Our first stop in Malaysia was George Town, the capital of Penang state and the second largest city in Malaysia. Situated on Penang Island, George town is a vibrant city. Colonised by the British in the 18th century, George Town became a hub for the spice trade in Asia. Through the spice trade came Indian and Chinese settlers, who now dominate the cultural landscape.
We spent 4 nights in George Town and spent that time exploring the city's different cultural quarters, sampling the famous street food, hiking up Penang hill and enjoying the tail-end of the Chinese New Year festivities. It was also my 27th birthday - happy birthday me!
We made our way to Penang from Ko Lanta in Thailand. There are a number of ways to travel to Penang from Ko Lanta, ranging from a pricey two-day ferry down the west coast of Thailand to the cheap local bus service from Hat Yai - a large city back on the Thai mainland. Guess which we opted for?!
Travelling through Hat Yai was a doddle and significantly cheaper than both the ferry and a direct minibus service from Ko Lanta to Penang. For you other budget-savvy travellers, the route is as follows:
- Begin by getting a minibus service to Hat Yai. With a bit of bartering, we got this for 550 Baht (£12.50) per person and it included hotel pick-up and the ferry back to the mainland. The journey takes approximately 3 hours.
- Once in Hat Yai, make your way to the bus station. There's only one, but if you're unsure tell your tuk-tuk driver you're going to Pedang Besar (aka the border); he'll know where to take you. The bus station isn't far away. We paid 50 Baht (£1.20) per person.
- At the bus station, find the desk selling tickets to Pedang Besar. Tickets cost 44 Baht (£1) per person. Within minutes of getting there, we were whisked onto a cramped minibus and on our way to the border. The journey took around 45 minutes.
- Once at the border, simply walk through and get your passport stamped. This was by far the quickest and easiest border crossing we have done; no questions and no queues.
- Once on the Malaysian side make your way to the train station. Note: Access to the station is from within the border complex. Don't do as we did and walk half a mile down the road into Malaysia before figuring this out.
- Catch the train to Butterworth, which leaves every hour, costs RM11 (£2) per person and takes around 2 hours.
- Once in Butterworth, follow the signs for the ferry and catch it over to George Town. It costs RM3 (50p) per person. You have arrived at your destination.
The direct minibus service from Ko Lanta to Penang cost 1,200 Baht (£27.50) per person and had an advertised 8-hour journey time. The ferry was far more costly. Our DIY solution cost just £17.20 per person with a journey time of around 7 hours. Winning!
DIY route from Ko Lanta to Penang
Very cramped minibus to the border
George Town is a fantastically diverse place. The streets at the heart of town are lined with beautiful century-old British colonial buildings. A little further out and you find Chinese shop houses, Hindu temples, Indian restaurants and mosques. Further out still and you'll be in a thriving modern city, with malls and skyscrapers.
We stayed on Stewart Street, which is right in the mix with plenty of bars and street food just a stones-throw away. The local bars on Love Lane are small and quirky and most have live music every night of the week. We had a great night out for my birthday; drinking beer and making new friends. I even got 'Happy Birthday' sung to me; although I had to share it with our new pal Jeanette.
Birthday shots with our new friends
Oversized incense sticks at the oldest temple in town
Hayley eyeing up a motobike in her size
Chinese New Years festivities
Walking Tours for the Win!
A great way to see and learn about the city's colonial past is to go on the free walking tour, which is held three times a week and departs at 10:30am from the tourist information centre. The tour lasted 1.5 hours and our tour guide Ron kept us intrigued the entire time. Hayley - not usually one for a walking tour - even enjoyed this one.
Youngest people on the walking tour
Ron explaining the street art
Street art all over Penang marking places of interest
Queen Victoria Jubilee Clock Tower
George Town lies in the shadow of Penang Hill, and for my birthday treat, we decided to hike up it.
To get to the start of the trail, take the local bus to the botanical gardens, but beware, the bus takes the most convoluted route. It took us over an hour to get to the botanical gardens, which was only 7km away. The start of the trail is called 'Moongate' and is located just down the road from the gardens.
For some reason, we thought it would take us around 1 hour to get to the top, which is 833 meters above sea level. We set off at 4:30pm, leaving plenty of time to get up there and enjoy the sunset. Wrong! 3.5 hours later with barely any light remaining, we made it to the top; Hayley exhausted and starving, me, clinging on to my last reserves of birthday enthusiasm.
Despite our slight miss-calculation, we still enjoyed the hike (well most of it). There were some great views and lots of monkeys along the way. We opted for the funicular back down.
Mid-mountain workout anyone?
Can you see my sweat patch?
Made it to the top, just.
- Save yourself some money and go DIY when travelling overland between Thailand and Malaysia. The route between Hat Yai and Penang is easy-peasy.
- Be sure to check out the free walking tour in George Town; there's a good story behind most of the city's streets and buildings.
- If you're feeling fit, take the gladiators route to the top of Penang hill. Remember to pack lots of water and some snacks!