Penang is a spicy potpourri of Chinese, Malay, and Indian ethnicities. But I didn’t realize how thick this gravy of cultural mix is until I went to Penang.
On my first day in Penang, I stayed in a Chinese guesthouse, ate rice and fish curry at a Muslim Malay restaurant, and my evening stroll took me to Indian food stalls proudly flaunting crispy samosas.
Wait. What was happening?
Indian Malaysians, who were mostly from South India, told me that many Indians were taken to Penang to work as laborers during the 130-years rule of British over Malaysia. Penang port was the main trade route for traders from China, Spain, Arabia, and India, and the British wanted their chunk of the trade.
A Malay Chinese whom I met while hiking the Penang hill cleared my doubts about the origins of Chinese Malays. He said that the Chinese sailed to Malaysia in the 18th century to trade and work as laborers.
Over time, all three ethnicities blended to form the current Penang.
While the Chinese relished the Malaysian coconut flavors, Indians used sweet-chili sauces in their curries, and Malaysians ate biryanis and noodle soups with the same fervor. Given the rich mix of the three cuisines that the island is blessed with, the question of what to eat in Penang and what to do in Penang can be more complicated than you think.
While admiring the street art in Penang, I felt that the cultural evolution of Penang had been pasted onto Penang streets in a raw and hilarious manner.
Table of Content – What does this Street Art in Penang guide contain?
- A glimpse into the crazy culture of Penang
- Penang Street Art History
- Finding the 52 iron sculptures – Street art, Georgetown Penang.
- Finding the Penang wall murals drawn by Ernest Zacharevic and other artists.
- How to navigate and commute to see the mural art of Penang, Malaysia?
- Where to stay in Penang?
A glimpse into the crazy culture of Penang.
On one side Indian hawkers sold Nasi Kandar in Shravan-inspired bamboo baskets balanced on hunched shoulders. On the opposite street, Char Kway Teow noodle stalls hung high up on the blackened street walls. While Indian Muslims waited to buy tickets to Mecca, secret Chinese societies were asked to hush away by the sleeping Penangites.
And then there was the nomadic backpacker desperately knocking for a shower at the door of a hotel that was once a Chinese shophouse.
If you hadn’t guessed, I am talking about the Georgetown Penang street art that I discovered while walking around the sunny streets of Georgetown.
A recommended read: Guide to the online visa of Malaysia, for Indians.
The baroque buildings and the boutique shops left by the Britishers garnished the cultural hot pot. Stumbling into those street signs in Penang, I felt as if Penang had taken me on a walk through its history.
Suggested read: See the hustle and bustle of Indian streets here in a Pushkar photography essay.
We get the-crazy cultural bit. But how did Georgetown and Penang became the centers of street art?
Penang Street Art History
Georgetown is the capital of Penang state in Malaysia and is a Unesco Heritage site.
As the UNESCO heritage center title wasn’t enough for Georgetown, the Penang state government decided to add something even more unique to Penang and Georgetown.
The government of Penang launched the “Marking the Penang” project under which it contracted a Kuala Lumpur based company to make fifty-two (52) iron figures for Penang.
Each one of these 52 figures shows a unique cultural or geographical trait of Penang. All the street art was then kept at corresponding streets in Georgetown that matched the cultural soup of the street sign.
Penang government’s ideas succeeded, and these iron sculptures later became the main Penang points of interest for all the tourists who had started flocking to Penang for its unique culture and now the budding street art.
But something else also happened that established Georgetown and Penang as street art centers of the world.
A Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic started painting graffitis and murals on Georgetown street walls. As he made colorful vibrant paintings inspired by real human and animal life of Penang, the government signed him up for drawing more murals. This project in Penang made street art a phenomenon on the Penang island.
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By now an art trend had started in Penang. Many more local and international artists came together to paint the patched walls of Penang. From the deaf-mute Penang-born artist Louis Gan to the female Russian graffiti maker Julia Volchkova all tried their hands on the Penang street walls and made some of the best Penang wall murals.
More commissioned projects were given by the Penang government. Thai and Malaysian artists tried to bring attention to the stray cats and other animals wandering in the rickety streets of Penang by making twelve cat wall paintings in Penang, aka the 101 Lost Kittens project.
The street art didn’t only stay limited to Georgetown and even spread to the Jetties, to the narrow lanes outside the Georgetown historical area, and even to the commercial cafes.
