The northern Malaysian island of Penang is well known for being home to some of the best street food in Asia. Surely enough of a reason to visit? Not quite? How about if we add in dreamy jungle-fringed beaches, kaleidoscopic butterflies and sleepy fishing villages, not to mention the eclectic back alley charms of UNESCO-Heritage listed Georgetown? Convinced? Then check out the recommendations below, courtesy of the lovely Laurel Stelzer AKA Penang Momma who blogs about life with two sweet kids, Miles and Hazel, on her gorgeous tropical island.
Explore Georgetown by Bike
We love to get around Penang by bike. You can avoid traffic and park pretty much at the doorway of wherever you want to go for free. The terrain is flat and the weather is usually good. Sure, Penang is not the most bike (or pedestrian) friendly spot, but drivers are used to lots of 2-wheeled vehicles and seem to steer clear; a bell on front warns wayward walkers of your approach. A basket, too, means you can pick up some yummy produce from the market or cruise Georgetown as a family. It’s also a great way to check out all the exceptional street art murals (see above) which are dotted around Georgetown, many by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic.
On a Sunday, ride down to Lebuh Pantai where Project Occupy Beach Street barricades the major streets for family-friendly, community activities like soccer, live music and street markets. This traffic-free space is great for biking especially with kids. Another hassle-free rider is Straits Quay Boardwalk. Two good places to hire bikes, include ones for the kids, are GT Bike Rental and Metro Bike.
Forget the rollercoasters and dodgem cars: this new theme park in Teluk Bahang is all about exhilarating outdoor activities that will test your kids’ stamina. They can take a punt at swinging through the jungle Tarzan-style, climbing coconut trees, riding human-powered go-karts and monkeying across challenging rope courses.
This lush piece of tropical jungle is enclosed by a greenhouse and filled with flowers, running water, pitcher plants and of course, thousands of butterflies: over 150 species in fact. It is as mesmerising to an adult as to a two-year-old, and even our 5-month-old was entranced by the colourful flitting wings. Fans of Eric Carle will be excited to see some tiny, very hungry caterpillars on hanging plants near the entrance, and then in cocoons waiting to become beautiful butterflies. The garden is enchanting.
After you’ve had your fill of winged creatures, check out the millipedes, lizards, frogs, snakes, scorpions and beetles on display as you head indoors. Then enjoy the fantastic gift shop, which has every item you wish you had bought in your travels in South-East Asia but didn’t get around to, from Vietnamese thread paintings to Terracotta Warriors!
The park opens at 9.00am, so make sure to get there early. A greenhouse in the midday sun soars to an incredible temperature. By 10.15am we were dripping. It’s also pretty magical to be the only ones milling around.
Make a day of it: After the Butterfly Farm, head back towards Georgetown and stop at the beach across from the Tropical Spice Garden (my favourite beach in Penang!) for a play in the sand and a splash for the kiddos. Then replenish with an ice-cold fragrant coconut, asam laksa (a hot and sour interpretation of Malaysia’s famous creamy coconut curry noodle soup) and nasi goreng cina (fried rice) from the beachfront hawker. Alternatively, head up the hill to Tree Monkey Cafe at the Tropical Spice Garden (which, incidentally, has a superb snakes-and-ladders playground for the kids) if you are in the mood for a splurge (and another great gift shop).
Penang National Park Beaches
There are some lovely calm, sandy beaches on the jungle-fringed edges of Penang National Park at the north-west tip of the island. Our favourite is the quiet Turtle Beach (Pantai Kerachut), so-named for the Green Turtle hatchery at the far end. It doesn’t get as many visitors as Monkey Beach (with its long tailed macaques,) which can be a little bit dirty at times but is generally a nice spot where you can explore the rocks, swing in a hammock, and enjoy a refreshing fresh coconut or cold beer. There is also the option to camp.
