Why go to Penang?
A historic melting-pot of cultures, with UNESCO World Heritage status
It's usually very hot here, year-round
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.
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.)
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.