The island of Penang’s long-established trade routes have been in action since the 16th century when the Portuguese first started distributing Thai spices around the world. During this time, they also brought their own influential European culture to Penang’s shores – shores so beautiful they have garnered this island its nickname, ‘pearl of the Orient’. Don’t leave without exploring the capital city, George Town, which has been granted UNESCO World Heritage status.
For a snapshot into Malaysia’s incredible wildlife, head for Penang National Park, where you can spot everything from flying squirrels and fruit bats to lemurs and otters living in its lush mangrove forests and vast lakes. The idyllic Monkey Beach also sits on the National Park’s fringes. Pantai Kerachut’s remote sands are home to hawksbill turtles, kingfishers and four meromictic lakes. Hop on a boat out to the idyllic islets that sit to the south west, where coral reefs offer brilliant snorkelling.
Penang’s Buddhist rule began in the 4th century in the Kingdom of Bujany Valley and Buddhist temples can be found across the island. One of the most famous is a seven-tiered Pagoda of 1000 Buddhas. There is also the 1845-built Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram, which features a 33-metre-long reclining Buddha statue. Over in George Town, the Kek Lok Si temple has been carved into the rockface on a hilltop at Ait Itam.
Architecture isn’t the only thing to admire here either. Penang’s art scene is equally excellent. To discover what it has to offer, walk around George Town and survey the street art, starting with Ah Quee Street’s large murals and ending with the Hin Bus Depot Art Centre.
A great way to discover Penang’s food scene is out in the open air, as there are plenty of roadside street stalls, known locally as hawkers, to try out. These offer a huge variety of styles and flavours including influences from Malaysian, Chinese, Thai and European cuisines. Another string to Penang’s culinary bow is its famous Penang white coffee, which is mixed with a fine coconut powder.
The bus is your best bet for getting around Penang. There is the new Rapid Penang CAT, which runs a great service, or the free shuttle bus. If you would prefer more flexibility, hire a car or a driver to help you get around the island. Don’t miss out on travelling by beca, a pedal-powered trishaw.