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