Penang is a highly sensorial place where every corner is a stimuli that jumpstarts an exploration. From its world-renowned hawker style street food to its numerous historical sites, the trick to navigating Penang is to take it slow and experience that unique mix of Chinese, Malay, and Indian culture. Part of its allure is its textured landscape: technology hubs (it is dubbed the "Silicon Valley of the East") thrive alongside historical sites, and high rises are tamed by sprawling and well-maintained flora.
And then there are the people: Penangites are some of the nicest you’ll meet. They go out of their way for you. One time our Uber driver didn’t mind stopping in a store to allow me to buy a phone card which he even helped set-up on my phone. At another instance in Butterworth, a college boy accompanied us all the way to buy a train ticket to Huo Lamphong in Thailand before heading the opposite direction.
For the first timer in this former British colony, we dare say stay on the beaten path because, really, the offerings never grow old. I say eat your way around Georgetown, explore the state’s well-preserved botanical gardens, and create a night of memories in Batu Ferringhi. The rest of the time can be spent lounging in a luxury hotel bar facing the beach with a beer in hand just contemplating how Donald Trump can perhaps learn a thing or two about tolerance and cultural harmony from this country.
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Here are our top three Penang experiences we suggest you try, and where to stay in the area:
1. Eat your way around Georgetown
There is no such thing as “been there, done that” in Malaysia’s second busiest city. You’re simply never done in Georgetown. For one, the core stretch from Lorong Love (Love Lane) to Pengkalan Weld boasts of 1,700 heritage sites. As you coast your way around them you will discover a throbbing grid of delicious and visual chaos. Starting at the Indian enclave that comprises the Lebuh Chulia (Chulia Stree) stretch, you will be greeted with drums of spices—cumin, nutmeg, curry, cinnamon, coriander—that would make great pasalubong.
Follow the billowing smoke and you know tandoori will be just a few steps away. And where there’s tandoori, there will be roti, dal, biryani, curry, and other delicious Indian fare. Meanwhile, many of the old Chinese shops are bordered by Lorong Stewart and Lebuh Campbell. But you will find many great tea houses, food stalls, restaurants, and steamy food courts spread in other areas such as the popular Armenian Street. Feast on dumplings, fresh seafood that will be cooked for you upon ordering, or the classic Char Kway Teow.
Visit the many temples and old Chinese mansions converted into museums that highlight Nyonya (Chinese-Malay) art and culture such as those found in Pinang Peranakan Mansion. You will find all the classic Malaysian favorites in Georgetown such as Assam Laksa, skewered satay, and Nyonya and Indian-Malay cuisine. Whatever you decide to eat for the day, end it with the bowl of refreshing chendol easily found in the Chinese quarters.
Where to stay:
Eastern and Oriental Hotel is a Georgetown institution and carries with it the opulence of Penang’s colonial past. It was developed by the Sarkies brothers of the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore and has been in operation 1885 when Georgetown was an important trading hub of the British Empire. Beyond its history, what remains priceless about this hotel is its easy access to the main heritage sites and the core streets of Georgetown as well as the terrace view of the historical Malacca Strait that made Penang the melting pot that it is today.
2. Enjoy the diversity and stillness of Penang’s botanical gardens
Much like its colonial architecture, some of Penang’s gardens are a product of its preserved past. The 135 year-old Penang Botanical Garden is one of the highlights of a visit here. The area was originally a quarry transformed into a garden in 1884 for the sole purpose of testing the commercial viability of seedlings gathered by the colonials around the world. Today, it is simply maintained for the enjoyment of locals and tourists for free. Early mornings on a weekday would be the best time to come if you want the place all to yourself.
There’s a nearby open air food complex that can help jumpstart your morning with a classic Penang breakfast of noodles, roti, curry dip, fruits, and Teh Tarik. Proceed to the big gates and expect to be greeted by monkeys atop cables and trees at the entrance. A two-hour minimum stroll can get you to themed areas such as the Bamboo garden, forest path with century old trees, waterlily and lotus ponds, sunken garden, and English and Japanese-inspired gardens. As you navigate your way through quaint bridges, moss-covered walls, and lush flora where the sun struggles to penetrate, your walk will be punctuated by sprawling lawns that invite you to lie on the grass and just take in the beautiful sky. If a more active time here is what you want, try trekking all the way to the waterfalls or up Penang Hill with the option of taking the tram down.
Georgetown was also once a main port utilized by British East India Company for export of spices gathered from the spice farms on the island. Relive the past by visiting the Tropical Spice Gardens which give visitors a glimpse and taste of the spices that used to be farmed in the state. The garden features over 500 species of herbs, medicinal plants, and spices. A tour gets you a guide as well as a cooking class where you get to pick your own herbs and spices and use them in the dishes you will create.
Where to stay:
You will be drawn to the modern look of G Hotel Kelawai. Its exterior architecture is an interplay of white concrete overhangs pushing back the black exterior allowing a movement inspired by waves. At night the facade is basked in purple light, making it one of the most distinctive structures in the area. The hotel is a short walk to the famous Gurney Drive Hawker’s Centre, which is open 24/7 and serves every Penang fare you’ll want to taste. Walking distance too is Gurney Paragon where you will find the Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant Putien.
3. While the night (and day) away at Batu Ferringhi
Northwest of Georgetown is Batu Ferringhi, one of the most popular beachside attractions of the Penang. While it can be touristy (it is up there in the top three most visited places in Penang after Georgetown), it still completes a visit to Penang. Public and private beaches are open to visitors for swimming in the daytime. Nearby are local markets selling all sorts of Malaysian products and décor. But what is worth a visit is the Penang Batik Factory where works by the country’s most famous batik artists are up for sale. Sarongs, scarves, and men’s clothing using fine batik fabric are available here as well.
Night and day, Batu Ferringhi is as much a foodie’s paradise as Georgetown is. You have the option of heading to its food courts or to posh cafes and restaurants housed in luxury hotels that line the beach strip. The night market here shouldn’t be missed if you are ready to roll up your sleeves and engage in some serious bargaining.
Where to stay:
Take the Batu Ferringhi experience ‘five stars’ higher by staying at Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa, Penang. It is built under a canopy of century-old rain trees and amidst palms and lush tropical plants. It takes the same concept indoors, using a mix of indigenous materials, Malay décor, and nature-inspired themes to complement the amazing sea and garden views outside.