Situated on the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia, Penang is often raved about as the food capital of the country. Tourists and locals alike know the city boasts a great selection of Chinese, Indian, Malay and Peranakan- influenced street food.
More than just a foodie destination though, besides its bustling culinary scene and strong heritage, Penang also makes for an excellent urban adventure destination from Singapore.
Kek Lok Si Temple
A popular site with visitors, Kek Lok Si, (“Temple of Supreme Bliss”), is a Buddhist temple perched atop Crane Hill. The 7-storey pagoda is a mixture of Burmese, Chinese and Thai architecture. Regarded as the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia, it has 10,000 statues of Buddha and became the new home to two of Buddha’s 2,500-year-old relics earlier this year.
As its name suggests, the Snake Temple is filled with a variety of (devenomized) pit vipers that coil around the altars and other parts of the temple. In an adjacent building is a compound that houses other varieties of snakes in captivity.
En route to Batu Ferringhi, it is hard to miss this iconic building with its 7-storey minaret. Built upon stilts over the sands of Tanjung Bungah beach, the best time to visit is during midday when visitors aren’t intruding on prayer times. Visitors are also advised to dress appropriately – no reveal- ing clothing or tops with slogans.
Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower
While Italy may have its Leaning Tower of Pisa, Malaysia has its own Leaning (Clock) Tower of Penang. The Moorish-style tower is a testament to the city’s royal connection, erected in commemoration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. However, due to World War II bombings, the tower now leans slightly to one side, making it an iconic photo spot.
The Blue Mansion
Named after the merchant who built it, the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion is better known as The Blue Mansion due to its distinctive indigo-blue exterior. It was later bought over by the descendants of Cheong to save the building from demolition. Today, the beautifully restored mansion has been transformed into a boutique hotel and restaurant, with guided tours available.
AREAS TO VISIT
Located just 6km from George Town, the city’s iconic summit – Penang Hill – is actually made up of a group of hills: Flagstaff Hill, Government Hill, Halliburton Hill, Strawberry Hill, Tiger Hill and Western Hill, with the highest point located at the peak of Western Hill (833m). The best time to visit the summit is at dusk, when you can capture George Town’s city lights while enjoying the cool temperatures that can go below 20oC between June and October.
The area boasts a rich diversity of flora, among which are species like the parasitic Exorhorpalia ruficeps which is unique to the area, in addition to carnivorous pitcher plants and cycads which existed since the Jurassic period.
If you’re seeking an adrenaline rush, Penang Hill has about 7 mountain biking trails – some of which consist of drop-offs as high as 3m. The No.7 downhill trail is probably the most challenging one (not advisable for beginners). Riddled with huge rocks and protruding tree roots, the track is constantly evolving due to rain erosion. Those tackling this trail are recommended to go with a full suspension bike. To get uphill, you can hike for two hours with your bike or drive up with a 4WD. Go during the weekdays to avoid the crowd .
Most visitors opt to take the iconic Penang Hill Railway, which first opened in 1923, to the top. This daily ride starts at 6.30am and leaves the top station at 11pm.
While George Town is a must-visit, the less-visited Balik Pulau is a tranquillising retreat from the city. Located in the south-west of the island, it is a durian connoisseur’s paradise (between May to July). Fruit buffets offering a variety of tropical fruits are available throughout the year with durian added when it’s in season.
As it is a traditional community, Balik Pulau’s traditional Malay stilt houses along Jalan Bahru offer homestay to visitors looking for village experiences. Rooms are from RM30 a night (single) and bicycles can be hired at RM20 per day.
Penang National Park
To the north of the island is Penang National park- a seemingly small but extremely diverse forest reserve. Within the park there are 9 beaches, hiking trails and a range of flora and fauna not commonly found in other parts of Malaysia, such as the rare Faunus ater snail, alongside dolphins, crab-eating macaque and hawksbill turtles. You can camp in the forest with tents and basic camping facilities available for hire at a small fee in designated areas.
The park is a turtle sanctuary; on Krachut beach, visitors can see recently hatches turtle that are kept under protection until they are old enough to be released into the sea. Throughout the year, turtles can be seen coming on shore to lay their eggs.