Like an old friend  that you’ve known for a long time but only superficially, just meeting once in a while to say hello and catch up on old times, but never knowing each other well. That’s how I view Penang personally. I’ve been there many times since school days, always for short business trips, occasional visits for holidays at the beach resorts but without actually seeing much of the island.

So for a recent trip, I decided to make time for some sight seeing of old attractions that have been rejuvenated over the years. Although I visited them over a few days, I’ve listed them down in a way that any visitor can see them in one day.

Historically, Penang is like a long lost twin sibling of Singapore. Both are islands, they were founded by the British through the East India Company and both became trading ports with a predominantly Chinese immigrant population. However, both have gone on different ways in their development. Singapore was ejected from the Malayan Federation while Penang remained. Singapore has developed into a modern city and lost most of its old world charm, while Penang although relatively developed, still retains that old world charm and laid back feeling, which is something I like about it.

Penang Hill (Bukit Bendera)

The most prominent attraction in Penang is the hill that is named after the island.  At 833m high, it is one of the highest points on the island and can be reached through a funicular tramway. The last time I was here was more than 20 years ago. The old tramway has been replaced with modern trams which takes less than 5 minutes to make the trip from the base station at Air Itam to the top of the hill. The old tramway used to take more than half an hour to make that trip.

Waiting for the tram that will bring us to the top of he hill. The new modern tram is fully air conditioned and really fast.
Waiting for the tram that will bring us to the top of he hill. The new modern tram is fully air conditioned and really fast. There are separate entrances for disabled people.
Once we reached the top of the hill, we can see the tram making it's way back down.
Once we reached the top of the hill, we can see the tram making it’s way back down.

So what is there to do on Penang Hill? Besides the cooler air which is a welcome respite from the hot and humid weather, there are some restaurants to sit back and relax while enjoying the view.  There are also a couple of hotels further back from the tram station.

On a clear day, you can see the whole of Georgetown (left) to Penang Airport (right). The 2 bridges connecting Penang to mainland Malaysia can also be seen.
On a clear day, you can see the whole of Georgetown (left) to Penang Airport (right). The 2 bridges connecting Penang to mainland Malaysia can also be seen.
An open plaza with the old tram preserved for history.
An open plaza with the old tram preserved for history.
A new love lock platform for couples to express their undying love for each other.
A new love lock viewing platform for couples to express their undying love for each other.
One of the restaurants that we had our lunch was David Brown, on top of Strawberry Hill. We didn't sit in the main building, instead we took the terrace which is located a bit further down.
One of the restaurants that we had our lunch was David Brown, on top of Strawberry Hill. We didn’t sit in the main building, instead we took the terrace which is located a bit further down.
I think the terrace has a better view.
I think the terrace has a better view.
The weather up on the hill does change rapidly. One moment it was sunny and the next, the rain clouds were blowing in.
The weather up on the hill does change rapidly. One moment it was sunny and the next, the rain clouds were blowing in.

My recommendation is to go in the  morning as it gets very crowded later. Try to reach the Air Itam base station by 8.30am to 9.00am to avoid the long queues to board the tram. Likewise at the top of the hill, there will be a long queue to board the tram down especially after lunch. I would say that 2 hours is sufficient time to get up the  hill by tramway, have a quick look and have breakfast or brunch, before coming down. For Malaysians, the tramway ticket is RM10 if they show their MyKad, for tourists it’s RM30.

After Penang Hill, we went to try the famous Air Itam Penang Assam Laksa. This is the local variation of our Nonya Laksa. But be prepared for long waits and unhygienic eating conditions. If you are squeamish about eating at dirty places then this won’t be the place for you.

The famous Air Itam Penang Assam Laksa. Personally, I felt that this is over-rated. There are a couple of other assam laksa eating places in Penang which are located in more hygienic shops.
The famous Air Itam Penang Assam Laksa. Personally, I felt that this is over-rated. There are a couple of other assam laksa eating places in Penang which are located in more hygienic shops and taste just as good, if not better.

From Air Itam, it is a short distance to Kek Lok Si which is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. This is a popular temple for devotees from all over South East Asia. This time round though we decided not to go there as we had been there during a previous trip. Factor in a 2-3 hour visit for Kek Lok Si.

Georgetown UNESCO World Heritage Site

I guess any place that screams UNESCO World Heritage Site deserves a visit. Georgetown is the capital city of Penang State and has a long history since it’s founding by Francis Light in 1786. The UNESCO Heritage site consists of preserved buildings and streets from the melting pot of immigrant races who have lived there from the British Straits Settlements time until today. Adding to the vibrancy of the area are also many street art pieces  done by several renowned street artists like Ernest Zacharevic.

So armed with a tourist map of the area, we started on our little  treasure hunt to find the street art installations which were often in some obscure corner or wall.

The most well known street art from Ernest.
The most well known street art from Ernest Zacharevic.
I like the way he depicts children interacting with everyday objects.
I like the way he depicts children interacting with everyday objects. Located on the front wall of a restaurant.
This one is at the front entrance of a shop actually.
This one is at the front entrance of a shop actually.
This was in a corner inside a small alley and not east to spot.
This was in a corner inside a small alley and not easy to spot.
Another form of art using wrought iron wires and pieces to form comical images.
Another form of art using wrought iron wires and pieces to form comical images.
Several other artists have also included their work. Cats seem to be everyone's favourite.
Several other artists have also included their work. Cats seem to be everyone’s favourite.
A lovely illustration of the racial harmony that exists here.
A lovely illustration of the racial harmony that exists here.
Even this shop owner has his own idea on what's art.
Even this shop owner has his own idea on what’s art.

