George Town in Penang was our second stop in Asia. This tiny island which belongs to Malaysia is situated in the Strait of Malacca. Its street art got itself named hipster capital of Southeast Asia. Its people, gastronomy, and the beauty of its beaches far exceeded our expectations.
Penang is art. It is a faded and dirty museum where the walls have so much to tell. Streets without sewerage are the perfect spot for these masterpieces painted over chipped walls.
The reason for this explosion of street art is due to a city embellishment Project which emerged when UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 2008. Since then, it became a mandatory stop for any traveler visiting Malaysia.
In this post you will find:
Things to do in George Town – Penang in three days
We had three days to explore Penang. On the first day, we visited the most emblematic places in George Town and searched through the streets that are well known for its murals. On the second day, we traversed the National Park. Finally, on the last day, we finished visiting the city center – all of this, accompanied by the best gastronomy of Malaysia.
George Town Best Attractions
George Town was a culture shock for us. I had never seen streets as dirty and in ruins than those in this tiny city of Penang. Regardless, among the ruins are gems of incalculable value and thousand essential things that you must see.
George Town can be easily explored by foot. Its center is very small, so we were able to walk several times through the same places.
The first and probably the most shocking one is the Khoo Kongsi, the family house (kongsi) from the Khoo family. This family of Chinese immigrants had grown both in number and wealth, thanks to trade, that they decided to build a mini-city with its own temple, authority, financial, and educational institutions.
Today, the ground floor of the main building of Khoo Kongsi is used as a museum, exhibiting everyday objects of the time. These include belongings of their ancestors, and countless commemorative plaques where the names of the most influential clan members appear.
The enormous fortune that this family had is still evident. You only need to see the numerous details in gold that cover the entire top floor of the main building, which is still used for prayer.
The courtyard where the buildings are located, is used for ceremonies and shows on special dates.
To visit the Khoo Kongsi you have to pay a fee entrance which costs 5 MYR (1€). The entrance fee is not sold right in the complex, you would instead buy it in a store which I marked in red on the map below. They will explain to you how to access the temple, which is just a minute away from the store.
The next most visited attraction is the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, also known as the Blue Mansion. It is also the home of a very prosperous Chinese merchant, Cheong Fatt Tze, who is prominent for his political role.
The mansion was built following Feng Shu Principles in its entirety, which had 38 rooms. The most relevant feature is its indigo blue color and Art-Nouveau style. This property was sold and it is divided into two parts today. One part is a museum where objects donated by the family are exhibited, while the other part works as a hotel with 16 rooms.
You can only enter the Blue Mansion through a guided tour which runs every day at 11:00, 13:30 and 15:00. The price is 12 MYR (2.5€).
To finish the tour through George Town, you must visit the Jetties Clan. Presently there are a total of 6 piers belonging to 5 clans or Chinese immigrants families (+1 mixed).
Different families of Chinese origin came to George Town at the end of the XIX century. Because they were really poor, they could not afford conventional housing. For this reason, they began to build houses on the water, forming jetties. Only members of the same family lived on the same jetty. Because they didn’t live over normal ground, they were able to avoid paying taxes. However, the building materials they used were of poor quality (Straw and Wood), and fires often occurred.
Some of these families worked loading bigger ships using their smalls boats. Others went for the firewood and coal business, with raw material originating from the mangroves on the coast.
Business made rivalries among different clans to grow, so brawls between them were normal.
The Jetties Clan was considered a slum at the start, and at one point the jetties were in risk of demolition. Luckily, they were eventually included in a conservation program that was carried out when George Town was named a World Heritage Site, with the fact that it reputed a traditional lifestyle inside an urban environment.
Some families still live there today, so try to be cautious when taking pictures. It is not rare to see someone on lying on the sofa or cooking a meal in the kitchen, and although many of them live on the tourism income, some of them might still get annoyed if you invade their home privacy.
DISCOVERING LIM JETTY AND CHEW JETTY
We only visited the Lim Jetty and the Chew Jetty, and I liked the first one more. It was more authentic, there wasn’t even a single tourist (excepting for us) and we sat there for a while looking through the horizon.
