Last Updated on May 27, 2023 by Ellen
Penang Island is a great spot for expats to enjoy Malaysian history and culture. This guide has some things to do in Penang on a budget, and many are free.
We have been to Penang twice, and we think it’s an underrated, exotic foreign country for expat retirees and budget travelers. It offers so much! So let’s get started.
- Penang Botanic Garden
- Beaches, Penang National Park
- Penang Hill
- See the sites from the CAT buses (or any public bus)
- Cool art: Hin Bus Depot
- Thrift stores
- The Lighthouse Cafe, Bakery, and Thrift Shop
- Hawker Centers for dinner!
- Beat the heat with a movie
- Mall walking/culture watching
- Bicycle rides, cemetery visits, walking tours
Penang Botanic Garden
This place is free, and it’s set a bit away from the hustle and bustle of George Town, yet still within the city.
Explore trails, plants, bugs – and watch out for hungry monkeys who like to taunt visitors into giving them a snack. But be warned – there is a large fine for feeding the monkeys.
A Google map of the Penang Botanic Garden is here.
Beaches, Penang National Park
You want sand, sun, and sea water? Penang has beaches on some sides of the island.
- Tanjung Bunghah Public Beach (Google map here)
- Batu Feringghi Beach, which is the largest and most popular one (Google map here)
- Kilat Beach (Google map here)
- Monkey Beach, which is in Penang National Park (Google map here)
All except Monkey Beach you can reach by bus. Monkey Beach is reachable by hiking through the national park, or by boat. We hiked out, and boated back. This is way cheaper than hiring our own boat at the park entrance.
Boats ferry people out to Monkey Beach for around 200 ringgit ($48) round trip. But once you’re on the beach, if you simply ask captains for a ride back, they will charge you much less for a one-way ride back to town.
In our case, it was 40 ringgit ($9.50) for three of us – me, my friend, and Tedly, to get back to the park entrance. Park admission is free.
The hike took just over an hour. You’ll see some great jungle nature on a park walk – and maybe even an Asian water monitor lizard. We saw one. And yes, we saw some monkeys, too, so mind your things!
There are a few restaurants at Monkey Beach, unlike the rest of the park. There are other destinations in the park, like Turtle Beach and the lighthouse.
Tip: People might tell you the park trail to Monkey Beach is closed because of storm damage. We saw some broken railings and fallen trees, but nothing that made it impassable. This hike is an “at your own risk” kind of scenario.
Penang Hill is another park with hiking options, and also an excellent budget travel idea. The Hill has treetop walk and a canopy walk, and some restaurants at the top. But the main attraction: spectacular views. (Take another look at the picture at the top of the page.)
There’s a lift for anyone who doesn’t want to hike up Penang Hill. The park and the “train lift” are run by the government.
Tickets are not expensive, especially if you’re not up for a huge hike.
The official link is here.
See the sites from the CAT buses (or any public bus)
In Penang, the CAT buses are free for locals and tourists, but they stay around George Town. To get out of the tourist area and the city, hop on any city bus.
The 101 bus is the most popular bus for visitors. It goes to the beaches listed above, and has a stop at the entrance of Penang National Park in the town of Teluk Bahang.
At the time of this writing, a tourist can buy a one-week bus pass for 30 ringgit ($7.25), and you don’t need a passport. A one-month pass was 115 ringgit ($27.50), and you had to show a passport. Single rides are 1.40 ringgit (35 cents).
The official website for Rapid Penang is here.
Cool art: Hin Bus Depot
This is one of my favorite things to do in Penang on a budget: enjoy art in an awesome space. The Hin Bus Depot is an awesome place.
There was an exhibition of bizarre photography during our George Town stay. The images were disturbingly thought-provoking – and that’s the best type of art.
The place itself is a cool space. It’s an old bus depot that opened after World War II. In 2014, it opened with a gallery, mural garden, large deck, and open space in the back. There’s also a coffee shop right next door.
Hin Bus Depot is the kind of place that will always have something avant garde happening.
Also, on Sundays, there’s a pop-up market to support small local businesses. How cool is that?!
The Hin Bus Depot website is here.
Walking around in air-conditioned malls is great to cool off, but we don’t buy stuff we don’t need. For supplies, we thrift shop.
