Go beyond the well-trodden tourist hotspots to discover a whole new side to this culturally vibrant state
Famous for its arresting street art, legendary street food scene and being home to some of Malaysia’s most important cultural landmarks such as the UNESCO-listed capital city of George Town, the vibrant state of Penang is one of Malaysia’s – if not Asia’s – hottest destinations.
Unsurprisingly, this also makes it one of the attractive and most-visited places in the country. However, there is so much more to Penang than what the guidebooks tell you – hire a car for a day and stray away from the touristy areas to discover it for yourself. Away from the city center, you’ll be greeted by its own beautiful national park, pristine remote beaches, sleepy kampongs nestled amidst paddy fields and more.
Below, we’ve rounded all the best hidden gems in Penang that are off the beaten track. Some of these places have seen a growing number of travellers in recent times, so be sure to pay a visit while they’re still under-the-tourist-radar!
1 – Enjoy a hike and canopy walk in Penang National Park
Spanning 25 sq. km, the Penang National Park is Malaysia’s smallest national park. Despite its size, this beach-fringed haven is home a variety of habitats and wildlife including rare pitcher plants, rocky bonsai, dusky leaf monkeys, otters, great egrets and even dolphins. Only 30 minutes by road from Georgetown with direct buses from the city, you can easily cover the park on a day’s trip. From its entrance, take a short walk to the head of the Canopy Walkway, a 250-metre treetop stretch which lets you get a lay of the land from above, or opt for any of the two hiking trails. One of them will lead you along the coast and over the headlands to the popular Monkey Beach while the other will takes you through the jungle and into the remote beaches of Pantai Kerachut.
2 – Escape the crowds at Kerachut Beach
Batu Feringghi and Monkey Beach are some of Penang’s more well-trodden beaches, but if you’re looking to escape the crowds, hit the golden sands of Kerachut Beach, located within Penang National Park. A suspension bridge connects the park trail to the beach itself and getting here requires a 90-minute hike but the sun, sand and serenity at the end are well-worth the journey. The meromictic lake here is arguably its most famous feature, and only one of three of its kind in Asia. Lay by the beach to soak up the rays or visit the turtle hatchery at the far end of the beach as well.
3 – A taste of rural life in Kampung Agong
An hour’s drive from Penang Bridge, nestled in the far north of the state, lies Kampung Agong. With its swaying coconut trees and traditional wooden houses surrounded by paddy fields, it’s every bit the postcard-perfect rural idyll. Formerly a coconut plantation, it was recently transformed into a tourism offering, now featuring photo spots like the hanging bird nests (inspired by the nests of a bird species commonly seen in the village), as well as a swing facing Mount Jerai that’s inspired by Bali’s famous version. Visitors can also rent a bike for RM4 each to cruise around the village.
4 – Visit an otherworldly secret garden
Fans of the 2009 film Avatar will love the Avatar Secret Garden, located just a 20-minute drive from George Town. By night, this otherwise unsuspecting section of rainforest along Tanjung Tokong comes alive with a dazzling display of light installations including fiber optics, neon and fairy lights that pulse in various shades of pink, purple, green and hue. Make sure you have your cameras ready; this place makes for an Instagram-worthy photo op.
5 – Go on a bike tour of Balik Pulau
Literally meaning ‘on the other side of the island’, Balik Pulau offers an alternative taste of Penang that’s a far cry from the well-trodden streets of George Town. This laidback market town boasts sprawling rice fields, durian farms, clove and nutmeg orchards as well as rural fishing villages. A twice-daily guided bicycle tour by the local visitors center is a choice way to soak up its sights and sounds. While here, you’d be remissed not to try the town’s famed Assam Laksa (also known as the Balik Pulau Laksa), widely said to be one of the best renditions of the traditional noodle dish in Penang.
6 – Eat your heart out at a durian buffet in Balik Pulau
Here’s another reason to venture to Balik Pulau – that is, if you love your durians. Balik Pulau is a haven for this the thorny tropical fruit, with organic third-generation farms like Bao Sheng Durian Farm offering sumptuous durian buffets during the season. It also doubles as a farm stay, with tatami rooms and pool villas for those looking to spend the night. Those seeking a leisurely day time durian eating experience can book a spot at Stone House, where you can tuck into the fruit with a beautiful porchside view of its landscaped grounds.
7 – Go jungle trekking in Pulau Aman
Aman Island, which translates to the ‘island of peace’, is an islet off the coast of Seberang Perai in Penang. It’s home to a population of less than 300 – to give you an idea of its remoteness – and certainly counts as one of Seberang Petai’s best hidden gems. To get here, hop on a 10-minute boat ride from the Batu Musang jetty in Batu Kawan and you’d arrive on its idyllic shores in no time. Local and foreign tourists alike come here for its delicious seafood – the mee udang (soupy noodles served with juicy, jumbo-sized prawns) are a must-try – and other outdoor activities like kayaking, fishing, jungle trekking and more. Fun fact: you might also recognise it from a few local flicks like crime and action film “Operasi X” and TV series “Seribu Kali Cinta”.
8 – Visit Asia’s first and only comic museum
It’s no surprise that this culturally vibrant state is home to a slew of interesting museums, ranging from a camera-themed to one entirely dedicated to replicas of traditional Malaysian dishes. Comic enthusiasts should head to the Asia Comic Cultural Museum, which dives into the history of comics in nine countries across Asia, as well as must-know artists in the region.