Sunday, December 31, 2006

Penang, Pearl of the Orient

Penang night skyline
Penang night skyline. The tall building at the right is KOMTAR

Penang, often referred to as the Pearl of the Orient, is an island off the northeastern coast of Peninsular Malaysia. Its Malay name "Pulau Pinang" translate to "Betel Nut Island". The state of Penang includes the island as well as a slice of the mainland referred to as Seberang Prai (formerly Province Wellesley) separated by a 3km channel and joined by a The Penang Bridge. It is also linked by a ferry service. Penang is an idylic island famous for its golden beaches, calm warm sea and especially for its delicious, cheap and varied hawkers' food.

It has a population of more than 1 million comprising 59% Chinese, 32% Malays and 7% Indians. The seat of administration as well as the commercial hub is Georgetown located at the northeastern tip of the island. It houses modern buildings such as Komtar as well as well preserved buildings which bears the influences of both East and West. A stretch along the sea known as Gurney drive used to have lots of big bungalows, but have now been largely replaced by high-rise and expansive apartments. At night, a strech here is occupied by a lot of hawker stalls selling delicious and inexpensive famous Penang hawker food.


The present day Penang is a result of successive influences from foreign civilizations, from the Hindu, the Portugese, the Dutch and later, the British who came to this part of the world in search of spices, and stayed on to participate in the lucrative trade. The foundation of modern Penang is often attributed to Sir Francis Light who persuaded the Sultan of Kedah to cede the island to the British East Indian Company in 1786. It is said that when Sir Francis Light the present day Esplanade, he threw gold coins into the jungle to encourage his crew to clear the land. The settlement that grew on that site came to be named Georgetown after King George III. The Sultan of Kedah further ceded a slice of the mainland across the channel in 1800 which Francis Light named Province Wellesley after the then Govenor of India. It then formed a part of the Straits Settlement together with Malacca and Singapore and flourished grew to become a major trading port for the lucrative tea, spice, china and cloth trade. It stayed for more than 100 years under British colonial rule until 1957 when it was granted independence and became one to the states of the Federation of Malaya, and then Malaysia in 1963.

Getting there

You can get to Penang by road, rail, ferry and air.

By Rail

The rail link between Kuala Lumpur and Butterworth is served by KTM (Keratapi Tanah Melayu) and takes approximately 8 hours. The train goes past scenic countryside. Comfortable first and second class air-conditioned coaches are availble at reasonable rates. There are also regular services from Alor Star, Padang Besar, Haadyai and Bangkok to Butterworth. Further information can be obtained from KTM offices at telephone 04-261 0290 and 04-331 2796.

By Road

Butterworth can be reached by road using the tolled PLUS North-South Highway. From Butterworth, Penang Island can be reached via the Penang Bridge. Charges are RM7 (USD1.98) one way. Return journey is free.

By Ferry

From the Butterworth terminal, you can also get to the Penang Island via regular ferry services for both passengers as well as vehicles. Cars are charged RM7 (USD1.98), motorcycle RM1.40 (USD0.40) and passengers RM0.60 (adults) and RM0.30 (children). Return journey is free. Operating hours are from 6.00am to 1.00am.

By Air

Airlines have daily flights from major capitals of the region. MAS operates direct flights from Singapore, Bangkok (Thailand), Nagoya (Japan), Medan (Indonesia), Xiamen (China) and Madras (India). Mas also have more than 20 daily flights from Kuala Lumpur. Further details can be obtained by telephone at 04-262 0011 and 04-262 1403 (ground floor, Komtar), 04-643 0811 (Penang International Airport) and 03-8777 8888 (KLIA, 24 hours).

The airport is about 20km from the city center. Taxis from Penang International Airport to the city is by taxis which operates on the coupon system whereby fixed rates are charged according to the destinations. You can also travel by limousines which cost a little higher.

Getting Around Penang

You can get around Penang Island by taxis, buses or trishaws. Recently, the authorities have tried to impose compulsory use of the meter for taxis, but from what I hear, they are having problems. You may have to agree on the fare before you board.

Most buses uses coin machines to collect fares, so you have to get ready with the right change, or end up paying higher with notes or higher value coins. The main bus terminals are at Pengkalan Weld (ferry terminal) and KOMTAR (Kompleks Tun Abdul Razak).

The following are the bus services:

Transit Link (white and red buses)
Bus No 1: Air Itam
Bus No 2: Bagan Jermal
Bus No 3: Jelutong
Bus No 4: Jalan Yeap Chor Ee via Jalan Perak
Bus No 5: Jalan Masjid Negara via Dhoby Ghaut
Bus No 6: Jalan Masjid Negara via Jalan Patani
Bus No 7: Jalan Kebun Bunga (Botanical Garden)
Bus No 8: Penang Hill Railway (from Air Hitam)
Bus No 9: Jalan Masjid Negara via Jalan Penang/Jalan Dato' Keramat
Bus No 10: Kampung Melayu
Bus No 11: Taman Tun Sa'ardon via Jalan Masjid Negara
Bus No 12: Jelutong/Air Itam Village
Bus No 18: Bukit Mertajam (via Penang Bridge from Port Weld)
Bus No 29: Bukit Mertajam (via Penang Bridge from KOMTAR)
Bus No 130: Air Itam/Farlim
Bus No 202: Batu Ferringhi/Teluk Bahang
Bus No 325: Bukit Gedung
Bus No 353: Balik Pulau (via Sungai Ara)
Bus No 361: Balik Pulau (via Air Itam)

Sri Negara Transport Services Co (Blue and Yellow buses)
Bus No 136: Port Weld to Pepper Estate
Bus No 137: Port Weld to Tanjong Tokong

