I think it’s obvious. We were here primarily for the food. As interesting a city as George Town is, we had heard so much about Penang’s legendary street food that we couldn’t help but give it top billing.
Whenever we travel to a new place, I create an itinerary starting with that destination’s most popular tourist attractions. I then consult local food blogs and review sites to find must-eat restaurants in the area. But in a place like Penang, which has been called “the street food capital of Asia”, it had to be the opposite. Food came first here so I did my research and came up with a list of the island’s most recommended hawker stalls to form the backbone of our itinerary. Some of these places are legendary and have been serving the same iconic dish for decades. As much as we love to eat, we only have limited space in our stomachs so I filled in the gaps with the island’s top tourist attractions to round out our itinerary. 😆
This guide may be food-centric but first-time visitors to Penang will find it useful as well. You’ll find travel tips and information about Penang’s other tourist attractions like its street art, heritage houses, mansions, and museums. But if you fly for food like we do, then you’ve come to the right place.
GUIDE TABLE OF CONTENTS
WHEN TO GO
Like many Southeast Asian destinations, Penang is generally hot and humid year round with average temperatures in the low 80s° F. It’s hottest around early March with temperatures reaching 90° F. In terms of rain, Penang’s wettest months are September and October (340mm) followed by April, May, and November (240mm).
Weather-wise, December to early February are considered the best times to go. However, this is also high season so expect the most number of tourists with the highest prices for accommodations. If you prefer low season and don’t mind braving a little rain, then June to August would be a good time to go. We went in late June for three full days and it didn’t rain once. It was nice and sunny everyday, though the heat in the early afternoon did get a little much.
HOW TO GET THERE
Most visitors to Penang will be arriving by plane. George Town is around 30-40 minutes from Penang International Airport.
BY TAXI / GRAB / UBER: The fastest way to get to George Town from the airport is by taxi or ride sharing service. The terminal stand is just outside the arrival area and a taxi to George Town will run you around RM 38. If you have a wifi connection, then you can also use a ride sharing app like Grab or Uber. That’s what we did and it cost us RM 26 from the airport to our hotel on Muntri Street. I heard taxi operators in Penang are territorial and don’t like these ride sharing apps so you’ll need to go upstairs and wait outside the departure terminal for your Grab or Uber car.
BY BUS: If you’re on a budget, then the cheapest way to get to George Town from the airport is by bus. Rapid Penang Bus lines 401, 401A, and 401E operate between the airport and George Town. The fare is RM 2.70 each way so be sure to have small bills handy since the driver can’t give you change. Buses run every 30 minutes and take about an hour to get you to the main bus terminals at KOMTAR or the jetty. From there you can either take a taxi, use Grab or Uber, or walk to your hotel.
We flew to Penang but there are other ways to get there depending on where you are. I suggest checking 12Go Asia to find route options available to you. It’s a popular transportation website that services Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Laos.
HOW LONG TO STAY
We stayed 3 full days in Penang and this gave us enough time to visit many of its major attractions. We were able to cram over 15 hawker stalls / eateries in those 3 days and see much of its street art. We stayed mainly in George Town but there’s more to the island than that like beaches and natural parks so staying longer wouldn’t be a bad idea. And besides, the longer you stay, the more meals you get to enjoy. 😉
HOW MUCH MONEY TO BRING
The unit of currency in Penang is the Malaysian Ringgit (RM). Assuming you’ll be sharing a hotel room with one other person and doing everything in this guide, then a budget of around RM 125-150 per day should be plenty. This takes into account your hotel room, museum entrance fees, transportation, hawker stall meals, pocket wifi rental, and some light shopping. Please be advised that this is just a guide so you’re welcome to adjust based on your own travel habits.
WHERE TO EXCHANGE CURRENCY
The best places to exchange currency in Penang are at licensed money changers. If you’re arriving by plane, then you can change a small amount at the airport to get you into George Town. There’s a currency exchange booth on the second floor in the departure terminal. We arrived after 9PM and it was still open. Once you get into town, you can change a larger amount at one of the currency exchange offices around Komtar shopping mall and bus terminal. You’ll also find a few along Chulia, Pitt, and Beach Streets. Rates at banks or hotels typically aren’t as favorable.
You can also use your ATM card to withdraw RM. The exchange rates are pretty good. For some reason though, I had trouble with several Maybank machines both at the airport and in George Town. My card kept getting rejected. I notified my bank before leaving that we were going on a trip so that wasn’t the issue. I only got it to work at this one ATM machine outside a 7-Eleven along Penang Road. I don’t know the reason for the trouble so be sure to bring some cash or credit cards in the event that your ATM card doesn’t work.
