Free (or Cheap) Things to Do in Penang
The National Park of Penang
It might be the smallest national park in Malaysia, and one of the smallest in the world, but there are a number of things to do and explore.
Sadly, the paths to Canopy Walk and Monkey Beach were closed due to landslides (you can still access the latter via boat, more on that below) when we visited. Still, the 1.5h hike through the forest to reach Kerachut or also aptly called Turtle Beach didn’t leave us feeling short-changed.
The beach got its name from the sanctuary located on the shore, whose conservation efforts are helping to restore the declining turtle population in Malaysian waters.
Trekking through Penang National Park is sweaty business. Even though we started fairly early in the morning it didn’t take long for our t-shirts to be stuck to our backs. But the sights and sounds of a tropical rainforest with almost no people around make up for it. We encountered monkeys and butterflies on the way, heard birds singing in ways we never experienced before and questioned if the crickets and cicadas ever get tired of hissing.
The park is free to visit and while there is also an option to hire a boat - about MYR 80 (~ £15) one way - I would definitely suggest doing it by foot so that you take in the full experience of trekking through the jungle.
To visit the National Park, you have to sign in at the visitor’s office by the entrance. They only ask for your full name, passport number and nationality. There is good signposting pretty much all throughout the park but be aware that you will occasionally encounter unmarked paths and alternative trails, which can be misleading.
Once you see the Turtle Beach, you’ll have to cross a meromictic lake. Meromictic refers to two layers of water that do not mix – fresh water that’s lower in density and the dense, salty seawater – making this one of less than 20 other meromictic lakes in the world.
From there, it’s another short 250m until you reach the Turtle Sanctuary.
There are no food or drink stalls at the beach so it’s important to pack some snacks and plenty of water.
Although alluring after the long walk to get there, do note that swimming at this beach is not allowed (or it definitely wasn’t when we were there) due to venomous jellyfish in the water.
Also, don’t be deceived by the fact you’re going to a beach - appropriate trekking footwear with decent grip is definitely needed. Flip-flops should not be an option if you have any love for your feet and knees and just your overall safety.
Opening Hours & Admission:
Penang National Park: 8am-5pm daily | FREE
Turtle Beach Sanctuary: 10am – 4.30pm daily | FREE
Hiking up Penang Hill
The highest point on the island. With six peaks, the tallest, Western Hill, standing at 833m above sea level, Penang Hill (or Bukit Bendera in Malay) offers some beautiful views and a strenuous hike if you’re up for it.
We decided to walk the Penang Hill Heritage Trail which overall took us less than 2h. It is not an easy trek, even though it might be deceiving seeing that the first part of it is all steps - all 1423 of them, as it turns out.
Note that depending on your fitness level it could take a lot more time, and even though I wouldn’t call this an intermediate hike, it is a vigorous one. We were rushing a bit in the beginning but there are plenty of rest stops on the way so you do not have to push yourself too much.
If hiking is not really your thing, the hill is easily accessible by a funicular train that will take you all the way to the top (MYR30 ~ £5.60 return).
In all honesty though, once we reached the Top Station we were glad we did it via the trail, as difficult as it was. First off, seeing the sunrise half-way was a great experience and second, the very top is littered with a bunch of tourist traps and paid photo opportunities, not much to do if you are seeking to have an interesting and authentic experience.
We started the climb around 7.15am as to not walk in complete darkness and still managed to get a glimpse of the sunrise once we reached the Middle Station, where the main staircase ends.
The difficult part about the Heritage Trail is the steep incline right from the start and the random allocation of steps, which makes it difficult to keep a steady pace. It doesn’t get much easier after you reach the soil but it is so worth it. We do recommend taking the train down (MYR15 ~ £2.80) because such a steep downhill walk will be very gruelling to your knees.
