The island of Penang is famous for it’s fantastic food and street art. It also has a great national park and some great temples including the spectacular Kek Lok Si Temple. This Penang Travel Guide looks at the Malaysian island, giving you some key information for planning a visit and then showcasing it’s highlights.
After giving some key information for visiting the island this will then cover these 4 main areas:
- George Town (divided into sub sections)
- Penang National Park
- Kek Lok Si Temple
- Penang Hill
To note Penang state also includes some of the mainland area. This Penang Travel Guide focuses just on the island and what to see and do there. George Town is the main city on the island, and the capital of Penang state. Its on the north east side of the island, and many of the attractions of Penang are clustered round here including Kek Lok Si Temple and Penang Hill. The national park is found on the north west side of the island.
Penang Travel Guide – Key Information
Penang actually as an international airport itself, where you can fly to and from several other Asian countries. If your flying in from outside the Asian region then the obvious choice is to fly to Kuala Lumpur which has a huge International airport with global connections. Or neighbouring Singapore which again has many global flights and a land border with Malaysia that’s usually quick and easy to navigate.
Coming by bus from the other parts of Peninsular Malaysia you will normally have the option to either go straight onto the island and get out at a bus terminal or get out and take a ferry across. The bus terminal Sungai Nibong Express Bus Terminal is on the southern part of the island and many buses go to and from there. The Komtar Bus Terminal is in George Town itself which is useful, though not many buses drop there. In terms of leaving the island some buses to go from there and others will offer pick up from there. The ferry goes from Butterworth to George Town and this can often be a quicker option if your staying in George Town itself. Its a ‘shuttle’ service and is quick and cheap.
The island has a great bus network. I mentioned a couple of the bus terminals above, but there are plenty of stops all across the island. The tickets are cheap too and the busses normally fairly quick as long as there isn’t traffic. There are taxi’s too of course but honestly whenever you can get a bus I recommend that, it will save you a lot of money. In George Town itself you can walk between many of the main areas. Certainly that is a good way to spot some of the wonderful street art that fills the city.
Malaysia has a whole is a mixture of different cultures and regions and Penang follows this too. Malaysia itself is over 61% Malay, and the national religion is Islam. However George Town itself is majority Chinese. They are generally Buddhist, though some follow other Chinese regions such as Taoism. Often the Chinese regions are mixed together and people follow aspects of several religions. The island was an important part of the British Colonial Empire and it’s control of trade routes in the area. As a result many Chinese and Indians moved here, some to trade and others to work for the colonial government. There is a Little India in George Town, and Indians make up around 9% of the population on the island. In terms of Religion they generally follow Hinduism.
As I mentioned above, the Penang state also includes part of the mainland but this Penang Travel Guide focuses on Penang island. So whilst Penang State has a larger Malay population of which over 44% identify as Muslim, the island itself feels very Chinese with some Indian presence. Particularly so in George Town. If you visit the National Park (which is featured below) you will see more of the Malay population. Many of them work in and around the national park, and the suburb Batu Ferringhi (which you go through to get to the park) has a noticeable Malay presence.
George Town is well known for it’s food and it’s a really big deal here. There are many fantastic places to eat all across the city. As mentioned above the island has a diverse population with a large Chinese contingent. This means there are many Chinese based restaurants the island. They cover a board range of Chinese cuisine and there is a great variety. There are of course plenty of Malay style places too, serving rice and noodle dishes like Nasi goreng and Nasi lemak. There is also an established Indian community here with some good Indian restaurants to try. These can be great value for money as they often do good meal offers.
If you want to know more then check out this article I wrote showcasing my 5 favourite places to eat vegetarian food in George Town. It includes Indian, Chinese and Malay style food as well as a Middle Eastern inspired restaurant.
George Town is the best place to stay on the island. You can find some accommodation along the north coast, around Batu Ferringhi, but honestly with the island’s great bus services there’s no need to stay outside of George Town. And there are lots of options here, tourism is big business and you can find plenty of guesthouses, hotels and hotels. Love Lane is one of the main backpacker streets here and a decent place to base yourself. Its within walking distance of the highlights of George Town and there are buses stops nearby to take you elsewhere. Its just off Chulia Street, which has plenty of accommodation and eateries itself.