WHERE TO STAY: Ryokan Muntri
As mentioned above, George Town is inexpensive so it isn’t hard to find good accommodations. Not only are the guesthouses cheap, but they’re charming and brimming with character. We stayed on Muntri Street near Love Lane where many of the heritage houses have been turned into cute boutique hostels. They were so chic and cool I wanted to go inside every guesthouse to take pictures! Ryokan Muntri, which is just a block away from the main thoroughfare of Chulia Street and its night hawker market, is an excellent choice. We paid just RM 158 a night for a private room with bathroom.
Check out my post on Ryokan Muntri in George Town for more pictures and information.
Approximate Room Rate: RM 158 per night (as of June 2016)
15 DELICIOUS THINGS TO EAT IN PENANG
As described at the top of this post, we went to Penang primarily to eat. But we didn’t want to eat at just any old hawker stall. In a place with Penang’s street food cred, we wanted to find the best, so I consulted trusted Malaysian and Singaporean blogs to find out exactly what dishes we should eat and more importantly, where we should try them. This list of 15 delicious things to eat in Penang is what I came up with.
Many of the hawker stalls mentioned in this list are legendary and have been run by the same family for generations. If you fly for food like we do, then I suggest going to as many of them as you can. Trust me, you’ll thank us for it later. 😉 Click on the image below or the link above to read the guide.
THE MOST DESPERATELY DELICIOUS
Borrowing a line from KF Seetoh, these are “the most desperately delicious” dishes we had in Penang. Not everyone has the luxury to visit all 15 places on our list so if you don’t have the time (or stomach space), then these are the ones you shouldn’t miss. These 7 dishes are “die die must try” and something we would look for on every return trip to Penang. To help you narrow your choices down even more, I’ve ranked them in order starting with our consensus favorite.
1. Koay Teow Th’ng @ Pitt Street Koay Teow Th’ng (Carnarvon Street)
This bowl of fish ball noodle soup was hands down our favorite thing to eat in Penang. We both agreed it was number one. I wasn’t expecting a colorless dish like this to be anything special but it was. Koay teow th’ng is a dish made with flat rice noodles served in a clear soup broth topped with fish balls, pork slices, chicken, browned garlic bits, and chopped scallions. This version served at Pitt Street Koay Teow Th’ng on Carnarvon Street is considered by many locals to be the best, and I can understand why. It’s so damn good. We had another bowl from a different hawker stall and the difference was like night and day.
Check out my post on 15 delicious things to eat in Penang, Malaysia for more pictures and information on this fantastic bowl of koay teow th’ng.
Expect to Spend: Around RM 7.50 with drinks
2. Curry Mee @ Sister Curry Mee
Along with the koay teow th’ng above, this bowl of curry mee from Sister Curry Mee was one of my two favorite dishes in Penang. Spicy and redolent with flavor and texture, it’s to die for. Known as curry laksa in Singapore, curry mee is a dish made with egg noodles in a coconut-based curry soup that’s typically filled with bean curd puffs, bean sprouts, pig’s blood curd, cuttlefish, shrimp, and cockles. This particular bowl of curry mee was made by two legendary sister at a roadside stall by the foothills of Kek Lok Si Temple. They’ve been serving these bowls of curry mee for over 70 years now. With all that practice, no wonder it’s so good!
Check out my post on 15 delicious things to eat in Penang, Malaysia for more pictures and information on these legendary sisters and their curry mee.
Expect to Spend: RM 5 per bowl
3. Tiger Char Koay Teow @ Ping Hooi Coffee Shop
Char Koay Teow is considered by many to be Penang’s most iconic street food, and Ping Hooi Coffee Shop has been serving some of the island’s best for three generations now. Char koay teow literally means “stir-fried rice cake strips”, and it consists of flat rice noodles stir-fried in pork fat with light and dark soy sauce, chili, belachan (fermented shrimp paste), blood cockles, prawns, chopped Chinese chives, bean sprouts, and egg. Ping Hooi calls their version “Tiger Char Koay Teow”. It’s made with duck eggs and contains some of the juiciest, most succulent prawn I’ve ever tasted. It’s sooo good.
Check out my post on 15 delicious things to eat in Penang, Malaysia for more pictures and information on Ping Hooi Coffee Shop and their tiger char koay teow. You’ll be happy to know it’s located just a few doors down from Pitt Street Koay Teow Th’ng @ Carnarvon Street.
