Penang Halal Travel Guide
Penang (Malay: Pulau Pinang), renowned as the Pearl of the Orient, is a state on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia. Geographically, the state consists of Pulau Pinang, or Penang Island, and Seberang Perai, the mainland strip facing the island, which are separated by a small stretch of the Strait of Malacca.
Penang is rich in culture and history, with a unique mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian and British influences. Visitors will find Penang brimming with charming historic buildings, ornate religious sites, sandy beaches, kampungs surrounded by rice paddies, vast unbeaten jungles, all topped with a splash of bustling city life. Hailed as the food capital of Malaysia and sometimes likened to Singapore 50 years ago, Penang has become a popular destination with plenty on offer for those who visit.
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Penang Island (Pulau Pinang)
- George Town – The capital of Penang; a favourite spot for tourists as it has many attractive pre-Second World War houses and shophouses, as well as 19th century churches, temples, mosques, and colonial buildings. George Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site (it was inscribed as one of the Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca together with the city of Melaka).
- Air Itam – A largely residential town just west of the capital. The area is often visited by tourists heading to Penang Hill and Kek Lok Si Temple, but is also home to some exceptional local food.
- Batu Ferringhi – On the northern coast of Pulau Pinang, this area is home to white sandy beaches and luxurious hotels. A favourite spot for both locals & tourists. The nearby resort city of Tanjung Bungah and the fishing village of Teluk Bahang are also included here.
- Balik Pulau – Literally “Back of The Island” in Malay; a small town nestled among Malay villages, fruit orchards, and padi fields. Popular for its assam laksa, durian, and nutmeg. Favourite spot for countryside cycling.
- Bayan Lepas – Penang’s main electronic manufacturing area and location of its international airport. George Town’s satellite town.
Mainland (Seberang Perai)
- Butterworth – mainland gateway to Penang, directly across the Straits of Malacca from George Town
- Bukit Mertajam – capital of Seberang Perai Tengah district
- Bandar Perda – 20 minutes from Butterworth and 15min from Penang Bridge
- Nibong Tebal – capital of Seberang Perai Selatan district
- Simpang Ampat – a small town famous for its nearby seafood at Bukit Tambun and Batu Kawan. The nearby island of Pulau Aman is a popular weekend getaway and also famous for its seafood.
- Seberang Jaya – satellite township
- Tasek Gelugor – a small town 20 minutes from Butterworth
Introduction to Penang
Penang was part of the Malay sultanate of Kedah until 1786, when Captain Francis Light built a fort at the site of present-day George Town and managed to get the island ceded to the British East India Company. The island, along with Malacca and Singapore, was one of the three British Straits Settlements.
The name Penang comes from the Malay word Pinang, which means betel nut (槟榔） (Areca catechu). The name Pulau Pinang translated literally from Malay means “betel nut island”. The original name of Penang was Pulau Ka-satu or “First Island”, it was renamed to Prince of Wales Island on 12 Aug 1786 to commemorate the birthday of the Prince of Wales, later, George IV. During the early and middle part of the last century, Penang Island was also known as “The Pearl of the Orient”.
The capital, George Town, was named after King George III of Great Britain. Today, Penang has the highest population density in Malaysia and is the only state where ethnic Chinese are in the majority. The state of Penang today has the third-largest economy amongst the states of Malaysia, after Selangor and Johor.
The cargo trade has largely shifted down to Port Klang and Singapore since Penang lost its free-port status in 1969, but now Penang makes a good living off tourism and electronics manufacturing. The multi-national corporations that operate factories in Penang’s Free Trade Zones include Intel, AMD, BBraun, Dell, Flextronics, Agilent, Osram, Motorola, Seagate, and Jabil Circuit. Penang was granted Cyber-City status on 21 June 2004. At the World Heritage Committee Session in July 2008, George Town and Malacca were listed as UNESCO World Heritage List.
The state of Penang is made up of two parts, Penang Island, a turtle-shaped island in the Straits of Malacca 8km west of Peninsular Malaysia, and Seberang Perai (formerly Province Wellesley), a rectangular-shaped district that is part of the mainland.
