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Penang - A Travelers Guide

Updated on November 28, 2012
A Map of Penang
A Map of Penang | Source

Penang - Pearl of the Orient

Penang is a state located at the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The name Penang was derived from the Malay word “Pulau Pinang ” which literally translates to “island of the areca nut palm”. Penang is divided into two main areas, the first being the mainland and secondly the island. However, the capital of Penang is known as Georgetown which is located on the island. The mainland portion of Penang is known as Seberang Prai or Province Wellesley.

History of Penang

Based on archeological evidence, the earliest known settlers believed to have inhabited Penang were the Semang-Pangan ethnic group from the Negrito lineage. However, their last known settlement was in the 1920’s in Kubang Semang area and they are now believed to be extinct.

Since Penang was part of the Kedah Sultanate, it’s history is closely linked to that of the state of Kedah. Although the founder of Penang island is Sir Francis Light, he was not considered as the first Englishman to set foot on the island. The honor went to Sir James Lancaster who in 1588 who served under Sir Francis Drake against the Spanish Armada. In 1786, Penang was ceded to the British East India Company through Captain Francis Light in exchange for military protection from the Siamese and Burmese armies. On 11 August 1786, Captain Francis Light raised the Union Jack flag thereby claiming formal possession of the island. He named the island Prince of Wales Island in honor of the heir to the British throne, King George III. The capital of the Prince of Wales Island was named as Georgetown. Captain Francis Light built the island’s first settlement around Fort Cornwallis which also acted as the island’s defence. The original four streets during that time and are still existent today are Beach Street, Light Street, Pitt Street and Chulia Street.

Ethnic Composition

Once the British had complete control over Penang, this led to an explosion of cultural diversity as apart from the existing European, Siamese and Burmese settlers, Captain (Later become Sir) Francis Light brought in the Chinese and Indian settlers.

Chinese immigrants

In 1794, Francis Light was quoted as saying that the Chinese were the most valuable and largest group who were brought in as traders, carpenters, masons, shopkeepers as well as planters. The Chinese also specialized in the production and trade of tin.

Indian immigrants

In the 1790’s, the Chulia’s (people from Coromandel Coast of India) were mentioned as shopkeepers and farm labourers. However, the majority of these groups of people did not stay in Penang as they would rather return to India. It was the ‘Adi Dravidas’ (people from Tamil Nadu) which came and stayed on as a matter of survival.

Outlying Islets

There are several outlying islets off the coast of Penang. The largest islet is known as Jerejak which was formerly a leper and penal colony. It is located in the narrow channel between Penang Island and the mainland. The other islets are named Pulau Aman , Pulau Betong , Pulau Gedung, Pulau Kendi (Coral Island) and Pulau Rimau .


Penang has a tropical rainforest climate all year long. This climate pattern is warm and sunny and has a lot of rain during the southwest monsoon season from April to September. During certain periods of the year, Penang experiences haze which is dust particles from Sumatra blown to Penang due to forest fires.

Common Languages

The common language spoken in Penang is English, Mandarin, Malay, Penang Hokkien and Tamil. Other Chinese dialects which can be found in Penang are Hakka, Teochew and Cantonese.

Getting Around

Due to the fact that Penang is a densely populated state, the roads can be congested during peak hours especially before and after working hours. The roads in Penang are also narrow and were not built to cope with the current traffic conditions. As such, there are several modes of transportation available which are:


Walking is the best way to see a Penang. This is because from whichever hotel one is staying at, rest assured there would be an abundance of hawker stalls and unique buildings just nearby.


These are the cheapest mode of transportation available in Penang. The buses have coin-operated machines to pay the fares. The main bus stops are located at KOMTAR building and the Georgetown Weld Quay. However, the schedules can be unpredictable and the buses are not always clean.


Taxis are easily available around the island. However, the taxis here never use the meter (although the taxi is equipped with one). As such, if planning to take a taxi, please negotiate and confirm with the taxi driver before boarding the taxi.

Renting cars

This mode of transportation offers flexibility and convenience. However, the cars are charged at a daily rental rate. For first time drivers and if you do not know the roads, it is advisable to take other modes of transportation of getting around as Penang drivers are known to be notorious and most roads being one-way would already add to the existing congested conditions

Top 10 ‘Must See’ Places to Visit in Penang

When visiting Penang for the first time, there are some things which one can do without while there are some places which are considered the essence or heart of the city or island. Listed below are the top 10 places to see and visit while in Penang.

