Penang is a turtle-shaped island off the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia and is connected to the mainland by the 13 kilometer long Penang Bridge. For centuries, Penang played a strategic role in trading relations between the East and West. In addition to the local Sultans, the Arabs, Chinese, British and Dutch all vied for influence over Penang. This long and colourful history has left its mark on the island in many ways; from the colonial mansions and intriguing temples of Georgetown to the island’s unique cuisine which is truly world-famous. In addition to its rich historical and cultural heritage, Penang also boasts mile after mile of sandy, casuarina-fringed beaches, a mountainous hinterland, some of Malaysia’s most stunning resorts and a vibrant shopping scene.
If you’re visiting Penang, here are my 10 tips for things to do and see:
1. Stroll around the UNESCO World Heritage core of Georgetown. The most prominent landmark (and must-see) is the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. However, the neighbourhoods surrounding Jalan Penang (Penang Road) and Lebuh Chulia (Chulia Street) are packed with gorgeous colonial and Chinese heritage buildings as well as wonderfully atmospheric temples and narrow streets.
Check out the Penang Peranakan Mansion, Little India along Lebuh Pasar (Market Street), Khoo Kongsi Clan House, Kuan Yin Temple (Penang’s oldest temple), Teochew Temple, Hainan Temple, Kapitan Keling Mosque, Sri Mariamman Temple and the beautifully restored heritage shophouses of the Straits Collection on Stewart Lane. Another gorgeous stretch of heritage villas can be found along Lorong Bangkok (Bangkok Lane) in the nearby neighbourhood of Pulau Tikus.
2. Jump into a becak for a true Penang experience. Hop on a rickshaw anywhere within the historic core of Georgetown for a unique and fun tour.
3. Indulge in Penang’s famous culinary scene. Penang’s many culinary highlights attract visitors from all over the world. It’s not surprising as there’s just so much to discover, from my absolute favourites Penang Char Kuey Teow and Penang Laksa , to Nasi Kandar, Mee Rebus, Hokkien Mee, oyster omelettes and spicy southern Indian curries. Penang is a true culinary gem! Most visitors head to Penang’s famous Gurney Drive (a beautiful seafront boulevard with many restaurants, cafés and hotels) to kick off their culinary adventure. For a quick introduction to some of the best dishes that Penang has to offer, I recommend a visit to the New World Park food court. I can also recommend the Sin Hwa coffeshop near the intersection of Burma and Cantonment Roads for deliciously authentic Char Kuey Teow and Penang Laksa.
4. Visit the Penang Butterfly Farm. Established in 1986, the Penang Butterfly Farm is one of the world’s largest and is currently home to more than 4,000 Malaysian butterflies of 120 species. Wandering around the aviary with hundreds of colourful butterflies fluttering around is simply an enchanting experience.
5. Go horse-riding along Batu Ferringhi beach at sunset. Home to numerous hotels and inns, the Batu Ferringhi beach is one of Penang’s most popular beaches. It’s also a great spot to view a spectacular Penang sunset. My tip: go horse-riding along the beach as the sun dips its head below the horizon. Watch as the colours of the sea and sky change from warm pastel hues to a deep crimson red.
6. Climb to the top of the Temple of Supreme Bliss. Better known as Kek Lok Si, this is the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia and stands tall on the hills of Ayer Hitam. This elaborate complex consists of a series of monasteries, prayer halls and beautifully landscaped gardens. The main attractions of the complex include the Pagoda of Rama VI, the Liberation Pond and the towering statue of the Goddess Kuan Yin.
7. Stand eye-to-eye with vipers at the Snake Temple. Perhaps the only one of its kind in the world, the Snake Temple is a Buddhist temple with a population of resident pit vipers (the poisonous variety). It is believed that the snakes made the temple their sanctuary as development in the surrounding hills destroyed their habitat. The wardens say that the constant smoke from burning incense renders the snakes harmless, making them a great photo opportunity!
8. Enjoy the views from the top of Penang Hill. At an elevation of 800+ meters, Penang Hill (or ‘Bukit Bendera’) is a popular retreat for the locals who come up here to enjoy the cooler climate and the stunning views of Georgetown. There are several ways to ascend the hill: a funicular railway (by far the most popular method), a jeep track and hiking trails. The original funicular railway (which dates from the early 1900′s) has recently made way for brand new trains from Switzerland (services are expected to commence in October 2010).
9. Immerse yourself in Penang’s colonial past with a visit to one of the beautifully-restored heritage buildings. The most famous venue for an afternoon high tea, complete with piping hot scones, is the Eastern & Oriental (E&O) Hotel. You can also drop by the hotel’s pub for a pint – famous people who’ve been here include Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling and Charlie Chaplin! A short walk up the road is The Mansion, another stunning heritage building. There’s a lovely restaurant as well as a lounge and bar in the gardens with beautiful views of Penang harbour. Just outside Georgetown and surrounded by gorgeous, ancient-looking trees, is Suffolk House, the former residence of Sir Francis Light, the founder of the British settlement in Penang in the 18th century. You can have a meal at the restaurant or take a tour of the stately mansion.
10. Take a ride on Malaysia’s oldest ferry service to Butterworth and back for gorgeous views of Georgetown. This ferry service has been operating since 1920. Its importance diminished somewhat when the Penang Bridge opened in 1985. However, the ferries are deemed a national treasure and remain popular with the locals.
One more tip: if you’re looking for some really good breads or pastries (baguettes, paninis, croissants, etc…), I can absolutely recommend the Rainforest Bakery at 300, Chulia Street. Absolutely delish!
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