George Town (Malaysia)

Francis Light and the Clock Tower

George Town is the capital of the island and state of Penang, on the west coast of peninsular Malaysia. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, together with fellow former Straits Settlement, Malacca.

Understand

Founded in 1786 by British trader Francis Light, George Town was one of the three Straits Settlements along with Malacca and Singapore. Modern-day George Town is one of Malaysia's largest cities with 600,000 inhabitants.

The city seems quite relaxed, as restaurants, small shops, and mall shops don't fully open until around noon. If you're waking up early, be sure to look for Chinese Dim Sum stalls as they are only available in the morning. But don't bother looking for any other activities besides eating.

Today, the town is known for its well-preserved colonial core, considered to be one of the best preserved in Southeast Asia, with original shophouses dating from the 19th century to the 1930s still surviving, together with their trades of old. Street markets and hawkers continue to be a part of daily life, and the atmosphere is often likened to that of Singapore back in the 1960s and 1970s.

The town truly springs to life in the evenings, when most of the locals head to the nearby street hawkers to have their meals and, sometimes, a couple of drinks.

People

Like most Malaysian cities, George Town is a patch quilt, multicultural city comprising mainly of Malays, ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians. What separates George Town, and the state of Penang, from the rest is that there is a higher proportion of ethnic Chinese compared to Malays. With the combination of cultures and religions, George Town takes its religious holidays seriously. Many shops will close during certain holidays in addition to Saturday afternoon and Sunday. During the day you can hear Muslim prayers in the distance from the local mosque and see Chinese locals burning incense to worship their ancestors on the streets and in temples.

Orientation

Street names in George Town may be somewhat confusing at first, especially if you are not familiar with some simple Malay. The most common Malay street name designations in George Town include Jalan, often abbreviated Jl, a title given to major roads, street is given as Lebuh and laneways or small side streets are called Lorong. Other less common street names you may see include Persiaran meaning Drive, Lebuhraya meaning Avenue and Pengkalan for Quay. When in doubt, keep in mind that the first word of a street name is the street designation, such as Lane, while the remaining words are always the name given to the street. The exception here is the Gat Lebuh street designation, meaning Street Ghaut, which refers to extensions of a street that are part of reclaimed land.

You will find that street names are often referred to by their English and Malay names interchangeably. In the case of Jalan Penang it is common to hear it as Penang Rd, or the more confusing Beach St for Lebuh Pantai, with Pantai meaning Beach in Malay. To further add confusion, you may hear streets being referred to by their previous English name before independence. As an example Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, previously titled Pitt Street, is still occasionally used by locals. Thankfully, many of the street signs have been altered in recent years to now include the English translation, especially around tourist areas.

Climate

 Climate Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
 
Daily highs (°C) 32 32 32 32 31 31 31 31 30 32 31 31
Nightly lows (°C) 24 24 24 24 24 24 24 24 23 24 24 24
Precipitation (mm) 70 90 140 230 240 170 190 240 350 390 240 110

Check George Town's 7 day forecast at MET.gov.my

With George Town being fairly close to the equator you can expect a typical tropical climate. Temperatures are generally constant year round, with daily highs of around 30-32°C (86-90°F) and nightly lows around 22-24°C (71-75°F). Humidity is also usually high so do not be surprised by stinking hot days.

Along with the glaring sun and humidity, rainfall is almost guaranteed daily and the occasional deafening thunderstorm from the Strait of Malacca will drench the city, especially during the wet season. Annual rainfall averages around 2,500mm, with the wettest months being around September to November. The driest months of the year run from December to February, although rainfall is still frequent.

Visitors centre

Get in

By plane

The nearest airport is Penang International Airport (IATA: PEN), formerly Bayan Lepas International Airport, around 16 km from the centre of George Town in the town of Bayan Lepas. The airport is served by 15 airlines with flights operating to both domestic and international Asian destinations. Domestic flights include Johor Bahru, Kota Bahru, Kota Kinabalu, Kuala Lumpur, Kuching, Kuantan and Langkawi, served mostly by AirAsia and a few destinations by Malaysia Airlines and Firefly. International flights also call at the airport from Banda Aceh, Bangkok, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Ko Samui, Medan, Phuket, Singapore, Surabaya and Taipei.

