How to make the most of Georgetown, a Malaysian gem just an hour’s flight from KL.
Stay Away From Gurney Drive/ Batu Feringghi
Despite what brochures may tell you, Penang is not known for its beautiful beaches—titles that usually go to Langkawi or Phuket. If you want the real Penang experience, stay in Georgetown where you will be surrounded by rich food, history, and art—the island’s true calling cards. Gurney Drive may be famous, but it’s mostly a tourist trap and has no relation to Penang life.
Stay at a Heritage Hotel
Almost everything happens within the UNESCO Heritage zone, so save yourself some time by staying there. The UNESCO designation protects these old buildings from being demolished, but many collapse on their own, and repairs can often be prohibitively expensive. Businesses have sprung up as a way of saving them: generating revenue as hotels or restaurants to pay for upkeep. Some may question whether these “heritage” establishments preserve the ancient buildings or simply commercialize them. In my experience, vendors seem respectful of the region’s rich history and actively seek to preserve it.
Let yourself wander
Part of Penang’s appeal was that it’s largely undocumented by the Internet. Yelp reviews are sparse, and even blog posts are quickly outdated. Stalls close down, move away, or change their times constantly. Street art fades away. So enjoying this town almost requires a taste for serendipity and adventure.
Tip: The UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site and buffer zone offer the highest concentration of restaurants, stores, and surprises for explorers. You’d have to really try not to find anything interesting walking around there.
Get a cab
While Penang is relatively small, the heat can be sweltering year round, so walking for long distances is not recommended. This is especially true the farther you are from the city center. There is a free shuttle to all the main tourist stops, as well as public bus transportation. However, service is notoriously slow. If you only have a few days in town, don’t spend it waiting for the bus.
Taxis are your best bet for making the most of limited time, but many drivers will not use meters and are known for trying to rip off tourists. Unless you enjoy haggling, I recommend Uber.
You can get an inexpensive Malaysian SIM card, but I got by just using Wi-Fi from cafes or my hostel. The driver can start the ride on his phone even if yours is no longer connected to the Internet. On average, my rides cost 4-6 MYR (~$1.00-1.50 USD as of Jan 2016) for what would otherwise have been a 20-30 min walk.
Cash is King
Most of Penang operates by cash, but you won’t have to carry much of it. Most things are ridiculously cheap here, even before the favorable exchange rate (to Americans). A large bottle of water is usually 2 ringgits (~$0.50 USD as of Jan 2016). Meals at hawker stands might be 4-10 ringgits (~$1.50-2.50 USD) but can be as low as 1 MYR! I spent less than 200 MYR the two and a half days I was there. Carrying 100 MYR (less than $24 USD) per day should be more than enough to get around, eat several meals, and even buy some souvenirs.
Eat at Hawker Stalls
Like the rest of Malaysia, Penang is a hot pot of Asian cultures and flavors. The island is especially famous for its 24/7 availability of world class street food. Many of these stands (called “hawkers”) tend to be grouped into hawker centres that have a dining area. There is a unique way of eating in hawker centers in Penang, which I have written a separate guide for here.
Try to Stay for 3-4 days
Penang is steeped in culture, with plenty of museums, street art, and even a National Park that is free to hike. The variety of food alone was enough to keep me entertained. Most stalls are not open daily, and almost all are closed on Sundays. Unlike restaurants back home however, you can’t check online or call ahead to find out if a hawker center is open. Having a few days here increases your chances of being able to try everything your gregarious cab driver recommends!
Watch Out for Motorcycles and “Snatching.”
Although Penang is low in serious crime, motorcycles can be a double threat to safety. Try not to be mowed down by them when crossing or walking down narrow streets. You should also be aware of “snatching,” when a motorcyclist grabs your bag as they fly by.
Tip: stick close to the sidewalk (when there is one) or as far from the road as possible.
See the street art before you can’t.
Famously the site of Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic’s street paintings, Georgetown has embraced its status as a mecca for street art aficionados. Although many of the original pieces have begun to fade away, Zacharevic admits the fleeting nature of these murals is part of their charm.
Luckily the street art in Georgetown is constantly evolving, with local artists stepping up where Zacharevic left off. You can probably find a map online of the most popular ones. I preferred the delight of stumbling across them as I walked around.
Tip: Wander around Lebuh Armenian (Armenian Street) and share your finds with fellow tourists.