Of the handful of places I’ve now visited in Malaysia, this is hands down my favourite and I decided that within about 30 seconds of entering Georgetown. If you’re looking for a place that’s steeped in culture, this is it. Picture Chinese temple, next to an old colonial style building, with a shop in the bottom that’s probably blasting out Indian music and selling gorgeous silk, and then a couple of street food carts outside selling the most delicious food you’ll ever eat – that’s Georgetown in a nutshell. In fact, it’s so steeped in cultural heritage that in 2008 it was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Of all the spots in Asia that have amazing food, of which there are countless I can assure you, this has to be one of the best and by far the best in Malaysia. So if you’re wanting to have a stop where your belly will be eternally grateful, then look no further. Anybody who has had the pleasure of visiting, will promptly inform you that the food is second to none, and it’s entirely correct – you can spend next to nothing on deliciousness, from stalls and restaurants alike.
Penang has an international airport, a port and the longest bridge in Asia connecting it to the mainland – choose your vehicle and get going.
If you’re basing yourself in Georgetown, which you should, then the majority of things to see and do are within walking distance and there’s no need to spend any money on transport. If you’re feeling lazy you can hire a tuktuk and if you’re wanting to move a little quicker but still put in effort, then you can also hire bikes pretty easily. Honestly though, walking is best within the town – plus then you’re moving at a speed where it is less easy to miss the abundance of artwork hiding down each street.
Moving outside of Georgetown, there are buses available to take you almost anywhere you want to go. Taxis are also easy to use but you have to fight a little to encourage them to stick to the meter. Always remember that Uber is a good friend to you if you’re stuck, and will be way cheaper than a normal taxi.
What to do.
This is basically a culture clash of a place in the most perfect way you can imagine. It is one of those places you should wander with little purpose or sit with a teh tarik and watch the world go by. As a town, it’s just a really cool place to hangout. Within Georgetown, there are a few places you shouldn’t be missing.
Go on an art hunt.
To begin with, it’s imperative that you locate some of the incredible street art. There is an abundance of it and I’d be amazed if you walked down any street without spotting something on the wall. In 2012, Lithuanian artist Zacharevic, was commissioned by the council to paint several murals on the streets of Georgetown and since then more and more have been popping up. It makes every street a bit more of an adventure.
As well as the street art there are a lot of gorgeous galleries hidden down each street too – if art is your thing then Georgetown won’t be a disappointment.
Top tip: near Armenian street, known as art street by many, is the incredible Chinahouse. It’s just a little cafe with a gallery upstairs but it’s a lovely place for a coffee and a slice of cake. Every Friday and Saturday night, they have live music and it can get pretty busy so you might want to consider booking a table.
To the north of Georgetown is Fort Cornwallis, where the British fleet landed in 1786. There’s nothing much to see now except the walls so don’t make it a priority, but to get here you’ll probably meander through some nice colonial buildings and that’s always cool isn’t it.
If you’re stuck looking for Little India in Georgetown, all you have to do is follow your nose. The smell of spices will no doubt draw you into the thick of it. If you still aren’t sure you’ve made it, listen out for the sound of Indian music being blasted out at high volumes and you will have successfully reached your destination. There are lots of hawker stalls, silk shops and spice shops lining the streets and you’ll never be disappointed by anything that you pick up to eat here.
Little India is completely surrounded by Chinatown and you’ll have no trouble identifying that you’re out of it again because there are an abundance of Chinese temples to notify you, any of which you can enter.
Where lebuh Chulia and lebuh Pitt meet, you can find a Chinese temple, a mosque, a church and a Hindu temple all within a very small radius. It’s nicknamed unity street and is a real testament to the mixture of cultures that harmoniously exist here.
Masjid kapitan Kling here is the big mosque. It’s possible for you to get robed up and go inside.
Most hostels and lively activities occur on Lebuh Chulia. For good bars look out for Chulia tavern and the Mona Lisa, but honestly anywhere along here is a good place to begin any evening.
For a quick peek at houses on stilts in the water, head to here. There are lots of little shops along it and the occasional piece of street art. Many Chinese Malay live on the jetty so don’t go looking in any of the houses without permission and because it is still residential, it is closed to the public after 9pm.
Outside of Georgetown, there are also a lot of things to keep you occupied.
Kek lok si temple.
Take bus 203 or 204 from Georgetown to see this Buddhist temple. It’s said to be one of the biggest in Malaysia and is a nice afternoon out of the towns.
For beautiful plants and wildlife then head here for a few hours. Notably, it has monkeys so watch out.
It’s pretty self explanatory what this is isn’t it? A hill – but with some great views of Penang. There has been a lot of development at the top now with restaurants and gardens appearing in their numbers, but it’s still possible to see all the old British houses of those that settled up here. You can either take the funicular up or you can do what I did and hike up and emerge sweaty and muddy from the jungle. Honestly it’s worth it just for the bewildered and slightly alarmed looks of ‘where on earth did she just come from?’ from people who have chosen the lazy way.
The hike is easy and I didn’t see anybody for an hour and a half which I always thoroughly enjoy. The beginning of the trail is at moongate, a circular Chinese style gate (looks like the door of a hobbit house) on the way to the botanical gardens. The link for the hike so you don’t get lost is here: http://mypenang.gov.my/suggesteditemfull-129-hiking_trail_moongate_to_penang_hill.pgt
This area is located at the very North of the island. Translated to ‘white mans rock’, you can take bus 101 from Georgetown to get here. I wouldn’t put it high on your list of priorities because it’s mainly a resort area – aka fancy hotels and overpriced restaurants. But it is possible to find little coves along the coast that are somewhat picturesque. If you are up here though, it’s located right next to the National park and there is a great hike to Monkey beach through the jungle and along the coast. It’ll only take you about an hour and a half and once you reach the beach, you can jump on a boat back to Batu Ferrenghi.
Make sure you munch on.
Anything and everything. I probably had the best tandoori, biryani, roti, samosas, teh tarik and many many more of my life here. The Indian food in particular is amazing and don’t be afraid to go to the street stalls – there’s no point being picky because you’re the only one missing out on perfection.
Also make sure you try Nasi candah. You’ll see them everywhere so it won’t be difficult to add it to your list. Basically choose how much and what you want by simply gesturing that you’d like it and they’ll price it up for you.