Penang Island has a wonderful blend of relaxed island vibe together with all the mod-cons of a bustling modern city. As with many areas of Malaysia, Penang reflects a blend of East and West as well as old and new. The capital and historic city of George Town, has preserved a wealth of both Colonial and Asian heritage buildings, which make the main town centre together with the quaint side streets a truly picturesque city to explore on foot. In additional to George Town being compact and thus easily accessible by foot, Penang also has a fantastic free bus system in and around George Town. These Penang free CAT (Central Area Transit) buses make getting around even easier!
Beyond George Town, Penang Island has so much more to offer, from a floating mosque to magnificent sunsets at Batu Ferringhi Beach. From modern shopping malls to the beauty of nature found in the Penang Botanical Gardens and Penang National Park, Penang really has something for everyone. And then, of course, there is the wonderful array of street food found on practically every corner - no wonder we ended up returning to Penang for a month-long stay!
VISIT PENANG NATIONAL PARK
Situated on the Northeast tip of Penang Island, Penang National Park is a fun and free day or half-day activity for any nature lover. The Park can be reached by local public bus from most of the island for very affordable rates. If you are a few people or pressed for time, taking a Grab Taxi is another feasible alternative. There are various hiking routes within the park which are thankfully mostly shaded by the lush green forest. Some of the routes are in need of a bit of maintenance, but if you are a regular hiker you won’t find them strenuous at all. You can also reach many of the park attractions by boat, which can be arranged at the park entrance or negotiated with the boatmen directly (much cheaper!). We walked from the main entrance towards Pantai Keracut Beach. The trail took us about 1.5 hours including a few photos and video stops along the way!
Our first destination was the Meromictic Lake… So what is a Meromictic Lake you may ask? Well, it is a lake with layers of water that do not intermix, in this case, the salty seawater and the fresh mountain water from the land. Now that may sound very impressive, but to be honest, it really wasn’t much of a sight at all! Perhaps the tide was too low or perhaps it is simply more of a technical wonder rather than a visual one. Glad that we had not especially detoured to see the lake, the trail continues straight onto Pantai Keracut Beach. There is often a debate regarding Pantai Keracut Beach vs Monkey Beach. Visiting both beaches will, of course, allow you to make up your own mind, but in the meantime, we will give you our opinion of our visit which was in the middle of July 2019.
Pantai Keracut Beach is a lovely wide and sandy beach with some tall trees along the sand edge providing much-needed shade (although you will want something to sit on as the trees also deposit very prickly small cones). The beach is definitely quieter and more relaxed than Monkey Beach, but swimming is unfortunately not allowed! The beach has a fairly steep drop-off into the water and the waves clearly dump along this shoreline. Keep in mind that there are no vendors at Pantai Keracut Beach so be sure to pack your own drinks and snacks. If you just want to sit and relax in the beauty of nature, then this is a good spot for you.
While you are at Pantai Keracut Beach, you should definitely visit the Pantai Keracut Turtle Sanctuary. Don’t have too high expectations, the Sanctuary is very small with only a few tanks. It is, however, free to enter and if you are lucky, there will be baby turtles which were by far the highlight of our visit. From here we made arrangements to hop aboard one of the boats heading towards Monkey Beach. There were plenty of boats and the fee was very negotiable so we were glad we had not made prior arrangements at the park entrance.
So, how does Monkey Beach compare to Pantai Keracut Beach? Well to be honest after some of the reviews that we had read, we expected Monkey beach to be packed and overrun by monkeys - this was not the case! Yes, the beach is a lot busier than Pantai Keracut Beach, but the one big advantage is that you can swim at Monkey Beach! The water quality is not fantastic, but it is no worse than Batu Ferringhi or any other beach around Penang Island. The beach is narrow but quite long so you should easily find a spot that suits you. There are a few vendors selling snacks and renting sun loungers. I am sure that if you wave your snacks around or leave them lying around the monkeys will be on you in a flash, but we did not notice them really bothering anyone. From Monkey Beach we took a boat back to the park entrance where we hopped on a bus to Batu Ferringhi. If you are a keen hiker, you will definitely want to spend more time exploring some of the other trails of the park.
