Penang is state in Malaysia that includes the island of Penang and the strip of adjacent land on the peninsula. For most visitors when they say they are going to Penang they are going to Georgetown, on the the northeast tip of Penang island (Pulau Pinang).
[Georgetown in relation to Pulau Pinang and the state of Penang.]
The island of Penang is quite diverse in terms of activities for visitors, but if you a first-timer you should stay in Georgetown itself. This former British Straits Settlement is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the highlights of a trip to Southeast Asia. This guide for where to stay in the Georgetown area.
The traditional way to arrive in Penang is by the car and pedestrian ferry from Butterworth. The train from KL and Bangkok terminates here and minivans from southern Thailand often take the ferry at this point. The Butterworth ferry takes you to Georgetown, and you can walk from the ferry terminal to the historic area.
UNESCO George Town is broken up into two zones; the core zone, which is the very northeast tip of the island, and the buffer zone, which is the area immediately surrounding that.
I have personally spent a few months in Georgetown and I always prefer to stay within this area. Georgetown also extends beyond this UNESCO designated zone, and if you end up staying outside this section it isn’t too big a deal as the city is very walkable.
For now Georgetown remains good value for budget backpackers, and prices haven’t exploded like, for example, the UNESCO listed Galle Fort in Sri Lanka. Accommodation inside the Galle fort has now grown out of line with normal prices in the rest of Sri Lanka.
Backpackers – Hostels and cheap guesthouses
For backpackers the place to go is Chulia Street, which is the main thoroughfare of the historic area. While it’s nowhere near as lively as Khao San Rd in Bangkok, there are a number of bars along here and travel agencies catering for backpackers. Back in the day before the internet was a thing loads of minivans from Southern Thailand would disgorge their daily load of backpackers on Chulia St, and you would then walk door-to-door looking for a cheap place to stay.
The backpacker ground-zero is the corner of Chulia Street and Love Lane (look for the 7-11 on the corner). There are guesthouses on Love Lane and Lebuh Muntri, which runs parallel to Chulia Street.
There are still a few of the old-school flophouses on the street where you can walk in and get a basic box room, but these days it is better to book something in advance to save the hassle of walking around.
Some of the better guesthouses that don’t have online booking are Star Lodge and 75 Traveller’s Lodge on Lebuh Muntri. You will have better luck getting a room in these walk-in places if you are arriving in the morning.
If you are just looking for a cheap private room then places like Just Inn are ideal. Usually the rooms are thin partitioned walls with no window, and a shared bathroom.
If you prefer to make you Georgetown stay more memorable there a few budget hostels and guesthouses in beautiful heritage buildings.
Campbell Antique Hotel features fittings and decorations that are distinctly Georgetown.
ST Hostel Georgetown is a guesthouse with private rooms and looks more like a boutique hotel than a guesthouse.
Old Penang Guest House is in a restored building and has dorms and private rooms.
As most of Georgetown is restricted by what can be built you won’t see big box hotels in this part of town. In the 3-4 Star category there are lots of interesting boutique hotels set in restored heritage buildings.
Some of the highly rated 3-Star hotels include:
Some of the best rated 4-Star hotels include:
Hotel Jen Penang By Shangri-La (formerly Traders Hotel Penang)
Luxury 5-Star Hotels
For a luxury hotel experience in Georgetown the Eastern And Oriental Hotel is the most iconic. The E. & O was established in 1885 by the Sarkies Brothers, a family that established luxury hotels across Southeast Asia, including Singapore’s famous Raffles Hotel. In the 1920s the hotel was known as ‘The Premier Hotel East of Suez’. Famous guests who have visited over the years include Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Hermann Hesse, Sir Noël Coward, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Michael Jackson.
For visitors to Penang most of the places of interest lie on the north coast. The area in the middle of the island is mostly residential and industrial and is of little interest for tourists. The points of interest can be visited on day trips.
Just outside the historic area is Gurney Drive, which is popular with expats living in Penang. The drive is on the coast facing an unremarkable muddy bay, but it’s a good view if you have an apartment. It used to be lined with mansions, though today only a few of those remain and it is now home to luxury towers. At the end of Gurney Drive is the excellent Gurney Night Market and there are some malls along here.
[Gurney Night Market.]
The other hotel hotspot of Penang is at Batu Ferringhi, on the northern tip of the island. Most of the hotels are around Batu Ferringhi beach. The beach here is not comparable to, say, Langkawi or Southern Thailand, but it will suffice if you are in need of a beach fix.
[Batu Ferringhi Beach.]
Budget accommodation isn’t good value here compared to Georgetown. Batu Ferringhi is more popular for visitors staying at the resorts, which are bigger than anything on offer in Georgetown.
For a luxury hotel experience Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa Penang is the highlight of the area. It’s set on a large property at the end of the beach with colonial-era trees among the swimming pools. Here is my review of Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa
[Pool at Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa Penang.]