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Though by saying ‘Penang’ many travelers mean Penang Island, the island is only a part of Penang state which has a similar-sized mainland part, called Seberang Perai. Of the two, Penang Island is by no doubt the main draw. Though an island, Penang is by no way a prime beach destination. Do not expect crystal clear waters and fine sand – there are many other places in Malaysia where you can find this combination, but definitely not on Penang. But Penang is the right place to savour the local flavour: a melting pot of Malay, Indian, Chinese and European cultures, Penang will bring your culinary experience at a new level; British colonial architecture blends here with colourful Chinese temples; and the whole wealth of walking itineraries – from exploring natural attractions of the island including a mangrove forest and butterfly farm to visiting churches or browsing the city streets in a traditional rickshaw – assure you will not be bored.
How to get from Kuala Lumpur to Penang
Both buses and trains are a convenient way to get from Kuala Lumpur to Penang. Note trains bring you to Butterworth, a town on the mainland part of Penang state. From there it is a 15-minute ferry ride to Georgetown on Penang island. There is absolutely no reason for spending your time in Butterworth – unless you decide to visit the largest Bird Park in Malaysia, which is located about two km east of the ferry terminal, or have a look at a huge Nine Emperor Gods Temple – but you will find the similar-styled temples in Georgetown, too.
From Kuala Lumpur to Penang by train
Trains from Kuala Lumpur make several stops on the mainland of Penang state, including Bukit Mertajam and Butterworth. If your final destination is Georgetown (which is most probably is the case), go to Butterworth which is located right by the pier from where a shuttle ferry heads to the island part of Penang state.
The distance between the capital of Malaysia and Butterworth is about 350 km. Travel time from Kuala Lumpur to Penang by train is four hours if you go by a high-speed electric train (ETS), while ordinary intercity train #2 takes over five hours to cover the same distance. It leaves Kuala Lumpur Sentral at 4pm daily and arrives to Butterworth at 9.45pm. The main advantage of this intercity train is the price of the tickets which is nearly twice as low as the one of the ETS at MYR34 compared to MYR59.
ETS operates on daily bases and offers 4 trains a day plus the fifth option from Friday to Sunday (#9216 at 5.30pm). There are two morning trains at 9.15am (#9232) and 9.30am (#9208) and two evening trains at 6.35pm (#9210) and at 8pm (#9234).
Note that the last train (#9234) reaches Butterworth at 11.52pm and it is impossible to get to Georgetown by ferry on the same day, as the ferry operates till 11.30pm only. You still can reach Georgetown, though, but you will need to take a taxi instead.
From Butterworth to Georgetown
The easiest way to get from Butterworth to Georgetown is to take the famous Penang ferry. It departs regularly from the Ferry Terminal in Butterworth from 5.30am till 11.30pm every 10 or 20 minutes. You can get to the ferry terminal directly from the train and bus stations in Butterworth – look for covered walkways and indications. The ferry takes just 15 minutes to reach the pier at Weld Quay.
From Kuala Lumpur to Penang by bus
Bus travel from Kuala Lumpur to Penang takes from 4½ hours to 5 hours. Taking into consideration a number of departures from different locations in Kuala Lumpur and the cost of the ride (MYR35-MYR40), it is a great alternative to a railway journey.
The main bus terminal in Kuala Lumpur serving Kuala Lumpur–Penang route is TBS, Terminal Bersepadu Selatan, the main transportation terminal in the southern part of Kuala Lumpur. From the city it is easily reachable by KLIA transit, LRT and KTM Komuter. Billion Stars, StarQistna Express and Seasons Express all operate from TBS from as early as 6.30am with the last bus departing a minute before midnight at 11.59pm.
Billion Stars also has rides from One Utama, to the northwest of the capital, and Pudu Raya, located rather centrally between KLCC and Bukit Bintang. The latter is also used by Mayang Sari Express and City Express buses.
The earliest bus of Billion Stars from One Utama leaves at 9.45 am, the last one – at 11.59pm. The first City Express bus from Pudu Raya departs at 10.30 in the morning, the last – at 11.30 in the evening. Some companies also call to Kulim in Kedah on their way to Butterworth, but if your final destination is Georgetown, do not get off at that point.
Note that for the majority of buses Butterworth is not their terminus. After calling to Butterworth they proceed over the famous Penang bridge #1 to the centralised island bus terminal, Sungai Nibong. Note that though travelling to Singai Nibong brings you directly to the island, it is about 10 km to the main tourist area of Georgetown from there. In many cases, Butterworth is the best choice to get off the bus as it is only a 15-minute trip to Georgetown by ferry from there.
Note though, that all buses leaving Kuala Lumpur after 6.30pm, arrive to Butterworth after 11pm_ which means you will not be able to use the ferry from Butterworth to Georgetown immediately after arrival: take a taxi instead.
Though as in many other places in Asia, footpaths are narrow or non-existent in Georgetown, it is still a pleasure to go on a stroll around the central part of Georgetown filled with colonial mansions, colorful temples and tasty restaurants. To go further, make use of rather a convenient and well-organized Penang public transport system. Local buses ply several routes which are clearly indicated on maps – look for them at the main bus terminals at Jetty and Komtar Complex. Buses stop picking up passengers after 10pm.Taxis have metres, though flat rates – normally, quite decent – are used for certain destinations. At night-time, taxis add 100% surcharge to the normal rate.
Renting a motorbike is a great way to get around the island. A usual daily rate is about MYR25, and many rental shops require a deposit of MYR200. Helmets are compulsory and traffic is often quite chaotic, but if you have the experience of negotiating streets anywhere in Asia, you will not be lost.
Where to stay
Georgetown has accommodation for all tastes and budgets, but if you are after some serious fancy options, look in Batu Ferringghi close to the beach. Backpackers and flashpackers are well catered for around Chulia and Muntri Streets, as well as in Love Lane area. That said, decent double rooms under USD20 (MYR80) are a rare breed nowadays. Going a step further up (to MYR100) allows you to choose a room in a much more attractive guesthouse which is definitely a worth-doing thing.
Time your visit to see one of the famous festivals – from Chinese New Year in February to Deepavali or Songkran in April to get the real taste of the island’s culture. Since 2010, a month-long Georgetown festival held in June/July brings to the city a blast of art, theatre, dance and music performances.
Sweat your way through the city streets pedalling a tandem bike. Climb to the largest Buddhist temple in South East Asia of Kek Lok Si and then pay respect to the oldest Anglican church of the region, St. George’s. Wander fearlessly over the vipers inhabited premises of the Snake Temple and transport yourself to India in the intricately decorated Hindu temple of Sri Mahamariamman. Watch myriads of flying beauties in Penang Butterfly Farm and then head to Upper Penang Road for the best nightlife options.
After you have had enough of the city itself, do some jungle trekking in the Penang National Park with a network of paths cutting through virgin forests or set on for a day boat trip to Pulau Payar Marine Park for snorkelling. You can try some of the north-western coast beaches, too, e.g. Monkey Beach, but do not expect too much.
From Penang to Thailand
The railway station serving Penang is located in Butterworth, on the mainland part of the state. To get to Butterworth from Georgetown, take a ferry, a bus or a taxi. There is a direct train from Butterworth to Bangkok operated by Thai Railways. It leaves daily at 1.15pm and arrives to Bangkok at 10.30am the next morning, the whole journey taking 21 hour. All cars are second class AC sleeper cars and tickets cost THB1430 (MYR170). The train makes all the usual stops en route to Bangkok, including Hat Yai, Suratthani and Chumphon, among others, which allows you to hop off in the middle of the way and explore some of the islands of the Gulf.