1) Penang Hill – Ayer Hitam

Penang Hill (Bukit Bendera/Flagstaff Hill) is located at the northern corner of the island. It is also one of Malaysia’s oldest hill resorts. A trip to Penang Hill is a great way to escape the heat and humidity of the lowlands at Georgetown. At 821 metres, this hill resort boasts chilly temperatures as well as great views of topside panorama the hill has to offer. To start the journey to the top, one has to board the funicular railway to the top of the hill. Once you have reached the summit, you can proceed another two kilometers away from Bellevue Hotel to the Canopy Walk. This 220 metre walkway offers great views of the dense jungle as the walk is suspended between towering trees. For bird watchers, there is a rich collection of birdlife as this hill is home to about 100 species of birds ranging from ordinary garden species to the exotic deep forest inhabitants.

2) Kek Lok Si Temple – Ayer Hitam

This temple is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. This temple is located on a hilltop near Penang Hill. The temple grounds are divided into three areas which comprise the hill entrance which consists of souvenir stalls and food and drink stalls. The second area consists of temples, gardens, the pagoda and the Four Heavenly Kings pavilion. The hilltop consists of a large statue to Kuan Yin, who is the Goddess of Mercy as well as other temples and gardens. This temple was built in 1890 by Beow Lean who was a devout Chinese Buddhist. The current was purchased in 1893 and the initial structure was built on the summit 20 years later as the construction costs were borne by the donations from the Penang Straits Chinese community.

3) Penang Butterfly Farm – Teluk Bahang

This butterfly farm was opened in 1986 and is owned and founded by David Goh. He founded the farm to introduce and promote the various butterfly species found on the island. The farm features more than 4,000 species of butterflies. Another important function of this farm is to increase awareness as to the conservation of butterfly habitats.

4) Penang War Museum – Batu Maung

This war museum is located on the southeast corner of the island. It was once a British fortress built in the 1930’s. The fortress fell during World War II as the Japanese troops attacked from inland and not through the sea as the British had expected. This fortress has tunnels which lead from the fortress to the sea. Some of these tunnels are said to be narrow and one has to crawl through some of them.

5) Cheong Tze Fatt Mansion – Leith Street

This mansion was built by Cheong Tze Fatt who arrived from China as a penniless trader. He soon rose the ranks when he established the large financial empire throughout East Asia during the late 19th century. The mansion has 38 large rooms, five granite paved walkways, seven staircases and 220 timber-frame windows. This mansion was rescued from ruins in the 1990’s. Although it is maintained as a private residence, it also boasts a 16 room bed and breakfast as part of its ongoing restoration project. This mansion has been highlighted in CNN, BBC, The History Channel as well as Discovery Travel and Living. The Cheong Tze Fatt Mansion was also the winner of the 1995 Malaysian National Architectural Award for Conservation, the 2000 UNESCO Most Excellent Heritage Conservation Award, Best Tourist Attraction 2003 and in 2008, the Best of Malaysia Travel Award’s ‘Best Boutique Hotel’ by Expatriate Lifestyle Magazine.

6) Fort Cornwallis – Lebuh Leith

This fort is located near the Esplanade, on the northeastern corner of the island. This fort was originally intended as a defensive structure against pirates, the Kedah forces as well as the French forces. It was constructed in 1786 and named after Charles Cornwallis (whose surrender to George Washington’s army ended the American War of Independence). A bronze statue of Captain Francis Light stands at the entrance It is worth mentioning that it was Captain Francis Light’s son, Captain William Light who founded Adelaide in Australia. At the southwest corner of the fort, a chapel which was built in 1799 still stands today.

7) Tropical Spice Garden – Teluk Bahang

This farm was opened in November 2003 with the aim of instilling and nurturing the knowledge of nature, the importance of plants through research and conservation. The Spice and Ornamental and Jungle Trail takes about 20 to 45 minutes to complete. There is also a restaurant which offers Thai-Asian cuisine as well as a souvenir shop.

8) Nattukkottai Temple – Jalan Air Terjun

This temple is also known as the Waterfall Temple. It is devoted to Bala Subramaniam. This temple is famous for hosting the Thaipusam festival every year. Another famous temple is the “Elephant Temple” which is bordered by green gates. There is a five feet high Lord Ganesha (the Hindu Elephant God) standing in the middle of the temple. A miracle supposedly happened in 1997 when the Lord Ganesha from this temple started drinking milk that was offered to it by devotees.

