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50 things to see in Penang

There’s so much to see around Penang that it can get a bit staggering. Lucky for you, Sehra Yeap Zimbulis has put together a list of things to see around the island that’ll give you a great sense of its heritage, culture, nature and straight-up fun

The great outdoors

Firefly Sanctuary at Nibong Tebal

The mangrove swamp at the mouth of Sungai Kerian on the mainland is home to millions of fireflies, which glow like fairy lights in the trees. Take a sunset boat ride from the Sungai Kerian jetty to see this quietly spectacular light show.

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Tanjung Bungah

Penang Botanic Gardens

Since 1884, this lush rainforest valley at the end of Jalan Kebun Bunga has been a living museum of Penang’s botanical and horticultural heritage. The majestic rain tree at the park entrance has greeted generations of visitors since the 1800s.

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George Town

Penang Municipal Park

It’s also known as the Youth Park. Kids can burn off excess energy here at the playgrounds, splash pools, skating rink, skateboard park and walking trails. There’s also an archery club, open to the public on weekends between 3pm and 7pm.

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George Town
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Air Itam Dam

This picturesque dam, completed in 1962, is located 213 metres above sea level. The trail around the dam is an easy loop of a couple of kilometres and is a splendid place for a morning walk.

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Air Itam

Curtis Trail, Penang Botanic Gardens

This short 1.5 km loop into the rainforest, starting from the Bandstand, is named after Charles Curtis, the British botanist who designed the original layout of the gardens, and leads to where his house once stood. The trail is marked with many informative signs along the way, making for a great introduction to the rainforest.

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George Town

Places of worship

Kapitan Keling Mosque

Named for the head of the Indian Muslim community who built it around 1800, this venerable old mosque on Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling has undergone several facelifts over the years but it retains many of its lovely Mughal style architectural elements, dating from the 1930s.

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George Town

Goddess of Mercy Temple

Consecrated circa 1801, this temple was originally dedicated to Ma Chor Poh, the patron deity of seafarers in thanks for a safe journey from China across the perilous nan yang, or southern seas. By the 1820s this temple on Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling was also dedicated to Kuan Im, the goddess of mercy, and became a religious and social centre for the early Hokkien and Cantonese settlers in Penang.

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George Town

Sri Mahamariamman Temple

The Sri Mahamariamman temple on Lebuh Queen was built in 1833, on the site of a simple shrine where Hindu port workers once worshipped the goddess Sri Muthu Mariamman, the patron deity of peasants. Visitors are welcome in the temple, but remember to dress modestly, and remove your shoes before entering.

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George Town
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St George's Church

Completed in 1818 by the British colonial government and consecrated in 1819, this elegant, whitewashed church on Lebuh Farquhar is the oldest Anglican church in Southeast Asia. Extensively restored in 2011, it has now been gazetted by the Malaysian government as one of the ‘50 National Treasures’ of Malaysia.

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George Town

Tanjung Bungah Floating Mosque

This modern, graceful mosque, built to replace an older one destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, does not actually float on the water; it stands on concrete stilts overlooking the sea. The friendly mosque caretakers usually grant permission for modestlydressed visitors to enter, via separate entrances for men and women.

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Tanjung Tokong

Dharmikarama Burmese Temple

This Burmese Buddhist temple on Lorong Burma is the only one of its kind outside Myanmar. Completed in 1805, the temple features a series of murals that depict the life of Gautama Buddha on his journey to nirvana.

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George Town
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Wat Chayamangkalaram Temple

Located on Lorong Bangkok, this temple is built on a piece of land gifted as a gesture of goodwill from Queen Victoria to the Thai Buddhist community in 1845. Within the main hall is a 180-foot long reclining Buddha, said to be one of the longest in the world.

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George Town

Kek Lok Si Temple

The Kek Lok Si, or ‘Temple of Supreme Bliss’ on Jalan Air Itam is the most famous Buddhist temple in Penang. Construction of the temple began in 1890. Its distinctive main pagoda, featuring a Chinese-style octagonal base, a Thai-inspired middle tier and a Burmese crown, reflects both the Theravada and Mahayana schools of Buddhism.

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Air Itam

Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple

Located in the heart of George Town on Armenian Street, this temple, featuring an ornately beautiful roof, was constructed between 1850 and 1867. This is a clan temple for the Hokkien people, who immigrated from the southern Fujian province in China, and who are today the biggest dialect group in Penang.

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Bukit Mertajam
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Waterfall Hilltop Temple (Arulmigu Sri Balathandayuthapani Temple)

Located in the heart of George Town on Armenian Street, this temple, featuring an ornately beautiful roof, was constructed between 1850 and 1867. This is a clan temple for the Hokkien people, who immigrated from the southern Fujian province in China, and who are today the biggest dialect group in Penang.

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George Town

The Bat's Cave Temple of Tua Peh Kong

This massive temple complex on Jalan Raja Uda on the mainland is dedicated to the Nine Emperor Gods whose festival falls on the ninth day of the Chinese ninth lunar month. The entrance arch and prayer halls with intricate carvings are magnificent.

