I may not be Malaysian, but after living in Penang for nearly seven years, I think I qualify as a local when it comes to certain things. I can drive in two lanes at the same time and not look in my mirrors once. I can eat durian like a champ and use the term “lah” appropriately in any sentence. And for sure, I can write about all the unique places in Penang that are NOT in the guidebooks.
So, let’s get to it:
Unique places in Penang Map
1. Visit my peeps in the Jewish Cemetery… this has to be one of the most unique places in Penang, on so many levels
Smack dab in the heart of George Town is a Jewish cemetery. Not just any old Jewish cemetery. It’s the oldest in Southeast Asia, dating back to 1805.
It is not what you’d expect to find in Malaysia knowing the current tensions. But apparently, in the 1800s, there were tons of Jews here from all around the world.
It’s Malaysia’s solitary Jewish cemetery. The earliest tombstone dates back to 1835 for Mrs. Shoshan Levi, who donated the land.
The cemetery was built on Jalan Yahudi (Jewish Street). But the street has since been renamed to Jalan Zainal Abidin, after a famous Malaysian author.
There are 107 graves in total. David Mordecai, the manager of the 5-star E&O Hotel, was the most recent burial in 2011. He died just before his 90th birthday. His family came from Baghdad to Penang in 1895 to work in the rubber and tin industry.
In other interesting facts about Malaysia, there also used to be a synagogue in here.
2. Art & Garden: stroll in a wild garden with hidden art
A wander through these lush tropical gardens would be gorgeous enough, but with the addition of artwork hidden around every turn, this is a tropical paradise like none other. There are metal and glass sculptures, mosaics, paintings, and other installations created by local artists intertwined within the exotic plants.
Local glass artist Fuan Wong created Art & Garden on his family’s durian farm. He wanted to harmonize nature and art, two of his favorite things, in one place.
Fuan is a glass artist from Penang, who started his craft in 1985 and is mostly self-taught. You’ll find his sculptures all over Art & Garden, and throughout George Town as well.
As you wind your way through the wild pathways, you’ll find yourself amazed at the exotic plant life surrounding you. Then out of nowhere, you’ll spy a tall tree or a twisted flower made of fused glass, hidden amongst the plant life. Some pieces are small and camouflaged inside a fern, while others are enormous colorful installations.
At times you can’t tell whether nature is imitating art or the other way around; it’s exactly what Fuan wanted.
Take your time and wander the grounds. Bring a book, shoot some photos, and spend a leisurely day in an oasis full of surprises. This garden is the prettiest on my list of unique places in Penang.
Tip: Although they have bug spray on-site, it’s the natural kind. As much as I’d like to keep it natural, skeeters and all things bitey ADORE me. The natural stuff just doesn’t work for me. So, if you are prone to bites, I suggest you bring insect repellent.
Tip: Go early or late to avoid the midday sun
3. Kayak to a secluded islet for a picnic
On the way to Batu Ferringhi, just passed the Floating Mosque of Tanjung Bungah, is the Penang Water Sports Centre. Rent a kayak and paddle to Pulau Tikus, a nearby deserted island. As soon as you put your kayak in the water, you’ll see the island off to the right.
Depending on the current, it could take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour to get there, so start early.
What makes this one of the most unusual places in Penang is that it’s a tiny uninhabited island with a tomb and shrine that attracts people from all religions. The gravesite is of a Muslim saint named Seyad Mohamed Kuddoos Oliyullah. It attracts Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus who pay their respects, light joss sticks, and offer prayers.
We live across from it, so we see all the comings and goings.
There is also a solar-powered lighthouse which sometimes works and a newly built dock.
Paddle around the island to find your perfect golden sandy beach. In between the wind-polished boulders, there are a few different stretches of sand to choose from. Spread out your sheet, lay out your picnic, and enjoy the solitude. It’s def the most secluded and best place for a picnic in Penang.
If you’ve read Gift of Rain, by Tan Twan Eng, supposedly this island is where the Japanese man, Endo-San lived.
Tip: It’s 15RM hour per person.
Tip: It is closed on Monday and Tuesday
Tip: There is no website, call +604-890-2250 for questions.
4. Visit the orangutans on Orangutan Island
Ok, I’m cheating here because this isn’t really IN Penang. It’s in Perak, a neighboring state. But it will only take you one hour from George Town, and it’s TOTALLY worth a visit.
