Penang, Malaysia’s largest island, is extremely popular. Tourists love it! Backpackers love it! Everyone loves it! The island is affectionatly called the “Pearl or the Orient” and boasts the ever-popular UNESCO world heritage status, and Penang’s George Town (Georgetown) is repeatedly listed as a top destination in Malaysia. Armed with this knowledge, we rode our ferry from Butterworth into Penang with excitement and anticipation.
Penang: Not As Expected
To say we were confused upon arrival on the massive island would be an understatement. The strange, sketchy undertones of Malaysia permeated every street corner and stallfront.
Old buildings run down with dirt felt more sinister than quaint. Many a building was dilapidated beyond repair, and nothing felt like the amazing historical place described.
There were some questionable characters milling about amoungst the tourists, and we felt a less than secure vibe when we milled about ourselves at night. Interesting and old-wordly, sure, but the main disconnect was with how people talked about Penang versus what we saw. I still don’t get it!
Penang: Food & Street Art
There is one reason to visit Penang, and that is the food. It is, no exaggeration, the best food I’ve ever eaten. Definitely the best food in Asia, and possibly in the entire world. The Kimberly Food Plaza is the best “hawker center,” hands down, especially at night. Basically, we just ate for an entire week. I was so busy eating amazing food I failed to photography any of it lest these 2 lame images.
What I did not fail to photograph was the street art, another top attraction in this monstrous island. There are maps guiding you to this abundance of “art” located around the city, in case the thousands of people standing in front of said art don’t tip you off. There is so much weird art that even if you aren’t trying to spot it you will. And you’ll probably feel compelled to photograph it and/or pose with it, too. Even against your better judgement…
The “Other Side” Of The Island
The #1 best thing we did in Penang was venture to Balik Pulau, or the other side of the island. You can ride the bus for upwards of 3 hours to arrive, or negotiate a quite low fare for a driver to take you (we did the latter). This part of Penang is much more rugged and remote, and devoid of the millions of UNESCO-loving tourists. Very authentic, indeed.
This other side of the island also has some “attractions” including a tiny nutmeg factory where an older man pointed to the nutmeg and describes in loud and confusing translations the products he has been creating himself since 1953! This man’s face adorns the bottles of each and every product for sale, and yes, you will feel compelled to buy something from him (the juice is legitimately quite good). There is also a goat dairy farm, which sounds cool but amounts to a tourist display on animal cruelty in the form of emaciated goats overcrowded on wooden platforms with no grass. We exited immediately. There are also several durian farms and a large fruit farm, where we did an enzyme tasting as much fruit was out of season. I would not recommend doing that tasting.
Things Not To Do In Penang
Don’t go to the national park. While the hike is decent (standard), about an hour and a half through the woods, the “crater lake” is horrific and by no means an attraction, plus they fail to mention you cannot actually swim on the beach because of the massive stinging jellyfish. The “turtle sanctuary” is an animal cruelty zone, too, and you get trapped and must take a boat back which is not cheap. While we waited for said boat a man offered us to drink from hose of pure “jungle water…” while standing next to a large sigh that said DO NOT DRINK jungle water. We also visited Monkey Beach in the park, which was borderline horrifying with some very concerning moldy bungalows and tents for rent. As we walked around, weird invisible people yelled “happy hour” from the woods. We felt unsettled and wanted to leave quickly, but our boatman had abandoned us so we were literally stranded.
I also do not recommend visiting the Batu Ferringhi area of Penang (although the Floating Mosque en route is cool). Described as the nice, upmarket place to eat and stay, we were confused when we stepped off the public bus at Batu Ferringhi. It was not nice. It was not upmarket. It was all kinds of gross and all the tourists looked unhappy. All in all, I would go to Penang to eat and only eat. But, usually, my recommendations are not consistent with everyone elses.