George Town City Guide For Women

Penang, Malaysia

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(Illustrated by Xin Lee)

Penang Island, Mainland, George Town, World Heritage Zone, Buffer Zone… I’m confused!

George Town is the capital of Penang state, which consists of Penang Island and Seberang Perai, a strip of land across in Peninsula Malaysia. Separated by the Straits of Malacca, Penang Island and Seberang Perai are linked by two bridges: The 13.5km Penang Bridge and the newer 24km Penang Second Bridge.

In 2008, George Town was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, covering two zones in the north-eastern tip of the city. The Core Zone is a 109-hectare site on the north-east of Penang Island that consists of over 1,700 buildings. Surrounding that is a 150-hectare band called the Buffer Zone. The earliest wave of heritage appreciation activities took place in the Core Zone (especially around Lebuh Armenian and Lebuh Pantai) but in the last couple of years, the goodness has spilled over into the Nagore enclave in the buffer zone as well.

There are two ways to commute between Penang Island and Mainland: Drive across one of the two bridges, or take the Penang Ferry service that has been operating since the 1920s, making it the oldest ferry service in Malaysia. We recommend taking the 15-minute ferry ride – it’s a fun, inexpensive way to soak in Penang’s sky and sealine. You only have to pay RM1.20 when you come back from the Mainland. Operating roughly between 6.00am-12.00am, the ferry departs at 20 to 30-minute intervals.

Highlight: Every year for the entire month of August, George Town Festival takes over the Penang state capital and transforms it into a hip and artsy enclave. Here’s what to expect: 16 Awesome FREE Events At George Town Festival This August 2016  

14 things every woman traveller should know and do when in George Town

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George Town (Photo credit: Phalinn Ooi/Flickr)
1. Use Komtar to get your bearings

Locals have this saying: If you ever get lost, just look at KOMTAR. At 232m (761ft), the island’s tallest and most recognisable landmark can be seen from any point within George Town. It may no longer be the hippest hangout but it’s still an important commercial nexus with major banks, an ICT mall and the state government’s administrative offices located here. All the intra-city bus routes radiate from this terminal, and this is also the main place to buy inter-city bus tickets and hail trishaws.

2. Stretch your Ringgit with the Travel Privilege Card – Penang

A joint initiative by the Ministry of Tourism & Culture, Tourism Malaysia Penang and Penang Tourist Centre, this smartcard is one of the most useful and cost-effective ways to explore Penang with. Costing only RM20, it provides up to 20% discount on transportation, tourist attractions, dining and shopping. Available at Penang Tourist Centre and selected museums.

3. Work those leg muscles

With its narrow, atmospheric streets, George Town is ideal for walking everywhere. You can stop and marvel at street art, scrutinise stunning architectural details, and observe all the little things that give the heritage area its charm. Remember to wear sensible shoes (or get a pair made, see #9).

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Penang trishaw (Photo credit: Shankar S/Flickr)
4. Ride in a trishaw

It may be touristy but is an enjoyable experience no less that harks back to the days when these three-wheeled vehicles were the main mode of transport. It can, however, be a tad uncomfortable on a hot day.

Tip: Wait till the early evenings when temperatures drop.

If walking is not your thing and you don’t want to be stuck on a trishaw in the Penang heat, try a taking a taxi or hired car. Read: Adventures with Uber in Penang 

5. Sleep soundly at these women-friendly hotels

These three lodgings are recommended for their modern comforts, central locations and special provisions for women travellers:

Queen’s Hostel will win you over with amenities selected for their appeal to women: Rain showers, mini theatre and beauty essentials (hair dryers, straighteners, and OPI nail lacquers). The highlight is the dorm itself, sprawled with plush mattresses divided by makeshift curtains for privacy.

From spacious women’s dorms with spring mattresses and personalised lockers with bed lights, to free breakfast and WiFi, you’re well insulated from rude surprises at Syok @ Chulia Hostel.

For a unique experience, consider the female-friendly pod at Container Hotel. You get two fluffy pillows, earplugs (on request), privacy blinds, individual ventilation and an amenities bag. You also get to live in a bit of history as it’s located in the centenary building of Kwong Wah Yit Poh, the country’s oldest Chinese language newspaper founded in 1910 by Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat Sen.

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Beach Street Bakery at China House Penang (Photo credit: China House/Facebook)
6. Chic cafés for chill-outs and cakes

Once synonymous with street food, Penang’s fabled culinary scene has expanded considerably with a raft of achingly cool cafes and coffee bars that even non-hipsters love to be seen at. Perennial favourites include China House (an art gallery slash reading room slash performance space slash café with over 30 types of decadent cakes), Mugshot Cafe (excellent coffee) and Cozy in the Rocket (262 & 264, Lebuh Pantai. Opens 10am-5pm, closed Mondays; great handmade pastas).

Newer cafes that are fast gaining popularity are cheesecake specialist Moody Cow Café (order the hate-it-or-love-it salted egg yolk variant), Passion Heart (scrumptious homemade cakes; try the cempedak butter cake), Das Rad (goulash and spaetzle) and Book Sandwich (beef rendang and sambal udang sandwiches).

Tip: What are Penang’s top not-to-be-missed dishes and delights? Find out in our article: 8 Dishes You Must Eat When In Penang 

7. There’s more to street art than photo opportunities

Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacherevic’s murals, which started as a commission for George Town Festival 2012 to liven up old buildings, still have travellers flocking to the city. In truth, the street art renaissance started in 2009 with the city-wide installation of steel rod caricatures that depict historical events and figures with witty captions, such as this one at Kimberly Street: An old-timer summarising a hipster’s convoluted order of “one tall double shot decaf espresso” as simply “Kopi O Kau!”. To catch them all, travel blogger Timothy Tye’s street art guide serves as a good primer.

