Following its incorporation as a UNESCO Heritage Site in 2008, George Town has flourished with street art trails, boutique cafés and annual cultural festivals. But if you look beyond the crowds and fanfare, there are parts of George Town that are older, more ‘local,’ and non-consequential of the tourism-led economic boom in the 2010s. From old temples and traditional tradeshops, to weekend markets and reading events, we bring you 10 cheap and free activities that are both authentic and wallet-friendly.
If you enjoy adding exercise to your vacation, why not go for a jog at the lush Botanical Gardens? This 71-acre public park is a greensward of exotic plants and spices, and home to several families of long-tailed macaques. It is, at various turns, wide and expansive, thick with jungle, and brimming with well-manicured flower bushes.
Venture out of George Town and you’ll be rewarded with this 19th century architectural wonder. The main tower features a three-tiered design incorporating Burmese, Thai and Chinese architectural tastes, while the Goddess of Mercy statue stands a whopping 99-feet (30.2-meters). Here, you can watch the locals pray, divine your future, and enjoy a view of the city from Air Itam.
The Performing Arts Centre (PAC) of Penang regularly holds comedy shows, dances and plays. From sacred traditional dances to sketches of contemporary life, this space is the heart of Penang’s performing arts scene. Tickets typically do not cost more than RM40 ($10 USD) apiece.
Hosted by the MYWriters group in Penang, this bi-weekly reading event lends a voice and stage to local and visiting writers. Poets read from their zines, novelists from their drafts, screenwriters from their scripts. The event is intimate and tends to be a small group, so you can be sure to get to know people. Location varies from month to month, so contact their Facebook group for clarification.
If you like your handicrafts and novelty items, you’ll like the weekend market at Straits Quay Marina Mall. Located on the upper floor of the center court, this market sells everything from homemade nut butters and Japanese ceramics, to copper jewelry and special-occasion pop-up cards. The market is open Friday to Sunday, 10.30 a.m. to 10.30 p.m.
This elaborately designed Hindu temple on Queen Street is the final destination for the chariot process during the Chitraparuyam festival (the date varies from year to year). The Sri Mahamariamman Temple features a small gopuram adorned with flower motifs and Hindu deities — all the better to praise the Goddess Mahamariamman.
Why come to an island if you’re not going to the beach? The shores of Batu Ferringhi, in particular, are clean, soft and expansive. Come along in the evenings between 6.30–7.30 p.m. for an inspiring view of the robust colors as it winds down for the night. After sunset, there’s always the night market to browse around, too.
Penang’s ‘heritage traders’ are men and women who work in traditional crafts and trades that are fast becoming extinct. Among the 23 traditional trades selected as part of the George Town World Heritage initiative are the signboard carver, paper oblation craftsman, and Penang’s last songkok hat maker. You can find a list of the 23 traders and their respective locations here.
Located in a whitewashed colonial building in heritage George Town, the Penang Science Cluster doesn’t just hold ‘science-y’ events. Yes, you can learn all about Linux, Python and Raspberry Pi, but good ol’ woodwork is not out of the question, either. So if you’re in town, make yourself a chair and park yourself at one of the workshops here.
You knew this was coming, didn’t you? This three-mile (five-kilometer) trek is good for your heart, feet, and your eyes. The view at the top is worth the trip, and you’ll be pleased you sweated all the way from the Botanical Gardens starting point to the peak. If you’re happy to spend RM47.15 ($12 USD), you can also enjoy The Habitat and take a leisurely walk through nature.