Personalty i’d near to but not actuality on Love Lane. So you are close to many of the good spots, but have a bit more quite. Down one of the side streets around here you can find Chateau One Guesthouse. Its a relaxed place that has dorms and privates. If you want to stay on Love Lane itself then The 80’s Guesthouse is good place with dorms.
Penang Travel Guide – Island Highlights
Exploring the Street Art
George Town is famous world wide for it’s street art. The city really is a hub for creative artists and there is a lot to see as you go round. Of particular note is the work done by Ernest Zacharevic, a Lithuanian artist who was commissioned to several murals around the city. His isn’t the only work here though, there are plenty of great murals all across the city done by other artists. When in the city it’s easy to get maps/leaflets that point out notable work to help you find it all. Many hostels/guesthouses have them, otherwise get them from restaurants/cafes or tourist information places. There is a lot of general street art too, keep your eye out as you look around the city.
One particular site to go for artwork is the old Hin Bus Depot. It’s become a centre for arts and there are several really good pieces to view here. They describe themselves as a ‘community art space’ and entry is free. There is a Mural Garden which is great to look around. They also have events such as a pop up market and exhibitions. You can take a look at their website for up to date information.
There are several temples worth a look in George Town. Several serve the Chinese community and followers of Chinese regions. One such temple is the Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple. Built in the 1850’s it a Hokkien community temple devoted to the worship of Twa Pen Kong, who is the Taoist God of prosperity. The Hokkien is both a language and a people who trace their ancestry back to the coastal Chinese area of Fujian. Its a great place to check out traditional Chinese temple decoration and artwork.
Another interesting Chinese temple to stop at is the Penang Teochew Association. This ancestral temple one was first built in 1870 and has been restored by the Teochew community. They are from the Chaoshan region of China, which is actually just south from the Fujian region. It’s a small temple but the artwork and woodwork is beautiful and it really does feel like it connects these people to their past.
There are also temples that serve other communities in the city. For example the Acheen Street Mosque and the Kapitan Keling Mosque serve the Muslim community. I haven’t been in the latter but certainly at the
Acheen Street Mosque you are welcome to go in and have a look around. The oldest Anglican church is Southeast Asian is located in the city, the St Georges Church Penang which was built in 1818. The oldest Hindu temple in the city is the Sri Mariamman Temple dating from 1833. It’s built in the South Indian Dravidian-style featuring a gopuram, which is a tower full of Hindu sculpture and artwork over it’s entrance. Its in Little India, which moves us onto the next part of this Penang Travel Guide.
As well as the Sri Mariamman Temple the other 2 main attractions here are the markets/shops and the restaurants. There are are large number of market stalls and shops here selling Indian clothing, jewelry and so forth and it’s all very colourful. Even if you not interested in buying anything it’s a good place to have a look at the local Indian community. The restaurants are a fantastic place to try authentic Indian food. My particular favourite here is the 100% vegetarian Thali-NR Sweets Cafe. As the name suggests it specialises both in Thalis, which are Indian round platters, and Indian sweets. The Thali’s are really good value for money and you get to try several different flavours, I really recommend getting at least one during your stay in Penang!
Though there are 8 originally, there are now 6 remaining clan jetties, home to old Chinese clan settlements. These are where different Chinese clans made their home when they first migrated to Penang in the 19th century. each Jetty takes the surname of the clan that owns it. These were effectively their own separate villages, built on the water. Chew Jetty still has a village full of interesting shops and a temple. It makes it the most visited and it’s a really interesting place, with lots of colourful artwork and shop signs.
Another good Jetty to visit is Tan Jetty. This pier only has a small temple and no other buildings on the water, but the views here are great. You can see across the bay and along the shoreline of the city.
A historical significant point in the city is Fort Cornwallis. It’s where British Captain Francis Light landed in 1786 to occupy Penang island and create a British colony. He actually served as ‘Superintendent’ of the colony until his death. The fort was built for defence although it actually never saw combat, and also served administrative purposes as the British ruled over the island. in terms of visiting the fort there isn’t a lot on display inside, so if you are pressed for time or money I would definitely recommend looking at the rest of this Penang Travel Guide first. But if you have a particular interest in the history of the island then it’s obviously a significant spot to visit.
