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Penang travel FAQs: everything you need to know for a smooth visit

Penang travel FAQs: everything you need to know for a smooth visit

Penang is an intoxicating fusion of cultures and alongside its deep-rooted history, this tropical island is being catapulted into the modern world. It’s vibrant, chaotic, and very hot and humid. For those travellers visiting Southeast Asia for the first time, the differing sites, sounds and smells hit immediately and may be unsettling initially.

However, any worries about visiting Penang for a first time can be dissipated with some local knowledge before your arrival, and we’re here to help.

Where is Penang?

Penang is a state of Malaysia situated on the northwest peninsular coast, close to the Thai border. It is a four hour drive north of the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.

To the north and east of Penang lies the Malaysian state of Kedang, to the south is Perak, and to the west are the the Melacca Straits, a sea that divides Malaysia with the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

Penang is not just an island. Many travellers mistake this. Penang as a state comprising of both Penang Island and a section of mainland Malaysia that includes the cities of Butterworth and Bukit Mertajam. These two halves are physically connected by two bridges, Penang Bridge and the Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge (more commonly known as Penang Second Bridge). There are also regular passenger ferries that run between Butterworth and Penang Island.

What time zone is Penang?

As with all of Malaysia, Penang is 8 hours ahead of GMT. There is no daylight savings.

This time zone is known formally as Malaysia Time (MYT).

Malaysia is in the same time zone as China, The Philippines, Singapore, and Western Australia.

Is Penang worth visiting?

Absolutely! Otherwise we would never have set up this Penang travel blog. Although as Penang is our home, we could be considered rather biased. But there’s a reason (well a few) we decided to move our family across to the other side of the world to live here!

Penang is such a historically rich, culturally vibrant, and naturally stunning island, offering so much diversity for the discerning traveller to explore.

Indeed, there are so many things to do in Penang, from the street art and culinary delights of historic George Town, to the rainforest hikes and animal encounters of Penang National Park, and let’s not forget the epic view points of Penang Hill and the lazy beach vibes of Batu Ferringhi.

Plus, the range of accommodation options on Penang Island means that every style of traveller is catered for; whether your a budget backpacker looking for a hostel, a digital nomad looking for a month-long stay at a serviced apartment, or a young family in need of waterslide, kids clubs and beach access from a high-end Penang hotel, you’ll find it on Penang and often at excellent value compared to accommodation prices in Europe, North America, or Australia.

But the main reason most people visit this tropical island? The food. Oh my, the food is so good. The variety, quality and price of eating out arguably makes Penang one of the top destinations in the world for foodies.

How long should I stay in Penang?

Penang Island is one of those places where travellers stop for a night or two, and then end up staying a month or longer (guilty as charged!). It’s become the most popular base in Malaysia for digital nomads who are looking to slow down their travels.

Many travellers only visit Penang Island as a day trip on a Malaysia tour or a cruise excursion. But really, you should allow at least week to settle into the tropical vibes and soak in all that the island offers.

However, if you are short on time and only have one day to explore Penang Island, then check out our one day in Penang itinerary.

Clan Jetties, Penang

One day Penang itinerary

For such a small patch of land, Penang Island squeezes in enough sights and activities to keep you occupied for a lifetime. So what’s the best approach to visiting Penang if you only have one day to spare?

Is Penang safe?

Penang is a safe place to visit and you’ll find the vast majority of people to be friendly and welcoming with your chances of encountering an incident of violent crime extremely rare.

As with all major cities, it always pays to keep an eye out for pickpockets if you’re in a crowded place such as the Jetty bus station or Batu Ferringhi night markets.

Perhaps the biggest risk you’ll encounter is the occasional health and safety ‘contravention’, with exposed wires, broken footpaths and missing railings all part of the experience. With a little care and perspective though, these won’t case you many problems.

When is best time to visit Penang?

Penang is in the tropics, which means that it is hot and humid all year round with temperatures hovering around 30°C., and rain can always be expected.

Penang rainy season

There is a rainy season in Penang (historically the months of September, October, and November see more rainfall). However, this is considered a mild rainy season compared to other regions in the tropics and the start and end of the season can be rather blurred. Plus, when it does rain in Penang, it’s often a short and sharp burst of rainfall, and it can often be quite exciting to watch! Personally, we don’t feel the rainy season is a time to avoid.

The best time to visit Penang is considered to be December through to February, with historically clearer skies, although the occasional rain cloud should still be expected. However, these months tie with school holidays, Christmas, and Chinese New Year, accommodation prices increase and many Penang hotels get booked up.

How to get to Penang

Penang has it’s own international airport, and as well as servicing flights around Southeast Asia (including Vietnam and Singapore), there are also international flights direct from Doha (Qatar airways). However, Penang Airport only sees a fraction compared to the Malaysian Airlines hub of Kuala Lumpur, and many travellers will find themselves transiting through KL if arriving to Penang by air.

There are two bridges that connect Penang Island with the mainland (Penang Bridge and Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge), which means buses connecting major cities within Malaysia can drop you right on the island. Penang Island’s main bus station is at Sungai Nibong Bus Terminal, near to Penang Bridge. 

Penang ferry between Butterworth and George Town

Those travellers riding the rails from Thailand or Kuala Lumper to Penang will find themselves in the mainland city of Butterworth. From the train station, it’s a short walk to the ferry terminal, from where you can catch one of the regular ferries direct to George Town on Penang Island.

How to get around Penang

Being a relatively compact island, it doesn’t take too long to get from one side of the island to the other. Although on a rainy public holiday day, you may beg to differ!

