferringhi hotel this is a fine option to enjoy the beach there. There is a nice hawker stall there called 'Blue Bayou'. Most of the hotels have a shuttle to Georgetown, the bus and taxis are also options. The bus costs a mere RM4.
During the day there is not much more to do than hang around on the beach or at the pool of your hotel. The seaside resort does however have activities, for instance you could rent a moped to go around the island. The earlier mentioned night market (from +/- 19.00 until midnight) found here is one of the things which make this place a lot more interesting at night.
There is a large central food court (hawker stall); tourists as well as locals eat here. Food is ordered at different stalls and then brought to your table this usually doesn't cost you much more than 3 euro's. The quality of the food is very good, no need to worry about getting sick to the stomach afterwards. If you are not sure what food court to go to have a look at which one has most people there, this usually means the food there is good. A few years a new food court was built on the eastern side of the island. There are about 40 stalls in a circle and a mini market to boot. The old-fashioned food court is however still very popular.
The village of Tanjung Bungah can be found somewhere between the capital and Batu Ferringhi. The beaches here are not very nice; there are still a few hotels though. One of the hotels 'the Crown Jewel hotel' is where we stayed at our first encounter with Penang. The village has a supermarket, an ATM and a fine food court. Both Georgetown and Batu Ferringhi are 10 minutes away on the bus. Tanjung Bungah is going to have a serious make-over; a lot of hotels are being built. The aim is to become similar to Batu Ferringhi.
About 4 miles to the west of Batu Ferrenghi a small fishing village named Teluk Bahang can be found. It is the first village you will come across pursuing the road from Batu Ferringhi. The village itself has not got much to offer but there some nice activities in the surrounding area. For example Penang Butterfly Garden or a batik factory where nice batik clothing can be purchased. The view of the small pier is astounding. Muka Head Lighthouse located at the islands most northern tip is only a short walk away. Teluk Duyung (monkey beach) an 'abandoned' beach and Pantai Kerachut, with a beautiful lake and breeding habitat for turtles can also be found here. These highlights can all be found within Penang National Park, the smallest national park in Malaysia.
Beaches at Penang Island
Beaches on Penang are not that good compared to other beaches in Malaysia. In a lot of holiday brochures they make the beaches seem much better than they actually are, crystal clear water, white pearly beaches, more or less what you would expect when visiting a tropical location. Same goes for the island Langkawi, even though it is much better there. The beaches cannot be compared to the beaches on the eastside of the peninsula and the island of Borneo where the beaches are astounding.
Most beaches on Penang can be found at Batu Ferringhi. To get to the private beaches you usually just enter the hotel and enter the garden through the lobby. The public beach at Batu Ferringhi has a few activities such as horseback riding, parasailing, jet skies, surfing and sailing. Be cautious while participating in any of these activities they are at own risk. Accidents happen quite frequent along the beach; these are not always covered by your travel insurance. Also beware of jellyfish sometimes they can be found along the coast of Penang in huge amounts.
When visiting Batu Ferringhi make sure to book a hotel that has its own swimming pool so you can use that for swimming. Go to the beach for walks, tanning and sunset. Teluk Duyung (monkey beach) is quite a secluded beach. It is accessible in 2 ways, by boat or by following a short jungle trail. When going to this beach it is compulsory you register in Teluk Bahang. This is free; it is just so they know who visited Teluk Duyung that day. If you go by boat you can book one from Teluk Bahang. Agree on the price before hand and make sure to let them know what time you want picked up. Walking there will take approximately 2-3 hours. The beach itself is quiet and by far the nicest beach on Penang.
Weather at Penang Island
Penang can be visited throughout the year. There is a relatively mild monsoon period between June and September. We have visited Penang during this rainy season; and did not really notice any difference between the dry and wet season. A normal day at Penang Island consists of sun throughout the biggest part of the day, followed by the occasional rain shower at the end of the day. Sometimes it can rain for a longer period of time (or even for days), but is normal as it is part of the tropical climate of Malaysia.