To get to Turtle Beach, you can walk from the park entrance about 20 minutes to the canopy walkway, which is suspended 15m up in the trees (well worth a visit even if you aren’t heading to the beaches). From here it’s a further 90 minutes to Monkey Beach (Teluk Duyung) or a two hour hike to Turtle Beach on well-used trails. On your way to Turtle Beach you’ll pass the unusual, seasonal meromictic lake, a rare natural feature composed of two separate layers of unmixed freshwater on top and seawater below, supporting a unique mini-ecosystem.
The paths are well-maintained and super-easy to follow with kids, but with Penang’s heat factor (and tiny legs in tow), a great alternative is to organise a boat to take you to the beach and back (or just to pick you up). There are several stands outside the small store near the park entrance where you can book a boat. A boat to Monkey Beach is about 90MYR (about US$27); a boat to Turtle Beach is about 160MYR (US$50), with no additional fee for stopping at Monkey Beach along the way. You will need to bring your own food and water.
The beautifully-landscaped Botanical Gardens, located at the end of Waterfall (Utama) Rd, at the base of Penang Hill, are one of Penang’s treasures. Lush and green, and surrounded by rainforest, they’re full of monkeys and Chinese ladies practicing tai chi. They are also complete with a very pram-friendly double-loop paved walking track, which is closed to cars. Look out for a multitude of different creatures such as the long-tailed Macaques, Dusky Leaf Monkeys, Black Giant Squirrels and a myriad of insects and butterflies.
Up top, the air is a fresh 10- degree drop, and the vistas unparalleled. David Brown’s Restaurant and Tea Terrace serves Devonshire cream tea and quintessential British fare like roasts and puddings from the choicest vantage. There’s also a recently opened drinks bar overlooking Penang Bridge and, rather strangely, an owl museum a collection of over 1,000 rare and exotic, owl-inspired artifacts created by artists around the world. It’s possible to walk back down the hill (two to three hours) on a little-used jeep trail which ends at the Penang Botanical Gardens at the foot of Penang Hill.
Penang has some incredibly ornate temples which are well worth a visit. Kek Lok Si, or The Temple of Supreme Bliss, in Ayer Itam is the largest one in Southeast Asia and, of course, seriously busy. For something more low-key, I recommend Wat Chayamangkalaram (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha), an iconic Buddhist temple with a 55m beautifully gold-plated reclining Buddha statue, one of the largest of its type in the world. Opposite the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, two large stone elephants greet you at the serene Dhammikarama Burmese Buddhist Temple. If you need a food break, the temples are walking distance from the Sin Hwa coffee shop, which is renowned for its claypot noodles, duck egg koay teow (stir-fried rice noodles), and bowls of steaming asam laksa soup.
Penang Youth Park
We love this wonderful park with its huge shady playgrounds, giant chess set, skate circle, walking trails to the top of Penang Hill, bridges and trees to climb. With the insanely humid weather, the cascading spring-water pools and fountains are terrific for cooling off. There’s also abundant wildlife to spy, like huge monitor lizards and packs of roaming monkeys.
Malaysia grows – unbelievably – some 370 different types of edible fruits, so if weird and wonderful produce is your bag, you might want to check out the hour-long tour of Mr Quah’s Tropical Fruit Farm. Learn about the origins, taste and usage of in-season plants, which might range from jackfruit and Indian gooseberries to prickly pear and Malay apple. Save room for the inclusive fruit buffet and fresh fruit juice.
And now we finally come to the real reason you decided on a trip to Penang…the food! Penang, and, in particular, Georgetown – with its authentic Chinatown – offers a gourmet kaleidoscope of delicious Chinese, Malay and Indian cuisine. You can eat well and cheaply everywhere in Penang, but our three very favourite places are:
Northam Beach Hawkers (58 Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah) Right on the water, with a dizzying array of stalls serving up everything from grilled stingray and oyster omelette to spicy asam laksa soup. This is a wonderful spot for a sunset dinner with kids: it’s colourful, energetic and there’s live music most nights. Closed Tuesdays.
Bali Hai (90 Gurney Drive) This laidback seafood joint has the motto is ‘if it swims, we have it’; and the rows of fish tanks will keep the kids occupied for hours, or at least long enough to get through a supremely tasty dim sum meal, which is served up each morning.