Penang – the Pearl of the Orient – and a terrific compare and contrast to our time in Singapore. Almost everything is different here – definitely the prices and yes it is grubbier and not as well maintained – but this is Asia, in a way that I know Asia, whereas Singapore maintains its charms in a more sanitised way.
George Town, Penang
We arrived safely on Jetstar Asia and had a very pleasant taxi ride to our accommodation in George Town. Arriving on a Sunday the traffic was not as busy as we had been warned, which was a relief.
Our accommodation was booked at Cheong Fatt Tze – The Blue Mansion, just inside the buffer zone of the world heritage area of George Town. What a delight we had in store. I can’t say it any better than does the hotel website “Traverse into the eclectic charm of Penang’s illustrious history as you step into the world of Cheong Fatt Tze’s Blue Mansion. Conceived and constructed before the end of the 19th century, the Blue Mansion stands today as one of the most iconic boutique hotels in Malaysia. It is also one of the very rare gems listed under the UNESCO Conservation & Heritage award.”
Well perhaps I can say it better; Rowan and I agree that this is the most incredible accommodation we have ever stayed in. Each room is individually decorated and huge, beds are comfortable, showers hot and there is a jacuzzi in each bathroom. Add the extraordinary history, the architectural and design details and the delightful staff from housekeeping to management. A bit of a splurge for us at $160 per night but worth every cent. I could write the entirety of this post about the hotel but I will let the photos speak for themselves. If you do get to George Town make sure you do a tour of the property if staying there is not within your budget – you won’t be disappointed.
For the last word on the Blue Mansion, if you want to have a taste of the experience but are travelling on a budget, do seriously consider enjoying the fixed price lunch menu. With the Ringgit at around 3 to the Australian dollar, we found this exceptional value – yes, that is just over $20 per head for 3 courses.
George Town was HOT and humid whilst we were there, so we were glad to be within the heritage area and within walking distance to most locations. There are other options; taxis, buses and trishaws, as well as bicycles and motorbikes to rent. Walking allowed us to soak up the local atmosphere and take in the street art which is omnipresent. Tougher walking than in Singapore with lots of steps up and down on the footpaths, plus motorbikes parked on the walkways.
Parts of the old town felt a little like Hanoi – not just all those pesky motorbikes, but the fact that streets tend to have a particular commercial focus – all the engine repair shops together, all the hardware retailers and all the fabric shops. Then there was Little India – a sound and aroma sensation to say the least.
It is interesting to wonder what will happen to George Town over the years ahead as money flows in to develop the buildings within the heritage area. It is only 7 years since UNESCO judged this to be a world heritage location and the development tensions will need to be negotiated.
We did the City Route of the Penang Hop On, Hop Off Bus one day – a great way to get an overall feel of the City and we found that really enjoyable. There is also a Beach Route – we ran out of time to do that part, but as our next accommodation was at Batu Ferringhi we weren’t too concerned.
It was lovely to see how green Penang is when you get out of the immediate City area, and on a future visit we would take the trip to the top of Penang Hill to soak up the cool breezes. The hot tip we were given is that it is best to make your visit later in the day when the queues are shorter and you can enjoy a drink or a meal as the sun goes down.
George Town Penang Food
I know you find it difficult to believe that I haven’t yet mentioned the food. Anyone will tell you the food in Penang is delicious and they would be right. From fine dining in the Indigo Room at the Blue Mansion, to the packed but efficient Tek Sen Restaurant to the cafe within Ren I Tang we enjoyed great food in George Town. Perhaps my favourite though, was this dish at the delightful 20 Chulia Lane Cafe a lovely family run cafe. Highly recommended and they do great cakes and desserts as well.
If food is your main reason for visiting Penang (and it’s a great reason) you will want to also read Where to eat in Penang
Batu Ferringhi Beach Penang
From George Town we moved out to the Batu Ferringhi Beach area for some chill out time by the pool. We found it challenging to find our preferred kind of accommodation in this area and opted for the Holiday Inn. Like the rest of the Batu Ferringhi area it was OK, but if we revisit Penang (likely) we would keep to George Town.
Whilst we enjoyed our visit to the Entopia Butterfly Garden and we highly recommend doing a tour of the Tropical Spice Garden, these spots are easily accessed from Georgetown, either by taxi or on the Beach Route of the Hop On Hop Off bus.
Overall we found the Beach area a bit shabby and felt it had lost its way. The beach itself is overrun with parasailing, banana boats and horse riders so not a peaceful place. By and large the food choices were confused (lots of restaurants doing every type of cuisine). The night markets were bustling but nothing there really caught our eye.
We did have a lovely Chinese meal at Andrew’s Kampung – the duck pancakes were superb – and we enjoyed some western style meals at Ferringhi Coffee Garden, but Malay or Indian food seemed not to be readily available which was disappointing.
Fortunately we were ready to take it a bit easy so we enjoyed lying by the pool at our hotel and there may have been a beer or two, some hot chips and a pina colada consumed.
Would we return to Penang, yes we definitely would, so cheers to that!
Not sure whether Penang or Langkawi is the best island for you? Find out in this comparison.
Have you been to Penang? Is it on your bucket list? What makes a great holiday for you?