Penang Island is one of the most interesting places in Malaysia, and definitely one of the most famous stops along the South East Asian tourist trail. Nicknamed as “the Pearl of the Orient” and recently boosting a superior facility development, it truly amazes me that, out of 10 people I talk to, at least half come up with the following statement, enforced with anxious lip movements and eyeball rolling:
“I don’t like Georgetown”
This is it, the sentence which all sorts of travelers seem to prefer when addressing to Penang Island. They hate Georgetown. After more than a year calling this place home, I felt compelled to try to write down a top 10 list of the best to do in Penang… which is an island, after all, and cannot be reduced to the snobbish statement of those backpackers who, on the sole purpose of obtaining a Thai tourist visa, don’t even dare to leave the backpacker ghetto concoction of Lebuh Chulia, Love Lane and Muntri Street in Georgetown. It is for a reason that these people get bored and call an Island with the name of a suburb!! Let me help you out to find the beauty of Penang Island and discover some of its hidden places.
10 Drink Cheap at Antarabangsa
The main reason why Western tourists hate Malaysia is the higher price of alcohol because of the taxes enforced by the predominant Muslim government. Sadly, it is true. But just behind the corner from the God of Mercy temple, at the northernmost end of Muntri Street, there is a little bar which might alone change your Penang experience in matter of seconds. I am talking about Antarabangsa. This word means “International” in Malay, although the only internationality you might find seems to be of Indian descent. A Chinese run enterprise, this place has the cheapest booze on the island, with the cheapest beers to be sold at 3.5 rm (around 1 US$). You can even get bottles of Burmese Orang Utan whiskey for 4rm a piece (around 1.25$)!! Isn’t this what every backpacker coming in from the booze luxury of Southern Thailand wants? The picturesque backdrop of the Chinese tiles of the God of Mercy temple, the rugged tables, the total lack of comfort and style and the back-alley trash atmosphere make Antarabangsa the best dive I ever encountered during my trips across the East Asian landmass… proud to be a customer ever since I got introduced to it.
9 Kek Lok Si Temple
Dominating the view of the island while standing on top of the multi storey pagoda perched on the western side of Kek Lok Si temple is one of the highlights of every visit to Penang. Being the biggest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia, is definitely a place not to miss. It is so colorful and abundant in carvings and statues that you might easily spend a whole afternoon exploring its halls and quiet gardens. In 2002, a 30 meters tall statue of goddess Kuan Yin was completed and now rules over the Eastern side of the temple, from where it is lovely to relax observing the cityscape melting slowly into the sea. The best time to visit is definitely during Chinese New Year celebrations, when the temple literally lights up adorned by thousands of votive lanterns… a photographer dream coming true.
8 Thaipusam Festival
Please, try to come to Penang during the weekend when the Indian Festival Thaipusam is held, usually around the end of January. Literally hundreds of Indians pay homage to their Gods in the most particular way: piercing their tongues and faces with metal skewers, hanging hundreds of small votive spheres to their flesh using little hooks, and carrying the giant Kavadis on their shoulders… you’ll be also lucky enough to witness people pulling trucks loaded with statues of Shiva, Anuman and the likes using their bare backs… how? With big hooks pierced in their flesh, of course!! This is the most savage, amazing and entertaining festival I’ve seen in Malaysia…and probably in the rest of Asia, too. The streets are literally closed down to allow the procession to flow into the main Waterfall Temple, and you will be forced to dance and party till the wee hours, helped to keep standing by the copious amount of free refreshment handed gently to the participants… literally, a must!
7 Hiking at Teluk Bahang National Park
Many people are in such a rush to get to Taman Negara and have most likely a disappointing experience there, that they just overlook this stretch of pristine rainforest perched on the Northwestern corner of Penang Island. Two moderately hard trekking routes lead you to the two best beaches in Penang, Pantai Keracut, where it is possible to see Marine Turtles’ nests, and Monkey Beach, where you better secure your backpack to something solid to avoid the Grey Bearded macaques’ snatch attacks. A beautiful corner of the island which seldom sees many travelers venturing by… it is also possible to take showers in the National Park Offices before getting back on the frequent bus 101 to Georgetown.
6 Chowrasta Book Market
What would you expect from a wet market? The same smorgasbord of colors, smells, meats and pyramids of vegetables found in any Asian market? Yes, but Chowrasta, a market building situated along the main artery Penang Road in front of the Police Station, has even more. If you venture at the back and climb a tiny metal ladder, you will be taken back in the world of 80’s and 90’s paperbacks… books are expensive in Malaysia, and this is the place where to scout for bargains. Literally thousands of books are piled up in tiny shops scattered all along the corridors of the market area… whatever your pick is, you’ll find something able to raise your interest: It is even possible, for the hardcore travel collectors, to find very old and rare editions of Lonely Planet titles… I just saw the first edition of “China” the other day… be prepared to spare a few long, busy and dusty hours to unearth some hidden gem from this rarity museum!
TO BE CONTINUED