I have often come across frequent travelers who like to talk about their favorite cities they have either been to, or worked/lived in. None of them have ever mentioned Penang as being their favorite. Well, for me this city has been my top destination for many years. So when people ask me about my Number 1 Asian city, I always answer them, "Easy question....it's Penang," and unless I see another new city or town that I really like, I doubt that my opinion will change.

I like Penang for a number of reasons. It is a multi cultural city with a great variety of food such as Indian, Malay, Chinese, European, even Thai. The Indian curries there are superb, especially the fish dishes! Secondly, nearly everybody there speaks English, so no language problems like in other Asian cities. Another reason is, Penang is a medium sized city (population probably less than a million) and it is easy to get around. The public transportation system there is second to none with very comfortable air conditioned buses plying different routes within the city and beyond. The prices of most goods are quite reasonable, and one can still find duty free stores in town, and you can find good prices for cameras and electronic equipment.

Actually the name of the city is Georgetown. Penang is the name of the island where Georgetown is located. The city itself is a blend of old and new. You can still see the British era grand colonial buildings as well as a lot of modern buildings. Hotel accommodation is fairly cheap too, depending on which star category you want to stay in. Although Malaysia is a Muslim country, I would say it is a very liberal Muslim country and you can buy pork or drink alcohol anywhere, especially in a tourist oriented city like Penang.

A walking tour of the city is a must because one can get to see the main attractions such as Fort Cornwallis, Esplanade, the Komtar Tower (the city's 65 storey landmark building). Penang Road is a good place to start as it is the principal street of the city. If you wander further you come across narrow streets with quaint names like Love Lane, Waterfall Road, Rangoon Road, Cheapside, etc.

I usually stay in the area around Chulia Street. According to your budget, there are many places of accommodation such as cheap guesthouses, medium priced hotels, high end luxury hotels, etc. A number of internet cafes are also in the vicinity as well as money changers, good restaurants, and for those making visa runs from Thailand, a lot of small stores and travel agencies on this street offer visa services for a minimal fee. It is also within walking distance of Little India where the vibrant atmosphere is definitely Indian as if one is in India itself, bright colors, strong smells, loud music, and an array of shops selling anything from spices, traditional costumes, jewelry, to tasty samosas. Another advantage of Chulia Street is its close proximity to Komtar where the main bus terminal is.

Penang's population is definitely multi-racial, made up of Chinese, Malays, Indians (mostly Tamils), and this is the reason why the place is so interesting, cultural wise. There are Muslim mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples, Chinese (Taoist) temples, and Christian churches spread out all over the city. As a matter of fact, I have attended church services several times at St. George's church in Georgetown which is said to be the first Protestant church in Southeast Asia.

Everytime I visit Penang I always make it a point to go to Penang Hill to enjoy the cool fresh air and panoramic view of Georgetown and the island from the summit of the hill. It is situated 825 meters (2750 feet) above sea level in the northern part of the island, and only about a half hour bus ride from downtown. However, on my last two trips there in 2010 and 2011, we couldn't go to this hill as the funicular railway was undergoing extensive renovations. This cable car operates between the street level and the top of the hill, and as the train gradually ascends, you can feel the cool air while enjoying the scenery below. I believe the funicular train is now fully operational again, so perhaps I can make another trip to Penang once more in the future, just to try out the new state of the art service!

The most well known beach in Penang is called Batu Ferringhi which is about a 40 minute bus ride from the city center. It is a scenic journey along the coastal road with great views of smaller beaches and hidden coves, plus a big mosque on the water. Consequently, one can also see a lot of high rise apartment buildings and condos overlooking the sea along this route.

Batu Ferringhi itself is a very clean and quiet beach with few tourists, unlike Pattaya or Phuket in Thailand. So if you're ever in Malaysia, do take one of the comfortable buses from downtown to this nice beach, and enjoy the great scenery along the way.

Besides what I've mentioned above, there are numerous other attractions in Penang, such as the Botanic gardens, the snake temple where you can have a picture taken with a big snake wrapped around your body, Butterfly Farm, Penang Museum, Taman Negara National Park, island getaways (to the much smaller uninhabited islands), and lots more. Oh, I musn't forget Gurney Drive where the famous hawker food center is located along the shores of the Straits of Malacca. There you can find all types of mouth watering meals with emphasis on seafood, and fresh fruit juices to quench your thirst, such as water melon, pineapple, cantaloupe, papaya, etc. I should add that in these roadside food shops, you pay as soon as your order arrives, and if you should order more, you pay again. I think this system works well for me as there is no confusion about the bill later, as may be the case in regular restaurants when you settle the bill only after you finish the meal.

So if you think Penang is worth a visit (I certainly do!) among destinations in Southeast Asia, it is easily accessible by air, land and rail. There are direct flights from Bangkok, Singapore, Jakarta, Taipei, Hongkong and Kuala Lumpur the capital of Malaysia. If you are in Bangkok you can take the overnight train to Butterworth station, and from there transfer to the ferry for a short boat ride which docks at Weld Quay where you can either walk to the city center, or take a number of buses at the Weld Quay terminal. There is a bus service too from Bangkok. You have to get off at Had Yai near the border with Malaysia where you transfer to a van that will take you Georgetown. As mentioned earlier in this blog, I have taken all three modes of transportation to Penang, so one doesn't need to wonder why I just LOVE Penang!