Penang may be a tropical island, but it’s not exactly a beachy paradise.
Instead, tourism here revolves around Georgetown. The capital is designated a UNESCO World Heritage City, a former stronghold of the colonial spice trade where history and diverse cultural influences meld today with all the trappings of a modern economic hub. Travelers come for the architecture, for the pockets of traditional Chinese shophouses and old colonial buildings that abut the usual cityscape sweeps of shopping centers and high-rises. Perhaps even more, they come to eat — in all of Southeast Asia, few cities are more famous for food than Penang.
On this particular island, beaches are kind of beside the point — but just because nature isn’t Penang’s main draw, doesn’t mean it can’t be found.
Your best bet? The national park!
I spent a month in Penang, and while most of the backpackers I met were disappointed with popular beaches like Batu Feringghi, Taman Negara Palau Penang stood out as a consistent favorite. As the island’s only national park (and one of the smallest in the world!), it makes for a day trip out of the city that’s both easy and exciting.
I made the trip to the national park with some friends from the Georgetown hostel where I was staying. We left mid-morning to pick up some motorbikes around the corner and spent a leisurely hour or so winding along the coast toward the island’s northwestern tip. Cruising along with city traffic, we passed shining skyscrapers and grand colonial buildings on one side, with casual food stalls and brightly colored plastic chairs clustered along the esplanade on the other. Eventually, the city thinned, giving way to green hills and a little fishing village.
Of course, when we arrived, we had to have lunch at one of the little restaurants surrounding the park entrance. Yes, had to — in Penang, eating puntuates any and every outing. It’s a glorious thing!
With happy bellies and water bottles in hand, we finally took to the park. Crossing the little bridge near the entrance, a monitor lizard darted away too fast for me to get a proper picture — not that I’m complaining. Spotting wildlife as soon as we entered the park felt like a pretty solid welcome.
In the national park, there are basically two routes to take. The path to the right is easier and leads to both Monkey Beach (Teluk Duyung) and a steep (or so I’ve heard) climb up to the Muka Head Lighthouse (Rumah Api Muka Head). Since some of the group had already been this way during a previous trip to the park, we took the less popular path to the left.
We hiked into the rainforest without any real idea of where we were headed or how long it would take us, stopping to admire nests, to wonder over the ropes of ants snaking around old logs and to chat with other backpackers out and about in the park. We sweated and took the opportunity to splash off in a little creek — and then we sweated more. The humidity was heavy, and our sweat was profuse.
The trail ended at Kerachut Beach (Pantai Kerachut), where a bridge crosses over a silvery lake. It’s not much to look at, but apparently it’s a fairly rare phenomenon, a meromictic lake where layers of fresh and saltwater don’t mix.
After continuing over the bridge, our arrival at the beach itself was something of a tease. On the one hand, we wanted badly to jump in the water to cool off. (Did I mention how sweaty we were?) On the other, we weren’t feeling especially keen to get stung by jellyfish. Most of us decided not to chance it, opting instead to laze in the sand. In hindsight, it was a good call; a couple of days later, we heard from another guy at the hostel who went for a swim here and got stung almost as soon as he jumped in. (Apparently he missed the big red warning sign — but hey, he did live to tell the tale! The jellyfish here are big and will hurt if they sting you, but at least they’re not the killing kind.)
The beach here is also a turtle sanctuary, so camping on the beach is prohibited. There is a designated campground a little ways down, as well as a small turtle station that’s open to visitors (this I didn’t know until later, so I can’t say much about it myself!).
From here, it’s possible to wait for a boat to take you back to the park entrance for a small fee, which probably isn’t a bad idea if you’re trying to save some time and cover the whole park in a day.
We, however, were committed to hiking. For me, after all, that was the park’s real draw.
After our return hike from Kerachut Beach, we spent some time watching the monkeys near the park entrance and treated ourselves to some cool, fresh coconuts back at the restaurant where we’d eaten lunch (and let me tell you — I don’t think anything could have tasted better after a day’s worth of sweating in the jungle!). For all of Penang’s other draws, it was one of my most memorable days on the island — easy, content and in good company. I don’t think I’ve ever spent a day hiking that I didn’t love!
I’m not saying that Penang’s national park is its star attraction. On an island that excels in so much else, in a country that boasts so many other natural wonders, it shouldn’t be your top reason to visit Penang. The park is modest compared to most national parks I’ve visited, and the beaches are more passable-pretty than crazy-beautiful.
But if you’re in Malaysia, you should definitely visit Penang — and if you’re in Penang, then the national park is absolutely worth a visit.
More than anything else, it was the hiking I loved here. It’s lush and green and fun — an opportunity to experience a more wild face of this mostly urban island, and to explore something a little different in Penang.
Notes for Visiting
Admission to Penang’s national park is free, although there is a 5RM fee for Canopy Walkway (which seemed to be closed when we were there) and a modest fee for boat trips to either beach (100 RM split between passengers). You can take Bus 101 to the park from Chulia Street (it’s the last stop), but if you’re comfortable on a motorscooter, I’d definitely recommend renting one for the day — we loved the ride to and from the park just as much as the hike itself! Most visitors to the park seem to opt for one doing one of the main trails; if you plan on completing both routes and having time to enjoy the beaches, you’ll want to plan on an early start. Camping overnight is permitted at designated sites.
This post is sponsored by the amazing Georgetown hostel House of Journey. While I’m doing some work in exchange for accomodation here (an opportunity available to all guests at House of Journey), all opinions are strictly my own — I loved it so much when I arrived that I decided to stick around for a few weeks! If you’re looking for a hostel in Georgetown, I highly recommend House of Journey. You can make a booking through Hostelworld.