One of the old cannons here at the fort is the Seri Rambai Cannon. Bearing the mark of the Dutch East Indies it traces it’s history back to the 1600’s. it has a long fascinating history, originally being given by the Dutch to the Sultan of Johor as part of trade dealings. After the Sultanate of Johor was destroyed it was catapulted and taken to the Aceh Sultanate. Eventually it was sent to the Selangor part of Malaysia where the British then captured it in battle. After some time in and about the city where in survived Japanese occupation, it was finally put on display at fort Cornwallis where it remains today.
Penang National Park
This National Park is in fact one of the smallest National Park in the world, which adds to it’s charm. Encompassing the north west of the island, it’s an area of rainforest and mangrove swamps. There are several beaches here too, reached either by hiking or boat trips (or a combination of both!). You can get here by bus from George Town, the journey takes 45 minutes to an hour, though allow for traffic at busy times. It’s worth setting aside a whole day to visit this park, there is a lot to get around here.
At the park entrance there will be people selling boat trips. If you have a small group of you these can be pretty good value, and an effective way to see a lot of the park. What my group did when I visited was arrange a pick up time from Pantai Kerachut beach. We then hiked there through the rainforest, which is around 90 mins to 2 hours depending on the pace you keep. Here you can find a Turtle Conservation Centre, which looks after injured turtles until they are ready for release into the wild. They also help breeding by caring for Turtle eggs. There are plenty of monkeys at this beach too, which are playful and on the look out to steal your food.
From here the boat took us to Monkey beach, which as the name suggests is full of monkeys! You can find several beach side restaurants here that serves Indonesian food like Mie Goreng and Nasi Goreng. Here you an also trek up to a lighthouse, which is a surprisingly tough trek going uphill. The boat then took us back to the park entrance when we were ready.
Kek Lok Si Temple
This is the largest Buddhist temple complex in Malaysia and full of colourful Buddhist decorations, artwork and religious symbolism. It’s located to the west of George Town, in the suburb of Air Itam. It’s easily reached by bus, there are a couple that go from George Town. You should allocate a whole morning or afternoon for this temple, there is a lot to see. As well as Buddha and several Bodhisattva’s the temple also celebrates various Chinese gods. This is typical of Buddhist and Chinese religious buildings in Malaysia, they tend to mix religions and cultures together. This reflects the beliefs of the Chinese descended population in the country. It is common in Chinese tradition to combine worship of the major religions of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism together along with folk religions.
There are several layers to the temple and you can work your way upwards. You can visit several prayer halls, pagoda’s and shrines. At the top you will find a giant statue of the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin. Be aware that throughout the temple the Buddhist swastika is used for it’s religious symbolism. This has nothing to do with the Nazi’s, it’s all about eastern region in which the symbol has a long history.
You will also see several shops as you head upwards, selling various Buddhist and Chinese religious items. To get to the statue as you head upwards you will need to pay a small fee to use a lift. There are also Buddhist gardens around the temple, including a turtle pond and a fish pond.
Around 3km from Kek Lok Si Temple you can find Penang Hill. Again public buses are an easy and cheap way to get here, in fact you use the same bus to reach them. This area was used as somewhere to cool down and hide from the heat by the British Colonial administration, and today is a tourist area. It’s actually several hills, to avoid any confusion. The highest is 833m above sea level. The easiest way to head up to the hill is taking the funicular railway that goes from Air Item up to the Penang Hill area.
You can get some great views over George Town from the viewing deck on the hill area. Nearby you will find a Mosque and a Hindu temple. from this area you can go for walks through the jungle covered hill, following the paths around. Keep yours eyes open for monkeys, lizards and other creatures. Look out for the colonial post box on display here. It looks like a typical red British post box, and used to be outside George Town’s old fire station. There is an interesting ‘Monkey Cup Garden’ along here too that has a small entry fee. You can find many different species of plants here, including Venus Fly Traps as well as many different species of Monkey Cups.
There is a lot to see on Penang Hill, you can check out their website if your interested in learning more. As with Kek Lok Si temple I recommend allocating a full morning or afternoon to seeing the hill.
Thanks for checking out this Penang Travel Guide! I hope it inspires you to visit and helps you plan your own trip here!
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