Penang Island, Malaysia

A pretty reasonable 4 hour bus ride took us further north into Malaysia to a city called Butterworth, where we immediately boarded a cheap ferry to George Town on Penang Island. The ferry ride was in the evening and it was pretty journey, with the city lights looming closer and closer.

However, the beautiful bubble was burst when we arrived on the island and had to walk to our accommodation. George Town is a very old city, therefore the streets and sidewalks are not the best nor do they have the best drainage.  So they were riddled with cockroaches, giant rats and other things that come out at night.  It was pretty horrific and I thought ‘why did we come here’?!  But once we got some sleep we woke up to a pretty interesting and fun place.  Yes George Town is pretty dirty but it has such a rich history and incredible food culture, that we soon forgot about the legions of cockroaches from the night before.  Penang was colonised by the British in the 1700s and served as a major link between East and the West.  It epitomises the exotic east as portrayed in many old films.  The colonial architecture mingles with rickshaws and it is a great place to walk around and take in.  We visited the Penang Museum, which gave us some much needed context for this fascinating place.

The food on Penang Island is the ultimate highlight. Because of the mix of cultures over many generations, they have really picked the best of everything, which makes for a unique and delicious cuisine.  From jellyfish to the famous Penang Laksa, we tried everything and were not disappointed.  There are a few hawker food markets but the one we enjoyed the most was the Gurney Drive Hawker Centre.  They had an incredible selection of foods and a high turnover, meaning everything was pretty fresh.

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Gurney Drive Hawker Centre

Another culinary must-do is to go out for dim sum, the Chinese food on Penang Island is really good. We went to a place called Tho Yuen Restaurant, which was amazing, but busy so expect a wait.

A great day trip is to rent scooters and head out to Long Beach. It is really fun driving around and checking out a bit of the scenery. There is a another great hawker market called Long Beach Food Court, where we tried some great noodles.  It’s right on the beach and the beer was cheap which made for a great day.  And getting caught in a tropical rain storm on the way back to George Town was a pretty funny experience.

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One cute kitten of many at the Long Beach Food Court

Overall Penang Island was a once in a lifetime experience. It was dirty and gritty and the food was spectacular, which all made for a truly unique experience.  We ended up spending a bit more on Penang than in the rest of Malaysia, because we spent a lot of time gorging ourselves.  So you’re looking at about NZ$60 (US$45) per day.

Editor’s Note: Visited Malaysia in 2014, updated in 2017.

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