Trishaw in Penang

Penang benefits from a comprehensive bus network linking many of the most frequently visited areas of the island. In particular, the service is excellent in the arc between the airport in the south, George Town, and the National Park on the northwest corner. Most visitors to Penang find themselves using either the 101 (from/to the Jetty) or 102 (from/to the airport) buses, run by Rapid Penang which links George Town, Batu Ferringhi, National Park, and most places in between.

However, if you’re wondering – is there Grab in Penang? Well yes, there is! This e-hailing taxi service is probably the easiest way way to get around Penang and no journey is considered too short or too long. Whether you’re hopping across the centre of George Town, or taking a island-wide journey from the airport to the national park, Grab taxis are the way to go. Install the app before your first journey and you’ll soon be booking a ride. You can link your credit card (international ones included) to the app to pay, which saves scrambling around for cash. On a side note, Grab also has a food section, great for ordering takeaways after a long day sightseeing.

Although if you fancy experiencing a more traditional form of transport during your visit to Penang, how about riding a trishaw around George Town?

What type of electric plugs are used in Penang?

Handily for us Brits, the same plug type is used across Malaysia. This is plug type G, which has three rectangular pins in a triangular pattern. Malaysia operates on a 240V supply voltage and 50Hz.

However, a travel adaptor is always handy, especially if you’re travelling to different countries, or if you charge your devices via USB.

This travel adaptor adapts to all plug types and comes with 4 USB slots.

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What language do they speak in Penang?

The official language in Penang is Malay but, reflecting Penang’s multicultural heritage, several other languages are in everyday usage.

You’ll hear English spoken a great deal, particularly for official purposes. The Chinese population speak a variety of dialects, notably Hokkien which has only relatively recently been overtaken by Mandarin, largely due to the latter’s usage as the main Chinese dialect in schools. Meanwhile, the majority of the Indian community speak Tamil.

As you can see (and hear), Penang has a rich linguistic streak, so it’s handy to know some basic phrases in some of the languages. Most Penangites are multilingual though and English is widely understood throughout Penang.

What to do about money in Penang

The Malaysian currency is the ringgit (RM), which is divided into 100 sen. Notes are in denominations of RM100, RM50, RM20, RM10, RM5, RM1.

Malaysian ringgit notes and coins

Cards are increasingly overtaking cash in Penang with many smaller shops and restaurants preferring card payment, although cash is of course still widely used. The exception is food markets and street stalls where cash is usually only accepted. It’s a good idea to always have some cash on you.

Try and break your big notes up whenever you can and save small change, it just makes life easier.

There’s an almost unlimited supply of ATMs in Penang, you’re never more than a short walk away from them. Most international cards are accepted but make sure you’ve informed your bank of your travel plans to avoid any holds being placed on them.

Current exchange rates

Check xe.com for current exchange rates. But as a guide, the current exchange rates are (January 2024):

100 MYR = £16.62
100 MYR = €19.42
100 MYR = US$21.15

Is tipping expected in Penang?

Tipping is not expected in Malaysia, including Penang. However, many higher-end restaurants, particularly the hotels, include a service charge directly to your bill.

But if no service charge is added, a tip is always very much appreciated. If you would like to tip, then 10-15% extra is a good amount. If paying by cash at a small street vendor, rounding up is a nice thing to do.

What to wear in Penang

Light clothing that is loose and breathable is the key to being comfortable in the tropics. Avoid jeans and other heavy fabrics. Moisture-wicking T-shirt, trousers, and even underwear, are an excellent idea. Jay will always be in a moisture-wicking T-shirt, whereas I (Jenny) prefer floaty skirts and trousers. Linen is also better than cotton as it dried much quicker (we’re talking about your sweat).

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Malaysia is Muslim country. Whilst it’s common to see many tourists in spaghetti straps and short shorts and skirts, it’s culturally respectable to wear clothes that covers both knees and shoulders, especially when visiting temples. This isn’t really an issue at the beaches or around the pool where swimwear, including bikinis, are very much the norm.

Some high-end restaurants and hotels have a strict dress code, such as the Eastern & Oriental Hotel where after 3pm smart-casual attire is required (Polo T-shirts are acceptable but guests are discouraged from wearing shorts, singlets, flip flops and gentlemen’s sandals).

As for footwear, again, light and breathable shoes or sandals are best. Penang is great for walking, whether it’s around the heritage sites of George Town or the footpaths through the rainforest of Penang National Park, so make sure you pack a shoe that will take you the distance. Our personal go-to travel sandals for all the family are KEENS; they’re lightweight, breathable, have excellent grip and support, and are very comfortable. We’ve been purchasing KEENs for our travels in the tropics for over 5 years now. For evenings where you want to dress up a little, smart sandals are worth packing in your suitcase. Similarly, flip flops are handy for the pool and beach.

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Finally, a poncho and/or umbrella is a necessity for travels in the tropics. A rain jacket is fine, but you’ll just sweat underneath. A poncho packs up small and is much more breathable for those short, sharp downpours. Please consider purchasing a reusable poncho, rather than packing disposable plastic ones. A foldable umbrella is handy to have in your day bag. There may be blue skies at the start of your day exploring, but trust us, those dark storm clouds can roll in very quickly in the tropics.

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And don’t forget the sunglasses and sun hat!

Is the tap water in Penang safe to drink?

Whilst the majority of locals drink the tap water, if you are only visiting Malaysia for a short time, the last thing you want is a stomach bug. Best to stick to filtered or bottled water, and avoid ice cubes in your drinks at restaurants and cafes.

To save on water bottles, consider buying a water filter bottle. The WaterWell™ Travel Ultra 2 Stage Filter 700ml Water Bottle removes bacteria and parasites (including Salmonella, E-coli, Giardia) and chemicals. It’s the perfect water bottle for travellers.

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