This is the first post in the “Snapshot” series, a combination of destination description and travel tips (see more details about the kind of posts here). And Penang is a great candidate: While it might not be a dream destination for me, it has a lot to offer and makes a good weekend destination. Good enough for me to go back for a second time!
Why Should I go? Penang has been a hub for high tech companies in South East Asia with lots of business travelers, so you might find yourself here on a business trip. It also has an interesting history and the diverse mix of cultures of local Malay, Chinese traders and British colonial history makes for an interesting backdrop. Somehow, a lot of those old buildings in Georgetown, from the colonial fort to Chinese shop houses and temples, have survived the building craze, giving it more character than many cities in Asia!
You can start your exploration of Georgetown at Town Hall and City Hall, two grand old buildings next to each other, overlooking the park (Pandang). The seaside promenade stretches to both sides for a nice walk along the ocean. On the other (South) side of the park, you can see the State Assembly building. If you turn right, facing the ocean, you will reach Fort Cornwallis, left over fortress from the British colonial days, guarding the town, with a lighthouse near the Ocean. You can enter it (for a fee) and walk on the walls and around the buildings. From Fort Cornwallis it is not far to the Victoria Clocktower for a picture! If you have more time, you can get the brochure for the Heritage Trail and explore some of the other historic buildings in Georgetown. Not far from the clock tower, along the water, you will reach the jetty, starting point for many of the local buses (and ferries, of course). You can catch a bus or taxi from here to the Kek Lok Si temple. It’s about 30-45min to reach the Buddhist temple on the hill, overlooking Georgetown. It’s an imposing sight when you arrive and a huge complex to walk around. You can visit the different prayer halls, see the Ban Po Thar pagoda and the large, bronze statue of Kuan Yin, goddess of mercy on the top of the hill! While there is no entrance fee to the temple, the incline elevator to the statue on the top as well as to the pagoda require a small fee that goes towards the maintenance of the huge complex. It’s well worth it, it’s beautifully landscaped and kept in good shape overall, making it one of the top sights on Penang!
Add to those historic sights and characteristic old town a long stretch of sandy beach at Feringghi, and you have two good reasons to visit! While I wouldn’t call Feringghi “the most beautiful beach in the country” as the local tourism authority describes it, it’s fine for a short break with sun, sand and sea! Because the beaches are on the opposite side of the island from Georgetown, you should decide whether you want to have a beach vacation with an evening outing or some sightseeing – or a city trip with a day spend on the beach. The hotels in the old town have a lot of character, so I stayed there on both occasions and really liked it!
Traveltips: With a lot of business travelers and tourists coming to Penang, the international airport has a lot of direct connections to a number of hubs in Asia, including Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Singapore, Taipei, Hongkong, Guangzhou and Jakarta! AirAsia has a big presence, giving you lots of low-cost options!
The airport is new, clean and efficient. You can change money, find ATMs and mobile SIM cards. From the aiport, you can take a taxi ( buy a voucher from the taxi counter,MYR38) or the bus (MYR2.70) into Georgetown. It’ll take about 45-75 minutes, depending on traffic. The bus is air conditioned, clean and reasonably quick, with stops at the Komtar and Jetty bus stations, providing easy access to the hotels in the old town.
There are a number of small boutique hotels in the old town, with new ones being added. Many are beautifully restored heritage houses, giving your stay a special character that’s a rare find in Asia these days! I stayed at the Chulia Mansion (read review here) and at the Chulia Heritage House on a previous visit, both good budget to mid-scale options.
There are countless restaurant options in the area between City Hall, the jetty and Komtar, catering to all budgets from backpacker hangouts to beautifully designed bars and restaurants in restored buildings. The best way to find yours is to go on a stroll through the old town in the evening and find something that looks good to you! I ate at Micke’s Place (budget, fun place) and at Five27 (upscale bar and restaurant) and enjoyed both.
You can reach most of the sights in the old town with an easy walk. There is also a hop-on/hop-off bus along all the tourist sights, as well as local buses (RapidPenang) and taxis, making it easy to explore on your own with no need to join a tour. You can also reach the beaches by bus or taxi, making it an easy trip for the day, if you stay in town.
There are a number of malls in the downtown area as well. The newest and nicest is 1st Avenue with all the international brands. Next door is Prangin mall with a mixt of regular brand stores and local market-type stalls. With new, larger malls (like Queensbay) opening up in the suburbs, the downtown malls seem to suffer and Prangin has a lot of empty spaces. Even worse is the older Komtar mall, which seems largely abandoned, making for a ghostly feel.
So, if you find yourself in Penang for a business trip, add a weekend to your stay, or take a short non-stop flight for a weekend getaway. I enjoyed Georgetown and the mix of cultural heritage, good food, beach and a little shopping, and you might, too!