Penang Island is part of the state of Penang, located off the north western coast of Malaysia. I was first travelled to the island a few years ago and it captured my imagination from the first moment I set foot on it. We choose Penang for its mix of old and new, town and beach, and its reputation for amazing food from around the region. If you want to experience the best Malaysia has to offer, in one place, then you can’t go wrong with Penang.
Where to Find the Best Food in Penang
One of the best reasons to visit this island is the myriad dishes on offer, which for the most part all taste great and are almost always very affordable. Due to the cultural diversity of Malaysia itself, not to mention the wealth of culinary influences that have made their mark on the island over the years, there are a great many styles of food to dine on in Penang.
No matter where you turn you will be faced with numerous options for stopping for something to eat. Traditional Malaysian food, as you would expect is very popular, as are Indian dishes, with food from neighbouring countries such as Thailand and China well represented. If you only stopped to eat in one place in Southeast Asia, Penang would be the place!
On our trip, we spent the first part of our stay in Georgetown, the capital of the state as well as the island, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well. As it turns out, this is the best place to find delicious food on the island and we were not disappointed! From day one we were spoilt for choice. Our first port of call was an Indian restaurant on Jalan Penang, the main street leading out from out hotel, called Kashmir. The food was traditional Indian fare, but all served up fresh, in pleasant surroundings and at a great price: what more could you ask for?
The following day, we were even luckier when we stumbled upon a busy spot on the same road called Jaya. This place had a wide front that was completely open with no windows and doors. Inside it had the feel of a food court, with basic tables and chairs with food made to order or served up straight from the canteen style trays on display. Jaya looked rough and ready, but the large amount of locals eating here gave a good indication as to the quality of the food available here. What’s more they are open 24 hours a day. Imagine having Restoran Jaya on your way home from the pub each night!
The food was all Indian but the menus were huge with many different styles of food from this region well-represented. The prices were so cheap here, that even the most miserly of backpackers could afford to try out a wide selection of dishes with prices ranging from $1 to $3. The roti, mataba and murtabak selection here was unparalleled, and all tasted amazing, served up with flavoursome sauces and side dishes. The total price for a whole table of food for three and a half people came to less than I’ve ever seen for such high quality food. Just writing about this place makes me want to book another trip to Penang!
What to See in Penang
Despite the beaches of Penang being a big draw for tourists, the main town or Georgetown was the highlight for me. The town is in fact a city, and with a population of 600,000, it is surprisingly one of Malaysia’s biggest. After experiencing KL and Bangkok, the capitals of Malaysia and Thailand, it thankfully didn’t feel like a city. Due to the relative lack of high rises and skyscrapers, plus the fact it has managed to keep its colonial centre in good condition, it has a much more relaxed feel than other towns in Southeast Asia. If you want a city break in the region, without the noise, chaos and pollution, come to Georgetown, you won’t be disappointed!
If you want a bit of history with your travels then Georgetown can fulfil your needs in that department too. Since being founded by British trader Francis Light in 1786, becoming the first British outpost in the Southeast Asia, the island has been a popular destination for travellers from all over the world. With many choosing to make this island their home, their influences and impact can be seen all over the island, and Georgetown in particular, in the form of architecture, food, religion, art and culture.
To get a great view of the city and the rest of the island the Bukit Bendera is your best bet. Take the Penang Hill Railway up to the top of hill and marvel at the view and enjoy a respite from the heat and humidity down on the ground, before heading back down to reality with a bump.
For another slice of history while in Georgetown, the Pinang Peranakan Mansion is a good choice. Here you are free to stroll around a restored mansion that has been kept in its original style of Straits architecture and interior. Like the trip up the hill to Bukit Bendera, this is a good opportunity to get out of the heat and experience a well-ventilated property that manages to stay cool in times before aircon arrived on these shores.
Fort Cornwallis is also worth visiting for some greenery and to learn about what Captain Francis Light got up to after he landed here and founded Penang back in 1786.
The Beaches of Penang
After spending time inland and around Georgetown we headed to the beaches of Penang making our way to Batu Feringhi. This is the most popular beach destination on the island and it has unfortunately paid the price for this. While there are lots of excellent hotels to stay at here, hence our reason for choosing to visit Batu Feringhi, the beach itself, while promising, is a little uninspiring. The miles of white sand are still there, as are the palm trees, but it is not the tropical paradise it might once have been.
Best Food Court in Asia?
As the food was the highlight of the first part of our visit to Penang, the second part also bestowed some excellent dishes upon us. The best food we found at Batu Feringhi was at the Long Beach food court hawker centre. This food court is the best I have come across so far anywhere. It has numerous stalls, serving food from around the world, some better than others admittedly, with a raft of tables and chairs in the middle. You can pick and choose food from any of the servers, and have them deliver it to your table when it has been cooked, allowing your group to eat whatever they want from wherever they want. After visiting this place on the first night, and despite looking elsewhere, we returned many times over our stay.
Getting in and out of Penang
Penang has its own international airport so you might be able to fly direct to the island from your place of departure. Although direct international flights only go as far as other countries in the region such as Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong and Indonesia; although there is a direct flight to Perth.
For those with an aversion to flying, or with a keenness for saving money, there is a train service to Butterworth in Penang state on the mainland, from where the onward journey to the island can be made by ferry. The train can be joined from as far away as Bangkok.
If you are feeling adventurous you can take a minivan from a number of places in Thailand such as Ko Phi Phi, Krabi, Ko Samui and Bangkok. Although I can’t vouch for the saneness of the driving and the comfort of a small minivan, no doubt full to the brim with other backpackers.
Final Thoughts on Penang
Penang has been one of my favourite places visited so far. The food on offer here was undoubtedly the highlight, but the old centre of Georgetown is an extremely pleasant way to spend a few days, weeks or longer. While living here long-term as an Expat might not be as easy as Bangkok or KL, many people choose to do it and on a temporary basis, it would make a great home. Whether you are planning on visiting Malaysia or not, Penang should definitely be on the Southeast Asia travel itinerary.