Ground transport options to the airport fall under two categories: local taxis or the public bus system, Rapid Penang. Taxis operate with a pre-paid coupon system that you collect from the taxi counter near the arrivals area of the airport. The coupon to George Town will cost around RM44.70, but between 00:01-05:59 will cost RM67. For a bus to George Town take bus 401/401E to Weld Quay (Not to Balik Pulau), with 401E being an express service, or bus 102 to Teluk Bahang. The fare to KOMTAR is RM2.70, where you can then transfer to another bus if needed. Have the correct fare ready as bus drivers don't give out change.

By boat

Because of the exceptionally cheap, comfortable and dense route network of Air Asia, all ferries to destinations other than Langkawi ceased in 2009.

From Butterworth

Pulau rimau ferry at Weld Quay

For those who are in Butterworth, or have made their way up by train, the easiest way to reach George Town is by the Penang Ferry Service, the oldest ferry in Malaysia. See the Butterworth Get in section for information on how to arrive by train. Only a short walk from Butterworth train station is Sultan Abdul Halim ferry terminal, with ferries departing every 10-20 minutes between 05:20–00:40 daily. The fare to George Town costs RM1.20 for adults or RM0.60 for children. If you are returning to Butterworth the journey is free. Ferries arrive at Raja Tun Uda ferry terminal at Weld Quay (Pengkalan Weld). Virtually all Rapid Penang buses on the island arrive and depart from Weld Quay, via KOMTAR.

From Langkawi

Langkawi Ferry Services operates twice daily ferries between Swettenham Pier in George Town 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.

Cruises

Swettenham Pier is the cruise terminal of George Town, 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 one 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.

By bus

Long-distance bus is a common means of travel between cities and regions in Malaysia. The bus network is not only extensive but is also relatively cheap and comfortable. George Town has one bus terminal, Located at KOMTAR, but only some of the buses heading towards Penang terminate here. Most buses will arrive and depart the other bus terminals located just outside of George Town.

The Sungai Nibong Express Bus Terminal is south of George Town in Sungai Nibong. To reach George Town from here, a taxi will cost around RM30 or you could take bus 401 or 102. The other unimaginatively named bus station, Butterworth Bus Terminal, is on the mainland near Butterworth Train Station and the ferry terminal. Once here, the Ferry is the easiest way to travel between Butterworth to George Town. For more information on the Penang Ferry see George Town (Malaysia)#By boat.

Get around

By bus

A Rapid Penang bus plying the streets from George Town to Teluk Bahang

Rapid Penang is the public bus network that serves not only George Town, but the whole state Penang. The fleet is clean, modern and air-conditioned with low floors for disabled access. Most buses will pass through both main bus terminals in George Town, KOMTAR and Weld Quay (often called Jetty). Bus information centres, or Rapid Kiosks, are also available at these locations. Depending on the service, buses begin operating around 05:30 from Weld Quay and can cease operating as early as 22:00, with some major bus routes continuing until midnight. Bus schedules can be found here.

The fare structure used by Rapid Penang is distance-based. Most fares within the city will cost RM1.40 or RM2. For travel heading outside of George Town expect to pay between RM2.70 to RM4. When boarding a bus keep in mind that the exact fare is required, so keep hold of some loose change and if unsure how much to pay just tell the driver where you are going. If you plan to stay in George Town and around Penang for more than a few days may be of benefit to purchase a Rapid Passport. This 7 day travel pass allows for unlimited travel on all Rapid Penang buses throughout Penang for RM30. The Rapid Passport can be purchased from any Rapid Kiosk, namely KOMTAR and Weld Quay, or from the Penang visitors centre at Whiteaways Arcade on Lebuh Pantai.