Catch a quick boat ride to Orang Utan Island to see the Bukit Merah Orang Utan Island Foundation’s local inhabitants. It was established in 2000 as a 35-acre island sanctuary in the middle of a lake. Back then, there were only three primates on the island, today there are 24.
Some of the orangutans have been rescued from the illegal trade and will make it back in the wild. But others will remain on the island for the rest of their lives.
The orangutans have free reign over the trees and most of the island. There is a 100-meter steel fence shaped into a tunnel for us humans to walk through, so it seems like we are the one in the cages, not them.
When you step off the boat, you’ll be greeted by a guide who will explain the center and show you around. Sadly, these gentle primates are here instead of in their natural habitat. Still, the foundation is doing its best to educate the public about conservation and rehabilitation.
Tip-Drive to Bukit Merah Laketown Resort (15 minutes away from Taiping). The lakeside resort is where you’ll see the pier, get your ticket, and catch the boat to the island. The price of the ticket includes the boat ride and entrance to the island.
Tip-There is nothing else to do on the island other than experiencing the orangutans and visiting the gift shop (all proceeds go back into the foundation).
Tip-Call first to make sure the lake’s water level is high enough for the boat to be running.
5. Eat lunch in a fishing village on the back of the island
Drive to Jia Siang restaurant in Balik Pulau for the freshest fish and seafood lunch.
The restaurant is just in front of the fishing village where they sell their daily catch. Walk to market and choose your fresh squid, crab, prawns, and all sorts of unknown fishies. Don’t worry about how to prepare it, the restaurant will know what to do with anything you buy.
It is a little cheaper to buy from the fisherman than ordering directly from the restaurant. However, if you don’t like the idea of picking your own lunch, then order at the restaurant and they’ll take care of it for you.
I think the best way to order is to ask some of the locals what they are eating. Malaysians love to talk about food, it’s the national pastime, so don’t be shy. Not only will they help you order and tell you what’s best, they might ask you to sit and join their table.
After lunch, take a stroll behind the market, you’ll see the fishermen tending to their boats on the river.
If you continue straight along the road Jia Siang is on, you’ll dead-end into a pretty secluded beach called Pantai Betong. If you go during the week, you’ll likely have the place to yourself. Or you might have to share it with a few local fishermen trying to catch their dinner.
Go on a Sunday, and there might be a few families from the local village having a picnic and romping in the little waves.
Tip: Waze knows the way to Jia Siang and the beach.
6. Visit a beach with WWII relics and one of the oldest Chinese temples on the island
The war remains are a military installation the Brits built to prevent the Japanese from landing along the coast. There are a few bunkers and pillboxes along with a watchtower facing the sea.
Set back from the beach and relics, sits one of the oldest Chinese temples on the island.
The Tanjong Tokong Tua Pek Kong Temple dates back to the mid-1700s and is dedicated to Zhang Li, a scholar of Hakka descent. He left China headed for Sumatra and somehow got off course. After landing in Tanjong Tokong, he created a Chinese settlement that still flourishes today.
After he died, he was buried on the temple grounds. About 50 years later, he was venerated as a God of prosperity. On the 14th night of Chinese New Year, which also happens to be the eve of his birthday, there is a flame watching ceremony called Chneah Hoay. The coming year’s fortune is predicted by the size of the flame that leaps out of the massive urn.
Tip: Head over just before sunset so you can see the relics and temple in the day but have dinner at the Sea Pearl Garden Lagoon. They are known for their fresh crabs and prawns.
Tip: The beach is in Tanjong Tokong, just near the Tesco. Get Waze to take you to the Sea Pearl Lagoon. After dinner, walk over to the Avatar Secret Garden to see the trees lit up with thousands of led fairy lights.
My Wrap Up to the most unique places in Penang
Most guidebooks and blogs will go over the basics like Penang Hill, the UNESCO world heritage area, and the Penang State Museum, but there is a lot more than that to see here.
This blog is about unique Penang, the secret places only a resident or local would know.
However, if you were looking for info on Penang’s top sights like the Penang National Park, Pinang Peranakan Mansion, or the Kapitan Keling Mosque, don’t worry, I didn’t leave you hanging. Check out what to do in Penang in 3 days.
Now that you know some of the most unique places in Penang, Malaysia, which one is the most intriguing to you? Tell me in the comments below.