Within no time, sizzling street art, giant graffitis, and multicolored murals smiled at the Penangites and tourists from all the nooks and corners of Penang streets.
Hovering over Chendol food carts, staring out of forever open windows, hanging onto the window sills, playing on swings, or just idyllically sitting in boats, the street art and their figures seemed as much a part of the Penang life as you and me.
A complex treasure hunt builds in my mind while I walk on the paved streets of Penang that helps me relive an era when I didn’t even exist.
Penang mural art, iron sculptures on the cross-sections of Penang streets, and the portraits that speak from the walls outside the historical center of Georgetown all tell a story. That story is not hung up on the past of Penang, but the decade-long street art culture of Penang has also evolved along with the life of the Penang people, aka the Penangites.
Related Read: Penang must give you a good reason to visit Malaysia, but if you still need a reason, here is some inspiration for you to visit Malaysia.
Please note: In this guide to the street art of Penang, I have only shared those wall murals and graffitis that I enjoyed seeing and clicked a good picture of. You cannot possibly share all the wall art of Penang in one post.
How to find the Iron sculptures of Penang? Where is the Street art of Penang located?
All the fifty-two (52) iron sculptures depicting the Voice of the people can be found on Georgetown’s street junctions.
I bet that you won’t miss these signs so I won’t mark all of them on a map.
But here are two official Penang Mural maps so that you can read more about these sculptures, the history behind, and their location.
Georgetown Penang Street Art Map — Get the map here. This Penang tourist map is provided by the Penang government and lists the main Georgetown murals and the iron street signs. The map isn’t exhaustive and doesn’t describe all the street art in Penang, like the next one, but it talks about Georgetown gaining popularity as a tourist and art hub amongst other things.
Street Art Map, Penang by Penang tourism board — This one is my favorite as it is a detailed map to all the Penang wall art. It includes the main streets in Penang where most of the art is located, the story behind all the major murals (by major I mean the popular ones as a lot of murals in Penang are good) and the description of all the fifty-two street signs in Georgetown Penang. You can get a hard copy of this at the Penang airport and also at your hotel. Find a digital copy of this Penang Mural art map here on the Penang tourism board’s website.
How to find the Wall Murals drawn by Ernest Zacharevic and Other artists in Penang? What is the Penang street art location?
You can find some of the most gorgeous street art in Penang Armenian street. Armenian street was an Islamic, Chinese, Malay, and an Armenian settlement over a long course of time. This street has so much street art that it can be named as Penang Art Street.
You can also find street art in Georgetown by starting in the farthest northwest corner and heading towards the city center — the Kungfu girl, the trishaw peddler, and the tree lady are located here.
Victoria Street or Lebuh Victoria and Lebuh Chulia, are also good places to find Georgetown street art.
Though you will find most of the street art around the Armenian street in Georgetown, Penang murals also extended out of the whitewashed Baroque buildings to the clan Jetties where you will find folklore by the sea.
And if you just go a lane behind, you might find some tasty prawn fritters, too.
Outside Georgetown — Look for the Hin Bus Depot and surroundings. After a 2014 exhibition by Ernest Zacharevic’s which was titled Art is Rubbish, this place became an art hub for the budding artists. Discover the tiger, the yoga girl, and other portraits along with some animal graffiti in this area. A regular Sunday market for old stuff and food is a highlight of the Hin Bus Depot.
You might want to go to Nagore Square for contemporary art and face portraits. Head to Balik Pulau for more face portraits and scenes of real-life in Penang.
Again I am not marking the street art on a Penang attractions map because I don’t want to take away the surprise from randomly coming across a beautiful piece of street art. Going into the dark forgotten lanes but stumbling onto a surprising mural is beyond pleasurable in sunny afternoons.
If you get too lost, then remember that the maps that I linked above have some of the most popular graffitis of Penang.
An insider tip to find some other street art at Penang: Look at this handy resource by Penang government Travel2Penang.
Wander as much as your schedule permits.
Some street art that I didn’t capture but would have liked to is — Indian boatman on Lebuh Klang, a side street to Lorong Stewart lane, an old Indian woman with Lamut lane in Georgetown, a boy by Yulia Volchkova, trishaw paddler on Penang Road, and so on.
We can’t see it all by accident, can we?
How to navigate and commute to see street art at Penang, Malaysia?
Walk, hire tri paddler rickshaws, rent electric bikes or bicycles.
For me, a Penang walking tour was the best way to see all the thought-provoking art of Penang.
