Having heard so many things of Penang in the past, I was quite looking forward to get there, as usual I didn’t research much on what to do in Penang but I knew that the highlights were supposed to be the food scene and the street art, among the historic buildings.
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Little did I expect on having the best time in Malaysia whilst hiking Penang Hill and then camping for 3 nights at Monkey Beach inside Penang’s National Park (*technically, Monkey Beach does not belong to the park)
I arrived to Georgetown really early in the morning after taking the night bus from Tanah Merah (try hard not to think of Buena Vista Social Club with that town name!), took a bus to the city centre and looked for accommodation.
I found Drippin’ Dragon Hostel which had some cheap beds at Rm20 including breakfast, took a power nap and at mid morning I was ready to get on with whatever laid ahead!
Day 1 Hiking in Penang Hill
Still half slept, I asked the staff at reception for options on what to do in Penang. Apart from walking around town, visiting temples, etc. What first caught my attention was Penang Hill.
Penang Hill has multiple trails to access, I decided to start by the Moon Gate, one of the common ones as it was easier to reach.
To get there you need to go towards the Botanical Gardens, On the way you will find the Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Temple (or Waterfall Temple) which is a good warm up for the hike as you need to climb 513 steps to get to the temple itself.
Following up the road after the Botanical Garden Parking you will quickly find the Moon Gate which dates back to the late 19th Century and used to be the gateway to one of the 11 famous mansions of Penang (now in ruins)
The hike starts with lots of concrete steps which initially are a bit underwhelming as I like to hike as natural a possible and not on man-made concrete paths, but after about half a hour the terrain will change, not only with the steps disappearing but also having some flat areas to recover a bit under the humid heat of the forest.
Climbing up was pretty straight forward as I was following one of the main paths which was intersected every now and then by smaller paths coming from all sorts of directions.
In all honesty, you don’t get many viewpoints across the climb, but you’re also not sharing the path with many people (counted less then 10 going up) so you can immerse yourself in the forest sounds and colours.
When you cross the cable car lane you know that you’re almost at the top. I initially thought, partly due to lack of sleep and partly to do something different, to take the cable car on the way down, but as I didn’t research what was at the top of the summit, instead of being rewarded with the views and the satisfaction of reaching the mountain top (which you still get both) I was pretty disappointed to see lots and lots of people in this sort of theme park they have set up of there.
It’s definitely the worst summit for a hiking day. Due to all these crowds, there were of course massive queues for the cable car to go down and I was certainly not going for it.
I decided to run/walk down and that’s when the hike got interesting again!
Having so many paths intersecting with each other I was not going to just re-trace my steps and took new trails to go down. For this, make sure to have enough battery on your phone to check the GPS quite a few times, as although each trail is well marked, none says where its leading to, so you can easily end up walking in circles without realising it.
It took me about 2 1/2 hours to go up and 1 1/2 hours to go down (different paths to go up and down).
Penang Hill has a cool mix of terrains, not super technical but I’d recommend to go with hiking boots or a good pair of trainers, take plenty of water with you as it can get really hot!
MY HIKING ESSENTIALS
It’s one of those hikes so close to town that are a perfect alternative if you’re not really looking to do more street wandering and looking to get close to nature. Just bear with yourself at the top crowds and enjoy the hike up and down instead!
Day 2 Walking around town
Knowing that on my third day I was going camping and possibly leaving Penang afterwards I had to use my second day to do all the sightseeing of Unesco’s Heritage Site Georgetown.
As I was staying pretty close to the protected area I just started walking around with no destination in mind.
Similar to what I experienced in Malacca, Georgetown is also full of contrasts and influences of different cultures. Without even looking at the tourist maps you will find lots of street art, which were actually nicer to “discover” without knowing where they were exactly!
A stroll around the Jetties, which are part of Penang’s Heritage Trail, with their wooden planks and improvised roofs will provide a bit of shade in a hot day whilst you look at the small family shops.
Chulia Street is the place to go in the evening for some street food with plenty of options also to stay afterwards for a drink.
Day 3-6 Camping at Monkey Beach
If there was something I knew before arriving to Georgetown from feedback I got elsewhere is that I was definitely staying at least one night camping at Monkey Beach.
There are a few campsites at Penang’s National Park, although they apparently require you to go with a guide which is what they told me at the park’s entrance.
As Monkey Beach is actually not part of the National Park you can camp there even for free.
MY CAMPING ESSENTIALS
To get there from the city centre you need to take the bus 101 and the final stop will be at the park’s entrance. From here you have the option to either hike to the beach for about an hour, or take a 5-min boat.
The guy at the registration office (entrance to the park is free) said that the path to the beach was closed and it was mandatory to go by boat (we later found out it was possible to hike even with the path being “closed”).
I managed to meet a bigger group and we paid the boat between all of us for a cheaper ride (Rm40 for 8 people, but can take up to 10 people)
On our day of arrival we were only 5 people, with a couple arriving a little bit later so we had the beach pretty much for ourselves. The Lazy Boys Cafe is the best place to stay. For only Rm5 you get to use the kitchen, toilet and shower facilities which is pretty decent.
Contrary to what I read earlier, it’s possible to buy food there at OK prices. It’s also possible to drink the tap water there although came with a few litres as I didn’t know this beforehand.
Time does not exist at Monkey Beach, it has been the most relaxing place I’ve been in Malaysia.
The days here were spent chilling by the beach, hiking around, swimming, building bonfires, seeing glowing plankton, kayaking, and even the storms that we had in two of the nights were pretty awesome! A short 30min walk from the beach to the lighthouse will reward you with some magnificent 360 views!
We had a terrific atmosphere in the camp as well, it was a great bunch of people there. We would all look for wood for the bonfire, make communal coffee jugs and sit together at night just listening some music or playing card games. A real community feeling over there which is the main takeaway for me from these days.
If you’re planning to go to Monkey Beach you really need to stay camping there to really absorb the vibes and everything the place has to offer.
If you don’t have a tent you can cheaply rent one for only Rm10. Some other prices as a reference: kayaking Rm10 per person, beer Rm10, breakfast from Rm2, bbq fish or chicken RM10
After the third night it was time for me to move on and catch a ferry to Langkawi. Penang has been a fantastic place to visit and the highlight for sure were the dream days at Monkey Beach.
I hope you enjoy it and feel free to drop any questions or your personal experiences if you already visited!
Check out the rest of my backpacking in Malaysia adventures for more inspiration on your trip!