There is also a free bus service that operates around the historic area of the city, known as the Central Area Transit bus, or CAT. Aimed mainly at tourists, but used by all, CAT buses operate between Weld Quay and KOMTAR with 19 stops along the way including at Little India, Lebuh Light, Jalan Penang and Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling. The bus operates between 06:00-23:40 from Weld Quay, every 20-30 minutes. A map of the CAT bus route can be found here.

By foot

George Town, in particular the historic area, is a relatively compact city to explore on foot. However many areas do lack footpaths, making the city a bit of a pedestrian nightmare. Walking along the side of the road is common and almost expected if you want to properly explore the city. Doing so is considered safe but do keep an eye out for traffic, wide open gutters and other hazards, particularly at night. Streets that do contain footpaths tend to be wider and busier, with the quality of the paths ranging from exceptional to dilapidated. You may also spot the occasional footbridge along busy roads, which are particularly handy to use compared to waiting for a break in the traffic.

By trishaw

The humble trishaw, or beca in Malay, was once the primary mode of transport for the locals. With the introduction of an extensive bus network the trishaws of George Town have dwindled and are now primarily aimed at tourists. Saying this, they are still a fun and unique way to travel the streets at a leisurely pace and perhaps find some of the city's hidden gems along the extensive back streets. Trishaws are generally found around inner city streets and tourist attractions. Hiring can be done on an hourly basis, costing around RM30-40/hr, or for shorter travel the price will vary, around RM10-15 for a 15min trip. Always agree on a price in advance and do not be afraid to haggle, as drivers will often inflate their first price.

By taxi

According to the Ministry of Tourism, "City taxis are required to charge according to the meter effective from Aug 2006". However, as in Kuala Lumpur, most taxi drivers have no respect for this law. Attempts at finding a taxi driver willing to use a meter will be futile. Always haggle with the taxi driver and firmly agree on a price beforehand.

Taxis can also be hired for a minimum of 3hr at RM25-30/hr. A good way to see the northern and western parts of the island if you don't have your own vehicle.

By motorbike/scooter

You may also rent your own motorbike or scooter to get around. These shops can be found along Chulia Street and also Penang Road. Cost is around RM25 for each day if you're renting more than a couple of days rental including the loan of an unsanitary helmet. Deposit is often RM200 (May 2015). Test the brakes and chain tightness as most are not well-maintained.

See

See Penang for attractions located throughout the rest of the island; this covers only sights located within George Town.

Thanks to the UNESCO World Heritage Site listing and strict zoning laws of George Town, a combination of historical buildings and gently crumbling, but largely intact, shophouses offer a glimpse into the town's past. Restoration works are slowly progressing.

Historical buildings

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

It may be worthwhile engaging a walking tour guide, for example from the Penang Heritage Trust, (26 Church St, ☎ +60 4 264-2631. Fax+60 4 262-8421) as they are trained to give in-depth details on the history and culture of heritage sites. There are several themed walking guides to choose from and each typically takes 3h. Book ahead.

Fort Cornwallis
The historic Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi Temple

Religious sites

Georgetown has a profusion of sites of worship of all different faiths.

A guardian at the Thai temple Wat Chaiyamangalaram
Masjid Kapitan Keling, a prominent and historic mosque

Other

Boy on a Bike

Graffiti has become all the rage in George Town, after Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic painted several whimsical murals of inner city life like the pensive "Boy on a Bike" and the cheerful "Little Children on a Bicycle" on the walls of old buildings as part of a 2012 festival. Since then, many more wall paintings have popped up around the city, grabbing the attention of passers-by. Wire art has also been widely installed by the heritage board, commemorating bits and pieces of Penang history with pithy quotes. An informative map is available from the visitor centre.