There are several agencies in Penang that run thrift stores, including the Salvation Army. The location is small, and “The Family Thrift Store” is not the best option for clothing, but it’s great for other types of needs. We scored a practically new coffee machine for $2.50, and we used it every day during our month-long stay.
The Family Thrift Store on Google maps is here.
Women’s clothing for a good cause
Another good place to go is the WCC Value Shop. This is where you’ll find gently used clothing. It’s mostly for women, with a couple of racks for guys and a few home goods.
The volunteers who run the store are friendly. The store – and the clothes – are clean.
What I loved about it: sales benefit The Women’s Center for Change, which works to stop violence against women and children, and empowers women who need support. So yeah, maybe I bought a few things I didn’t need after all…
The WCC Value Shop on Google maps is here.
The Lighthouse Cafe, Bakery, and Thrift Shop
The Lighthouse Cafe serves large plates of food for under $3, and if you dine in you get unlimited free (basic) salad and ice cream for desert. The food was good, the menu was large for this kind of operation.
Best of all, your patronage encourages vocational training, and part of the proceeds go to education and charity.
The cafe is at the front the long driveway of St. Francis Xavier’s Church. Next door to the Lighthouse Cafe, is the Lighthouse Bakery and Lighthouse Thrift store, which also benefit charity.
The LIghthouse Cafe on Google maps is here.
Hawker Centers for dinner!
Hawker centers come to life with the sun goes down, and it’s here you’ll find locals dining on cheap eats. Always pick the stand with customers – locals know where to go. If you are adventurous, and want to eat with local flavor, this is definitely one of the things to do in Penang on a budget.
Hawker Centers are all over George Town and Penang. There are great dishes to be found everywhere. We especially enjoyed the ais kacang (ice kachang) at the Hawker Center outside Gurney Plaza.
Ais kacang is shaved ice with sweet syrup, beans, corn, jellies, and fruit. Our favorite cart at this hawker center was run by a kind Muslim woman near the rojak disco cart. Just walk to the music and look for these:
The Gurney Hawker Center location on Google maps is here.
Beat the heat with a movie
Movies in southeast Asia are less expensive than in the USA. I have no idea what movies cost back home these days, but in Malaysia ticket prices are only something like $4. Vietnam and Thailand are a dollar or two cheaper, but it’s hit or miss with English, depending on where you go. English is the language in Malaysia (and Malay) – so no problem there.
Ask a theater about days and times reduced prices. Air conditioning is a boon.
Mall walking/culture watching
Yes, malls really are a thing here in Asia. The newer constructions tend to draw crowds, unlike in the USA where Amazon has killed retail.
Malls also have reasonably priced food courts. Not as cheap as hawker centers, but not as expensive as restaurants. This is a good place to start trying delicious Malay food if you’re not up for a hawker center outside. And again, air conditioning is a boon.
Bicycle rides, cemetery visits, walking tours
These are are our tried-and-true budget travel ideas for any city. Penang has some special features, however.
Tedly worked out a deal with a man who rents bikes to tourist by the day, and had a bike all month long. There are some bike lanes on key roads, and there is a large biking community on Penang.
In George Town, there are several great cemeteries to explore, including the Protestant Cemetery. Tedly wrote more about that here.
And one of the best things to do in George Town is to walk it. There are free walking tours that guide visitors around the key sites. It’s a good way to get the lay of the land and an introduction through a local person’s eyes.
One free walking tour option can be found here.
And last on the list of things to do in Penang on a budget – have fun!
People are friendly and helpful. Also, the people are diverse. Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Taoists, Buddhists. Indians, Chinese, Malay, expats, retirees.
Penang offers diversity in locations, too: George Town’s colonial buildings and old plantation homes contrast with high rises and new malls.
Beaches, mountains, jungle, and gardens are yours to explore. This guide didn’t list everything.
We wouldn’t be surprised if this area saw an increase in expat retired budget travelers as American baby boomers catch on to the many positives of Penang, and Malaysia.
You’re invited to keep reading. We also have video tours on reasonably-priced apartment rentals, experience with great medical care, and information on specific reasons retired budget travelers will love Malaysia.
Rent examples in Malaysia:
- See what a three-bedroom rental apartment looks like for $600 in Penang
- See what an apartment with million-dollar views looks like for $21 a night in Kuala Lumpur
Health care examples in Malaysia:
- An excellent oncologist visit in Kuala Lumpur
- A CT scan in George Town
- A travel vaccination clinic that saved us hundreds of dollars