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Penang Malaysia

MALAYSIA

Heather Markel, Best Selling Author, TEDx Speaker, Traveler, Full Time Travel and Business Coach

Penang is the place everyone seems to talk about in Malaysia. In addition to Kuala Lumpur, I’ve gotten the impression it’s a must-see destination. I grabbed a bus there from the Cameron Highlands, direct to George Town, for a week. I decided to stay by the Tanjong Tokong Beach – more remote, and outside the city center, but also delightfully quiet. There was even a bus stop two minutes’ walk from my hotel which went direct to the city, and a food market across from the hotel so I could easily eat meals for under $5.

Let me clarify a few confusing things. Penang is the name of a city (shown in the map below at the right) and it’s also the name of an island – Pulau Pinang, or Penang Island. In this article, I am discussing Penang Island. Buses sometimes go to George Town, which is the city center of Penang Island. Some go to Butterworth, and you would need to catch a ferry or a taxi from there into George Town. The map below also references most of the places discussed in this article.

First Impressions

I’m not a big ocean swimmer, but I do like walking on the beach. Tanjong Toking beach has jellyfish warnings, so if you like to swim, you’ll be safer in the pools than at this beach. Though there were some ocean swimmers who swam despite the risk.

Durres port

Tanjong Toking beach and surroundings

Let me preface this article by saying, I did not love George Town as much as many of the people I talk to do. I think it has beautiful temples, great food, and fascinating things to do, I just wasn’t wowed. This was one of the most touristy places I went in Malaysia, and as a full-time traveler, I get disappointed when I feel I’m staying someplace everyone knows about, where it’s difficult to find more off-the-beaten-path experiences. For some reason, I’m also missing the rolling hills and views of Vietnam.

Exploring Penang

On my bus ride to Penang, I Google “free-walking tours”, figuring I’ll grab one my first or second day. I’m disappointed to learn they no longer offer them in Penang. Instead, I go to the tourist office, and they direct me to the Penang Heritage Trust to get a local guide. This is a much less expensive option than the tours listed on TripAdvisor, Viator, etc. I’m delighted to learn that two women have booked a guide for the following morning, and I am allowed to join, saving us all money by splitting the cost. We all have the same excitement to learn about the Penang architecture, streets and history. I learn this because our guide seems more excited about visiting every temple possible, explaining about religion, and stopping for food every 45 minutes. I will say, he kindly picked me up in the morning and drove me to have breakfast in a market in Penang I doubt I’d have gone to without him. Not one tourist was there, and he ordered for me, and it was delicious! 

I suggest, if you use the Penang Heritage Trust, (and please do, they are absolutely lovely to work with) that you be clear on the type of tour you want (which areas of Penang you want to see, whether you want to focus on architecture, history, or something else) and then review this with your guide in the morning to be sure you’re all on the same page.

bari port
bari port

My absolute most favorite place in Penang is the Dhammikarama Burmese Temple. I felt so happy and uplifted from the moment I saw the giant woman deity to wondering around the grounds, which feel very much like the spirit of play is alive. And it was, in the form of a rotating group of bowls which I tried to toss coins into in order to gain luck, health, a husband…you know, the usual stuff!

Kek Lok Si Temple takes my breath away. As soon as I exit my Grab, even the intense heat doesn’t detract from my excitement to explore. Level upon level of nature mixed with buddhas, mixed with temples is an absolute delight. There are chanting monks, and the chance to tie wishing ribbons onto a tree – much easier than a coin toss!

Armenian Street – Lebuh Armenian – is a wonderful place to walk along. It’s charming, has a lot of the older architecture, and it’s where you find the classic street art of the girl riding her bike that has become the symbol of Penang. On one of my walks here, I venture into a lovely shop of handmade goods and dresses. As I’m trying one on, I meet Simone, from the Netherlands. We become instant friends and end up spending several days together in Penang, which I thoroughly enjoy.

Penang Hill is another great activity. I get on line just before a huge tour bus, so don’t have to wait too long for a funicular up the hill. I enjoy a bit of nature and some lovely views. If you’re lucky, a bird will poop on your head at the top, too. There isn’t much to do there that’s of great interest, apart from the lookout point, but I do enjoy it and the funicular ride. Try to get a seat in the front on your way down for the best views. If you’re hungry, you’ll find fried chicken and hamburgers at the bottom, so I don’t advise visiting with an empty stomach.

THE TOP Penang, offers a beautiful 360-degree view of Penang. If you’re really adventurous, you can zipline off the side and take photos. Big “no thanks” for me! But on the top floor is the rainbow walk which is a glass bottom terrace. You have to wear special covers for your feet so you don’t slide, and it’s slightly terrifying, but you’ll feel brave after you do it! There’s even a pot of gold and a rainbow to applaud your efforts. There are some other activities in the same building. I found it difficult to find the actual entrance to the tower. If you find the giant durian fruit sculpture in the shopping center, you’re right near the escalator you need to get there!

The Peranakan mansion and Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (blue house) offer wonderful tours. Across from the green house, head inside and upstairs for a lovely treat of food and tea before your tour. The blue house is where the majong scene from Crazy Rich Asians was filmed. The green house has a more intimate feel, and I preferred it, of the two.

Bari castle
meeting Jessica

On my last day in Penang, I took a bus out to Batu Feringgi Beach, an unexpected highlight of my trip. There was almost nobody on the beach. Perhaps because most of the resorts there were high end. But the beaches were public. It was stunning. I saw it was possible to take a boat to one of the hiking grounds, but opted to simply sit on the sand and enjoy the view. I eventually got hungry and found a Starbucks. Disappointing, but, they had food I’ve never seen in any other Starbucks, so I had to try! Total mistake, and it tasted awful (a bit like microwaved airplane food) but hey, it filled my tummy and now I know better.

meeting Jessica
meeting Jessica

One other almost highlight – a friend I met on a free walking tour last year in Zagreb, Croatia, ended up in Penang at the same time as me! I missed his message though, and didn’t connect till his last day there, so will have to try again in some other part of the world.

Most tourists, at this point, appear to head to Langkawi and Koh Lipe. I don’t feel like staying on the main tourist track. Instead, I’m heading to Ipoh. More in my next post!

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