George Town is Penang’s largest city. Development of the eastern coast of the island is slowly linking George Town, in the northeast, to the city of Bayan Lepas in the southeast. The northern coast, including Batu Ferringhi, is also being heavily developed and features the island’s best beaches and resorts. The island’s western side is still relatively undeveloped and has a serene “kampung” (village) lifestyle and feel about it.
Penang, like the rest of Malaysia, has an equatorial climate. This means temperatures of between about 22°C/72°F (night) and 30°C/86°F (day), between 70% and 90% humidity, and an annual total rainfall of about 2,400mm. The driest months are usually January and February. The wettest period is usually from September to November with August also being quite wet; frequent thunderstorms can be expected in these months.
When to go
Penang’s high season is around Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Chinese New Year (check the lunar calendar; it could fall on the end of January or early to mid February), when the east coast of Malaysia is drenched and hordes of sun-seeking tourists descend on the island. Accommodation tends to be packed, and priced accordingly.
Penang International Airport, formerly Bayan Lepas International Airport, is the third largest airport in Malaysia and situated in Bayan Lepas, about 16 km (9.9 mi) south of George Town. The airport is served by more than 15 airlines with flights operating to domestic and international Asian destinations. Domestic flights include Johor Bahru, Kota Bharu, Kota Kinabalu, Kuala Lumpur, Kuching, Kuantan, Langkawi and Malacca, served mostly by AirAsia, Malindo Air and a few destinations by Malaysia Airlines and Firefly. International flights also call at the airport from Banda Aceh, Bangkok, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Krabi, Ko Samui, Medan, Phuket, Singapore, Surabaya and Taipei.
Ground transportation options to the airport fall under two categories, local taxis or the public bus system, Rapid Penang. Naturally buses are the cheaper option but if you do want a taxi head towards the taxi counter for a pre-paid coupon to your specific location. Several buses depart from the airport to different locations around the island. If heading to George Town take bus 401 or 401E to Weld Quay (Not to Balik Pulau), with Bus 401E being an express bus. KOMTAR or Weld Quay (the terminus) are good areas to alight from the bus as most other buses will also pass through these bus stops. The bus fare is RM2.70 each way and ensure that you have exact fare as the bus driver cannot give you change.
Penang is connected to the mainland and the North-South Expressway by the Penang Bridge, one of the longest bridges in Asia, and by the Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge, commonly called the Penang Second Bridge, which is further south and even longer. There is no toll for vehicles heading to the mainland on either bridge, but vehicles headed to the island must pay a toll as follows: For the First Bridge: motorcycles: RM1.40, cars: RM7, lorries and vans with two axles and four wheels: RM12. For the Second Bridge: motorcycles: RM1.70, cars and other vehicles with two axles and three or four wheels, except buses: RM8.50, vans and other vehicles with two axles and six wheels (except for buses, which are charged RM26.20): RM30.50.
The nearest train station to Penang is Butterworth train station and is operated by Keretapi Tanah Melayu (Malayan Railway or KTMB). Tickets for all services can be booked at train stations, the Butterworth ferry terminal or on-line . It’s better not to book the train at the last minute (reservations can be made as early as 2 months in advance) as you’ll find the service becomes quite full usually around a week before the train’s departure. This is especially true for the overnight sleeper cars. timetable of all trains along this route .
Once at Butterworth train station you can walk to the local port and take take the ferry to George Town on Penang. For more information on this service see the Penang Port section below. The other alternative is to take a taxi from the train station to the island itself, via Penang bridge. However this does cost more than the ferry service.
From Singapore/Kuala Lumpur
There is one train service (Ekspres Rakyat) from Singapore that departs daily from Woodlands train station at 08:45, stops over in Kuala Lumpur at 14:56, and continues on to Butterworth arriving at 21:20. There is also a day service (the Sinaran Utara) that originates in Kuala Lumpur, leaving at 08:45, and arrives at Butterworth at 16:15. Additionally, there is also an overnight train (the Senandung Mutiara) which departs from Kuala Lumpur at 23:00 and arrives at Butterworth train station at 06:30. This service does include sleeper cars as well as seating options for those who do not mind sleeping on a seat.
Be aware that train tickets purchased from Singapore to any location in Malaysia will be charged in Singapore dollars at a 1:1 ratio of the Malaysian ringgit price. Therefore a ticket that is RM20 in Malaysia will cost SGD20 in Singapore, which is charged in ringgit, costing RM50. There are three ways which can help you avoid this:
- Cross the border by road from Singapore and then board the train at Johor Bahru.