Chew Jetty is possibly the most well-known, and while it was gorgeous, it was too prepared for tourists and less original than the previous one. In fact, almost every house would try to sell you something: juices, cakes, souvenirs, etc.
I recommend you to see at least these two, and preferably at sunset.
Other must-sees in GEORGE TOWN
In addition to the attractions mentioned above, you’ll find interesting things in every corner of the city. Of course, 3 days is enough to explore George Town and Penang thoroughly.
One of the most recommended areas to visit is Little India which is located between Lebuh Chulia and Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling. In this area stands the Hindu temple Sri Mahamariamman, and very close to it, the mosque Masjid Kapitan Keling.
We also really enjoyed strolling the streets of Love Lane. Definitely one of the streets with more soul in Penang. Ideal for meeting other travelers and chatting in any bar with a hipster atmosphere.
Although we will speak more thoroughly in the gastronomy section, one of the things that we liked the most in George Town was the Red Garden. You should have dinner here at least one day.
And after dinner, there’s nothing better than walking the promenade. From here, you can see the English forts of Padang Kota Lama and Fort Cornwalli. We only saw them on the outside, because according to what we read, it was not worth the price of admission.
Street art in George Town
In this section we will talk about the Street Art in George Town, which, even having seen lots of pictures before, it surprised us much more when we were there in person.
As we mentioned in the introduction, the city began to be embellished after being named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2008. After this event, a contest was held where many artists were present. Ernest Zacharevic and Tang Mun Kian were chosen to be in charge of giving the city a new look.
Even when both of them exhibited their art, only the first artist excelled with his paintings over the city walls.
Tang Mun Kian, however, created cartoon style pieces with forged steel. These explain the meaning of the main streets names in the city.
Since then, many artists have left their mark on the streets of George Town.
WALL PAINTING IN GEORGE TOWN
Here, I show you a few examples of the street art we found. Also, at the end of this post you’ll find a map with their locations. Nonetheless, I invite you to discover how pretty the decaying art can be in person.e
These are only a few of what we saw, but there are countless other ones. In restaurants or information spots, you can ask for a map with the location of all the paintings.
PENANG NATIONAL PARK
With no doubt, what I liked most about Penang was the Penang National Park. It is the reason I look forward to returning to this Malaysian island.
Featuring untouched jungle full of monkeys, paradisiacal beaches, and dreamy sunsets – it is mandatory that you go to Penang National Park at least for one day if you travel to Penang for three.
You need at least one day to discover this park. Although, if I return, I will certainly camp on one of its beaches. We spent only one day and left many things to do, so if you want to travel through thoroughly, take a tent with you.
Due to the extensiveness of Penang National Park, we have decided to write a separate post. Here, you will find everything you need to know about the park and how to get there from George Town.
Where to Eat the Best Food in George town – Malaysian Cuisine
And I was not going to close the Penang chapter without recommending some places to eat on this island. Certainly, George Town is not only the capital of Malaysian street art, but also of culinary art.
The first and most well-known, the Red Garden, is a food market where we ended up having dinner every night. The site has a terrace with tables, surrounded by endless kinds of food stalls. Each table has an assigned number. Choose the table you want and give them the number when ordering food at the stalls. This will be paid once you are served directly at the table.
None of the stalls sell drinks, these are actually ordered directly from the waiters who serve the tables. The drinks menu is on the terrace. They serve mostly beers and all kinds of juices.
The cherry on the cake was that there is a stage where artists come to perform on every night. Sometimes they play Occidental and other Asian songs. Some days there are even Ladyboy Shows.
Most people who go to the Red Garden are locals or Asian tourists, which makes it quite authentic. We loved it and found it to be a very fun place, which is why we went back every night.
In terms of gastronomy in Malaysia, we are going to name sites that we liked most in the following. At the Red Garden, you will find an amazing variety that added to the entertainment of live music which makes it our number one place to eat in George Town Penang.