Do

Typical historical buildings in George Town

Besides enjoying excellent food, walking tours and sightseeing the beautiful old city, George Town itself does not offer that much to the adventurous tourist. If you, tired of walking, want to kill a couple of hours there is the possibility of catching a movie at Cathay Cineplex on the 5th floor of the Komtar shopping-complex. Other opportunities are Golden Screen Cinemas in Gurney Plaza. For inclement weather, there's always snooker and bowling too, at Prangin Mall and elsewhere.

Many George Town shops now offer bike rentals for RM10/day, as travellers embark on a street art trail of sorts, cycling around main roads and hidden back lanes to look at murals and wire art. Although bike paths exist around the city centre, walking or renting a motorcycle may be an easier/safer decision.

Festivals

Buy

Street markets remain a daily way of life in Penang, and locals often go to them to buy cheap accessories and fresh food. Bargain hard to get a good price and preferably get a local to accompany you.

Markets

Shopping malls

In the heart of George Town, 1st Avenue, KOMTAR and Prangin Mall are all connected by walkways.

KOMTAR Tower rising above historic George Town

Bakeries

Tambun pneah, a flaky pastry with green bean filling

Eat

Penang is widely considered to be the food capital of Malaysia, and George Town is the best place in Penang to eat. (See Penang for listings of local dishes.)

Gurney Drive may be the main location where tourists go to have their food, but that does not necessarily mean that the best food can be found there. In fact, most locals consider it to be overrated and expensive. It's best to ask the locals to point you toward the best locations for food, though walking into any "coffee shop" or stall would almost certainly guarantee a worthwhile experience for your taste buds. Knowing some Malay or Hokkien will be useful, but most vendors speak enough English to communicate the basics.

Fiery Hokkien Mee, one of Penang's specialities, at a stall in George Town

Budget

Indian food
Italian
Dim Sum

Mid-range

Splurge

Drink

Upper Penang Road

If you're looking for something to do at night, there's always Upper Penang Road, where clubs, pubs and bars are always flooded with young people. UPR is located just opposite the famed Eastern And Oriental Hotel and beside the City Bayview Hotel.

Elsewhere

Love Lane and Lebuh Chulia are also favourite hangout haunts, with many bars and cafes mixed with backpacker hostels.

Sleep

Budget

Old houses on Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling

Since 2014, when the Municipal Council of Penang decided to impose an accommodation tax of RM2 for each night, hotel owners have raised prices.

Mid-range

Splurge

Eastern & Oriental Hotel

Stay safe

George Town is a safe city and serious crimes are pretty rare. Be extra careful in crowds and on roadsides, as they are the spots where petty crimes such as snatch thefts and pickpockets occur.

Like everywhere, some local men like to yell things and make suggestive comments to women walking alone, and sometimes they can get "too friendly".

If you look like a tourist, you will get considerably higher prices from the salesmen in markets, like Batu Ferringhi Night Market, or the market near the Kek Lok Si temple. The real price of the product is always a lot less and at times the "best price" is five times the normal price.

Taxis generally do not use meters due to poor enforcement by local authorities, even though it is "compulsory". The meters are often claimed to be "broken" or are hidden. You should always ask for the use of the meter. The metered price is always less than a price given in advance. Tourists are often cheated, sometimes even left by the roadside in the middle of nowhere if they refuse to pay a considerably inflated sum of money. You should negotiate the fare before boarding if the taxi driver refuses to use the meter, preferably seek a different taxi if they refuse to use the meter. Taxis from Penang Airport are paid using slips given in a small office in the airport building.

Do not use drugs, and stay away from them. You will get the death sentence if caught dealing with certain types of drugs and Malaysia's laws provide very harsh punishment for any drug related offence. The amount of the drug you are caught with will determine whether you are charged as a user or a dealer. Pay heed to the warning signs at all entry points to the country and just don't have anything to do with illegal substances.

Go next

Penang

There is still plenty more of Penang to visit; simply hop on one of the local Rapid Penang buses and explore.

Further afield

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Friday, February 19, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.