IS BATU FERRINGHI BEACH WORTH VISITING?
Batu Ferringhi is probably the second most visited destination on Penang Island after the main city of George Town. Last time we were in Penang we didn’t have time to visit Batu Ferringhi so this time we were dying to go see what all the hype is about. The long sandy beach is dominated with water sport activities and if that’s what you’re looking for, then this is definitely the place for you! From crazy jet ski’s chasing each other on the water to people flying through the air suspended by brightly coloured para-sails, you will be spoilt for choice when it comes to adrenaline water sport activities. The safety may be questionable, but it sure does look like fun to Parasail at Batu Ferringhi Beach! There are also plenty of demarcated swimming areas, but to be honest, despite the bath like temperature, the water is not very appealing as it is rather murky. So as a beach destination, I have to say that we were slightly disappointed. That being said, everyone will tell you that the sunsets in Batu Ferringhi are the most beautiful in Penang and here we can say that the sunset did not disappoint!
We walked the length of the beach, which is filled with beach bars and cafes, all the way to the jetty. Here, we got to watch some local fishermen casting their nets, while the setting sun turned the skies into the most beautiful canvas of colour. So yes, our sunset from Batu Ferringhi Beach was most definitely the most beautiful in Penang! With the sun having set, we made our way towards the main street to explore the well known Batu Ferringhi Night Market. One thing we had not realised is that the Batu Ferringhi Night Market is NOT a food market! It is a narrow alley of stalls which get set up along the sidewalk after 7 pm and mostly consists of clothing, handbags, watches, local crafts and the usual market type trinkets. Walking through the night market feels very much like the tourist beach resort area that Batu Ferringhi is.
We made our way along the length of the night market in search of the best place for local food in Batu Ferringhi. This search led us straight to Long Beach Cafe, which is a food court area with a great variety of local food stalls as well as plenty of western food options. In addition to the fantastic food variety, we were very happy to find the cheapest fresh fruit juice in all of Penang! After eating and drinking far too much, we hopped on the local bus to make our way back to George Town. So yes, we do believe that Batu Ferringhi is worth visiting, but just don’t expect crystal clear beach waters!
VISIT THE PENANG TANJUNG BUNGAH FLOATING MOSQUE
Yes, the Penang Tanjung Bungah Floating Mosque is generally open to visitors. Do remember to dress respectfully as it is a place of worship. There are also garments available for free for you to use if you are not suitably enough dressed. The mosque was constructed in 2004 after the older mosque nearby was damaged by the tsunami. Although the mosque is not actually floating, it appears such at high tide when the water hides the supporting pile foundations. The location of the mosque over the water is rather unique and really does add to the beauty of the mosque itself. We enjoyed making our way to the adjacent small beach for a different perspective view of the mosque. If you’re travelling north along the west coast of Penang Island, be sure to stop off here.
WAT CHAYAMANGKALARAM THAI BUDDHIST TEMPLE
Just out of the main centre of George Town, but still on the Penang Free CAT Bus route, you will find two beautiful temples just across the road from one another and free to visit. Wat Chayamangkalaram Thai Buddhist Temple is home to one of the world’s longest reclining Buddha statues. The gold plated statue is a very impressive 33m from end to end and the temple also serves as a columbarium, in which the urns of the cremated are housed. The outside of the temple and surrounding buildings are even more ornately decorated than the inside and the dragons almost look as though they are coming to life as they glisten in the sunlight!
DHARMIKARAMA BURMESE TEMPLE
Just out of the main centre of George Town, but still on the Penang Free CAT Bus route, you will find two beautiful temples just across the road from one another and free to visit. Dhammikarama Burmese Temple is the sole and oldest Malaysian Burmese temple in the state and was originally established as a monastery. In addition to the impressive gold-gilded standing Buddha in the shrine hall, the temple grounds are adorned with many other interesting statues including a pair of winged chimaeras known as Panca Rupa, the Guardian Protectors of the World.