Hin Bus (white and blue buses)
Bus No 93: Batu Ferringhi/Teluk Bahang

Mini Buses
Mini buses charge a flat rate of RM0.70 (USD0.20) except for buses No 66 and 69
Bus No 21: Port Weld to Air Itam
Bus No 32: Port Weld to Bayan Lepas
Bus No 66: Port Weld to Balik Pulau (via the Snake Temple)
Bus No 67: Port Weld to Gertak Sanggul
Bus No 69: Port Weld to Batu Maung
Bus No 80: Port Weld to Paya Terubong
Bus No 84: Port Weld to Bayan Baru
Bus No 86: Port Weld to Mayang Pasir

Trishaws cruise the city and allow you to view the sights of Penang at a leisurely pace. You can stop at any place to buy souvenirs, snap photos, etc. There is no standard rates and you would have to agree to the price before you board. If you plan an extended tour, it would be better to hire them by the hour.

Motorcycle rental
Shops offering motorcycle rentals can be found along Chulia Street. However, motorists in Malaysia may not drive the same way as in your home country, and you will have to exercise caution.

Tours and Cruises
You can join tours on air-conditioned buses to tourist attractions around the island. Some of the tours are:

Round Island Tour
Visits to batik factories, fishing villages along Batu Ferringhi and Teluk Bahang, and include visits to Balik Pulau, the Snake Temple and Fort Cornwallis.

Hill and Temple Tour
Include a ride up the Penang Hil's funicular railway and a visit to the Kek Lok Si Temple which houses the Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas.

City Tour
Visits to the Botanical Garden, Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram (the reclining Buddha), Kapitan Keling Mosque, Penang Museum and Khoo Kongsi.

Night Tour
Visit to the Pasar Malam (night market), a trishaw ride around Georgetown, and a dinner.

Boat Trips
Most beach hotels offer day trips to the uninhabited islands off Batu Ferringhi. Round island cruise are also available. Check for details from the hotel.

Sports and Recreation

Jungle Trekking
Most beach hotels offers early morning jungle trekking taking visitors past jungle streams and waterfalls. Usually food pack is provided.

If you wish to venture out on your own, the Penang branch of the Malaysian Nature Society has a comprehensive guide on trekking in Penang. Inform someone first before you venture out. Penang is an island, and if you get lost, all you have to do is to keep going downhill and you will end up somewhere.

You can go golfing at the following clubs:

Bukit Jambul Golf and Country Club: Tel: 04-644 2255
Bukit Jawi Golf Resort: Tel: 04-582 2612, Fax: 04-582 5486
Kristal Golf Resort: Tel: 04-399 8661, Fax: 04-582 2280
Pearl Island Golf and Country Club: Tel: 04-642 7888, Fax: 04-646 6999

Water Sports
Beach hotels offers water sports such as sailing, windsurfing, water skying, parasailing, canoeing and speedboat rides. For snorkelling and fishing, Pulau Bidan, Pulau Telur and Pulau Song Song, island off Batu Ferringhi are ideal. Trips to the islands can be arranged by the hotels and tour agents.


If you want to be entertained by cultural shows, a good place to go to is the Penang Cultural Center (PCC) that offers the diverse culture of Malaysia all in one place. It is a 14 acre complex that contain a Cultural Village, the Istana (Palace) and a a Malay Theatre Restaurant. Three guided tours which last roughly two hours, includes an array of exciting traditional games, unique handicraft demonstrations and a 45-minute dance and cultural performance, the first tour starting from 9.30am and the last ending at 10.00pm, which is a dinner show. It is located at Teluk Bahang, and to get there from KOMTAR, you can take Bus No. 202 or No. 93. More details can be obtained by calling 04-8851175 or send an email to

Other places where you can see concerts/dramas/cultural shows:
* Dewan Sri Pinang Lebuh Light
* Fort Cornwallis Amphitheatre
* Geodesic Dome, KOMTAR

Penang has a wide choice of night entertainment like pubs, karaoke lounges, hotel lobby bars and discos where you can let your hair down. Most of those night spots are located along Batu Ferringhi. Eden Seafood Village also offers cultural performances. Opening hours are from 6pm to 11pm daily. It is located at 69A Batu Ferringhi, 11100 Penang. They can be contacted by phone at 04-881 1852.


Penang is a shopping paradise with hundreds of retail outlets located conveniently within and around the city. In the heart of the city itself is KOMTAR which houses a labyrinth of boutiques, fast food outlets, restaurants, amusement arcades, shops as well as two large department store. In addition to those is the Tower Tourists Center at the 58th Floor where you can get a panaromic view of the city as well as watch cultural shows.

Other shopping outlets are concentrated in Jalan Penang, Lebuh Campbell, Lebuh Kapitan Keling, Lebuh Chulia and Lebuh Pantai.

And don't forget the pasar malam (night market) along Batu Ferringhi, which start just before sunset. You can buy practically everything here, from fake Gucci, Nike shoes, Rolex watches, Ralph Lauren T-shirts, handbags, sunglasses, jewellery, batik, watches, gifts, T-shirts, etc. Just don't forget to bargain. As a guide, designer sunglasses are 10RM (USD2.83) each, latest DVDs for 4 - 8RM (USD1.13-2.26) each, a watch for around 20 RM (USD5.66), handbags are around 25 RM (USD7.08), T-shirts are around 15 - 25 RM (USD4.25-7.08). You can enjoy to eat some little local snacks along the Pasar Malam too.


A famous place for cendol (chendol) is at Joo Hooi coffee shop along Penang Road near KOMTAR. The hawker stall is named Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendul.

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