Besides, the street art, historical Georgetown also has many mosques, Chinese temples and Indian temples which retain their traditional architecture.

Masjid Melayu Lebuh Acheh, found in 1808 is a mosque with a unique minaret.
Masjid Melayu Lebuh Acheh, found in 1808 is a mosque with a unique minaret.
Another small mosque with a unique colour.
Another small mosque with a unique colour.
Yap Kongsi, a clan temple. If your surname is Yap, this is probably your starting point to search your family tree.
Yap Kongsi, a clan temple. If your surname is Yap, this is probably your starting point to search for your family tree.
More artsy stuff like colourful umbrellas hanging above us.
More artsy stuff like colourful paper umbrellas hanging above us.
Instead of walking, you can rent bicycles to get around.
Instead of walking, you can rent bicycles to get around.
Or, you could hire one of the trishaws to bring you around. Once the driver wakes up, that is.
Or, you could hire one of the trishaws to bring you around. Once the driver wakes up, that is.

We took around 2 hours for a brief walk around a portion of the heritage area. If you would like to explore the whole area, then it could easily take you 3-4 hours.

Dinner Time

So after exploring Georgetown’s heritage area, it was now coming to evening, and after a full day of sight seeing, we were getting hungry, and it was time to think about dinner and what to eat. Besides the sights, Penang is just as famous for it’s local food. If you are looking for something atas (Malay for upper class) then hop over to the nearby Eastern & Oriental Hotel (E&O Hotel for short) for their buffet dinner. The E&O hotel is the sister hotel of Singapore’s very own Raffles Hotel. Built by the Sarkies Brothers in 1884, E&O Hotel was so successful that they built the Raffles Hotel in Singapore 3 years later in 1887.

The sea facing of E&O Hotel with it's colonial style.
The sea facing of E&O Hotel with it’s colonial architecture.
It does remind me of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
It does remind me of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
Outdoor bar, but we were having dinner at Sarkies Restaurant.
The outdoor bar, but we were having dinner at Sarkies Restaurant inside.
A nice sunset from E&O Hotel's seaward side.
A nice sunset over Gurney Drive from E&O Hotel’s seaward side.
It's time for dinner.
It’s time for dinner.
The international buffet dinner is actually not bad.
The international buffet dinner is actually not bad, especially the local  food section.
We really stuffed ourselves. When we were there, the hotel was giving 50% discount on children and seniors above 60 years old. Not a bad deal for our group.
We really stuffed ourselves. When we were there, the restaurant was giving 50% discount on children and seniors above 60 years old. Not a bad deal for our group.

On the other hand, if you really prefer something cheaper and wouldn’t mind trying out the local street food, then there is Kimberly Street with it’s rows of local street food vendors and their mobile food carts. This is actually not far from the heritage area and within walking distance.

If you like street food then Kimberly Street is the place for you. Nothing beats immersing yourself in local culture than eating local.
If you like street food then Kimberly Street is the place for you. Nothing beats immersing yourself in local culture than eating local.
Penang char kway teow, the famoys kway chap where everything is mixed into a bowl of noodle soup, and cheng tng for dessert.
Penang char kway teow, the famous kway chap where everything is mixed into a bowl of noodle soup, and cheng tng for dessert. You can actually buy the food from the street vendors and bring them into the coffee shops to eat.

Or if you really want something exotic, then head on down to Gurney Drive for a seafood dinner. There are several seafood restaurants along the stretch  of road, so pick  your favourite.

There are many seafood options along Gurney Drive.
There are many seafood options along Gurney Drive. Our favourite is Bali Hai. Although it’s more expensive and touristy, it is one of the largest with a well stocked variety of seafood.
Seafood and local food at Northam Beach. It's by the sea, so you can have dinner and enjoy the sea view and breeze.
Seafood and local food at Northam Beach. It’s by the sea, so you can have dinner and enjoy the sea view and breeze.

Getting There

Getting to Penang from Singapore is quite easy – drive or fly. I’ve done both options before. Driving will take you roughly 7-8 hours of driving with rest breaks via the North-South Highway from Singapore. But it can be a fun drive and in Singapore we don’t have many (if any) opportunities for long road trips.

If you hate the idea of driving long distances then flying is the better option. There are many flights ranging from budget to full service airlines that fly from Singapore to Penang’s Airport. Flight time is only slightly more than 1 hour.

Getting Around

As for getting around in Penang, we rented a car from the airport. I find that this is most convenient option if you have a group of people and car rental prices are not expensive in Penang. Taxis are hard to find outside of Georgetown, and bargaining the fare with the driver for every trip isn’t fun.

There is now the Penang Hop-On Hop-Off buses which connect to the major tourist attractions. So if you don’t mind to take the slow route, these buses are a really good option for transportation around Penang. However, they only go to the main tourist areas and have limited operating hours from 9am-8pm, so if you want to go somewhere not on the bus routes or stay out late, then taxis or renting a car are still the only other options.

A scanned version of the Penang Hop-on Hop-off bus brochure. Go to their website to find out more information.
A scanned version of the Penang Hop-on Hop-off bus brochure. Go to their website to find out more information.

 

3 thoughts on “One Day in Penang

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s