IMAGES BY: Penang State Tourism
Nestled on the northwest coast of the Malaysian peninsula, Penang’s charisma lies in its medley of cultures, speckled with colonial charm, eastern influences and streams of modernity peeking through the corners.
The eclectic architecture and culture may be the island’s draw card, but thanks to its relatively small size, Penang’s lush green nature is never too far away. With plenty of white sandy beaches nuzzling the coastline, forest parks canopying the north and peaks rising in the east, Penang offers a mixed bag of experiences for any traveller.
Sitting on the northeast end of the island, Penang’s capital of George Town is a flurry of colour and vim.
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to its profusion of colourful ethnic and historic landmarks, Penang is dotted with ornate edifices, whitewashed colonial monuments, and rows and rows of pastel-coloured shophouses bracketed by a warren of side streets and alleys.
Located on the outskirts of George Town is the waterfront enclave of Weld Quay, a 6ha. area which includes 6 clan jetties that are home to Penang’s living heritage and a reminder of one of South East Asia’s most important maritime ports. Built at the turn of the 20th century, these stilted buildings were once topped with atap roofs. The best time to visit the jetties is during the festivals of Thee Kong Seh (Jade Emperor’s birthday), Phor Tor (Hungry Ghost Festival) and Kew Ong Yeah (Nine Emperor Gods), when you can see colourful performances, spiritual acts and explosive fireworks.
Arts in the City
Complementing the smorgasbord of diverse architecture is the dynamic arts scene that thrives within Penang’s archaic lanes.
Introduced as the new addition (in 2012) to the island’s well-known existing festivals, ‘Mirrors George Town’ encompasses mural paintings covering the marred walls of George Town’s backstreets.
Other annual events that continue to draw international audiences include The Penang Island Jazz festival (to be held at the Bayview Beach Resort from December 5-8 this year) with plenty of jazz-related activities at Batu Ferringhi, and the George Town Festival, an arts festival that isn’t just an ode to the island’s cultural offerings, it pays homage to the international acts that are deeply-rooted in the arts scene.
A group of peaks tucked away in Air Itam (a town 6km from George Town) and enveloped in lush green hues, Penang Hill (830m) is the island’s highest peak, and a heritage area offering a bird’s-eye view of the island’s vista.
Generally cooler than the rest of the island, the hill’s summit encompasses a range of historical places to visit, from Malaysia’s first hill station to several temples and impressive colonial bungalows dotted throughout the hill.
Apart from the historic buildings, Penang Hill is covered in large swaths of rainforest, which makes it ideal for outdoor activities. Trekking and hiking are best left for intermediate-level hikers as the hill’s terrain is fairly steep. Some cyclist can also be spotted tackling the punishing uphill roads.
There are several well-marked trails like the Moongate Trail, which starts from Air Itam Dam to Tiger Hill (one of the peaks in Penang Hill). All of the peak’s trails are open to the public, but getting around would require a map, as some of the trails are not signposted. There are also a number of guided tours available.
An easier access to the hill is possible via Penang Hill Railway, giving you access to the colonial bungalows on top of the hill in less than 5 minutes.
PENANG NATIONAL PARK
Canopying the northwest tip of Penang Island, the Penang National Park (25 sq.km) may be small, but the varied terrain – which includes rainforests, mangrove swamps, coral reefs and turtle-nesting beaches – are not usually found in other parts of the island.
With 8 pristine beaches, and most of it accessible only by hiking, visitors can choose to trek across the dense jungle cut by the well-marked trails (and guiding ropes) to reach them. There are 2 major trails in the park – leading to Muka Head lighthouse and Pantai Kerachut – and thanks to the size of the park, either trail can be completed within 2 hours (one-way).
You can also explore the park with a bird’s-eye view along the Canopy Walkway (1,034m, 20 mins) which links the 2 major trails in the park. You can walk amongst the treetops (15m high) along the coastline of Sungai Tukun to reach the various beaches that dot this pint-sized park.
Monkey Beach is one of the more famous beaches in Penang; its crystal-clear waters are pristine, while Pantai Kerachut – arguably Penang’s most picturesque beach – is a turtle sanctuary for the endangered Green Turtles.
For those looking for a scenery change for the return trip, there are the options of taking a boat back to the entrance of the park from either Monkey Beach or Pantai Kerachut.