Expect to Spend: Around RM 10 with drinks
4. Duck Koay Chap @ Restoran Kimberly
This was the second of Ren’s two favorite dishes in Penang. It’s a hearty dish brimming with all kinds of duck and pork goodness. Koay chap is a Teochew noodle soup made with flat wide rice noodle rolls served in a dark soy sauce broth and filled with a variety of ingredients like pork, duck, offal, fishcakes, vegetables, and hard-boiled egg. So many components go into one bowl of duck koay chap and Restoran Kimberly has been preparing all the ingredients in-house for the past 30 years. They take no shortcuts which is why their version is so tasty. Restoran Kimberly only opens at night around 6:30PM so be sure to come early because the line can get pretty long.
Check out my post on Duck Koay Chap at Restoran Kimberly for more pictures and information.
Expect to Spend: RM 8 per bowl
5. Teochew Chendol @ Lebuh Keng Kwee
I’m not a dessert person but I fell in love with this teochew chendol. It’s a popular dessert made with shaved ice, coconut milk, jelly noodles, and palm sugar, and topped with other ingredients like red beans, glutinous rice, grass jelly, and creamed corn. Milky with bursts of caramel flavor, it’s a godsend on a hot Penang day! Conveniently, two of Penang’s best Teochew chendol vendors are located directly opposite each other in the same alley. Penangites are divided as to who’s chendol is better, so we did what any reasonable glutton would do and tried both. 😈
Check out my post on 15 delicious things to eat in Penang, Malaysia to find out which chendol we preferred.
Expect to Spend: RM 2.50 per bowl
6. Asam Laksa @ Air Itam Asam Laksa
Asam laksa is one of the island’s signature dishes and the reason why curry laksa is referred to as curry mee in Penang. It’s made with tamarind so it’s more sour than curry laksas. It’s made with mackerel, lemongrass, galangal, and chili, and garnished with mint, pineapple, onion, a sweet prawn paste, and torched ginger flower. Air Itam Asam Laksa, by the foothills of Kek Lok Si Temple and just a short walk from Sister Curry Mee, has been serving some of Penang’s best asam laksa for over 30 years. Being such an important dish, you can’t visit Penang without trying this.
Check out my post on 15 delicious things to eat in Penang, Malaysia for more pictures and information on Air Itam Asam Laksa.
Expect to Spend: RM 4.50 per bowl
7. Lok Lok @ Gerai Gerai Padang Brown
This was the most fun meal we had in Penang. It basically combines the concept of a hot pot and a kaiten-zushi restaurant. Lok lok is a type of communal steamboat wherein skewered sticks of food are placed around a central pot of boiling water. A variety of ingredients are typically offered like seafood, meatballs, fish cakes, dumplings, and offal. Diners just grab whatever they want and dunk it in the pot to cook! Sticks are labeled with different colors to indicate price, all of which are totaled at the end of your meal. We had a seafood feast but our bill for two came out to just RM 17.70. Lok lok rules!
There are many places in Penang that offer lok lok but we had it at Gerai Gerai Padang Brown. Check out my post on Lok Lok at Gerai Gerai Padang Brown for more pictures and information.
Expect to Spend: Around RM 10-15 per person
NOTE: In our itinerary which you can download by signing up for our FREE newsletter (scroll down), you’ll find a list of backup hawker stalls / restaurants. One of them is Joo Hooi Cafe which is known for their asam laksa and koay teow th’ng. We already had our hearts set on the places mentioned above so we didn’t go to Joo Hooi Cafe, but you may want to check it out as well. It’s highly recommended by many blogs and is conveniently located right next to Lebuh Keng Kwee where the Teochew chendol stalls are.
WHERE TO GO / WHAT TO DO
Though we were here primarily for the food, there are many things you can do in Penang that don’t involve your stomach. 😆 Here are a few suggestions.
1. Go Street Art Hunting in George Town
The entire city of George Town has become a gallery for street art in recent years. Done in different sizes, styles, media, and subject matter, it’s interesting to see all the art juxtaposed against the canvas of pre-war heritage houses. The artworks are scattered throughout the city — some tucked away in alleys and behind buildings — so finding and photographing as many as you can makes for a fun treasure hunt.
Check out my post on George Town’s street art for more pictures and information.
2. Explore the Heritage Houses of George Town
A UNESCO World Cultural Heritage City, George Town is home to the largest collection of pre-war buildings in Southeast Asia. Walking around town, you’d think you were in a different era if it weren’t for the cars! Many of the heritage houses are dilapidated and in need of restoration but its a gorgeous city nonetheless and a fun one to get lost in. If you enjoy doing street photography, then you’ll love it here.
Check out my post on George Town’s heritage houses for more pictures and information.
