An island of rich Chinese heritage, Penang has an array of temples, ruins, food, art and beautiful beaches that make a trip here more than worthwhile
I will be honest, we hadn’t planned to visit Penang because we had been told “it’s really busy” and “it’s full our tourists,” but we were flying from Malaysia to Bangkok and thought “why not.” I am so glad we did! As soon as we checked into our Heritage Homestay, we were given a Heritage Trail map of the city and it crossed our minds that Penang could be a cool place to hang out—we weren’t wrong. Penang quickly became a place we fell in love with, which is unusual because we don’t really like cities. So, what was it about Penang that made it so different? Penang is a melting pot of cultures. The Malaysian marketing song boasts “Malaysia, truly Asia,” and nowhere has this been more evident than in Penang.
A fusion of Malaysian, Chinese, Indian, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu—these are all clearly visible in Penang’s districts, architecture and cuisine. To explain how multi-cultural George Town is, we visited a Buddhist temple, Hindu temple and mosque all within a five-minute walk of each another.
Goddess of Mercy Buddhist Temple
The oldest and most legendary temple in Penang is still an active temple, and every year believers of the Taoism and Confucianism teachings will swarm the temple on the eve of Lunar New Year. They will pray to the Goddess Kuan Yin that their health and good luck will be granted to them in the New Year. There are a few stands outside selling joss sticks and we found a quaint courtyard out the back where we sat in the shade for five minutes for some respite from the heat of the day (and for some peace and quiet).
Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple
There was no mistaking when we entered Little India, it was an assault on the senses. Locals wore saris and many shops had them for sale displaying their rich colors on mannequins. The smell of the food was so rich you could almost taste it and you could definitely hear Little India, as each stall owner blared out Bhangra and Bollywood music, each seemingly competing with the other for the loudest.
Built in 1833, Sri Mariamman is the oldest Hindu temple in Penang dedicated to the Hindu God Lord Subramaniam and is a kaleidoscope of bright, beautiful colors.
Kapitan Keling Mosque – Named after Caudeer Mohuddeen who built this mosque in 1800, it is the largest and most historic mosque in George Town. The word “Kapitan keling” means “leader of a South Indian Muslim community.”
Delicious Street Food
With an eclectic mix of cultures, you will find culinary delights to suit most palettes. Street food is very popular in Penang and there are stalls and communal areas in the various districts of George Town. During our Street Art Trail, we stumbled across Lebuh Kimberley in Chinatown, which had a local Chinese food court serving cheap and delicious food, we ate here twice and ordered char koay teow on both occasions.
If you want to combine a traditional Malaysian food court with a sunset spot, head to Padang Kota food court at Esplanade which will tick both boxes. When we ate here, we found there were many stalls to choose from but, unfortunately, it was a cloudy, blustery afternoon so I cannot comment on the
sunset. Hope you have better luck.
Street Art And Sculptures
Anyone who has heard of Penang will know about its infamous murals, in fact some people visit George Town for this reason only. George Town is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site, however, it isn’t because of the street art, but the wrought-iron structures dotted around key historic parts of the town. In 2009, the Penang state government had a
brilliant initiative of opening up a competition to achieve its UNESCO status and the winning idea resulted in the creation of 51 steel rod caricatures retelling the history of George Town.
I have to admit, it’s inspirational and if a city has a story to tell, this is a fantastic and quirky way of giving tourists a history lesson. I would recommend it to everyone because it’s a fun and unique way of navigating around the back streets and discovering the main areas without really trying. It’s easy to spot some of the more famous pieces—you will see queues of people lining up to take photographs.
We stayed in a traditional Chinese clan house called Muntri House, a Heritage Homestay on Muntri Street, which (in my opinion) is a really cool part of George Town and is central to the popular tourist streets of Love Lane and Chulia Street. This area has some of the most photographed pieces of steel-rod caricature sculptures and murals—at the top of the road is Jimmy Choo and at the bottom, the Kung-Fu Girl Street Art. Quirky cafés line Muntri Street, for example we sipped a mango lassi on a converted antique sewing machine.
Puurfect Cat Café
Across the road from our homestay on Muntri Lane was a delightful cat café, and if you know me, you know I am rather partial to them. We spent a wonderful couple of hours there, drinking green tea, eating delicious homemade cake, and petting the sweetest kitties. When we used to have our cat Ella, these are the playful antics she used to do so to have a few cats running around doing the same was delightful.
