10 days on Malaysia's west coast. Part 1: Penang with kids.
We arrived on the north-western island of Penang at around 3pm local time, gathered our copious baggage, inclusive of our 3 and 5-year olds and headed straight for George Town. Malaysia’s second most populous city; George Town is also the most densely populated and our taxi ride from airport to accommodation, which took about 45 minutes, meandered past an eclectic mix of buildings from utilitarian high-rise flats to crumbling old colonial mansions. The c.15-hour travel time from the UK had taken its toll, so after arriving at our new home for the next 3 nights, we grabbed a bite at their on-site restaurant, wandered a few blocks to get a quick feel for our location and then headed back for the wonders of bed and sleep.
We were located on Muntri Street which was part of George Towns first middle-class housing development built in the late 1800’s. The large terraced homes had a real sense of grandeur with airy rooms and high ceilings and our chosen accommodation certainly echoed this grandeur, with four spacious family rooms accessed from communal living areas, furnished with traditional dark wood tables, dressers and giant mirrors. Within the room, a touch of contemporary fun made for a relaxing environment with plenty of space for the children to play. Our kids had their own double bed to share and an outside courtyard meant that we could enjoy takeaway street-food without disturbing them.
George Town is hot, humid and full of people (and cars, scooters, tri-shaws and bikes!) It’s busy. A thriving art scene, amazing food and easy access to Penang Hill and Penang National Park make for a unique and interesting destination and a must-see on any Malaysian West Coast itinerary. Here are our top picks when travelling to Penang with kids.
- George Town Street Art: Arm your little ones with a street art map and set them a a challenge. We decided if our two could help us locate six street art murals on their maps, we'd reward them with an ice lolly. It worked a treat and they were willing to continue the hunt, ice lolly in hand. It's a great way to look around the UNESCO heritage old town, where giant works of art adorn the walls of crumbling colonial buildings. We stumbled upon an old warehouse redevelopment (still under restoration), filled with artisan craft stalls and a coffee shop, and got slightly lost after we were drawn into an enclosed street called Art Lane. An open house for budding artists, our children loved picking out their favourite designs and posing for photos next to giant butterflies, cat unicorns and a bright pink tank (amongst many others). Love Lane is also worth wondering down as some of the shops showcase beautiful batik textiles; a traditional craft where cloth is decorated using wax and dyes.
- Little India: A maze of narrower streets with brightly coloured stalls and shopfronts. As soon as you walk into the area, you’re struck with the scent of spices and the sounds of Bollywood hits. This is a great place to stroll around, particularly at lunchtime or early evening, when you can enjoy some authentic food.
- Fort Cornwallis: We were hit by our first tropical downpour on our way to Fort Cornwallis, so we took a detour to the 3D Trick Art Museum. Despite being a little unpolished, this series of interactive artworks kept our two entertained for a good half hour. The showers didn’t subside, so we never actually make it into the fort, but did see a decent play area (swings, slides, climbing frames) right next to the new moat restoration. Worth a visit if you’re looking for a kid-friendly distraction before or after a bit of sight-seeing. If little legs are getting tired, hop into one of the brightly coloured trishaws and let one of the friendly drivers cycle you home.
- Food, food and more food: George Town is renowned for its street food and it is undoubtedly the foodie highlight in Penang. From around 7pm Lebuh Chulia is lined with vendors selling their own Malay or Chinese speciality with a selection of plastic chairs for those wanting to sit in or takeaway plastic bags at that ready for those eating at home. Olie set off to do the choosing whilst I stayed in to get the little ones to sleep. After the best part of an hour he returned with six plastic bags; two full of fresh juice, two full of a noodle, pork, herb and spice mix and a final two containing a steaming broth. We borrowed the necessary amenities from our hotel and enjoyed some delicious street food in our courtyard whilst the kids slept next door. It’s not all street food however, as George Town is full of great restaurants, cafes, coffee shops and bakeries. We had a great Laksa (a must try during any Malaysian holiday) at the family run Laksalicious and enjoyed some cakes and traditional biscuits at the Mugshot bakery and Passion Heart Café.
- The Habitat at Penang Hill: Bukit Bendera (Penang Hill) was the first colonial hill station developed in mainland Malaysia, originally cleared with the intention of growing strawberries (very British!) 800m above Georgetown, it enjoys a cooler climate and is the last patch of tropical rainforest in Penang. We recommend getting up early if you want to avoid queues at the funicular railway station (trains leave from 6.30 am). Catching the 5-minute train up the steepest tunnel track in the world is an exhilarating experience for little ones. We chose to head straight to ‘The Habitat’, a newly established conservation project showcasing the wonders of the rainforest via a series of trails, a canopy walkway bridge, giant swings and a 360-degree elevated walkway which takes you above the hill’s peak. The staff seem genuinely engaged and enjoyed showing us a newly discovered species of crab and a water snake that they had found earlier that morning. A small café overlooking the surrounding rainforest offers a good option for lunch, albeit with a limited menu. The kids had a great time here, with our 3 year old obsessing about monkey and flying squirrel sightings, and our 5 year old enjoying the freedom to run around in the cooler climate.
- Tropical Spice Garden and Penang National Park: The worlds smallest national park lies in the north-west corner of Penang, around half an hour by taxi from George Town. The main attractions are the islands best beaches and the Tropical Spice Garden, which has been well designed with kids in mind. Our two loved wandering the easy pathways; hopping over stepping stones and looking out for lizards, turtles, fish and butterflies. The giant swing and 3D slides and ladders were also great fun, whilst us adults enjoyed herbal tea tasting and identifying the various spices growing throughout the gardens. There’s a good restaurant, with great views and an adventurous drinks menu, inspired by the garden’s ingredients. Directly opposite is a sandy beach, surrounded by striking boulders and lush green forests. We completely forgot any beachwear, so the children enjoyed a paddle in their underwear. If your children are older and can manage a longer day, it’s probably worth exploring some of the beaches further round the coast. Although Penang’s seas aren’t the clearest, the beaches are still pretty spectacular. The pick of the beaches here is Monkey Beach, accessible via boat from the official NP entrance or via a 3.5km coastal trail.