Where to stay in Penang?
On my Penang trip, I stayed in Georgetown and loved the area.
Georgetown is a cultural mix of Chinese, Malaysians, and Indians. If you are visiting Penang at a Chinese/Malay/Indian festival, you would definitely get to see a procession passing from Georgetown or some Deepawali celebrations.
Georgetown is dense with street art, and you can always find some great hotels close to the colorful wall murals. From Georgetown, I could explore most of Penang by walking or the free shuttle buses that run frequently from there.
The best place to stay in Penang is Georgetown for it is not only Penang’s art, food, and cultural center but you can even find hip bars and friendly work cafes there.
When I went to Penang, I didn’t know about the many vintage and heritage hotels of Penang that has been constructed out of restored buildings that once housed a lineage of Chinese or Indian and Malay families. A lot of such heritage buildings now serve as hotels. I have picked the best of some of these cultural properties and have listed them here as per their price range.
Affordable stay options in Georgetown:
Just Inn, Georgetown – I stayed at Just Inn in Georgetown which is at the junction of Lorong Carnarvon and Lebuh(street) Carnarvon, a very happening street of Georgetown. When I visited Penang, the Chinese new year celebrations were going on and the entire procession walked past by us on Carnarvon street. What a sight!
Just Inn has affordable dorms and private rooms. It is 5 minutes walking to Khoo Kong Si Temple and KOMTAR. I remember walking from Just Inn to all important locations of Penang either by foot or with the free buses that run throughout Penang. While some of the rooms were fan-cooled and some air-conditioned, I chose a fan room to save money. The ventilation of the room was so good that I never felt hot even during the month of November when temperatures were soaring in Malaysia.
The staff was very friendly and helpful. Just Inn also has a cafe that serves breakfast and is a great place to hang out.
I wouldn’t think twice before booking Just Inn again.
See the prices and book Just Inn here on Booking for your Penang trip.
Other affordable options in Georgetown that I would definitely consider for Penang.
My Guesthouse 109 – My Guesthouse 109 is an earthy-toned family-run hotel in Georgetown. The property offers air-conditioned double and queen rooms with shared and private bathrooms.
Known for its helpful owners, lovely cats, and an in-house washing machine to use, My Guesthouse gets booked weeks in advance. Oh, you can also help yourselves with the free coffee and tea in the kitchen.
Find out the prices and book My Guesthouse on Booking.
Le Dream Boutique Hotel, Georgetown (Heritage Property)- La Dream is a modern Boutique hotel that comes with a rooftop spa and bar and free shuttle service around town. The property has double, quadruple, and king rooms furnished with all the amenities you might need.
The hotel provides a breakfast buffet, afternoon tea and snacks, and even free happy hours with complimentary wine.
You can have a look at the availability and prices of La Dream here.
WeLuv Travel Guesthouse, Georgetown – WeLuv is a very affordable property in Georgetown near the famous Laksa and Cendol stalls. The hostel offers double and family rooms with shared and private bathrooms.
WeLuv is recognized for its friendly staff who help out travelers in navigating Penang the local way.
Browse through the availability and prices of WeLuv Travel here.
Mid-range properties in Georgetown:
Ren I Tang Heritage Inn (Heritage Property) – Ren I Tang is another stunning vintage property that has been constructed out of a restored building. Equipped with timber flooring, wooden staircases, and Chinese roof tiles, the property offers courtyard, china, tub rooms, and lofts.
Ren I Tang is popular for its beautiful architecture, good breakfast, and the in-house museum. The hotel is at the borderline of affordable and mid-range.
Look at the availability and book Ren I Tang Heritage Inn here.
Jawi Peranakan Mansion, Georgetown (Heritage Property) – Well, the pictures of this restored Anglo-Indian mansion are enough to convince anyone to stay here. Jawi Peranakan offers double rooms, villas, and suites in the heart of Georgetown.
The property has an outdoor pool and is known for its friendly 24-hour desk. The hotel also provides a buffet breakfast.
Look at the pictures and availability of Jawi Peranakan here.
Note: I am putting this property under mid-range for the suites and villas are huge and can accommodate as many as 4-5 people.
Luxury stay options in Georgetown:
Eastern & Oriental Hotel, Georgetown (Heritage Property) – If you are looking for a colonial-style luxurious place, then Eastern & Oriental is the place. Known for its seaside pool and a bar, this hotel has fancy suites and in house restaurant with local and international food.
