A multi-cultural state with palm-fringed beaches and a cool capital city

When it comes to Penang, much of the spotlight is focused on the al George Town – and rightly so. With a UNESCO World Heritage old town, a legendary hawker food scene and world-class street art murals, it is an exciting, under-the-radar city that can easily be explored in a couple of days.

But the island, all lush jungle and palm tree-fringed beaches, has so much more to offer than that. From traditional, low-key fishing villages and Malay kampong houses to durian farms and Penang National Park, this laidback beauty is a unique cultural melting pot and once a key stopping point for European traders on their way to Asia.

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Chinese immigrants settled on the shores of George Town in the 19th-century and built their houses on stilts over the sea. Today, the Clan Jetties by the ferry terminal are part of the Penang Heritage Trail; if you visit only one, make it the Chew Jetty which has the longest wooden walkway and is marked by a temple at the entrance. From here, it is a short stroll or trishaw ride to Little India (the area fans out from Lebuh Pasar) in the old town where hip-swaying Hindi music blasts from shops selling saris and silver bracelets, and a smell of fiery cooking spices fills the air.

Equally impressive is the street art, the result of an international competition in 2009 by the Penang State Government when it was seeking UNESCO World Heritage status for George Town. A series of steel-rod, character-based sculptures are accompanied by fun Penang-related facts (such as, footwear designer Jimmy Choo completed an apprenticeship at the Hong Kong shoe store on Muntri Street) and 3D wall murals by artist Ernest Zacharevic. Perhaps the most famous is ‘Old Motorcycle’ where passers-by queue up to pose on the bike; others include ‘Brother and Sister On Swing’ and ‘Boy On Chair.’

Art fans should also make a beeline for the Hin Bus Depot, an abandoned bus terminal turned creative hub housing artist studios, an event space for exhibitions and music gigs, and a Sunday crafts market. Refuel with a snack of nasi lemak (savory coconut rice) topped with spicy sambal sauce at Sri Weld Food Court or a steaming bowl of Prawn Mee noodle soup at Old Green House hawker centre. Then hop in a taxi and head west to hilltop Kek Lok Si Temple. This is the largest Buddhist Temple in Malaysia, famed for its towering bronze statue of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, and arranged over several levels with numerous monasteries and prayer halls.

Back at sea level, the northern coastline has some of the island’s best beaches, including Batu Ferringhi and Teluk Duyung (also known as Monkey Beach because of the macaques that roam here). Framed by mangrove forest, it is accessible by boat or hiking through jungle in the Penang National Park. From the park entrance, head to the suspension bridge where the two main trails start: turn right for Monkey Beach and the Muka Head lighthouse; turn left for Pantai Kerachut beach and Meromictic Lake.

With the canopy of the ancient forest above to keep you cool, and the promise of a dip in the sea along the way, either trek makes for a rewarding day.

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