- Buy a train ticket from Singapore to Johor Bahru and purchase a subsequent ticket from Johor Bahru onwards.
- Book a return ticket from Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur-Singapore-Kuala Lumpur will be charged in ringgit and is still cheaper than a one-way ticket from Singapore if the first leg of the trip is not used.
There is one overnight train that departs from Bangkok Hualamphong (the Ekspres Antarabangsa) at 14:45 Thai time and arrives the day after at 13:51 Malaysian time. The trains are air conditioned and comprise of sleeper cars only and a restaurant car.
A day train also departs from Hat Yai train station in Thailand at 16:00 Thai time and arrives at Bukit Mertajam, a nearby station to Butterworth, at 21:47 Malaysian time. From here you can reach Butterworth station or Penang by taxi.
Buses in George Town arrive/depart at the new bus terminal at Sungai Nibong, a fifteen-minute ride from the center, and about ten minutes from the airport. A taxi to the Centre costs RM20. Rapid Penang bus 301 and 401E goes to KOMTAR and Pengkalan Weld (Weld Quay). Major coach operators include Fivestars with online booking , Konsortium, Plusliner / Nice, Transnasional, and Mutiara.
The trip from Kuala Lumpur’s Pudu Raya bus station or Kota Bharu, Perhentian Islands each cost around RM35 and take around 5-6h. Buses to/from Johor Bahru and Singapore take 10h and cost RM60 or SGD45.
It’s possible to travel by bus to and from Thailand. Tickets are available from travel shops in and around Penang Road. Some prices and journey times are:
- Krabi – RM59, 8h
- Phuket – RM76, 12-14h
- Bangkok – RM125, 18h.
Minivan service is more expensive than bus service and is available between George Town and cities in Thailand such as Ko Phi Phi, Phuket, Trang, Surat Thani, Krabi, Ko Samui, Ko Pha-ngan, Bangkok and Hat Yai (RM40) on daily basis. Service is available to the Perhentian Islands for RM130-150, boat included.
Langkawi Ferry Services operates twice daily ferries between Swettenham Pier in George Town, on Penang Island, and Langkawi, with the first days service stopping via Pulau Payar en route. Ferries are scheduled to depart from Langkawi at 14:30 (via Pulau Payar) and 17:15 while from George Town at 08:15 (via Pulau Payar) and 08:30, taking around 2h 45min. Fares cost RM60 (RM115 return) for Adults and RM45 (RM85 return) for children. Tickets for the ferry can be booked online here .
Swettenham Pier in George Town is the cruise terminal of Penang, with many cruises calling here from other cities in the region. Star Cruises is a primary operator at this port with common itineraries including a 1-night cruise on the high seas or a 3 night cruise to Krabi and Phuket before returning to George Town. The port is also a frequent stop for round-the-world and major regional cruises often originating from Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, Europe and North America. Typically these cruises allow a port visit in George Town for several hours before continuing to another destination. Refer to individual cruise companies for details of these cruise routes and the duration of stay at each port.
One of the best ways to sight see is to walk around George Town; but wear light clothes, start early in the morning, and put on plenty of sun-block during the daytime. When crossing the roads, remember to look both ways, even on a one-way street.
RapidPenang, the local bus service, features new buses. All bus stations and bus stops which are serviced by the RapidPenang buses are labelled with proper signboards to ensure user-friendliness. Buses are somewhat frequent on the main artery to Batu Ferringhi. Rapid Penang bus 101 bound for Teluk Bahang goes through midtown Pulau Tikus, (northwest end of) Gurney Drive, Tanjung Tokong, Tanjung Bungah, Batu Ferringhi (Starbucks is a good place get off and gives access to the beach), Tropical Spice Garden, Escape/Entopia and terminates at the Penang National Park entrance.
RapidPenang bus 203 and 204 to Air Itam (RM1.50 adult) departs westward on Lebuh Chulia (the main backpacker hotel road) or southbound from the KOMTAR building are handy for visiting both Kek Lok Si Temple and Penang Hill (Bukit Bendera) Funiciular Base Station, approximately 30mins south west of the city center. The driver will inform you of when to alight. Bus 204 departs from the funicular base station to return to Komtar and onward.
