Penang with kids is more than just all inclusive family resorts. Michele Chan-Thomson of Malaysian Meanders also highly rates Penang for its jungles, historical feel and famed street food that make it a perfect for active holidays for families. She lives on the Malaysian beach island with her three children Clark (15), Brad (12) and Maria (9) and tells suitcases&strollers why Penang with kids makes for family holidays with a difference.

Why should parents plan a family holiday in Penang with kids?

The most fascinating aspect of Penang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is that it is a combination of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures on an island that used to be a British colony. This mix has influenced the food, architecture, and celebrations so it is like visiting three countries at one time. You could spend a few hours visiting a mosque, a Chinese clan house and a Hindu temple and then cap it off with afternoon tea at a colonial-era hotel.

Outside of the historic area, you can relax on sandy beaches or hike in the jungle where you just might come across some wild monkeys. Take the funicular to the top of Penang Hill to see panoramic views of the entire island with the 13.5 kilometre-long Penang Bridge stretching to the mainland in the distance.

Kids are so welcome in Penang that some friendly waitresses at small restaurants will carry around your baby to show him off to other diners and staff while you eat. English is also widely spoken, so it is very easy to communicate.

Where is your favourite place to take kids in Penang?

I like to take the family jungle trekking in the national park on the northwest tip of the island. A moderately challenging, 90-minute hiking trail along the coast emerges at Monkey Beach where we sometimes indeed encounter wild monkeys. At the entrance of the park, you can hire a longtail boat to meet you at Monkey Beach and cook a barbecue picnic lunch before taking your family back so that you can see some of the island from the water. If you have younger children, opt to take the boat round-trip and skip the hike.

Where are your kids’ favourite places in Penang to hang out?

My kids really enjoy spending the day at the ESCAPE Eco-Adventure Park. Climbing on a three-level ropes course, sliding downhill on inner tubes, zipping along a flying fox course and jumping off a platform 20 meters high (while safely harnessed) keep them entertained all day. The activities really satisfy the thrill-seeker in them.

What is the best free activity to do with kids in Penang?

Searching for street art throughout historic George Town is a fun way to explore the area. New paintings are constantly popping up and art seems to be around every corner. “Kids on Bikes” on Armenian Street near the corner of Beach Street is the most famous one of them all. Cat lovers will enjoy looking for some of the “101 Lost Kittens” adorning buildings in town.

[For more travel tips on free things to do with kids in most cities, see the suitcases&strollers story here.] 

Where is the best place to take kids in Penang when the weather is bad? 

The Made in Penang Interactive Museum in George Town is a way to experience Penang’s attractions without stepping outdoors. Bring your camera and snap photographs of your family posed in front of creative, faux 3D pictures highlighting the cultures and sights around the island.

[For more travel tips on how to take the best travel photos, see the suitcases&strollers story here.] 

While many of the malls have indoor play areas suitable for small kids, my children’s favorite place is Adventure Zone in Batu Ferringhi. Eight-meter-tall drop slides are the main attraction for older kids while younger ones enjoy the ball pit.

What are some of the city secrets that tourists might not know about but shouldn’t miss on a family holiday in Penang with kids?

Penangites love to eat and, this being an island, seafood is quite popular here. Take a taxi to Good Friends (Hau You) Seafood in Teluk Kumbar [84 Mukim 9, Teluk Kumbar, 11920 Pulau Penang, Malaysia, +60 4 6491 403] to dine among locals and far from the tourist crowd. While the setup is simple – plastic tables sitting on the beach – the food is fantastic. Kids can play in the sand while you watch the sun set behind the fishing boats tied up along the shore.

What’s the best way for children to have an authentic Penang experience?

Penang is famous for its food, so walking around a morning wet market and taking a cooking class are excellent ways to truly experience the culture. Strolling through Pulau Tikus Wet Marketlets your family take a peek into the every day life of a local. Long lotus roots and unusual tropical fruits like spiky rambutan will catch your eye and the legendarily smelly durian will not escape your nose. Live chickens noisily await being readied for that day’s meal. Pearly’s Homecooking offers a combination wet market tour and cooking class that are family-friendly.