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Air Itam

Museums

Penang State Museum

Situated in a nineteenthcentury building that once housed the Penang Free School, the Penang State Museum features interesting and informative exhibits. Artefacts, maps and photographs document Penang’s history.

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George Town

Pinang Peranakan Mansion

Get a sense of stepping back in time at the Peranakan Museum on Church Street. The museum showcases a treasure trove of antiques and objets d’art, once part of daily life for a wealthy Peranakan (Straits Chinese) family.

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George Town

Made in Penang Interactive Museum

Right on Weld Quay is one of Penang’s newest attractions. This is an art gallery with a twist, featuring 16 Penang-inspired 3D murals that look astonishingly real in photographs, similar to the 3D street art seen in larger cities.

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George Town
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Royal Selangor Visitor Centre

Learn about the fascinating history of pewter, the beautiful silver-coloured metal alloy made from 85 to 99 percent tin at this museum and showroom. The ‘School of Hard Knocks’ is a great place for an afternoon with the kids, where you can learn how to make a pewter bowl using traditional tools.

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Tanjung Tokong

Places of interest

Little India

Early settlers from India opened their grocery stores, restaurants, barber shops, clothing and jewellery shops in this historic quarter. It’s as enjoyable and diverting as ever for the modern shopper to duck in and out of the street into the little shops.

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George Town

The Straits Quay Marina

Straits Quay in Tanjung Tokong is at its liveliest on the weekends, with live performances, shopping and great dining choices at its numerous restaurants, bars and cafés overlooking stunning yachts berthed in the marina.

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Tanjung Tokong

Rice fields, Balik Pulau

Verdant rice fields stretch into the distance in this area, which Penangites simply call ‘the back of the island’. This farming district is known for its durian, nutmeg and tropical fruit farms. It’s rural, charming and quiet, and is the antithesis of busy, bustling George Town, only a halfhour drive away.

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Bayan Lepas
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Titi Kerawang Waterfall

Located on the winding road between Teluk Bahang and Balik Pulau, the waterfalls (the name of which means ‘decorated bridge’ in Malay) make for a pleasant detour on a round-the-island trip. A small trail takes you to the falls, and there is a natural rock pool for a refreshing dip.

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Teluk Bahang

Historical sites

Old Protestant Cemetery

The oldest Christian cemetery in Penang, with graves dating from the late 1700s. This is also the final resting place of Penang’s founder, Captain Francis Light, who died in 1794. This peaceful space on Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah bears silent testament to the privations of life for colonialists in the malaria-ridden early days of settlement – many of those buried here were very young.

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George Town

Fort Cornwallis

Named for Charles Cornwallis, the Governor-General of Bengal, this fort on Jalan Tun Syed Sheh Barakbah was built in the late 1700s to protect Penang Island from pirates. The Sri Rambai cannon, placed here by British troops in 1871, still points defiantly out to sea, but the fort has never been used in any battle.

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George Town
War Memorial, Air Itam

War Memorial, Air Itam

In a small park at the Air Itam roundabout, a tall white obelisk stands as a memorial to the Chinese victims of the Japanese occupation of Penang during World War Two. The remains of about 800 of these victims, mostly unidentified, were cremated and buried beneath this monument.

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Clan houses

Khoo Kongsi

Early Chinese immigrants to Penang lived within an enclave shared with relatives. One of the largest and most magnificent clan houses in Southeast Asia, the Khoo Kongsi on Medan Cannon gives visitors a glimpse into the lives of these early immigrants.

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George Town

Cheah Kongsi

This beautiful clan house of the Cheah family on Armenian Street, with its imposing ancestral temple, is a relic from the mid- 1800s. These clan organisations operated as guilds that provided community support resources for clan members.

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George Town

Yap Kongsi

Although not as large or as imposing as other clan houses in George Town, the clan house of the Yap family on Armenian Street – which trace their lineage back to 439 BCE – houses beautiful ‘ancestral tablets’, wooden plaques inscribed with the names of ancestors, so that they are never forgotten.

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George Town
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Cultural celebrations

Nine Emperor Gods Festival

Nine Emperor Gods Festival

A nine-day long Taoist celebration held at the beginning of the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, when the nine sons of the goddess Duo Mo return to earth. Devotees go vegetarian during the festival, and take part in fire walking and other religious rituals at the Temple of the Nine Emperor Gods on Jalan Raja Uda. On the ninth day the gods are given a magnificent send-off back to the heavens.

Hungry Ghosts Festival

Hungry Ghosts Festival

In Chinese tradition, spirits of the dead come back to roam the earth during the seventh month of the lunar calendar. Offerings of incense, food and live street performances are given to appease them. Catch some of these performances around the Armenian Street area, but leave the first row of seats empty – those are for the spirits!

Ramadan Night Markets

Ramadan Night Markets

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during the daylight hours. By late afternoon, food stalls spring up everywhere to cater to the breaking of fasts. Ramadan markets are a great place to sample a remarkable array of mouth-watering Malay food.

