Penang, Malaysia: What To See & Do

This is a guest post from Rhyn Chan, a content creator and freelancer who loves the food in Penang. He currently resides in Singapore.

Along the west coast of Malaysia lies Penang – two major cities connected by culture, ferries and bridges. This state is recognised by their biggest cities: George Town on Penang Island, and Butterworth on the mainland.

The heart and soul of Penang resides in George Town, an urban-scape which surprisingly enough is mostly untouched by the ravages of development.

As a traveller, here’s everything that need to know about Penang.

How to travel in Penang

Taxis and Grab

The Uber of Southeast Asia. [I’ve added the direct link to Grab’s website that lets them download the app into their phones.]

The best places to visit are scattered around George Town. If you’re flying directly into Penang, hailing a taxi or a Grab (the equivalent of an Uber in South-East Asia) is your most convenient option. It shouldn’t cost you more than US$10 for a single trip from the airport to George Town, and you can opt to pay by cash or credit/debit card.

On top of that, Grabbing from your hotel to sightsee can cost as little as US$2.50 per trip!

Here’s a really important tip! If you plan to take buses, always ask the bus driver where you wish to go to first!

The main public transport system is known as Rapid Penang. They have a free fare service called Central Area Transit, marked “MPPP” on the electronic signs that will transport you around various parts of George Town. If you wish to move beyond the city center, bus journeys can cost between 33¢ to US$1.50.

Car Rental

If you’re travelling in a large group and your hotel offers parking, then renting a car might be an option for you to look into. As long as you have a valid driving license in your home jurisdiction, you can easily convert it so you can drive in Malaysia. 

Companies like HERTZ and Avis are stationed in Penang and you can easily rent a car, purchase insurance and get ready to drive your way around the island filled with discoveries of every kind!

Attractions in Penang

Penang Hill

This could be the peak of your journey around Penang (literally and figuratively). Here, you can witness an incredibly spectacular sunrise envelope this lush island.

For the adventurous, be prepared to wake up in wee hours around 5am. Book a Grab and travel about 30 to 45 minutes to the base of Penang Hill where you will need to board the funicular to the top.

Once you’ve arrived, purchase return tickets to board the funicular. For adults, it costs about US$8 while a child between 4 to 12 years old costs US$4. Any younger and they ride free in your arms or pram!

Kek Lok Si Temple

On one of the highest hills of Penang, you will find the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, Kek Lok Si Temple. [What does “Kek Lok Si” mean in Hokkien?]

Gardens, pagodas and the Four Heavenly King pavilions are contained within this zen place of worship. The tranquility and peace that emanates from this religious site is a testament to the religious diversity of the Malaysian community.

Penang Bridge & Ferry

When you want to visit the mainland, there are two ways to get there: the first is by land, and the other is by sea.

While you can take a leisurely drive down the Penang Bridge, as a visitor you might want to try the ferry for a more scenic ride. Make sure you pop out of the car and spend your 30 minute journey walking around and admiring the blue panorama!

Ferry costs are US$2 for a car, 30¢ per adult, and 15¢ per child.

What to eat in Penang

Penang’s known for their food; consistently delectable and well-formulated recipes that attracts everyone! Whether you’re a local or a tourist, you simply have to try the local food while you’re here.

Penang Laksa @ Air Itam

Sweet, savoury and spicy all in a bowl is the must-eat Penang Laksa, or Assam Laksa; thick rice noodles coated in a generous serving of broth boiled in an ingredient circus of mackerel, tamarind paste, and coriander. This dish is bound to delight your tastebuds.

If you want great Assam Laksa, the best I’ve found is located at Air Itam, relatively at the base of Ke Lok Si Temple. On Google Maps, the listing is named as Penang Air Itam Laksa.

Chendol @ 2 Lebuh Keng Kwee

Walk down the streets of Lebuh Keng Kwee alley and you’ll find about three to four different stores with names that are clearly trying to game the Google system. If you were to search for “Famous Chendol Penang”, you’ll see multiple entries!

So the question is, which is the true, original recipe?

The actual shop is parked right outside a coffee store, pictured below.

Look out for this view while hunting for chendol!

What’s special about this cold dessert on a warm, summer day is a special ingredient called Gula Melaka. It is basically palm sugar with an interesting sweetness that’s distinctly different from run-on-the-mill refined sugar.

That sweetness, combined with the various ingredients like milk, red beans and jelly noodles makes for a fantastic end to your lunch hunts!

Nyona Kueh @ Moh Teng Pheow

This is, by far, my favourite place to savour small bites of Malaysian snacks or dessert. Everything is made in-house, everything is served fresh, everything is 1980s.

The faded sign is the only tell-tale signal that that is the correct shop. While it might exude a hipster vibe, the reality is that the owners prefer the same environment to preserve the authenticity of all their dishes.

With so many options to dive into, my suggestion would be to pick a minimum of five to six different snacks to share between two people. Feeling peckish? Order more! Each piece starts at just 12¢! (Yeah, you should definitely order more)

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