Train Service Operating Hours & Pricing:
Weekdays: 6.30am – 10pm
Weekends: 6.30am – 11pm
MYR 15 (~ £2.80) one way | MYR 30 (~ £5.60) return (for non-Malaysian citizens)
Sightseeing in George Town
The capital of Penang draws a lot of visitors and is well known for its street art more so than for its multicultural diversity and culture.
There is a lot to see besides that. Starting your walk from the mosque on Acheen Street which goes into Cannon Street - which got its name after the riots that erupted in 1867 and a cannonball that ripped a hole in this place - you’ll see a Chinese temple (Choo Chay Keong), following another (Kapitan Keiling) mosque and a Hindu place of worship (Sri Mahamariamman Temple) further down.
The connecting roads go into Little India, an ethnic Indian enclave with market streets and cafes offering Indian cuisine where you can eat like a local.
Armenian street in the centre of George Town’s heritage site has a concentration of some of the most famous street art by the Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic.
Chulia street has a night market and local food joints dotted all around, making it the most sought-after area by all visitors. If you intend on renting a motorcycle this is where you’ll find the best deals.
Love Lane, named so after rich Chinese men who used to frequent it with their lovers, has coffee shops and bars flooded with backpackers.
Another thing that seems to attract a lot tourists are the Clan Jetties - floating houses inhabited by families of Chinese origin.
Chinese immigrants first settled here the end of the 19th century, not being able to afford conventional housing lead them to build these structures on stilts while also avoiding to pay taxes as they were not settled on ground.
Descendants of the original families still inhabit the houses and, although the Jetties have adapted to the influx of visitors with locals setting up businesses to cater for tourists, I did not feel very comfortable walking around here. It felt intrusive towards the families who actually live there and have to deal with rubbernecks snooping around and invading their privacy as they go on about their day. This was made clear by the ‘No Photos!’ signs often spotted on the doors and fences.
There are 6 Jetties overall, however after visiting two of them - Lim Jetty, felt more authentic as we didn’t see any other travellers apart from us (it was early in the morning), and Chew Jetty where you can find food and souvenir stalls as well as more tourists - we felt we had enough insight and opted to move on.
If you do decide to visit, be respectful of the people who live there and don’t take photos of locals and their houses through the doors, windows etc.
Hin Bus Depot
Street art is George Town’s claim to fame among selfie-loving tourists. However, if you want to see murals and exhibitions by local and up-and-coming artists, Hin Bus Depot should be on your list.
Hin Bus Depot is housed in a former - you guessed it - bus depot turned into a community arts centre and events space, run by a local collective. The entrance is free and on Sundays, they do a pop-up arts & crafts market. On any regular day, you can check out murals by local and international artists including Japanese Hiroyasu Tsuri or TWOONE.
There are also small skateboarding ramps and even a slightly overpriced (the food did look great though) vegan café.
Opening Hours & Admission:
Mon-Fri 12pm-8pm | FREE
Sat&Sun 11am-8pm | FREE
Located in Bayan Lepas, the southern part of the island, the temple itself is quite a tranquil place of worship despite the name. Don’t expect dozens of snakes freely roaming around but you will be able to spot a few of them hanging in the trees of the breeding pen in the temple grounds. Look closely, they are quite good at camouflaging.
These pit vipers are highly venomous however rendered harmless by the sacred smoke of the temple (jokes, they have been de-venomed).
For a closer look, we decided to visit what I believe is called the Snake Farm, located in the back of the temple. It’s more of a snake enclosure. The enthusiastic lady who owns the place took the time to show us the snakes up close an personal. We were able to touch them and hear the stories of how they ended up there as well as characteristics specific to each species and even got a quick lesson on what to do in case of a wild snake encounter.
Apparently, a lot of snakes in Malaysia are being caught in the wild illegally for their beautiful skin or to be sold to Hong Kong as meat. She emphasised the reason she keeps the site is to raise awareness of these animals, some of whom are now endangered due to human activity.
Opening Hours & Admission:
Snake Temple: 6am – 7pm daily | FREE
Snake Farm: 9.30am – 6pm | MYR 8 (~ £1.50) for an adult