3. Visit a Mansion / Museum / Clan House
The family unit appears to be an important part of Penang culture and the attractions we visited reflected this. Khoo Kongsi and Chew Jetty come foremost to mind. George Town is also home to some lavish mansions turned museums like the Pinang Peranakan Museum and Cheong Fatt Tze mansion. Well-preserved and home to thousands of antiques, visiting them will take you back to 19th century Penang.
Check out my post on 4 museums to visit in George Town for more pictures and information.
Activity Duration / Admission Fees: Varies per museum
4. Take a Day Trip to Kek Lok Si Temple
Ren and I aren’t avid temple-goers but Kek Lok Si is one of the biggest and most important Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia. It makes for a good day trip from George Town if you enjoy visiting temples. If you fly for food like we do, then it should definitely be on your itinerary. As described above, two of Penang’s most legendary hawker stalls — Sister Curry Mee and Air Itam Asam Laksa — are located in this area.
Check out my post on Kek Lok Si Temple for more pictures and information.
Activity Duration: 2-3 hrs / Admission: FREE (Temple) / RM 2 (Pagoda) / RM 3 (Inclined lift each way)
1. Plan your Trip with Sygic Travel (formerly Tripomatic)
I love this free app. It allows you to plot points of interest on a map, including your hotel, so you can see exactly how far you need to travel between points. You can then group attractions together per day based on location. With pocket wifi, it can turn your mobile phone into a GPS tracking device so people with a poor sense of direction (like me) don’t get lost again. Pretty cool right? Check out my full post on the Sygic Travel app for more information.
Follow this link to check out our 3-day Penang eat-inerary on Sygic Travel. You can also download it in editable Word format by signing up for our FREE newsletter below. If Penang’s street food is a priority, then this will be very useful to you.
2. Rent a Pocket Wifi Device
A constant wifi connection is a must when traveling these days. You’ll need it to do research, convert currencies, use ride-sharing apps, navigate with GPS, etc. We never go anywhere now without renting a pocket wifi device first.
I couldn’t find any pocket wifi providers in Penang so I rented one from Singapore’s Changi Recommends. Their booths are at Changi airport so it was convenient for us since we flew to Penang via Singapore. I placed an order online for an overseas wifi router to Malaysia and picked it up from their departure terminal booth while in transit. Daily charges vary per country but I paid SGD 12 / day for Malaysia. No matter your destination, the first day of rental is always free.
As you can see from the picture below, it isn’t the most compact device but it does the job. There’s a 500MB daily limit for Malaysia. If you exceed that limit then the connection speed slows down considerably until the next day. Not sure if it was just our device, but we noticed the speed wasn’t great either when both us were connected to it. 👿 The battery life was just ok. We would switch it on around 8AM and it would last until around early to mid-afternoon. Luckily we brought a powerbank so I suggest you bring one as well. Since you’ll need to pick up the device and drop it off at Changi Airport, then you can only rent one for Penang if you’ll be transiting through Singapore. If that works for you, then follow this link to rent an overseas pocket wifi device from Changi Recommends.
If you’ll be traveling to Penang via Kuala Lumpur, then you can rent a 4G pocket wifi device from Klook for just RM 23 per day. This includes 500 MB of cumulative data allowance per day, which means that a 4-day booking entitles you to 2 GB of data for the entire 4 days. Follow this link to rent a Malaysia pocket wifi device from Klook. Pick up and drop off points are at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
3. Get Travel Insurance
To be honest, it was only recently when we started buying travel insurance. Back when we traveled just once or twice a year, travel insurance felt more like an added expense, one we didn’t need. But now that we travel more, I understand how important it is to have it. Fact is, you never know what can happen. It’s one of those things that you hope you never have to use, but if you do wind up needing it, then you’ll be thanking the gods that you had it. Or cursing them if you didn’t.
Though I do find it more necessary now, it’s still up to you if you think you need it. A 3-day trip to Hong Kong just shopping and eating may not really call for insurance but if you plan on doing more active things like bungee jumping, jungle trekking, or even going on a city bike tour, then I’d say travel insurance is a must.
We buy travel insurance from World Nomads because every long-term traveler I know recommends it. From the sound of it, they’re the best in the industry by a mile. Not only do they provide a high coverage limit for medical expenses (up to USD 5 million with the Standard package), they also cover things like trip delays, missed flight connections, theft/loss of passport and luggage, etc. Follow this link to learn more and get a free travel insurance quote from World Nomads. It’s super quick and easy.
4. Go to the Hawker Stalls Early!
If you check out our post on 15 delicious things to eat in Penang, Malaysia, you’ll find operating hours for every stall we recommend. However, just because a hawker stall advertises opening hours until 3PM doesn’t mean they’ll have food until 3PM! Most of the eateries in our guide are hugely popular so it isn’t uncommon for them to run out of food early. If you can, then I suggest going as early as possible to make sure there’s still food when you get there. Otherwise, you’ll need to go back the following day.