Popular restaurants (& foodcourts) on Penang Island
Below a list with some of the best restaurants on Penang Island:
Best hotels and resorts on Penang Island
Below a list with some of the best hotels and resorts on Penang Island (view all hotels and resorts at Penang here in a new page):
Diving and snorkeling around Penang Island
Scuba diving and snorkeling is not possible at Penang Island. People that would like to enjoy diving or snorkeling can book a day-trip to Pulau Payar (1,5 hours by boat from Penang Island). Another option is to take a flight from Penang to one of the islands that are renowned for diving and snorkeling possibilities like Perhentian, Redang or Tioman. Do know that diving and snorkeling around those islands is not possible between October and March because of the Northeast monsoon season.
Penang or Langkawi?
Do you need help choosing between Penang and Langkawi? Both islands are worth a visit; but sometimes there's only enough time to visit one of the two islands in the Andaman Sea. Read about the differences (and similarities) on our page 'Penang or Langkawi?'.
Map of Penang Island in Malaysia
Subscribe now to never miss a post!
Subscribe to our email updates or the RSS feed, right now!
It wasn't long ago that the Malaysian island of Penang was a decrepit south-east Asian cultural and culinary backwater. But the UNESCO World Heritage-listing of its capital, George Town, almost a decade ago, awakened the world to its myriad delights. Multicultural Penang has since emerged as a genuine gastronomic hot spot. Add to that heady mix some of the best, most stylish and affordable boutique lodgings in the region and you have a most appetising, if still somewhat underrated, destination. See malaysia.travel
2. DINE: TEK SEN
Malaysians of Chinese ancestry are the most dominant ethnic group on Penang, just pipping the Malays. It's something that's strongly reflected in the island's cuisine. This convivial, unpretentious Chinese restaurant, which began life as a simple rice stall in the mid-1960s, occupies a pair of shophouses in Lebuh Carnavon (Carnavon Street). Highly rated among locals and expats alike, the bargain priced, Tek Sen menu includes dishes such as char siew bak, assam fish, fried chicken, house-made tofu, omelette with bitter gourd and potato leaves with prawns. (No website)
*3. HANG: CHINAHOUSE
Narelle McMurtrie, a visionary local expatriate Australian, has been at the forefront of the revival of George Town. Her most recent venture is the buzzy ChinaHouse, a sprawling cultural-cum-eating temple on Lubuh Pantai (Beach Road), built inside three traditional Malay shophouses. Here you'll find everything from Australian-style espresso coffee as well as a range of cooling drinks, cakes, ice-creams and snacks. The casual restaurants and bars serve excellent Asian, Middle Eastern and Western fare (see below). See chinahouse.com.my
4. TRY: STREET FOOD
George Town is well on its way, if it hasn't already arrived, to becoming one of the true street food capitals of south-east Asia. Classic hawker stand dishes include assam laksa, beef koay teow, oh chien (oyster omelette), char koay teow, nasi lemak and more. Lorong Baru, Gurney Drive and the Esplanade Food Centre are among the best places to try them. Grab a copy of Famous Street Food of Penang: a guide and cookbook (published by Star Publications) when you arrive. It provides an insightful overview of the island's sublime sidewalk snacks as well as recipes to cook in your own kitchen on your return home (the gift shop at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel should have copies for sale). See malaysia.travel
5. STAY: EASTERN & ORIENTAL HOTEL
Penang's signature colonial hotel, the 19th century E&O, as it is inevitably called, is tucked away in a prime location of George Town overlooking the Straits of Malacca. In 2013, this five-star classic hotel added a largely sympathetic 122-room high-rise annexe to coincide with the establishment's 130th anniversary. The hotel, which preceded its more famous counterpart, Raffles Singapore by three years, includes restaurants, bars and lounges (see below) overlooking the sea. See eohotels.com
6. TASTE: ASAM LAKSA
One of Penang's most famous and ubiquitous dishes, asam laksa consists of rice noodles in a hot and sour, fish-based gravy topped with aromatic herbs. Its distinctive sour taste comes from tamarind combined with ingredients such as lemongrass, galangal and chilli. Mackerel flakes, pineapple, fresh mint, onion, shrimp paste, ginger flower and lettuce are also often added to this irresistible dish. Everyone in Penang has their favourite spot for their beloved asam laksa, although locals tend to agree on Nan Guang Coffee House in Balik Pulau, Ayer Itam Assam Laksa on Jalan Pasa and Joo Hooi Cafe on Penang Road.
