Visited by Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, Noël Coward and Queen Elizabeth II among many others, Penang has always been a popular tourist destination, both domestically and internationally. In 2009, Penang attracted 5.96 million tourists, ranking third in tourist arrivals in Malaysia. Penang is known for its rich heritage, multicultural society and its vibrant culture, its hills, parks, and beaches, shopping, and good food. Penang has been ranked by Yahoo! Travel as one of the “10 Islands to Explore Before You Die” and listed in Patricia Schultz’s best-selling 1,000 Places to See Before You Die travel book.
The most popular beaches in Penang are located at Tanjung Bungah, Batu Ferringhi, and Teluk Bahang, and these contiguous beaches are home to Penang’s famed hotel and resort belt. More secluded Muka Head, which hosts a lighthouse and a marine research station, and Monkey Beach – both within the Penang National Park – offer more pristine water. Pollution which has been going on for years taints the beauty of the beaches and increasingly turns tourists away to places like Langkawi and Pangkor. Among the identified sources of pollution include inefficient sewage disposal and unchecked commercial activities.
Famed for its food, Penang is a food haven visited by the Malaysian locals as well as foreign tourists. Touted the food capital of Malaysia, some of the best of Penang food can be found at Gurney Drive. The popular seafront promenade offers both delightful street and high-end cuisine. At the food court, you can find local favourites such as Penang Laksa, Bak Kuk Teh (a herbal stew of pork ribs and meat), Oh Chien (fried oyster omelette), grilled squid, and nasi lemak. The food court has both a halal and non-halal section.
The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion was built in the 1880s by master craftsmen brought in especially from China. The famous indigo-blue Chinese Courtyard House in Georgetown was the residence of Cheong Fatt Tze, and was built with 38 rooms, 5 granite-paved courtyards, 7 staircases and 220 windows and possesses splendid Chinese timber carvings, Gothic louvre windows, russet brick walls and porcelain cut & paste decorative shard works, art nouveau stained glass panels, Stoke-on-Trent floor tiles and Scottish cast iron work. It is filled with rare a collection of sculptures, carvings, tapestries and other antiques. Also known as the Temple of Supreme Bliss, Kek Lok Si is said to be the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia. Its main draw is the striking seven-storey Pagoda of Rama VI (Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas) and 30.2m bronze statue of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. The Pinang Peranakan Mansion is the former residence and office of Chinese Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee, and incorporates various Chinese architecture. Here you can find more than 1,000 antiques and collectibles.
Fort Cornwallis, named after Charles Cornwallis, is one of the most interesting historical landmarks in Georgetown. The fort’s walls are roughly 10 feet tall and shaped like a star. Some of the original structures built over a century ago are still standing, such as a chapel, prison cells, ammunitions storage area, a harbour light once used to signal incoming ships, the original flagstaff and several old bronze cannons, one of which is a Dutch cannon called the Seri Rambai, dated 1603. The Penang War Museum was erected on the original defence complex built by British before World War II and is dedicated to those who have served and died, defending the country. Many war paraphernalias and relics, as well as historical timelines of events are on exhibit at the museum.
Parks, gardens and natural history
Despite its limited land size and dense population, Penang has managed to retain a considerable area of natural environment. As of 2011, 7% of the state’s total surface area or 7524 hectares was forested. Located at the fringe of George Town, at the foot of Penang Hill are two adjacent green areas – the Penang Municipal Park (popularly known as Youth Park) and the Penang Botanic Gardens. Penang Hill, despite encroaching development, remains thickly forested and lush in vegetation.The Relau Metropolitan Park was opened in 2003. Robina Beach Park is a park by the beach near Butterworth. Gazetted in 2003, the Penang National Park (the country’s smallest at 2,562 hectares) at the northwestern tip of Penang island boasts of a lowland dipterocarp forest, mangroves, wetlands, a meromictic lake, mud flats, coral reefs and turtle nesting beaches in addition to a rich diversity of birdlife. In addition to this, there are nature preserves in Bukit Relau, Teluk Bahang, Bukit Penara, Bukit Mertajam, Bukit Panchor, and Sungai Tukun. The Penang Butterfly Farm in Teluk Bahang, one of few of its kind in the world, is a walk-in free-ranging butterfly habitat, breeding and conservation centre. The Penang Bird Park in Seberang Jaya is the first aviary in Malaysia. Other places of special interest include the Tropical Spice Garden and the Tropical Fruit Farm in Teluk Bahang, and the Bukit Jambul Orchid and Hibiscus Garden.
Penang is a major shopping destination in the northern region of Peninsular Malaysia. It has several modern shopping malls offering a wide range of merchandise. Among the more popular ones on Penang island are Queensbay Mall (Penang’s largest), Gurney Plaza and Gurney Paragon at the famed Gurney Drive, 1st Avenue Penang a brand new mall in the heart of the Penang, KOMTAR (Penang’s first modern shopping mall) and Penang Times Square (an integrated commercial and residential complex near Komtar). Notable shopping malls in Seberang Perai are Sunway Carnival Mall at Seberang Jaya and AEON Seberang Prai City at Bandar Perda. Traditional bazaars such as the Chowrasta Market and Campbell Street, and makeshift open-air night markets known as pasar malam were the precursors to today’s shopping malls. They offer goods ranging from modern electronics and textiles to foodstuffs and local produce.