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Penang - Pearl of the Orient

Cultural, beach, food and retirement destination no. 1 in Malaysia

pulau pinang
The Pinang plant

I know, I could write a website about Penang alone. And that website could easily contain a few hundred pages. So why do I offer ONE general page about this particular island on the Malaysian west coast?

Penang is a major tourist destination on the west coast of Malaysia. It is also a much used hub for traveling to and from Pangkor Island. For those reasons it is an obvious choice for travelers to visit, use it as a stop over, go shopping, or just enjoy a few days on the beach.

One thing the island is certainly famous for: Food! Tourists vote for Penang with their tummies, I read recently in the National newspaper The Nation. According to this article, the reader of the New York Times choose the island as their second best places to go in 2009! It's not surprising with such a wealth of food in restaurants and food malls.

Penang has much to offer. This page will show you a little bit of what you can expect should you visit. So, where to start?

A little history

If there is one place in Malaysia is to mention where you find so much culture it is Penang. The island has a very long and rich history. In the 15th century Admiral Zheng He of the Chinese Ming-dynasty China referred Penang as Bi-nláng Yù.

Early Malays called it Pulau Ka-Satu or "First Island". The name modern name "Penang" comes from Pulau Pinang, which means island of the areca nut tree.

Fort Cornwallis

Culture is never far away in Georgetown

For many centuries this was an active trading post were the Malay population lived and traded with the Arabs, Armenians, Jews (there is still a Jewish graveyard in town), immigrants from Aceh Indonesia, Indians, Chinese and later the Dutch and the English colonial forces. Today the population is still different compared to the rest of Malaysia:

  • Ethnic Chinese: 635,000 (42%)
  • Malay: 613,800 (41%)
  • Ethnic Indian: 158,000 (10%)
  • Others, incl. non Malaysian citizens: 110.000 (7%)

pulau pinang, khoo kongsi temple, armenian quarter
Khoo Kongsi Temple, Armenian Quarter

Georgetown - Gurney Drive

Penang has for everyone something. As a UNESCO heritage city, there is plenty of history to be seen. Wander in the old Armenian Quarter to see some of the beautiful and extensive Chinese temples (the Khoo Kongsi is probably the most famous).

Georgetown is filled with Chinese, Thai, Burmese and Indian temples, Mosques, churches, merchant houses, beautiful designed shop lots (some restored, some are not). Not for nothing it became a heritage city. More about the Penang as heritage city.

Gurney Drive is the beating heart of modern Penang. Here you find the banks, ultra modern hotels and shopping centers, which are almost next door to the cultural history of Penang with the Thai and Burmese Temple, museum and the Padang with the City Town Hall.

house in penangUp on the hill in Air Itam stands the Kek Lok Si temple, the Temple of Supreme Bliss, with a 30 meters high bronze statue of the Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. More quiet but certainly worth a visit is the Cheng Kon Sze temple, a 45 minutes hike up the hill behind the Kek Lok Si temple. Check out the magnificent over 100 years old oil lamp (more about the Cheng Kon Sze page on this page).

Learn more about the cultural heritage of Penang in "Little Penang". It's a project by locals, cultural professionals and heritage experts to support and promote Malaysian culture in all the different forms available. Every last Sunday of the month from 10am to 8pm, Upper Penang Road.

Batu Ferringhi

Penang would not be such a tourist destination without Batu Ferringhi. Although these days Batu Ferringhi is mostly taken over by tourists, it once was the area where Tunku Abdul Rahman lived. Tunku Abdul Rahman was the first elected president of Malaysia. His house stands still at Batu Ferringhi although it seemed many foreigner do not realize its importance. Few people even noticed this little house on the road site.

Batu Ferringhi is the main beach area. Not for nothing many hotels, cheap and more expensive can be found here. The oldest is the Lone Pine Hotel. This hotel was build in 1948 and preserves some of the old colonial atmosphere.

Batu Ferringhi is not only famous for its beach, it is also an excellent area to hang out at night, visiting the pasar malams (night markets) for all kinds of cheap and interesting things. Don't forget to eat here. Plenty of bars and cafes.

The famous Batu Ferringhi beach...
The famous Batu Ferringhi beach...

The best and having the most variety, if you ask me, are the hawker stalls with their dazzling variety of Malaysian foods (although I personally prefer the stalls at Gurney Drive.