EE BENG VEGETARIAN FOOD
The second place I recommend to you is the Ee Beng Vegetarian Food. Without a doubt, it was the place where I had the best meal of the whole trip. My cousin, who is not a vegetarian, loved it too. It is an all you can eat vegetarian buffet, where you serve yourself what you want to try. Most of the dishes are Asian-style using soy meat as the main ingredient. It was delicious. We were not very clear on how the price of food is evaluated. After filling your plate, you go through the cashier and depending on what you took, they would then tell you the price. We tried everything and drank juices, and in total we were charged 5 MYR each (1 €).
Similar to any Chinese restaurant, the dishes were rice, pasta, potatoes, and also always accompanied with soy meat.
The last place I want to suggest for you to enjoy Malaysian gastronomy was found by chance. When we were going back to Spain we noticed a well-appreciated restaurant in another travel guide. It is Kashmir Restaurant, the food they serve reminded me of Indian food.
What we liked the most was the carrot juice. Since we tried it out here, we didn’t stop asking for it during our whole travel and it was impossible to find another one that could reach the same level. Try it out! It is delicious.
Before closing this section, I want to let you know that besides restaurants, there are plenty of street stalls to eat. While touring George Town, you should stop in each stall that you see. This was how we ended up trying homemade durian ice cream and coconut ice cream, vegetable dumplings, cakes, etc. This is my advice to enjoy Malaysian cuisine: TRY IT ALL!
Our hotel in George Town – Accommodation
The worst hotel of our trip in Southeast Asia has no rival. Although there are other candidates, the worst was the one where we stayed in George Town, the Guest Inn Muntri.
The hotel was on Muntri Street in downtown. The room reeked of dampness with no windows, the walls were chipped and the air conditioning only worked if the light was on. Since it was very hot, we ended up sleeping every night with the light on and blocking it out with sleep masks.
Also, the Wifi did not work in the room, so we had to go to the dining room to connect before going to bed at night. To add to that, a rat the size of a cat was would walk around the kitchen counter every night.
ACCOMMODATION THAT WE RECOMMEND IF YOU TRAVEL TO PENANG
If you travel to Penang, avoid the Guest Inn Muntri hotel, unless you are passionate about rodents and you want to use your masks.
Our recommendation, if traveling with friends and backpackers, is to stay at the Reggae Mansion on Lebuh Chulia Street. We tried this youth hostels chain in Kuala Lumpur and really liked the atmosphere.
We also went through the door and looked good. Nothing like the hotel we stayed in. If you are going to share a room, buy cheap travel insurance at least.
Transport from Penang airport to George town
George Town is half an hour from the airport by car or an hour and a half by bus. As we were traveling on a low budget, our idea was to catch a bus. However, we had not considered that there would be no buses running anymore when we arrived in Penang at midnight.
Luckily, what could have become an eternal night waiting for the bus service to reopen, turned out to be an anecdote that taught us a lot about the kindness of Malaysian people which we will tell you at the end of this section.
AIRPORT – GEORGE TOWN BUS
The bus that runs from the airport to the historic center of George Town is the 401E. It runs every 25 minutes and is priced at 3 MYR (less than € 1).
The last service is at 11:00 and the first service at 5:20.
If you have time, perhaps you might be interested in a stop at the Snake Temple that is half way to town, although we were not interested.
Malaysian kindness- our anecdote
During the flight to Penang, I sat next to a 4-year-old. His mother sat 4 rows ahead, so I changed seats with her so that she could be next to her son.
When we arrived in Penang, we asked her if she knew where the buses to George Town were. Unfortunately, she told us that there were no buses at that time. After seeing that we were traveling as backpackers, she guessed that we were not going to take a taxi and offered to take us to George Town.
On the way, we asked her if they lived near our accommodation. Surprisingly, she told us that she lived half an hour in the other direction from the airport. Given that we arrived at 12 at night in Penang, they would arrive at their house at approximately 1:30 in the morning.
I cannot believe that someone who did not know us at all would do us such a favour.
I certainly could not have imagined a better welcome to a new country. It was our first time in Malaysia and we could not believe how good its people were.
GEORGE TOWN MAP
And with this we bid you farewell. Do not forget to come back here to tell us about your experience in Penang.