*7. VISIT: TROPICAL SPICE GARDEN
If you're travelling along the seaside road between Batu Ferringhi, Penang's original resort playground, and Teluk Bahang, a small coastal town, do factor in a visit to the Tropical Spice Garden. Built from an abandoned rubber plantation, the three-hectare garden is an easy-to-navigate showcase of exotic flora and fauna, with spice the star (anise) attraction. There are four guided tours daily as well as night walks every second and fourth Saturday of each month. There are onsite cooking classes, a restaurant overlooking Teluk Bahang Bay and a variety of spices available for sale at the gift shop. See tropicalspicegarden.com
8. VISIT: FISHING VILLAGES
Many visitors to Penang are understandably consumed by the delights of George Town and end up not exploring the compact and accessible island beyond it. Rent a car – or better, hire a driver – and explore Penang's coastline, which is dotted with fascinating fishing villages such as Teluk Kumbar and Kampung Pulan Betong. The restaurants are often jammed with locals and tourists on the hunt for some of south-east Asia's best and freshest seafood. Closer to George Town are the remarkable Chinese clan jetties, a series of six ramshackle seafaring communities built on stilts and defined according to various local societal groupings.
9. DRINK: KOPI C ESPRESSO
Kopi C Espresso is claimed to be "the longest cafe in Penang", stretching along the narrow interior of the trio of shophouses in which the aforementioned ChinaHouse compound is built. Whatever. To those in the know, this Australian-inspired cafe in a distinctly Penang setting, is long on atmosphere with top-notch coffee and an already legendary range of cakes and other delights. It's the perfect pit stop after a sweaty stroll around the amazing streets of George Town's old town and an excellent place to commune with Penang's hip and hedonistic millennials and savvy tourists. See chinahouse.com.my
10. DINE: BLUE MANSION
On an island where street food dominates, there's no shortage of upscale though affordable restaurants from which to choose. One of George Town's most distinctive buildings, the Blue Mansion (also known Cheong Fatt Tza Mansion after its original Chinese owner) is these days a newly-renovated boutique hotel operated by the owners of Villa Samadhi, a resort hotel in the middle of Kuala Lumpur. Even if you're not staying here, it's worth booking a table at the hotel's Cheong Fatt Tze restaurant, serving modern and traditional Chinese dishes, if not just for the food but to experience the building's exquisite interiors. See samadhitretreats.com
11. EAT: DAVID BROWN'S RESTAURANT AND TEA TERRACES
After a thrilling ride to the top of Penang Hill on the funicular railway, delivering panoramic views of the densely-populated island below, ignore the crowded cafe atop the cable car's station and head straight across to Strawberry Hill. Here you'll find this welcome tranquil retreat from the heat and hustle and bustle of George Town below. Set in gardens with a centrepiece colonial-style British house overlooking a gorgeous lily pond, the quality of David Brown's location surpasses that of its food. But it's a beautiful spot for an English-style afternoon tea. You may care to take a light jacket as, at an altitude of nearly 800 metres, it can get a little chilly on Penang Hill. See penanghillco.com.my
12. CHILL: THE CANTEEN
During the day, this cafe-cum-lounge venue, yet another ChinaHouse attraction serves a mix of Western and Asian flavours served bento box-style. By night, comfort food dominates. Every first Thursday night of every month there's a comedy night and The Canteen is also a venue for music. If that's not enough to keep you amused, there's BTB, a restaurant serving Asian and Middle Eastern inspired dishes as well as the Reading Room, a space with a selection of magazines, books and CDs for browsing and buying.See chinahouse.com.my
13. TASTE: NYONYA CUISINE
Nyonya cooking is one of multicultural Malaysia's most characteristic cuisines. Its origins can be traced to the original Chinese migrants who married local Malay women and who then developed their own traditions and customs including food. The food is basically a blending of Chinese ingredients mixed with local spice and cooking techniques and Penang is one of the best places in Malaysia to sample it. Check out local favourites such as Mama's, with just 10 tables, in Abu Siti Lane and Auntie Gaik Lean's, where the menu changes daily, in Bishop Street in George Town.
