Penang Island, with its centre of Georgetown, can come as a welcome break from crowded Kuala Lumpur or the more conservative east coast. Located to the west, Penang has a diverse mix of inhabitants including a large Han Chinese population as well as Tamil immigrants and Malays residents, and this mix of people is reflected in the activities, architecture, and the food that you will find in this true melting pot of a city.
Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and former British colony, Penang has always had a strong commitment to cultural reservation and this is seen in the many historic structures that are dotted around the island.
Lebuh Chulia is the backpacker hub of Penang and is a solid choice in terms of cheap accommodations and dining options particularly if you are newly arrived. As well as a huge choice of guesthouses you will find money changers, visa agents, and travel companies, and Lebuh Chulia is also well known for its amazing street food. Head out as night falls when carts set up along the street offering delicious local dishes like fried noodles and noodle soups at fantastic prices.
Penang is known for its diversity so get a taste of this firsthand at Little India located around Jalan Pasar. You will probably hear and smell Little India before you see it as loud Bollywood music belts out from shop fronts and fragrant incense fills the air. Visitors come here for the food so if you like a delicious curry then head to old timers like Sri Ananda Bahwan or Woodlands and try the traditional pulled tea known as ‘teh tarik’.
For a great example of Penang’s period architecture head to Fort Cornwallis built by the British East India Company. The fort no longer serves its original function of guarding Penang against invading pirates but you can still get a taste of how things would have been by exploring the drawbridge, canons, and lighthouse. There are also stunning views over the water and on occasion staff have been known to dress in period costume to help you truly feel as if you have stepped back in time.
Another icon in Penang that is not to be missed is Khoo Kongsi, a former clanhouse famous for its sweeping architecture and stonework. The house was built in the 19th century and you can tour Khoo Kongsi. Things to look out for include stone carvings as well as the temple altar which features gold leaf designs and ancestral tablets. At certain times of the year traditional Chinese Opera is performed at the house.
Georgetown was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 and with its gorgeous architecture it’s not hard to see why. Add to this the ethnic diversity found here and this feels like a much more cosmopolitan destination than many other parts of Malaysia with a wide range of activities and locations to keep you occupied.