8. Learn from traditional craftsmen

A phrase you’ll hear often is “living heritage”, referring to a shrinking but still sizeable pool of artisans who carry on generations-old trades. Penang Heritage Trust organises regular workshops on local crafts such as rattan weaving, Nyonya shoe beading and wood carving.

9. These shoes are made for walking

One of Penang’s most famous living heritage is custom shoe maker Wong Heng Mun from Hong Kong Shoe Store. The one-month lead time may kill you but your feet will thank you for the snug, glove-like comfort.

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Khoo Kongsi (Photo credit: alex hanoko/Flickr)
10. Clan house culture

The Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi is the most distinctive and reputable clan house in Penang. It’s usually closed in the evenings, but every last Saturday of the month, Khoo Kongsi turns on the lights at its courtyard between 6.30pm-10.00pm to accommodate exciting Chinese art and cultural performances on the opera stage.

11. It’s in the bag

Your beloved leather handbag finally gave way?

Foo Ah & Co (159 Lebuh Chulia Tel +604 261 3223) repairs bags and other leather goods cheaply and speedily.

12. Beauty through the ages

If you’ve ever wondered how our mums (and grandmas) dolled up before the advent of digital perms and Korean waves, get a blowout at an old-school perm parlour. You can find these legacy institutions along Jalan Dato Kramat and Lorong Hutton, recognisable by the portraits of women with their resplendent pompadours in the window displays.

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Hin Bus Depot (Photo credit: Aleksandr Zykov/Flickr)
13. Modern art in an old bus depot

Hin Bus Depot is a contemporary art centre housed in a 68-year-old abandoned bus depot that has been lovingly restored while keeping to its nostalgic aura. With expansive outdoor, indoor, semi-outdoor spaces, a lawn and outdoor mural area, there is always something going on (and most of their exhibitions are free), so be sure to check their calendar of events.

14. Sunday strut along car-free streets

Between 7am-1pm every Sunday, Lebuh Pantai, Lebuh Bishop, Lebuh Gereja and Gat Lebuh Gereja are made car-free for Project Occupy Beach Street, and transform into a street carnival of al fresco bazaars, outdoor markets, outdoor sports and other family-friendly activities.

For more suggestions on things to do and places to go, read Penang: Why You Should Be There Right Now. 

Getting around George Town

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Bikes for rent (Photo credit: Darby Bognot/Flickr)

RapidPenang is the city’s main public bus network; iOS users can download their mobile app to check bus arrival times. Flash your passport to purchase a rapid Passport (RM30) for 7 days of unlimited travel and rebates from partner merchants.

Penang CAT is a free shuttle bus service that plies the heritage sites and major thoroughfares (download the map here).

Like Kuala Lumpur, Penang also has the double-decker Hop-On Hop-Off bus that stops at 22 attractions along two different routes (City and Beach).

Regular taxis don’t go by meter. Cabbies charge a fixed price depending on the destination; Grab and Uber are popular (and usually cheaper) options.

With a rising number of designated lanes, cycling is an increasingly popular way to commute around George Town. Shops in the core zone offer rental on folding bikes, tandem bikes, family four-seaters and even classic Japanese city bikes. Getting consistently good reviews are Metro Bike, George Town Bicycle Rental, Freedom Leisure Cycle Supply (155 Lebuh Victoria) and Townbikes (5 Lorong Chulia).

Emergency contacts

Police and emergency numbers

The emergency number in Malaysia is 999 (112 on mobile phones). It’s also handy to have a safety app installed on your phone. Here are a few to consider:

Red Alert

Besides a panic button that can be activated with a tap of the screen, which then launches its Black Box audio-capturing feature, this app also enables geo locations that sends your GPS location to registered contacts on your phone. Available on Android.

Alarms & Sirens!

This app offers a collection of siren sounds that you can activate to scare off attackers or at least throw them off guard, and attract attention to yourself and the situation. The list of sounds includes air raid alarms and police sirens. Available on iOS.

Malaysia Hotlines

Find contact numbers that would come in useful in cases of emergencies, including that of local authorities and foreign embassies. You can dial the numbers from within the app. Available on iOS and Android.

Medical Assistance

Should you require hospitalisation, note that while public hospitals are open to foreigners, there is usually a long waiting time. You will likely need a referral so visit a GP first instead of heading straight to the hospital. Private hospitals are usually more accommodating but they might require proof of funds so it would be wise to ensure you’re properly insured.

For milder issues, there are walk-in clinics, with some that are open 24 hours. Have at least RM100 on hand to cover consultation fees and medicine.

If you need medicines, you can find pharmacies at all shopping malls. Basic over-the-counter medicines such as aspirin, paracetamol and cough syrup can also be purchased at supermarkets, convenience outlets, traditional Chinese medicine stores, and small sundry shops.

If you’re visiting George Town, Penang soon, download Zafigo’s guide onto your phone or tablet by clicking the image below:

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AlexandraWong_100x100
Born in Ipoh, author and columnist Alexandra likes her curries hot, her jokes a tad salty, and her cakes unapologetically decadent. An ardent fan of the SRKajol jodi, she thinks she's Indian at heart and believes that getting lost is just another way of finding yourself knee-deep in an exciting adventure.