Malaysia's Penang Island is one of the most unique places to travel in Southeast Asia. As a beach destination, it pales in comparison to the region's best stretches of sand. But it stands out because of its culture, its history and most of all, its cuisine. The island's main city, Georgetown, and the resort area of Batu Ferringhi are hotspots for food lovers. Visitors from major regional cities like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur flock to Penang to indulge themselves at food carts, night market stalls and restaurants. The long history of contact between Indian, Malay and Chinese cultures in Penang has created a melting pot that is best experienced through the local cuisine.
There is more to do than eat in this destination, however. Georgetown's architecture hearkens back to the days when British colonists and Chinese traders considered Penang the center of Southeast Asia. The Chinese influence remains strong today. Indeed, the state of Penang, which encompasses the island and a portion of inland areas in the northwest part of peninsular Malaysia, is the only state in Malaysia where ethnic Chinese people make up the majority of the population. Shophouses and mansions, built during the colonial heyday, still stand throughout Georgetown.
Green-minded travelers can find more than enough to fill their itinerary in Penang. Gardens, nature-centered attractions and trails offer access to the tropical landscapes, native foliage and wildlife. Visitors expecting the dense jungles and unspoiled nature found in other parts of Malaysia may be disappointed with Penang. However, for anyone looking for a diverse vacation experience, with exotic food, historic sights and plenty of greenery and gardens, Penang is arguably one of Southeast Asia's best vacation spots.
Visitors who can deal with the tropical heat and occasional rains (heaviest in September and October) will find walking the best way to get around, especially in Georgetown. Strolling through the lanes and side streets of the city is a great way to experience the atmosphere evoked by the historic architecture. RapidPenang, the city's bus service, runs routes to all major sites on the island and in the Batu Ferringhi area of the mainland. RapidPenang offers tourist passports , which are good for unlimited rides for about $6.60 per week. The bus fleet was upgraded recently, so riding is comfortable as well as convenient.
Georgetown has bike and motorcycle rental shops. Two-wheel enthusiasts might want to give it a try, but narrow lanes and the prevalence of one-way streets make it a slightly harrowing experience.
Penang National Park is a small natural area that covers almost 10 square miles of the island (by some measurements, it is the smallest national park in the world). Despite its lack of size, it contains a diverse collection of ecosystems. It has beaches, a lake, mangrove swamps and tidal flats, forests and hills. Wildlife inside the park includes civet cats and leopards, sea turtles (which nest on the beaches) and crab-eating macaques.
Penang Hill ( Bukit Bendera in Malay) is a forested highland area that towers above the island's more-densely inhabited lowlands. The hill is a popular day-trip spot because the temperatures are cooler than on the coast. A train runs regularly between the city and the highlands, but the trails that wind their way through slope-side forests are a better choice for those who want to do some nature viewing.
The Penang Botanic Gardens in Georgetown, open daily with free admission, was established in the late 19th century. An on-site kiosk provides information about the garden's plants, and hiking trails wind throughout the gardens and wooded areas. There are educational activities and guided tours, but the gardens are actually more akin to a large public park, and many local people use the open spaces as they would a parkland.
With modern development sweeping through much of Southeast Asia, Penang remains one of the better places to see historic “heritage” buildings. UNESCO put Georgetown on its list of world heritage sites in 2008. Food and beaches aside, the main reason to come to Penang on vacation is to experience the historic atmosphere created by these 18th and 19th century structures. The buildings are not merely set aside as museums. Many are used as hotels, banks or shops.
Penang's biggest asset, as far as a majority of tourists is concerned, is its food. Some of the best eats can be found in markets and at street stalls. Many family-owned street stalls specialize in one or two dishes, having perfected their recipes over the years using local ingredients. Many are only open after dark (when the temperatures are cooler and outdoor dining more pleasant).
Because of the area's Buddhist and Hindu influences, vegetarians can find their own version of gastronomical heaven in Penang. Dozens of vegetarian-only restaurants accompany the many street food stalls serving veggie-based dishes. There are even a handful of eating spots catering to vegans.
The Hotel Penaga is one of the best examples of Penang's historic buildings being put to good use. This 45-room boutique hotel is located in a neighborhood of central Georgetown that has been designated as a World Historic Site by UNESCO. The hotel was built using 15 existing colonial-era shop-houses. Green elements at the Penaga include water heaters powered by solar panels and a rainwater collection system that supplies the water for the hotel's plants and for sanitary purposes.
The faithfully restored Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (named after its first owner, a wealthy Straits Chinese businessman), easily recognizable because of its sky blue exterior, is the ultimate restoration project turned hotel. The hotel was restored using local craftsmen who paid great attention to preserving the authenticity of the carvings, walls and exterior of the building. Rates are surprisingly cheap here, starting at just over $125 per night.
Penang was, and still is to some extent, a major backpackers destination. Budget travelers come to enjoy the culture, food and beaches while taking advantage of Malaysia's relatively cheap prices. There is a huge selection of small, locally owned guesthouses offering small scale sleeping options in Georgetown and Batu Ferringhi.
Though nature enthusiasts and hard-core eco-adventurers may want to search for a tropical jungle destination in other part of Malaysia, Penang offers the chance for a more well-rounded itinerary with food, culture and history as well as plenty of Earth-friendly and natural attractions.