The main hub for buses in George Town is KOMTAR, the tallest building in town. The secondary hub is located at the Pengkalan Weld (Weld Quay) ferry terminal. All buses depart from the ferry terminal will stopover at KOMTAR, but downtown-bound buses destined for KOMTAR may not go all the way to the ferry terminal; ask the bus operator. There is a new long-distance bus terminal at Sungai Nibong, refer to by bus entry.
Municipal Council of Penang Island together with RapidPenang provide a free shuttle bus service in George Town called CAT (Central Area Transit), which runs approximately between the Pengkalan Weld ferry terminal and KOMTAR every 20 min daily 06:00-24:00, (including Sundays and public holidays). Visit CAT bus for more details.
Also, foreigners can purchase a Rapid Passport for RM30 and enjoy a week of unlimited travel onboard all rapid Penang buses.
These three-wheeled human-powered vehicles might be the best idea for a pleasant city tour. One can stop at any point to take a photo or buy souvenirs. Many trishaw riders are also excellent ‘tour guides’. Negotiate the fare first before getting on a trishaw; it is advisable to hire them by the hour for extended sightseeing.
If you wish to travel between the mainland and Penang Island then the Penang Ferry Service is a cheap and unique option to take. The ferry operates between Butterworth at Sultan Abdul Halim ferry terminal on the mainland and George Town’s Raja Tun Uda ferry terminal at Weld Quay (Pengkalan Weld) on Penang Island. Ferries depart every 10-20 minutes between 05:20–00:40 daily with the fare to George Town costing RM1.20 for adults or RM0.60 for children. The fare to Butterworth is free. From both ports, Rapid Penang Buses are nearby to help connect you to the rest of the mainland or Island.
Car rentals may be a viable option, especially if you are planning to get off the beaten track and explore the western or southern coast of the island. Take note that Penang Island has quite a number of one-way streets and narrow roads. Many Penangites ride motorbikes and a minority of them have disregard for pedestrians, cars, and even their own lives, so you must be very careful when driving on the roads. Avoid driving during the rush hours 07:30-09:30 and 17:30-19:30. Motorcycle riders can be undisciplined and tourists should be extra vigilant of them.
Taxis in Penang are equipped with meters and by law they are mandated to use them, but practically all drivers will refuse to turn them on. Always haggle with the taxi driver and agree on a price beforehand.
At some high-end hotels, particularly on Batu Ferringhi, you may find blue SUVs marked “Teksi Executif” (Executive Taxi). These taxis do use the meter, but are hard to find on the streets.
To avoid haggling for the price, try using a taxi booking smart phone app. Grab works well in Penang. Useful also to get taxi fare prices.
There are plenty of places to rent a bicycle in Georgetown. There is also a bicycle sharing system called LinkBike. It has 25 stations with typically 10 or 12 bike racks. You need to download their smart phone app and pay for a short term membership such as 1 or 2 days using a Visa or Mastercard. You can then use the bikes as often as you like, the first 30 mins are free then its RM1 per hour but often 30 mins is enough for a short hop. You are charged once for rides over 30 mins at the end of your membership period so you are not going to get lots of RM1 charges.
Almost all locals in Penang are able to speak Malay, the national language of Malaysia. The ethnic Chinese in Penang (who form the majority) usually speak a localized variant of Hokkien known as Penang Hokkien, which Minnan speakers from Taiwan and Fujian may have some difficulty understanding due to the slang and some loan words from Malay. Most ethnic Chinese are also able to speak Mandarin and Cantonese. Ethnic Indians usually converse with each other in Tamil and ethnic Malays usually converse with each other in Malay, but quite a good number of Indian and Malay Penangites can converse in Hokkien.
English is spoken fluently by most white-collar professionals and businessmen, as well as by service staff working in hotels and tourist attractions. Most other locals under the age of 50 will be able to communicate in broken English, supplemented by non-verbal forms of communication such as pointing and gesturing. When in doubt, gravitate toward younger locals, as the Commonwealth variety of English is a required subject in Malaysian schools. Nearly all teenagers or adults in their 20s or 30s should be able to speak reasonably fluent English.