Penang might be a small island, but it is jammed with things to see. Many people come to the island to eat; the street food is some of the best in Asia and no visit to Penang is complete without overeating. However, in between stuffing yourself on plates of noodles and rich mutton curries, you’ve got to do something, right? Walk off some of your calories with this list of things to see and places to visit…
1.Scoping Out Street Art
When you land in the airport, pick up a George Town street art map; it will take you on a walking tour and explain the most famous pieces around town. There are painted murals, interactive paintings, sculptures, and dioramas in some of the most unsuspecting places; alleyways, parking lots, the old bus depot. It never gets old because the city hires rotating artists to paint different walls of the town and keep it fresh. There’s all sorts of art hidden throughout the city, some sneak up overnight without permission at all, but isn’t that what makes street art so exciting?
In 2012, Ernest Zacharevic, a young Lithuania-born artist changed the face of Penang’s art scene. He was commissioned to paint the untouched walls of George Town for the George Town Festival. Often his murals are on old crumbling walls that have a limited lifespan.
A traditional wooden home on stilts was the site of his Children on a Boat mural which sadly, only a short time later, was reduced to paint flecks by the sea breeze and salt water, the art never to be seen again.
If you walk down the street and see a line of people and its not a food stall, they are most likely lined up to snap a shot of one of his unique murals.
The best way to take in all of the incredible art on show is to simply wander the streets, get lost in the back alleys and look all around you, you’re sure to spot a mural that will make you smile.
Penang is a multi-cultural island made up of Chinese, Indians, and Malays. Each culture displays its religion in the temples, churches and mosques throughout the city. Just walk down Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, the Street of Harmony, and you will discover some of the oldest sacred structures in Malaysia; Masjid Kapitan Keling (Muslim Mosque), Kuan Yin Temple (Buddhist and Taoist temple), St. George’s Church (Anglican) and Sri Mahamariamman Temple (Hindu). There aren’t many places in the world that have this kind of diversity within a seven-minute walk. All the holy sites on the island are open to the public as long as you are appropriately dressed.
The Khoo Kongsi (below), which in my opinion is the most incredible Chinese Clan House and temple in Penang, and not to be missed, is only minutes away from The Street of Harmony. It dates back to the 19th century and is where people with the last name of Khoo, from all over the world, could come to live and be employed. As more Khoos arrived, they created a mini-enclave in the centre of town with shophouses, a theatre and a temple, all ornately decorated.
Kek Lok Si, located south of George Town, is one of the largest Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia and the centre for Chinese culture and Buddhist teaching. Construction started in the late 19th century and it is still being added to today. It is said to have over a million images of Buddha throughout the massive complex.
3.Awaken Your Senses in Little India
Little India is one of my favourite places to go in Penang. With Bollywood music blaring out of stores and sandalwood incense floating in the air, it transports you to another place and time. It is loud and colourful and awakes all of your senses. After working your way through bolts of silk to have a sari made, savour a traditional pakora from a street-side stand and buy spices from the colourful triangular mounds the shop owners create each day.
There is no shortage of glittering shopping centres in Penang, but if you want to get a peek at local daily life, head to Chowrasta Market, or Pasar Chowrasta, in George Town. It’s the most prominent and oldest morning market in Penang and has been around since the late 1800s. It’s where locals and expats go to buy the freshest produce, fish, chicken, pork and local treats. Before shopping try out a local breakfast of hokkien mee, a rich prawn-based noodle soup or roti canai, a homemade grilled flatbread dipped in mouth-watering curry.
The Batu Ferringhi night market starts at 7 p.m. and goes until about 11 p.m. every night. It’s definitely a tourist market with all the usual knock-off gear but in the last few years, some local artists have been selling their paintings, sculptures and jewellery too.
5.Rekindle Your Love of Nature
Most people don’t come to Penang looking for nature, but they’re missing out. When you’re tired of city life, head to Entopia, the largest butterfly garden in Malaysia. Over 15,000 butterflies are fluttering about as well as bearded lizards, fat iguanas and koi fish.
The Habitat on Penang Hill is the perfect way to escape the heat. It’s an eco-tourism site which overlooks a 130-million-year-old rainforest. Stroll along the oval-shaped walkway high above the trees known as Tree Top Walk. It’s the highest point on the island where you can see as far as Langkawi on a clear day.
The Penang Botanic Garden is a beautiful place to stroll the grounds and see some of the exotic flora and fauna of the island. It is spread over 29 acres of jungle and rainforest and has two species of monkeys roaming freely.