Postcards from Penang


A short flight from Singapore or Kuala Lumpa (1 hour), Penang, known as the Pearl of the Orient, is one of the most popular tourist spots in Malaysia. Penang Island is situated on the northwest side of the Peninsula Malaysia and linked to the mainland by two extraordinary long bridges.


The perfect time to go to Penang is between November and February. Monsoon season is from June to September, although this apparently is a very mild wet season. Average temperatures throughout the year are in the early 30s, so whatever time you go it will be warm.

We went in October, and it was fairly typical weather with just one day of continual plan-ruining rain. Those plans happened to be a visit to an orangutan sanctuary, and an hour and a half drive away. Malaysians are very philosophical about the rain, and it was deemed unlikely the rain would stick around or that it would be raining in Perak where Bukit Merah Orangutan Island was. Well, it was, and the rain did persist and we didn’t see the orangutans.


Strategically placed on the northern part of the Strait of Malacca, Penang has a rich history of empires and cultures who have staked their claim, and in doing so left their mark. The streets of Georgetown, the cultural heart of Penang, are literally built on its colonial past. The English ships, which began to arrive in the late 18th century, would come filled with ballast, heavy Scottish stone to weigh their empty hulls down. When they arrived, this ballast was dumped in Georgetown as the hulls were filled with goods to take back.

The ballast was used as the foundation blocks of Georgetown and can still be seen today along with the influences of the cultures and empires that shaped this town, from the architecture to the temples, the tiles on the pavement as well as the food being enjoyed.


The rich cultural heritage of Penang is deliciously evident in the food. From Malays, Indian Muslims and Hindus, Thai, Chinese Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Hakka, Hainanese, and British, each have contributed to Penang’s distinct cuisine.

The biggest food dilemma you have in Penang is not finding great food but not having enough time to enjoy everything this Island has to offer. For this reason, I am not going to list the places you must visit. Instead, here are just a few of the dishes you can’t leave Penang without experiencing.

Char Koay Teow – famous Penang fried flat rice noodles and the dish I crave when back in New Zealand.

Asam Laksa – considered one of the best dishes to eat in Penang. This tamarind-based laksa is more sour than the coconut-based curry laksas popular in Singapore.

Roti Canai – delicious flat bread served with dal is a popular breakfast dish, so forget the hotel’s turkey bacon and eggs and eat like the locals.

Masala Dosa – This Southern Indian delicacy is very much ingrained in Penang’s food scene. These impressive crisp crêpes with accompanying masala are available for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Lok Lok – While there are Lok Lok restaurants with communal tables, I was mesmerised by the street stall versions. Skewered food of every description is on offer, dipped and cooked in boiling water then the sauce of your choice. The sticks are colour coded to show the price of each.


Tip – Forget the fancy spots. The best food is on the street and hawker stalls or small family run spots.

The mix of culture, history and fun is what we love about Malaysia, and Penang is the epitome of this. Stroll or take a trishaw around the streets of UNESCO World Heritage Georgetown to soak up the history while spotting some of the many murals and sculptures dotted around. Visit the clan jetties where Chinese clans settled and built their houses on stilts out over the water.

We took a walking food tour of Georgetown, which I would recommend simply because of the information on the history and culture we would never have discovered alone.

Georgetown also offers an array of temples to visit, like the awe-inspiring Kek Lok Si Temple (temple of ten thousand Buddhas), one of the largest and most beautiful Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia.  Avoid the heat and crowds and go early. We visited on a public holiday and spent a lot of time queuing for the cable car to take us to the top.

Kek Lok Si Temple is near the funicular that takes you up Penang Hill (Bukit Bendera). After several failed attempts queuing for this ride up (and the family thoroughly sick of me finding reasons to say funicular), we headed to the botanical gardens for a thrilling ride to the top on a 4WD. Once up you are rewarded with breathtaking views and a number of fun attractions.

If a stunning view is your goal, we loved The Top where the 360-degree views come with the thrill of walking on the glass skywalk 68 stories up. The Top also includes an aquarium, 7D motion theatre, Jurassic Research Centre and more, all in air-conditioned comfort.

With our orangutan plans scuppered, we headed out on a boat to a turtle sanctuary I had discovered. Locals seemed vague about the spot, but I was determined. The family were pleased we didn’t opt for the 2-hour hike through Penang National Park to the sanctuary, as it was very small and simple, just a couple of baby turtles in a tank. The boat ride, which included a stop at Monkey Beach, was nevertheless a fun day out.

Not deterred in our quest to discover more of the natural wonders Penang had to offer, we set off for a big day visiting the Tropical Spice Garden and the Tropical Fruit Farm, where they grew everything from coffee to mace, dragon fruit to giant passionfruit. We also visited the entrancing Entopia Butterfly Farm and made a stop in to learn the art of batik.

Hands down, the best day of our holiday for all was at Escape. And trust me a never thought I would say that about a day spent in my togs! Malaysia’s number one theme park is divided into two sections and although we got there at opening and left at closing, we only managed to enjoy the water park side. The high ropes and ziplines as well as the newly installed artificial ski slope will have to wait until next time.

So eager to ride the Guinness Book of Records longest waterslide that winds you through the Malaysian bush for 1,111 metres, we arrived too early for the chairlift to take us to the top, so opted to walk! This was just the start of our butt and thigh workout day as we climbed up staircase after staircase just to slide down an endless array of water slides, from the sedate to the terrifying.


With a choice of accommodation from five-star resorts to backpackers, Penang will suit all tastes and budgets.
We stayed at the Hard Rock Café Hotel in Batu Ferringhi, just 17kms from Georgetown but due to traffic this can take between 30 minutes to over an hour by taxi.
With a seven-year-old in tow we chose Hard Rock Café Hotel because of the fun atmosphere and enormous pool, including waterslides. There was an option for the littlest member of the family to have their own room complete with TV, Xbox and soft toys, and although this was a pleasant change to normal hotel rooms with a roll away, a few days in we swapped for a room we could jump into the pool from our room!


Tip – Getting around can be hard with limited taxis, especially at night. Make sure you download the local rideshare app Grab.

Words and Images Vicki Ravlich Horan    





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