9) Penang Khoo Kongsi

This kongsi (this is derived from a Hokkien name meaning “clan house”) was developed as a way 19th century immigrants to get-together. The Khoo Kongsi was erected about 650 years ago and it is still an architectural feat that symbolizes prosperity and good luck.

10) Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram – Burmah Road

This Thai temple was built in 1845 and houses the reclining Buddha. The temple was built on land gifted from Queen Victoria to the Thai community as a gesture of goodwill. It was originally built by Phortan Kuat, a Theravada Buddhist monk who was also known as the ‘Powerful Monk’. The temple becomes a focal point during the Thai Buddhist festivals of Songkran and Loy Krathong.

Top 5 Foods to Eat in Penang

Penang is known for its good food and it is this food which can be found anywhere as Penang hawker food delicious as it can be. To Malaysians, Penang is known as a Foodies state as eating seems to be Penangites favorite past time. Some of Penang’s popular dishes is listed below.

1) Nasi Kandar Line Clear

This dish originates from Penang’s Indian Muslim migrants who created this dish while peddling it decades ago. The community would peddle this dish by balancing two pots, one containing rice and the other containing curries across their shoulders using a long wooden rod. There are many 24 hours nasi kandar restaurants but Nasi Kandar Line Clear located at the alley in the junction of Lebuh Chulia and Jalan Penang is closest to the original in terms of authenticity.

2) Penang Char Kuay Teow

This is a hawker dish of flat rice noodles stir fried together with lard, soy sauce, chillies, prawns, cockles, eggs, bean sprouts and chives. Penang char kuay teow is known all over Malaysia as the best in the country when compared to other states in Malaysia. The best places to find this dish would be along Gurney Drive.

3) Asam Laksa

This dish originates from the Peranakan or Baba Nyonya cultures. This dish is made of thick rice noodles served in spicy and sour fish broth. Mackerel fish flakes and tamarind is also added to give the soup a sourish flavor. Other ingredients used to enhance the flavor of this dish are lemongrass, chillies, galangal, prawn paste and finely shredded torch ginger flower. Once again, the best place to savour this dish is Gurney Drive.

4) Rojak Pasembur

This is an Indian Muslim dish which consists of shredded cucumber, turnip, potatoes, beancurd, bean sprouts, pieces of prawn fritters, squids and boiled egges mixed in a sweet and spicy peanut sauce. This dish can also be found along Gurney Drive.

5) Hokkien Mee

This dish has several variations across Malaysia. The Penang version is soup based and watery as opposed to the Kuala Lumpur version of the mee which is sticky as it is fried in dark soya sauce. The soup which is made from stock using shrimp paste and dried prawns are then brought to a boil before adding in pieces of lard. It is served by garnishing the soupy noodles with prawns, fish cakes, leafy greens, pork ribs, squids, vegetables, deep fried shallots, spring onions, chillies and light soya sauce.

Where to Stay in Penang

There are several areas where one can stay while in Penang. Each place offers a unique experience. There are several areas one can choose to stay while in Penang, these are Georgetown, Batu Ferringhi, Tanjung Bungah and Bayan Lepas.

1) Georgetown

Penang’s state capital offers a variety of accommodation to the traveler. The city centre is also an entertainment hub, shopping haven as well as gastronomical delights for travelers. It has budget hotels for the budget conscious travelers and five star hotels for those who would want extra comfort and luxury. Goergetown is full of heritage buildings amidst a setting of modern buildings. The hotels are in Georgetown are all located within major tourist attractions.

2) Batu Ferringhi

Miles of sandy white beaches and swaying palm trees is how one can describe Batu Ferringhi. The beaches at Batu Ferringhi are one of the most popular beaches on the island. There are several budget as well as high end accommodation available with most units facing the sea.

3) Tanjung Bungah

This area was formerly a fishing village but over the years, its popularity has grown to become one of Penang’s popular tourist attractions. This area is built among natural landscape and it has within its area high end hotels and resorts to pamper guest in the comfort and luxury of a scenic location.

4) Bayan Lepas

This area is home to Penang’s International Airport as well Penang’s industrial hubs, its largest shopping Mall which is Queensbay Mall. The nearby attractions in this area are the Snake Temple and the War Museum. There are several accommodation types available such as budget hotels and luxury hotels.


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