If you want to be at a cultural yet comfortable place close to the sea, then Eastern & Oriental seems like a really good choice.
See the prices and book Eastern & Oriental Hotel here on Booking.com.
Areca Hotel, Georgetown, Penang – Areca Hotel Penang is a restored heritage building that now serves as a luxurious hotel that comes along with a decorated lobby and a green courtyard. The decorations and furniture seem like from an old era and have antique looks.
Areca Hotel offers heritage rooms and family suites.
Check out the prices and availability of Areca on Booking.
Noordin Mews, Georgetown Penang (Heritage Property) – Noordin Mews is a boutique hotel that is also made out of a restored heritage building. Noordin Mews offers double rooms and suites with or without breakfast.
Known for the friendly staff and its quiet location, Noordin definitely seems like a place to relax and read in between Penang sightseeing.
See the prices and book Noording Mews here.
Stay options in Batu Ferringhi
Batu Ferringhi or Feringgi is a seaside locality of Penang. Needless to say, the Batu Feringgi beach is popular amongst locals and tourists to relax with ocean views.
If you are looking for some vibrant beach life after a few days of visiting temples and museums, get a seaside place in Batu Feringgi to watch the sun setting over an azure horizon along with some Ikan Bakar (grilled fish) and a Malaysian beer.
Some of the Batu Ferringi stay options:
Rasa Motel – Rasa Motel is an affordable property and is just about 3 mins walk from the Batu Feringghi beach. The hotel offers air-conditioned single, double, triple, and family rooms.
The property is known for its cleanliness, location, friendly owner, and budget prices.
Check for the availability and book Rasa Motel here on Booking.
Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa, Penang – Shangri-La is Batu Feringgi’s luxurious resort at the beach that is set amidst a lush tropical forest. Equipped with swimming pools, a gym, and yoga Pavillion, the hotel offers all kinds of rooms with landscaped garden or ocean views.
Shangri-La has a very friendly staff and even some beach chairs in its lush garden.
Book Shangri-La here for your next Penang trip.
Accommodation options in Gurney Drive, Penang
Gurney Drive is a high-class suburb of Penang dotted with tall buildings, luxurious malls, and skyscraper hotels.
If you would love to stay at Gurney Drive to experience the locality and the exquisite seafood at Gurney Drive hawker center, here are some luxury options to stay there:
G Hotel Gurney – G Hotel overlooks Gurney Drive, a popular seafront promenade featuring delicious local street food. Equipped with an outdoor pool and an in-house restaurant and bar, the property offers double rooms and suites.
Known for its friendly staff and a relaxing spa, G Hotel is a great choice for those looking for a comfortable stay in with an ocean view and abundant street food a stone’s throw away.
Check the prices and book G Hotel here.
G Hotel Kelawai – G Hotel is a luxurious hotel with a rooftop bar and is about 500 m from Gurney Drive. The hotel offers deluxe double, twin, and premium rooms with panoramic city views.
Known for its contemporary decor and friendly staff, G Hotel also has an in-house restaurant with local and international food choices.
Look at the availability and prices of G Hotel Kelawai here.
Accommodation options in Tanjung Bungah, Penang
I stayed at Tanjung Bungah for a day and didn’t appreciate the area much. Far away from both Georgetown and Batu Ferringhi, Tanjung Bungah was a quiet and expensive residential area by the beach. With minimal nightlife and no cultural insights, I think you should only go to this area if you have some work there.
If you are heading to Tanjung Bungah, check out Sea Lion by the beach which was a comfortable place to stay.
Sea Lion by the Beach – Sea Lion by the beach is an ancient bungalow that is just 2 minutes away from the beach. The property has single and double rooms with shared and private bathrooms.
Some of the rooms also come with a patio, and guests can use the kitchen, too. I loved the ancient bungalow and the property manager was friendly and offered me toast and tea when I arrived really late at night and had nothing to eat.
Also, the large garden of the house is visited by many birds and cats.
Browse through Sea Lion’s pictures and book your stay here on Booking.
Penang accommodations are of various kinds. Choose your Penang stay as per your budget, your preferred activities, and your comfort.
Read Next: My guide to finding the best food in Penang
Read before heading to Penang: 3 Days in Penang: My One-Stop Penang Travel Blog
A Penang trip is not complete without admiring the street art of the heritage island of Penang. Let me know if you would love to travel to Penang in the comments.
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