Penang is made up of two parts: Penang Island off the coast in the Straits of Malacca and Seberang Perai, which is part of the mainland. The 13.5km Penang Bridge connects both parts. That’s just one small nugget of information about the Malaysian state for you. We spoke to Tom Abbott, Director at Soho Sales Coaching, to get many more to make up a handy city guide – from the best restaurants and bars to what to wear and if you need a visa.
1. How often do you travel to Penang and who do you fly with?
Usually, I travel from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur first and combine that visit with a short two-to-three-day trip to Penang. If I’m travelling straight from Singapore, I’ll take Jetstar, AirAsia or Tiger for the 90-minute flight. I like to board and disembark the plane quickly, so I always pay a little more and book the first or second row.
2. One thing everyone ought to know about Penang:
Penang Island has it all, from delicious food to heritage sites and relaxing beaches.
3. How quickly can you get a visa?
Most nationalities don’t require a visa for a stay up to 90 days.
4. Fastest way into the city?
The airport is only 16km from Georgetown so taxi is the fastest way to travel. The fare is around MYR30 to 40. As the capital of Penang and a Unesco World Heritage Site, Georgetown is very popular with tourists so expect crowds. There are many beautiful pre-war buildings and architecture to look at. Another popular mode of transport is the three-wheeled trishaw, which is good for travelling short distances.
5. When are the good and bad times to visit Penang?
It’s constantly hot and humid. The wet season is from April to November. December to March is drier but it’s also the high tourist season, which is better to avoid.
6. Hotels you recommend:
My favourite boutique hotel is Hotel Penaga (+60 4 261 1891). It’s in a renovated cluster of 15 pre-war terraces and shophouses and it’s got heritage, character and style. It’s right in the heart of Georgetown and is ideal for business travellers.
The grandest luxury hotel in Penang is undoubtedly the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (+60 4 222 2000), also known as the E&O. It’s one of Georgetown’s signature landmarks and has been around since 1885. If you’ve got a generous budget, it’s worth a stay.
Once the business portion of the trip is done, hop on a taxi and head to Batu Ferringhi to relax. It’s 30 minutes away. Shangri-La Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa (+60 4 888 8888) gets my vote for the most exclusive resort in Penang. They’ve got an adults-only saltwater pool, private soaking tub on the balcony and a par-3 executive golf course.
7. What’s the dress code for meetings?
Business casual: dress pants and a shirt but no tie.
8. Any cultural or business etiquette to be aware of?
Malaysia has one of the highest numbers of public holidays in the world. Some are announced last minute by the government and it will affect business. If you’ve a meeting or event set on a particular date, stay in constant communication with your Malaysian counterpart to make sure everything is moving forward as planned.
In general, Malaysians are very easy-going people and business is usually not too formal. Be willing to invest the time to really get to know them. When I first got there, I had a five-course meal over two hours, just chatting with my clients and we weren’t even talking business. Let them take the lead a little and it’s wise to mirror their actions when in doubt.
9. You are taking a client to lunch or dinner, where do you go?
Penang is famous for its food. You can get cheap but delicious local street food, expensive gourmet meals in upscale restaurants and everything in between. A rule of thumb: if I see a sizeable number of locals eating at a particular hawker roadside stall, I will eat it. If you’re a bit squeamish about eating at a roadside stall, avoid raw food and only order cooked food.
Popular Penang dishes include assam laksa, fried kuay teow, prawn noodles and fried oysters. I strongly recommend trying the famous Penang Road chendol; it’s just a small roadside trolley on Penang Road. It’s super popular and always very crowded. Any local would be able to direct you to it.
Sigi’s Bar & Grill (+60 4 886 1852) at the Shangri-La Golden Sands Resort on Batu Ferringhi serves delicious food right on the beachfront and is a great place to bring clients to.
10. Casual bars to go for a drink with clients where you won’t get hassled?
Impress your clients by bringing them to Farquhar’s Bar (+60 4 222 2000) in the E&O. It’s perfect for sundowners. The bar has deep armchairs and a really nice atmosphere for schmoozing. The Poolside Terrace and Planters Lounge are two other bars in the E&O to check out. Upper Penang Road, right opposite the E&O, has a lot of bars and restaurants so it’s a great place to explore.
As an ang moh, I’ve experienced my fair share of hassling in touristy places like Bali and Phuket but, strangely, there was none at all in Penang. Instead, wealthy Middle Eastern tourists were getting hassled big time!
11. Any unsafe areas to avoid?
I haven’t experienced any unsafe areas at all on all my trips.
12. You’ve got some spare time, what’s the must-see?
I once did a trishaw tour of Georgetown and my trishaw rider took me to interesting landmarks such as the Khoo Kongsi – a distinctive Chinese clan association, the Blue Mansion – a Chinese historical mansion-turned-museum, and Armenian Street where there are lots of art galleries and shops. Just flag a trishaw on the street and ask the trishaw uncle to take you on a tour; they are very knowledgeable and they do such informal tours all the time. I paid MYR36 for a 90-minute tour.
After exploring Georgetown, try the Joget high tea at Shangri-La Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa. They offer both Malaysian and English high tea options. Joget is a traditional Malaysian dance and there is a live performance during the high tea. Audiences are invited to join in and learn the dance, which is a fun way to interact with the locals and learn more about the culture.
13. Gifts to take home for family and friends?
A popular gift to bring home is Penang’s traditional kuehs, which are small savoury and sweet snacks, usually made from rice flour. They come in various forms and will definitely be a hit with your friends and family. You can get them from any of the traditional kueh shops dotting the streets. Pickled fruits like nutmeg, papaya, mango and guava are aplenty too.
Nonya beaded shoes and batik clothing make great souvenirs for people who are not from the region and have never been exposed to Peranakan culture.
14. How long before your flight do you really need to be at Penang International Airport (PEN)?
As it’s a fairly small airport, you can get by with 90 minutes. The airport is nice, fairly efficient and easy to navigate. However, there aren’t many dining options in the airport except fast food, so fill up beforehand.