Penang, Malaysia

Visit to view fabulous temples, relax on sandy beaches, ascend jungle-covered hills and mingle with an exotic cast of characters. As the oldest of Malaysia's British Straits settlements, predating Singapore and Melaka, it's no surprise that this established destination has long been on travellers' wish-lists, but a fresh clutch of boutique hotels are bringing a more stylish, intimate flavour to a sojourn here. The island's majority Chinese population help give Penang a personality all its own, but you'll find English and Indian influences afoot in bustling capital Georgetown, too. Sure, skyscrapers, Silicon Valley-esque software smarts and creeping modernity are mixing it with old-fashioned boutiques and bazaars these days, but buzzing from bar to beach in your trishaw – or wandering from tropical national park trails to temple-topped peaks – you can still find a peaceful pocket of the 'Pearl of the Orient' to polish as your own.

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Areas in Penang

When to go

Penang is a year-round destination with constantly high temperatures (around 20–30°C) and tropical humidity. The rainiest period is May to October, but it’s fun to visit in July when the event-packed Georgetown arts and culture festival is in full swing. Chinese New Year (January or February) is another fab festival time, but it's also a big draw for locals so things can get hectic.

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Getting there

  • Planes

    Penang's Bayan Lepas International Airport, 18 kilometres south of Georgetown (RM40 in a taxi), receives plenty of flights from capital Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru in the south of Peninsular Malaysia and Langkawi island to the north, as well as international connections from Singapore, Bangkok and Sydney. The main carriers plying these routes include Malaysia Airlines (, AirAsia ( and Singapore Airlines (
  • Boats

    Ferries shuttle between Butterworth on the Malay mainland and Georgetown on Penang around the clock and take 15 minutes. Fares are charged only for the journey from Butterworth to Penang. Langkawi Ferry Services ( and Ekspres Bahagia (+60 (0)4 263 1943) both run ferries to Penang from nearby Langkawi island, as well as offering connections between Penang and Belawan on north-east Sumatra, Indonesia (with onward bus journeys to nearby capital Medan included in the ticket price).
  • Trains

    Butterworth train station on the mainland is next to the ferry terminal for Penang, with connections from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to the south and from Hat Yai in Thailand to the north (for details see the North-South Train timetable at There are no trains on Penang island.
  • Automobiles

    You can drive to Penang island from Butterworth on the mainland via the 13.5-kilometre Penang Bridge (there's a RM7.70 toll payable at the toll plaza on the mainland, but no charge to return). By mid-2012 it will be joined by a second link from mainland Batu Kawan to Batu Maung at the south-eastern tip of Penang.
  • Taxis

    The meters in Penang's taxis are redundant as the drivers flatly refuse to use them; negotiate the fare before you set off. Typical trips around town cost about RM6–RM15. A ride to or from the airport should be about RM40. To navigate Georgetown's laneways, commandeer one of the island's ubiquitous bicycle rickshaws, dubbed trishaws (again, agree a fee for an hour's exploring or for your specific journey, before hopping on board).

Malay magic

Malay magic

Start in spick-and-span Singapore, a city known as much for its designer shops and scintillating street food as its superlative airport (yes, Changi really does have a rooftop pool, giant slide and butterfly garden). Hop across the Straits to Malacca, a little gem of shaded alleys, Portuguese ruins and inspired Nonya cuisine. The Petronas Towers dominate Kuala Lumpur (or KL as it’s affectionately known), a pulsing but laid-back metropolis with a pleasing café culture and serious shopping habit. Stock up on tea stops and cool air in the undulating Cameron Highlands, lose yourself in foodie-heaven Penang or relax in sultry Sabah, where you can climb majestic mountains, dive Sipadan’s turtle-rich waters or play with orang-utans.

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Singaporean boltholes

Singaporean boltholes

Tucked away in an upscale corner of Kuala Lumpur, Villa Samadhi’s Thai-styled rooms are set around an inviting lagoon-shaped pool; ladders from ground-floor terraces allow guests to swim out from their rooms.

Tiny Tioman Island can only be reached by boat. Perched over the South China Sea, Japamala Resort’s luxury tree houses and cliff-clinging chalets are the ultimate back-to-nature retreat, with courtyard Jacuzzis, secluded sun decks and overwater day-beds.

Set on a peaceful lagoon, romantic Gayana Eco Resort in Sabah even has its own marine research centre. It’s just the place for overwater plunge-pool petal-strewn baths à deux, if you’re into that sort of thing. And, let’s face it, who isn’t?

Weird and whimsical, Wanderlust is a vivid dreamscape of a boutique hotel set in the heart of Singapore’s Little India. No two rooms are the same – expect 29 flights of fancy inspired by pop art, origami and childhood fantasies.

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Malaysia exploration

Malaysia exploration

Shopping is Singapore’s national pastime; savvy visitors avoid the glitz and glamour of Orchard Road in favour of its quirkier designer boutiques. Tucked in a Chinatown nook, World Savage stocks repurposed vintage togs and hand-made jewellery; Haji Lane is home to a string of fashion-forward boutiques and scandi-furniture store cum bespoke cocktail den Bar Stories. When you’ve had your fill of plastic-flashing, turn to the spiritual at intriguing Tamil festivals; in KL’s Batu Caves, Thaipusam is a colourful display of faith, endurance and penance. Singapore’s verdant new ‘supertrees’ dominate the skyline at Gardens by the Bay, but for the real thing head to Sepilok’s pocket of rainforest, home to an orang-utan sanctuary and rehabilitation centre.

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Clove Hall

Clove Hall

Romantic Penang boutique hotel Clove Hall is a raised-from-the-dead renovation of an elegant Edwardian plantation home in UNESCO-listed Georgetown. Exquisite objets d'art stand guard on black-and white-tiled floors, and the aromatic trade winds make the weatherboard sing. Sophisticated service and a sleek pool bring more contemporary creature comforts, making this the perfect residential retreat for heritage-hungry hounds.

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Singaporean suppers

Singaporean suppers

Pure pleasure, tingling tastebuds, sheer happiness – if you’re after one word to describe the state of bliss following a good meal, just say shiok. Locals can spend hours arguing over the best chicken rice or nasi lemak; from curry-laced Ramly burgers to the crispiest of wafer-thin dosas at Sri Vijaya (+65 6336 1748), the heart of gastronomy is in food centres and hawker stalls. That’s not to say fine dining is off the menu: Joël Robuchon, Mario Batali and Daniel Boulud all have Singapore outlets. Ladies who lunch flock to the Regent’s groaning high-tea buffet, in-the-know expats bunk off early for Morton’s free happy-hour steak sandwiches, but for the real taste of Malaysia, pull up a plastic chair at a roadside stall and tuck into smelly, buttery, custardy durian.

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