When the cat treats came out, well that was it, all cats were your friends… until someone else chinked a cat bowl with their treats, and then they were gone. There was Orange the ginger Persian, Bear the smoky gray Scottish Fold and the stocky white Scottish Fold named Teddy. Molly was the mother of the three tabbies who continuously played with anything and everything they could find.
If you love cats, you can always take it to the next level by drinking their poop in a cup of Kopi Luwak. This is an Indonesian coffee that is made from the partially digested and defecated coffee cherries of the Asian Palm Civet cat. Delicious. It’s considered to be one of the most expensive coffees in the world but, unfortunately, this has given way to intensive farming methods where civet cats are kept in battery cages and force-fed the cherries. On second thoughts, if you are a cat lover, maybe it’s best to skip this.
They say you haven’t been to Penang unless you have visited Penang Hill, but I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s because we weren’t blessed with nice weather (it rained and was cloudy), and although the view was lovely, I am unsure whether the trip and queuing was worth it.
We queued for around 20 minutes to catch the rather steep 785-meter funicular to the top, the journey took around 10 minutes but we were unable to appreciate any views as we were jammed in like sardines. Beware; during high season, you could be queuing for a lot longer.
As I mentioned, it was raining when we arrived so we thought we would visit the small Hindu temple at the top to shelter for a while, which was a welcoming respite from the rain.
There was a small mosque a few meters away and, as we had never had the opportunity to visit the inside of one until now, we thought we would have a quick nosey. It wasn’t a huge elaborate mosque, inside was a simple room divided by a curtain; one side was for females to pray and the other side for males.
By now it was lunchtime and, as it was still raining, we popped to the on-site food court and ate a cheap char koay teow. This food court is full of cheap-eat stalls to choose from and, again, was a good enough place to shelter from the rain.
Then finally, the rain stopped!
Quickly, we made our way to the viewing platform, and the mist was starting to clear providing some lovely views of the city, the bridge connecting Penang Island to the mainland and of Kek Lok Si Buddhist Temple down the hill.
I have been told that there was a botanical garden about a 20-minute walk away, alternatively you can take a golf buggy, but alas, the rain starting to come again. I was later advised to visit around 5pm so you can walk around and be there for sunset and I have to admit, the photos I have seen online do look amazing so if you want to go to Penang Hill, maybe you will remember this.
Kek Lok Si Temple
If you like Buddhist temples, then do check out Kek Lok Si Temple, Malaysia’s largest Buddhist temple and an important place of pilgrimage for Buddhists from Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines. It is spectacular and well worth a few hours exploring, for a full day out, you can combine this temple with a trip to Penang Hill (maybe for sunset).
Kek Lok Si is like a Russian doll with many different layers and just when you think you have finished with one room, another will follow displaying more amazing statues,
carvings and gold—there are a lot of gold Buddhas. If, like us, you wanted to buy a wishing ribbon to hang on the wishing tree, there are plenty of places to choose from. Wishes range from good health to successful career, and we purchased one each (but I’m not confessing what we wished for otherwise it may not come true!).
We took the inclined lift to Kuan Yin, the 36.5m-high bronze Goddess of Mercy statue, which also has a beautiful view of the city. This area is definitely the busiest part of the temple and there is a lovely pagoda and pond to sit near for a bit of peace and tranquility.
Beaches In The North
If there is a beach to be found, I will seek it out and Penang is no different. Around 17km away from George Town in the north of the island is Batu Ferringhi. There are plenty of water activities to be enjoyed, such as paragliding, jet skiing and banana boat rides. Alternatively, you can lie on the soft sand and simply relax.
We love a bit of reggae, so when we stumbled across a street bar called The Reggae Club on Chulia Street about 5 minutes from our homestay, we knew this was the place for us. There was a magnetic chess board on our table so we thought “why not,” it didn’t matter that we had never played one another in all the years we had been together, tonight was the night we were going to test our memory. (We haven’t played it since.)
We visited The Reggae Club twice; one night we played chess and ate dinner, another night we ended up smoking a shisha with some cool people that we enticed in from the street with the promise of free drinks for ladies, then headed to a street corner where the local people hang out for cheap drinks. It’s funny how an ordinary evening of just two can turn into a funny drunken event with a group of strangers. (I guess that’s what free drinks will do for you!)
We really enjoyed our time in Penang and in particular, the Heritage Trail as it was just so different to anywhere we have visited. It gave us a wonderful perspective on the city and we explored places in a way we wouldn’t usually consider, but more than that, it was fun. The melting pot of people in Penang is unique and the quirkiness of some of the areas meant we fell in love with this city. If you are thinking of going to Malaysia, add Penang to your list, we are certainly glad we did.