We couldn’t get away from hearing good things about Penang and George Town when we were traveling in Southern Malaysia (and indeed, even in Indonesia and Singapore), and we didn’t hear a bad word about it – both from locals and travelers alike. We were keen to see what the fuss was about, so what else could we do but go and visit for four days to see for ourselves? That’s exactly what we did, and I have to admit, it’s definitely worth the hype!
It can be a little confusing at times because Penang is actually a state and George Town is the states capital city; however, a lot of people use them interchangeably. This meant that when we first started hearing about Penang and George Town, I thought they referred to two separate places, each with different things to do (yes, I know technically they are separate places, but you know what I mean), when in reality, most people who said that they had visited Penang or suggested we visit Penang were actually talking about George Town. George Town is a former British settlement and now Malaysia’s second largest city, and there is a lot there to explore, both within George Town and not too far away from it. George Town is located on Penang Island, and can be accessed either by ferry or by driving on one of its two bridges (13.5 km and 24 km long respectively). Once on the island, there is enough to do so that you can spend a good few days before having to return to the mainland. As I said before, we spent 4 days there, and we could have easily spent a few more if we’d had the time.
One of George Towns big draws is it’s amazing street art. Surprisingly, it only started in 2012 during the George Town Festival, and has just continued to grow. You’d be hard pressed to walk down any street in the old town without seeing some form of art, mural, or iron works somewhere on a wall. Some of the artwork has been really well preserved, while others, unfortunately, have not been. That being said, you can usually see some part of, or even all of, the ones that are deteriorating; however, I would guess that eventually they will disappear altogether.
We were quite happy walking around for a day trying to find all the art work and just taking in the sites around George Town. We did have a map that our guesthouse provided (all the accommodation in the area seems to have various different maps for people to have), but you can easily find most of the art without one if you’re happy to wander and keep your eyes open. You can find maps online as well, like this one from Tourism Penang, if you want to pre-plan your route or can’t get one from your accommodation.
Be warned though – a lot of the art can get really
busy with crowds of people all trying to take a picture; although we seemed to be pretty lucky when we went as the city itself wasn’t too busy, I have heard (and read online) that it can get pretty manic. Just be courteous, and before you step in front of or into any of the art for your own picture, take a look around at who is there and possibly already trying to take a picture. We had people a number of times just walk straight in to take their own picture, despite us and others waiting patiently (and politely) so that everyone could get a turn. Being rude like that is one of the biggest things that winds me up about tourist, so just be respectful, and be kind to other people.
Whilst you’re out and about finding art, don’t forget to stop and try some delicious food at any of the numerous hawker stalls they have. Definitely better (and cheaper) than most of the restaurants!
Just outside George Town, in the middle of the island, sits Penang Hill – a group of peaks with the highest point being 833 m above sea level. It was originally used by the British as a retreat for the higher ups in the army, but now is home to many local people as well as being a tourist destination. To get to the top you can either walk (which is apparently not easy due to lack of paths/roads/signs, but doable), or you can take the funicular. The train journey is 2007 meters, and takes about 5 minutes on a non-stop journey, although it can take longer if stops are being made at any of the intermediate stations along the way. Fun fact: it’s the steepest tunnel track in the world, and the longest track in Asia!
At the top are a number of different attractions and activities you can do, both paid and free. None of the paid stuff really interested us, so we decided to grab one of the maps and head out to explore a bit of the top. It was, unfortunately, fairly cloudy with a bit of rain when we first arrived, so our view from the top mostly looked like this: The map has a few walking routes of varying lengths that you can follow, and of course we chose the longest one. The path to follow is pretty clear, and it takes you past most of the sights, as well as giving you some good views down to the city below (if it’s clear). The clouds managed to clear for about 10 minutes before they completely covered over again, so we were able to at least see the city for a short while!
They were doing some building and construction on the roads whilst we were there, and some of the paths were closed because of this; however, it wasn’t marked on the map
that they were closed, nor is it signed at the start of the walk. Of course the one, very short path to cut back up to the train from the trail we were on to end our walk was closed, which meant we had to either go the 3 kilometers back the way we came, or continue forward to (hopefully) the next path. It had started to rain pretty heavily by this point, and according to the map there was another trail not too far off, so we decided to go on and follow that. Big mistake as the map was completely wrong and nothing on it was where it said it would be. We ended up having to pretty much circle around and up to go back to the train, but there were no signs so we were relying on sketchy Google maps and sheer luck. After getting thoroughly drenched, we did make it back to the train station, we just came out at a completely different point then we thought we would! We did see some lovely houses nestled in the trees, but it was raining so hard I didn’t want to get my camera out for most of our walk.
Other then the street art, George Town has a number of museums, art galleries, shopping centers, and markets that you can enjoy. The headed over to Gurney Drive as there are some big shopping centers around there, as well as markets to explore. We happened upon a pretty neat temple in the area – Reclining Buddha Wat Chaiyamangalaram – and had a look inside. Whilst there, we decided to ‘get our fortune’; although after reading them, we kind of wish we hadn’t!
Another cool area to check out are the 6 Clan Jetties that are still dotted around the shore. Each jetty is over a century old, and they are the stilted homes of various Chinese Clans. You can walk through most of them, although the Chew Jetty has much more of a market feel to it compared to the rest of them (not that we went to all of them). It’s a pretty neat little corner of history that you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere.
Just across the street from the Chew Jetty is the CF food court with a ton of hawkers stalls. It’s here that we found the best food we had in all of Malaysia – although the food from the New Lane Market came a pretty close second!
We didn’t go into any of the museums or 3D art houses (they love them in SE Asia!); however, if you’re so inclined you could spend an entire day doing just that. The only thing we would have liked to explore more was the National Park as it’s meant to have an incredible walks and hikes; however, we didn’t have time to do it as you really need a full day as it’s so far out side of the city.
We really enjoyed George Town, and found that there were a lot of independent shops and restaurants as well as the traditional style markets and name branded places. The city itself had a really good feel to it, and I can see how, especially during peak season, it would be crammed full of backpacker and travelers all seeking out the wonders that George Town, and Penang, have to offer.