14. EAT: SUFFOLK HOUSE
Such is the quantity and quantity of colonial buildings in and around George Town that the producers of the British TV series Indian Summers, a drama based on the days of the Raj, chose to shoot the series, not in India where it's set, but in Penang. One of the locations for the series is Suffolk House, a Georgian-style mansion built in 1809 that served as the home of several early British governors. There's a restaurant serving lunch and dinner as well as English-style high tea, at just $30 per person every day, in perfectly authentic surrounds. See suffolkhouse.com.my
15. WANDER: LITTLE INDIA
Although George Town is dominated by Malaysian-Chinese, with many of its streets designated by Chinese guilds, slapbang in the middle of the World Heritage zone is the sizeable Little India enclave. The action is centred on three streets, namely Lebuh Queen, Lebuh Chulia and Jalan Pasar, and its focal point is the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Penang. Aside from the plethora of saree shops, there are plenty of places to sample authentic roti canai, thosai, briyani rice, tandoori chicken and more.
16. DINE: SEVEN TERRACES
ChinaHouse's Narelle McMurtrie isn't the only expat Australian who can claim credit for having put George Town firmly back on the map. Malaysian-Australian Christopher Ong, a former banker, has created several boutique hotels in George Town, including this one, his crowning glory, a row of skillfully converted 19th Chinese terraces. The hotel, with just 18 rooms, competes with the aforementioned Blue Mansion as one of Penang's most beautiful buildings. If you're not staying at Seven Terraces, book a table at its classy in-house Kebaya restaurant specialising in classic Straits Chinese Nyonya dishes. A four-course degustation menu is served, Chinese style, allowing guests to share all the dishes. See seventerraces.com
17. DRINK: FARQUHAR'S BAR
Even in Penang, a state of a Muslim nation which frowns on the consumption of alcohol, there's no shortage of drinking holes at which to kick back. This wood and leather-clad English-style bar at the E&O Hotel, overlooking the hotel's seaside swimming pool, was named after Robert Townsend Farquhar, who served briefly, and controversially, as one of Penang's British lieutenant-governors. And the street outside the hotel is also named after him. With its deep armchairs and long dark wood bar, Farquhar's Bar exudes an exclusive private club room atmosphere - the perfect setting for another round of sundowners. See eohotels.com
18. TASTE: CHAR KOAY TEOW
A Penang street food favourite, and viewed with some reverence by Penangite foodies (read: the entire population), char koay teow is essentially stir-fried noodles with prawns, cockles, beansprouts, Chinese chives, egg and sometimes Chinese sausage made with soy sauce and chilli. For the best char koay teow, preferably cooked using a charcoal-fired wok, Penangites head at lunch time to streets such as Jalan Siam and Lorong Salama for their daily fix, where hawkers can compete fiercely with each other by adding lavish ingredients such as mantis prawn, crab meat and even lobster meat.
19. DRINK: MEWS CAFE
Muntri Mews, a row of erstwhile 19th century stables and carriageworks in classic Straits Chinese style, is another of Christopher Ong's suite of George Town boutique hotels. Aside from being an affordable and stylish place to stay right in the heart of the George Town World Heritage area action, it's also the location for another relaxed Australian-style cafe where you can rely on a good cafe latte made in the style to which you're accustomed. There's also an agreeably eclectic menu featuring everything from steak sandwiches to nasi lemak. Ong has more recently opened more accommodation in the form of Muntri Grove, 10 converted shophouses with their own private street. See muntrimews.com; muntrigrove.com
20. DINE: SARKIES
There are more exciting and edgier places to eat in George Town than this restaurant at the Eastern & Oriental. But if you're not staying at the hotel, and if you baulk at eating from the street, then dining here is the best way to absorb some of the heritage of one of south-east Asia's most historcal colonial establishments. Sarkies, after all, is named after the four enterprising Armenian brothers, who founded the hotel as well as Raffles Singapore and The Strand. If a more formal ambience appeals, opt for dinner at the posh 1885, located in the original heritage wing, where high tea is also served between 2pm and 5pm.
Anthony Dennis was a guest of Tourism Malaysia (tourism.gov.my); Malaysia Airlines (malaysiaairlines.com), Air Asia (airasia.com) and the Eastern and Oriental Hotel (eohotels.com)
* Traveller top choices