CLIMB THE 513 STAIRS UP TO PENANG WATERFALL HILLTOP TEMPLE
Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Temple or otherwise known as Penang Waterfall Hill Temple (for those who can't manage the mouthful!) is one of the oldest Hindu temples in Penang and can be seen perched on Penang Hill from afar. The towering yellow structure becomes even more imposing as you get nearer. We could see the Temple from where we were staying in George Town, so we just had to make our way there and climb the 513 stairs to reach the top! The Hindu Temple Complex is open to the public and free to visit although the temple at the top is closed for a few hours in the middle of the day (you can still go up to the top and peek through the windows, but you will not be able to go inside). Once you reach the top, you will be rewarded with not only the beauty of the Temple building itself but also a panoramic view of the city. The Penang Botanic Gardens Waterfall (after which the Temple is named) is actually within the Penang Botanical Gardens but unfortunately out of bounds to the public as it forms part of the Botanic Gardens Reservoir. This is a great place to visit together with the Penang Botanical Gardens which are situated just nearby.
VISIT PENANG BOTANICAL GARDENS (FREE)
Sometimes also referred to as the Penang Waterfall Gardens, these original gardens were established from an old quarry site in 1884. Today the Penang Botanic Gardens Waterfall forms part of the Botanic Gardens Reservoir and is thus unfortunately out of bounds to the public. So to be honest, the much-loved name of Waterfall Gardens is slightly misleading albeit historically significant. That being said, the gardens themselves are an expansive and impressively beautiful lush green and tranquil setting to enjoy if you have time when visiting Penang. They are free to visit and boast long hours serving as a public park such that the public can enjoy this nature before and after their workdays. There is a running track as well as several main “attraction points”, although we didn’t find any of these to be particular highlights. We loved just relaxing and having a snack in nature, walking through the various areas and spotting the interesting wildlife such as both the macaques and dusky langurs monkeys, monitor lizards, squirrels and birds. There are also numerous hiking trails from the garden area, including some going to the top of Penang Hill. We chose the path starting from Moongate (just outside the Botanical Gardens) to make our way to the top of Penang Hill.
FUNICULAR OR HIKE TO THE TOP OF PENANG HILL
Also known as Bukit Bendera, which actually refers to Flagstaff Hill, the most developed peak of the hill range, Penang Hill is a must-see for tourists visiting Penang. The easiest way to reach the top is by the popular funicular railway system. However, if you have the time and are fit and able enough to do so, or are looking for a more budget-friendly alternative to the funicular, we recommend hiking up to the top for a different (and free) experience. Do keep in mind that it is the heat and humidity that make this hike challenging, not necessarily the technical difficulty. In 2014 we took the funicular to the top and back, so visiting again in 2019 we simply had to hike! There are many options for Penang Hill Hiking Routes which vary in the starting point, distance and difficulty. We chose to take one of the routes departing from Moongate (near the Penang Botanical Gardens). There is also a fairly popular "jeep track" route from the quarry at the entrance of the Penang Botanic Gardens where you can arrange “jeep” transportation to the top of the hill or you can also hike along this path.
There are many scenic stops along the hike up to the top of the hill. Once at the top, you will find cafes and eateries as well as many more attractions such as the Ginger Garden, the Penang Hill Sky Walk, the Habitat and of course, plenty of hiking paths from here.