Other areas

The north and east, south-east part of the island are mostly mostly suburbian areas, there are a few things interesting enough. The Snake Temple in Bayan Lepas is a not to be missed example of an old spectacular Chinese temple.

teluk bahang
Teluk Bahang National Park

In the north west corner of Penang is Teluk Bahang located. The village border a beautiful National Park, Pejabat Taman Negara Pulau Pinang (click on the map to have a view of what the park looks like).

Pinang National Park in Teluk BahangThe park is a great getaway from the buzzing city and a kind of back to nature. Locals in Penang visit the park frequent on weekend. Boats can be rented to do a tour in the park and the swamps.

You can combine a visit to Penang National Park with a visit to the Tropical Spice Garden and the Butterfly Farm which are located nearby

The Mukah Head Lighthouse is worth the effort of the short jungle trek. On good days you can even see Langkawi from this more then 100 years old lighthouse. See my Mukah Head Lighthouse page with photos and video.

Near the airport at the south east tip of the island you will find Penang's international Golf club. See our Penang Golf page for details.

South West and west Penang is hardly visited by tourists. It seems many tourist do not even know of it's existence but it is certainly worth to visit. Go from Teluk Bahang south (follow road #6) to Balik Pulau and you are in another world. The rich culture of Penang gets a totally different dimension in the flat lands of west Penang. There are some beaches including the small but very beautiful Pasir Panjiang which can only be reached through a small road from Balik Pulau. Here is more about Balik Pulau and Pulau Betong

The local Malay architecture in and around Balik Pulau
The local Malay architecture in and around Balik Pulau

Accommodation and Food - Tourists vote with their tummies!

Few place in Malaysia have such a variety of hotels as Penang. From 5 star hotel to backpackers guesthouse, you can find it all in Penang. For every budget there is something. Hotels as the Lone Pine and the Good Hope Inn are good example in each price range.

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion Penang
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion Penang

Check out Penang Hotel pages for more details of hotels all over Penang.

For cheaper options we recommend the guesthouses and hostels on our guesthouse and hostels in Penang page

Of course you will find many 4 and 5 star restaurants in town. However, the best deals you usually find at the countless food courts. Quality is amazing, not surprising if you realize the competition is fierce. Everyone has to be the best and the cheapest. And the customers are king! Penang food is (arguably) by far the best in Malaysia.


With such a mix of the population you can expect some spectacular festivals. To me the most spectacular are the Indian Thaipusam and the Chinese Nine Emperor Gods Festival.

Thaipusam 2013, as usual a big festival
Thaipusam 2013, as usual a big festival

But there are many events in Penang happening almost every week. Best thing to do is to walk in the Tourist Information Office not far from the ferry and get one of the brochures.

Since 2007 I have been visiting Thaipusam, I wrote this and this about the first 2 years I visited. These pages give a good overview what to expect, despite they're a few years old.

The same can be said Nine Emperor Gods Festival which I have visited several times since 2007 and I recommend you do it too. It's a complete different kind of experience. Both festivals give you a unique view on Malaysia. And there's no place better to experience it than Penang.

Getting there and away

Pulau Penang is well connected to Malaysia and the rest world by air, bus, train and boat (Medan). The international airport of Penang is located in south Penang. Bayan Lepas has a bus station that connects Penang to many destinations in Malaysia but most people prefer to use the much better served bus station in Butterworth.

The bus station is located next to the railway station and the ferry to Penang. Buses to every part of Malaysia depart from here. There are also daily trains to Bangkok Thailand and Singapore.

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Penang Hotels

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Guesthouses and Hostels in Penang

Our recommendation of the best Guesthouses and Hostels in Penang in Batu Ferringhi, George Town and Tanjung Bungah

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Teluk Bahang National Park & Butterfly Farm

The Penang National Park in Teluk Bahang in the north west corner of Penang is less known to many tourists. However, less known does not mean less interesting. Contrary. It's a good set up park and worth a visit.

After the park, a visit to the Butterfly Farm is just as exciting.

Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Butterworth

One of the most spectacular events I have ever witnessed: the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, a Taoist festival held world wide but I was in Butterworth, near Penang to enjoy 6 of the nine days. Read my report here and my experiences in the Cheng Kon Sze temple in Penang during this festival.

Traditional Cooking Class Penang

Nazlina's cooking class

The Traditional Cooking Class Penang includes a wet market tour and will teach you to cook Malay and Nyonya food, the traditional way. Occasionally Nazlina will do special roti canai classes.

Here is more about the Traditional Cooking Class in Penang.