5. Say “Yes” to the Drink
I’m not sure how it works exactly, but every hawker stall we went to seemed to be part of some restaurant space or hawker centre. Soon as you sit down, someone will come up to you asking if you’d like a drink. We said yes all but once. The one time we said no we got nasty looks so I think it’s pretty much obligatory in Penang to get a drink if you sit and eat in that space. It’s a good idea to do so anyway since many places offer just one kind of drink which we found goes very well with that hawker stall’s specialty. Drinks are cheap too so don’t worry about cost.
6. Get Discount Tickets
We didn’t go on any but you can find deals to several tours in Penang on Klook. They even have a food tour. If you’ve never heard of Klook before, they offer deals to things like tours, attractions, airport transfers, and pocket wifi rental in many cities throughout Asia, including Penang. You can check their website for a complete list of deals on Penang attractions. You’ll often find interesting activities that you wouldn’t normally think of yourself so it’s definitely worth a look. For example, I discovered ice fishing in Hokkaido thanks to Klook so I’ll be doing that in February 2017!
7. Bring the Right Power Adapter
Malaysia has Type G electrical outlets so be sure to bring the right power adapters for your devices. Electrical voltage is 240V and the standard frequency is 50Hz.
HOW TO GET AROUND
George Town isn’t that big so it’s possible to make your way between attractions and hawker stalls on foot. With that said, Penang does get hot, especially around noon, so you may want to consider other means of transportation as well. Rental bicycles and trishaws are popular forms of transport around George Town. Trishaws are two-person canopied carriages powered by a driver on a bicycle. They’ll take you on a tour around the city — showing you its street art, heritage houses, and other points of interest — for RM 50 an hour.
If your destination is farther away, then you can use Grab or Uber. We used Grab a few times and it was pretty cheap, just RM 5 around the city. If you don’t have a smartphone or wifi connectivity, then you can always take a taxi.
Buses are the most inexpensive way to travel longer distances in Penang. We used it once to go from the KOMTAR bus terminal in George Town to Kek Lok Si Temple. The ride was about half an hour each way and the fare was just RM 2. You can check this Rapid Penang route map to figure out which lines you need to take and this fare guide for an estimate on fares. If you’ll be riding the bus often during your stay, then you may want to get a Rapid Passport for RM 30. It’ll give you a week’s worth of unlimited travel on all Rapid Penang buses.
Filipinos don’t need tourist visas to visit Malaysia for stays less than 30 days.
HOW TO GET CHEAP AIRLINE TICKETS
I usually rely on Cebu Pacific for cheap fares around Asia but they don’t have direct flight to Penang from Manila. You’ll need to stop in Singapore then continue to Penang on Tigerair. I never saw discounted fares to Penang so the ticket prices at the time would have cost over PHP 20,000 each round trip!
Unless I’m mistaken, there are no direct flights to Penang from Manila at all. One option would be to buy a discounted fare to Singapore from Manila on Cebu Pacific then arrange for a connecting flight to Penang with another airline, perhaps JetStar. I’m a fan of keeping things simple so we went with JetStar the entire way.
We paid PHP 5,540 each for round trip tickets from Manila to Singapore, then another PHP 3,423 apiece for round trip tickets to Penang from Singapore. That amounted to just PHP 8,963 each round trip with shared baggage allowance. This was a two-city trip — Penang first, then Singapore — so I booked the flights on JetStar individually. The transit time in Singapore en route to Penang was 5 hours which gave us plenty of breathing room. If you plan on booking similar flights, then be sure to do the same to give you enough allowance for potential delays.
If you don’t need to go via Singapore, then another option would be to fly through Kuala Lumpur on AirAsia. I did a dummy booking and a round trip ticket from Manila to Penang cost almost PHP 9,000 per person without baggage allowance.
I’m not an expert on Penang but I do hope that you find this guide useful. I’m only sharing some of the things I learned from our trip. If you have any suggestions or simply want to share your own experiences, then please feel free to do so in the comments section below. You’re welcome to join our Facebook Travel Group as well. We’d love to hear from you.
Thanks for stopping by and have a delicious time in Penang!
These are some of the things we brought with us to Penang. As you can tell, I document a lot of content for this blog so most of the things I bring are photo and video equipment. 😆 If you’d like to see what other gear we use, then you can check out our “What’s in Our Backpack?” post. (NOTE: The following links are Amazon affiliate links.)
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