The island of Penang, located off the northwest coast of the mainland, represents Malaysia’s most diverse, eclectic and rich hub of culture, of which the capital of Georgetown is the enthralling epicentre. Shaped by historical significance -including British colonisation – and trade links with the west, whilst retaining many Asian traditions and charm, the capital is a glorious, curious mash up of ancient east meets west. Venture a little further a field and you’ll find the island has plenty more to offer too. Secluded beaches, tropical forests, stunning viewpoints and rural fishing villages to name but a few. Read on for my hat trick of highlights.
Street Art in Georgetown
Georgetown is Malaysia’s answer to England’s Bristol and Banksy. Hidden across the town on the side of pastel coloured buildings, down secret alleyways and down by the docks you’ll find beautifully creative works of street art that have become symbolic of Georgetown. The art scene here arguably gained international attention after Ernest Zacharevic’s ‘Mirrors Georgetown’ project, a series of murals depicting children, was completed in 2012. Since then an abundance of art has sprung up around the entire island, and it is an absolute blast to explore and discover them. Plus many allow for interaction and some very creative photo opportunities.
Pretty much every hotel and hostel will carry maps detailing the location of the most popular murals, but the most rewarding way is to simply stumble upon them as you explore the historic town. If you really get in a pickle, mapps.me can locate most of the major artwork too.
So you’ve found every mural in Georgetown and think you’re done here. Wrong. Go rent a moped and follow the coastal road away from the urban sprawl of the capital and into the tropical delights of the island. By sticking to the peripheral road alone, you’ll be taken past sweeping white beaches, up densley foliated mountains and through outlying rural villages. Without any stops a loop of the island starting and ending in Georgetown will take about five hours. So start early enough and you have plenty of time to take some inland detours to the botanical gardens and waterfalls as well as a spot of lounging on the beach.
Tip: 3/4 of the route circumnavigating the island is picturesque, low traffic road winding slowly this way and that at a rather idyllic rate. The final quarter, in which you must pass the airport, is a loud, busy, chaotic, urban motorway requiring 100% concentration. That part isn’t so nice, or easy. Just so you know.
Standing some six kilometres away from the centre of Georgetown, Penang Hill rises silently above the skyline, and offers some absolutely spectacular views. By day they are special enough, but seeing the city twinkle and shimmer under the light of the moon from 800+ metres up is just magical. Now you have three methods of reaching the peak. 1.) Pay 30 RM for a return (60 RM for the fast lane) on the funicular train 2.) Pay even more for a lift up in a 4×4 by the entrance to the botanical gardens. 3.) Walk up the tarmacced 5km track for free. Again by the entrance to the botanical gardens. Whichever you choose you will not be disappointed once at the top..
Tip: You cannot drive a scooter up the track yourself. You will be stooped at the base. I didn’t know this and subsequently had to walk up the very, very steep track in flip flops. I do not advise this approach. Bring decent footwear if you plan to hike up. It will take about 2-3 hours at a leisurely pace.
If you’re staying in Georgetown visit Red Square Foodcourt. It is absolutely crazy and brilliant. Dozens of food stalls form a square around the central seating area and stage.
Step 1: Choose which stall to order from and give them your table number, they will bring your food over when it’s ready.
Step 2: Roaming bar staff will take drinks orders at the table.
Step 3: Sit back and enjoy the ridiculously entertaining assortment of singers and drag acts.