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Thaipusam

Thaipusam

This is a deeply spiritual Hindu festival that takes place around January every year and manifests as a splendid, colourful spectacle of processions, traditional Indian music, incense and devotees who carry kavadis, or decorated altars, as symbols of penance or spiritual gratitude. The procession ends after a climb of hundreds of steps to reach the Hilltop Temple on Jalan Kebun Bunga.

State Christmas Open House

State Christmas Open House

The ‘open house’ is a uniquely Malaysian tradition, and during festive occasions everyone, regardless of race or religion, drops in on those friends who happen to be celebrating their festival. Each year, tens of thousands of people throng the Esplanade to enjoy carols, performances and food in the spirit of Christmas.

International Dragon Boat Festival

International Dragon Boat Festival

This ancient sport originated in China 2,500 years ago. Now in its 34th year, the Penang International Dragon Boat Festival, held in June every year, welcomes participants from all over the world at the beautiful Teluk Bahang Dam. Teams compete in spectacular boats, decorated to look like Chinese dragons.

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Chingay Parade

Chingay Parade

The first chingay procession, where performers balance giant, 12-metre-high flags on their shoulders, heads and mouths, was first held in Penang in 1919. See this in December every year as part of a dragon and lion dance procession around the Esplanade area.

Faces of Penang

Mee goreng mamak seller, corner of Armenian and Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling

Mee goreng mamak seller, corner of Armenian and Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling

Dressed in his checked sarong, this gruff, venerable noodle seller has been here for years, rain and shine, frying up platefuls of his delicious Mamak Mee Goreng for passing customers.

Traditional Indian Goldsmith, Queen Street

Traditional Indian Goldsmith, Queen Street

Bent over a little workbench outside his shop, as he has done for decades, this wizened craftsman makes exquisite, custom-made traditional Indian-style jewellery in 22-carat gold.

Rattan Weaver, Chulia Street

Rattan Weaver, Chulia Street

In a dilapidated shophouse in the heart of George Town, artisans still hand-make comfortable lounge chairs, stools, baby chairs and other furniture from rattan vine and bamboo. One place to see this on Chulia Street is at Lee Soo Kee Rotan.

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Nasi lemak sellers, Sri Weld Food Court

Every morning, on their way to work, people in George Town stop at this stall on Lebuh Pantai to pick up packets of delicious nasi lemak to go, wrapped in banana leaves. Fragrant coconut rice is piled on banana leaves and topped with sambal, fish, chicken and slices of cucumber.

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George Town

Apong Guan, Burmah Road

This is where you can find deliciously light little pancakes or ‘apongs’, plain or filled with sliced banana, cooked by a friendly seller. This little stall is a must-see along busy Burmah Road, right in front of the Chinese School.

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George Town

Char koay teow seller, Taman Emas coffee shop, Jalan Gottlieb

Watch this maestro fry up platefuls of sinfully rich rice noodles in a large black wok over a fierce fire, throwing in handfuls of beansprouts, chives, prawns, chilli paste, soy sauce and garlic. Every plateful he serves up is deeply aromatic and spicy, with the slightly burnt flavour that all great char koay teows have.

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George Town
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Heritage architecture

Suffolk House

On the grounds of this elegant Anglo-Indian manor on Jalan Air Itam once stood the home of Penang’s founder, Francis Light. The current building is 200 years old. After many years of sad neglect it was beautifully restored and now houses a fine-dining restaurant by the same name.

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George Town

The Blue Mansion

The iconic ‘Blue Mansion’ of Penang is a multi-award winning nineteenth-century Chinese trader’s home. This 38-room mansion on Lebuh Leith is now a hotel, but visitors are welcome to tour this historic building.

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George Town

Kek Seng Coffee Shop

Not all heritage buildings need to be grand and awe-inspiring – this humble little coffee shop with its old-fashioned wooden booths has been in business for 108 years. Many Penangites have grown up on Kek Seng’s famous ‘ice kacang’ dessert – shaved ice with sweet corn, ice cream, jelly, peanuts and red beans, drizzled with syrup.

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George Town
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Five-foot ways, George Town

Five-foot ways, George Town

Since the early 1800s these walkways have protected pedestrians in George Town from the tropical sun and rain. So-called because they are supposed to be exactly five feet wide, these lovely porticos in front of shops that connect and shelter entire streets were the brainchild of none other than Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore.

Cannon Street, George Town

Cannon Street, George Town

Many of the architectural treasures of George Town are to be found around this historic enclave, dotted with temples, pre-war buildings, street art and small cafés.

Ming Xiang Tai Gat Lebuh Armenian

Traditional Chinese pastries, egg tarts, barbecued pork buns and other goodies are made in-house in this step-back-in-time outlet, set in a pre- World War Two shophouse. Note the traditional raised threshold across the entrance – some believe it was for practical reasons (keeping dust out) while others believe it forced you to look down, thereby bowing your head respectfully as you entered a home.

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George Town
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Eastern & Oriental Hotel

This elegant, stylish old hotel, built in 1885, is the stateliest building in Penang. Rudyard Kipling, Douglas Fairbanks, Somerset Maugham and Hermann Hesse have strolled through its famous revolving doors. Visit in the afternoon for English tea and scones, and feel the presence of history all around you.

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