If you want to see a laid-back, food-loving and culturally conscious side to Malaysia, you’ll want to travel to Penang. Especially after you’ve done the buzz and the overpriced booze in Kuala Lumpur.
In Penang you can’t go very far without seeing street art, food vendors and trishaw bicycles. Ever since it was listed as a UNESCO Heritage Site in 2008, visitors have been flocking to George Town and for good reason. Between butterfly farms, boutique cafés and Sunday markets, Penang is Malaysia’s trendiest place to hang out right now.
With a population density of 1,663/square km, Penang is one of the most densely populated states in Malaysia. Want to know why it’s so popular? It’s because of the food (cheap, tasty and no, they do not fry carrot cakes with gutter oil), the street art (both state-commissioned and those pending approval) and the trending arts and culture scene.
As long as you’re traveling in from another state in Penang (even from East Malaysia), you won’t need a visa. In fact, it’s fairly easy to travel from Kuala Lumpur (KL) to Penang, and there are a number of ways to do so (see next section).
But what you should be aware of is when to travel to Penang. As a cultural hub, Penang boasts several festivals throughout the year, including the annual George Town Festival (August), George Town Literary Festival (November) and the Penang Jazz Festival (December). Plan your time wisely if you wish to witness thousands of Penangites gather for their best-loved events.
For fans of larger-than-life balloons, the annual Hot Air Balloon Fiesta regularly attracts hundreds of visitors in February — and you could be one of them.
Your best bet is AirAsia, which will cost less than RM200 (USD $50) for a return flight. A one-way trip takes only an hour. As flying from KL to Penang is considered a domestic flight, Malaysians can use their National ID card for boarding. Foreigners will need their passports.
We recommend this route if you’re short on time and well-endowed with money.
Operated by the national railway company Keretapi Tanah Melayu, the Electronic Train Service (ETS) runs a route from KL Sentral to Penang Butterworth five times a day. Each ride takes up to 4 hours, depending on the number of stops between KL and Penang. Tickets cost RM59 (USD $14.75).
We recommend this route if you have a moderate amount of time to spare and enjoy gazing out train windows to see rural Malaysia (lots of palm trees and abandoned developments).
This is the most affordable option, even if it does take up to 4.5 hours. You’ll be able to find a comfortable bus ride for under RM40 (USD $10), but if you’re up for a little luxury (extra leg room and a small meal), then we recommend Aeroline, which charges RM60 (USD $15) per one-way trip.
Coaches typically depart from Terminal Bersepadu Selatan (TBS) or KTM Old Railway Station, and arrive in Sungai Nibong bus terminal or at custom locations in Penang. We recommend this option if you prefer having travel stops, as coaches will typically take a short 10- or 15-minute break in Ipoh or Taiping.