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Cruises to Penang

Penang (Photo:gracethang2/Shutterstock)

About Penang

Penang, a 111-square-mile island off the west coast of Malaysia, gets its name from the betel nut tree, called "pinang" in Malaysian. While some residents still chew betel nuts, you'll probably be more interested in sinking your teeth into the astonishing variety of foods available in this culinary capital. Add in the historic architecture that boosted port city George Town onto UNESCO's World Heritage list, plus the rich blend of cultures, and Penang makes for a rewarding destination.

Located at the northern entry to the Strait of Malacca, the island was used for centuries as a safe harbor for traders from China, India, Arabia and Europe. British Captain Francis Light arranged to have Penang ceded by the Sultan of Kedah to the British East India Company in 1786 in return for promised military protection. With the construction of Fort Cornwallis and the founding of George Town (named after King George III), Penang became Britain's first stronghold in Southeast Asia. Trade flourished -- including rubber, tin and opium -- and attracted fortune-seekers from around the world. The island was captured by the Japanese in World War II and became part of the independent state of Malaysia in 1957.

Today, the population of the state of Penang (which, in addition to the island, also includes a slice of the mainland) totals about 1.75 million; George Town's population is about 738,000, primarily ethnic Chinese, followed by Malays and Indians. The Peranakans, also known as Straits-born Chinese, represent a distinct subculture. In the past, Chinese traders married Malay women, and the blending of the cultures created hybrid customs, foods and dress.

Penang's melting pot of cultures contributes to its fascinating food scene, as well as to its many places of worship, including Hindu temples, Muslim mosques and colonial-era Christian churches. Now, UNESCO recognition has brought a new influx of tourists. George Town's crumbling "shophouses" are being rehabbed into boutique hotels, while outside the city, shopping malls and luxury housing have sprung up along beaches.

The cruise season is fairly well timed to coincide with Penang's drier months of January and February. The equatorial climate keeps it hot year-round (74 to 90 degrees) with fierce sun, so plan accordingly when heading ashore.

  • More about Penang

  • Why go to Penang?

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4 Night
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123 Night
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More about Penang

Why go to Penang?

Pros:

A historic melting-pot of cultures, with UNESCO World Heritage status

Cons:

It's usually very hot here, year-round

Bottom Line:

It's worth braving the heat to explore and taste some truly great food

Penang Cruise Port Facilities?

Ships dock at Swettenham Pier Cruise Terminal, located on the northeast tip of George Town, within walking distance of many attractions. The building opened in 2009 and can handle the largest ships; unfortunately, it features little that's of interest for travelers, aside from restrooms and Wi-Fi. Maps of George Town and surrounding areas are available near the terminal exit, where a flurry of persistent taxi drivers wave brochures.

Central George Town, with its UNESCO World Heritage area, museums, covered market, street food vendors and ethnic neighborhoods, is within walking distance of the pier. But if you don't want to hoof it in the heat, hopping aboard a trishaw is also an option.

Good to Know?

Traffic moves on the left side of the street, British-style. Be very cautious, and look to the right when crossing the street.

George Town is generally quite safe, but petty crimes like purse-snatching and pickpocketing sometimes occur. Just use caution in crowds, and carry your purse on the side of your body that is away from the street.

Take precautions to protect yourself from sun and heat, which can be exhausting. Sunblock and a hat or an umbrella are essential. Take frequent breaks if you're walking, cool off in an air-conditioned shop now and then, and drink plenty of fluids.

The water in Penang is safe to drink, and hygiene among street food vendors is of a higher standard than most places in Asia. We dined on a variety of street foods with no problem.

Getting Around?

On Foot: George Town is flat, and most streets have sidewalks -- though they may be obstructed by shop merchandise. The older parts of town have arcaded buildings that shadow the sidewalks (called gor kha lor or "5-foot ways"), but sidewalk height can go up or down, with a step or two, from building to building. If you decide to walk, there's something of interest hiding in nearly every little alley.

By Taxi: Taxis are plentiful and relatively inexpensive. If you like to tour independently and want to see attractions outside George Town, you might choose to negotiate a ride for the day. Drivers are supposed to use the meter but often refuse or say it's broken. In that case, settle on a fixed fee before you get in and they step on the gas. GrabTaxi is a local taxi-calling app you can use if you have cellphone service.

By Trishaw: A few of these human-powered taxis still ply George Town, and the same rule goes as for them as for taxis -- negotiate. You'll get the best deal if you hire one for an hour or longer.

By Bus: Rapid Penang operates many buses in George Town and around the island. The company has a handy guide on its website listing points of interest and which bus to take to get there. Rapid Penang also operates the free CAT (Central Area Transit) Bus, a shuttle that runs within George Town, serving local attractions. Buses operate every 15 minutes, from 6 a.m. to 11:45 p.m.; look for Rapid Penang buses with a "Free CAT Bus" sign.

By Hop-On Hop-Off Bus: These tourist buses cover two different routes -- City (every 20 to 30 minutes, with a stop at the cruise terminal) and Beach (every hour and 15 minutes); both run from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. You can buy a 24-hour or 48-hour pass.

By Bike: George Town has a bike-share program called Link Bike. Sign up in advance, and you can get a day pass for a very reasonable rate. (Day passes let you ride for free in 30-minute increments throughout the day, with charges only if one biking session stretches beyond the allotted half-hour.) There are bike stations within a couple of blocks of the port. You'll need a smartphone and cell service to be able to operate the system.

Currency & Best Way to Get Money?

Currency in Penang is the Malaysian ringgit. Visit www.xe.com for current rates. There are no ATMs or money-changing facilities at the cruise terminal, but there are many banks with ATMs nearby; you'll run into several if you head down either Lebuh Pantai or Lebuh Light. (Both streets intersect with the large traffic circle you'll see just down the road from the terminal.)

Language?

The official language of Penang is Malay. Most locals you'll encounter speak at least some English -- and many are fluent, thanks to Penang's past as a British colony. You might also hear a mix of Malay and English (with a mashup of Hokkien, Mandarin, Cantonese and Tamil words, as well), referred to as "Manglish."

When reading a map, it's helpful to know that "jalan," "lebuh" and "lorong" are all words for "street" (depending on size), and you'll see both those and English terms used on signs. Some streets are also double-named, with an old British name, as well as a newer Malay name.


Penang Cruise Reviews
Took a taxi around Penang a very good driver very friendly and informativeRead More
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ViennaSam5
we loved Penang, we did the hop on hop off bus, and got see a lot of the place, George town is a must see.Read More
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harryau
Brilliant port. We loved Penang caught hop on hop off bus. Brilliant dayRead More
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Sadsad76
Good tour where we got to see a snapshot of Penang.Read More
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Young at Heart Cruiser

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