IMMERSE YOURSELF IN THE HISTORY OF GEORGE TOWN, PENANG
The historical core of George Town has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008 and the best way to immerse yourself in this historical area is to walk the streets and absorb the ambience of this eclectic city. Be sure to pick up a free map of George Town so that you can see and read about the many historical sights. You can also follow the popular street art walking route where you can either join the selfie crowds taking interactive photos with the street art or simply enjoy watching them snap away! A few of the historical highlights are the City Hall & Town Hall, The Esplanade (Padang Kota Lama), Fort Cornwallis, The Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower, Tanjong City Marina / Church Street Pier and don’t forget to walk just a little further to also see the Clan Jetties. Of all these sights mentioned, only Fort Cornwallis has an entrance fee, although you are free to walk around the outside of the fort which, in our opinion, is more than good enough!
The Chinese Clan Jetties are sometimes overlooked as they are just a little further from the centre of town, but these are well worth visiting as they give a perspective not only on how people used to live but also how they continue to live today. The Clan Jetties are still inhabited so please do be respectful to the locals as you are exploring their home. George Town has a diverse and colourful history and this has been preserved both by the historical Colonial and Asian style buildings as well as in the many cultures that live side by side in the city today. Note how as you walk through side street after side street, the ambience of the area changes and you can feel as though you stepped from “Chinatown” to “Little India” in just a few minutes!
SNAP A SELFIE AT THE “I LOVE PENANG” SIGN @ FRIENDSHIP PARK
We stumbled upon the “I Love Penang” sign in a very small community park known as Friendship Park while we were wandering a little further outside of the main George Town area. If you enjoy finding these signs as part of your travels, be sure to put this one on your list!
BE SURE TO EAT LIKE A LOCAL AT GURNEY DRIVE HAWKER CENTRE
A popular night time food market for both locals and tourists alike, the Gurney Drive Hawker Centre is open most evenings, but really comes to life over weekend nights. This is a fantastic place to get a taste of a few different local food dishes as the quality of food, as well as the variety, is really good. We had our first Char Koay Teow there and our favourite dish from the market ended up being the Clay Pot Chicken. Be sure to also try a few of the homemade local sweet delicacies from the friendly old lady’s sweets stall - we did our best to try them all!
SHOP ALONG GURNEY DRIVE AT GURNEY PLAZA AND GURNEY PARAGON
Just outside of George Town centre and still on the Penang Free CAT bus route, you will find both the Gurney Plaza and Gurney Paragon Shopping Malls, side by side. These malls are also adjacent to the Gurney Drive Hawkers Night Food Market so be sure to pop in for a bite while you’re there. If you are looking for fashion outlets, hip restaurants and cafes, an air-conditioned food court or just a place to escape the heat, then head over to these malls. Gurney Plaza is the larger of the two with more fashion outlets but Gurney Paragon has more outside restaurants. Be sure to also check our their tourist privilege programs as there are a few good discounts to be had.
HIN POP-UP MARKET
This is a small local community-run weekly market which is aimed at supporting the local artists, creative spirits and entrepreneurs. Every Sunday you can enjoy hanging out in the artistic garden of the Hin Bus Depot while enjoying some freshly made Kefir Soda or freshly brewed coffee with a delicious snack of your choice while listening to a little live music. We really enjoyed the fact that this place is far off the tourist radar!
ENJOY PANORAMIC VIEWS FROM THE TOP PENANG AT THE KOMTAR TOWER
The KOMTAR Tower (short for Kompleks Tunku Abdul Rahman) is currently Penang's tallest skyscraper. The original tower was completed in 1986 and reached 232 metres high making it the second tallest building in Asia at the time. From 2015, in an attempt to revitalise the building, three more storeys were added, raising the height of KOMTAR Tower to 249 metres. This revival included the addition of many of the attractions which the complex boasts today. Although the exterior and lower portion of the building still appear rather old and even somewhat dilapidated, THE TOP PENANG AT KOMTAR TOWER is now home to the highest glass skywalk in Malaysia (Rainbow Skywalk) as well as the world's highest rope course at the exterior of the skyscraper's 65th floor (The Gravityz)! The entrance fee to these and the other attractions is steep, but the observation deck will give you panoramic views over the city and adrenaline junkies may find the experiences on offer exhilarating.