Where are your top 3 places for family-friendly restaurants in Penang with kids?

Lonely Planet named Penang a top foodie destination because of its street food and hawker stalls. Char Kway Teow and Hokkien Mee are famous local foods that your child may enjoy.

Adults may want to try Penang’s signature dish, Assam Laksa, a fishy and spicy noodle soup. I always pick a vendor that cooks the food after we order and has locals lined up to eat at it to helps ensure that it is safe enough for even the littlest kids.

[For travel tips on how to introduce foreign foods to kids, see the suitcases&strollers interview with celebrity chef Emmanuel Stroobant.] 

Long Beach Hawker Centrein Batu Ferringhi has both an array of tasty food stalls as well as a beach for the children to play on when they are done dining. Try the satay sticks there. In historic George Town, Red Garden Food Paradise is another popular hawker centre with a variety of choices. If your child is not an adventurous eater, most places also have Western food available. I like to give my kids MYR20 (about AUD$7) and let everyone pick out their own stall from which to order. Save a table beforehand and remember the number on it so that the hawkers know where to bring your food.

The Hard Rock Café is quite popular with vacationing families for lunch and early dinners. The brick oven-baked pizza at the poolside restaurant is one of the best on the island.

What are your tips for kids' shops in Penang? 

While you are in Penang shop for colourful batik clothing at Craft Batik or Sam’s Batik House. The cloth and garments are made locally and feel so comfortable in the tropical weather. In the Little India section of George Town you will find an assortment of stores selling colourful Indian clothing and trinkets. If your kids want to pound out their own souvenir pewter bowl, visit the School of Hard Knocks at the Royal Selangor Visitor Centre and you can squeeze in your own shopping for exquisite pewter pieces afterwards.

Which is the best place to find family friendly accommodation in Penang with kids?

George Town is the place to stay for families looking to explore the UNESCO World Heritage site and enjoy the urban bustle. The landmark Eastern & Oriental Hotel (which dates back to British colonial times) overlooks the water on one side and the heritage area on the other. Grand buffets and proper afternoon teas attract locals looking for a special meal. A water limo just outside the hotel transports guests around the coastline up to the Straits Quay Retail Marina Mall

Batu Ferringhi is the ideal location for a beach holiday and jungle trekking in the national park. In that area, the Hard Rock Hotel Penang is a wonderful, family-friendly hotel with Lil Rock Suites for those traveling with children. Located directly on the beach with a spectacular pool area, splash pad and kids club, the Hard Rock also has a relaxing spa offering everything from couples massages to mani and pedis for youngsters.

Gurney Drive (which is located between Batu Ferringhi and George Town) is the place to do high end shopping in Penang. With multi-storey shopping malls on both sides and a multitude of nearby restaurants, the G Hotel is perfectly situated for families looking for a little retail therapy.

What is the ideal time frame for a holiday to Penang with kids?

Energetic families can hit Penang’s highlights over the course of a long weekend but plan on spending a week on the island if you want to explore its jungles and beaches in addition to the historic area. There is so much to do that you will be spoilt for choice. Some people switch hotels mid-week from historic George Town to the beaches of Batu Ferringhi so that they can leisurely enjoy all aspects of the island without too much back and forth driving.

When is the best time of year to visit Penang with kids? 

As far as weather is concerned, any time of the year is fine. Penang has a year-round tropical climate without much variation in temperature or rainfall. Penang is especially festive during the two-week Chinese New Year celebration [dates vary from year to year] and many people come to enjoy the decorations, nightly fireworks and public street parties. 

What is the best way to move around Penang with kids? 

A convenient hop-on, hop-off bus is a wonderful way to explore historic George Town. Taxis are plentiful and cheap if you want to travel further afield. Some visitors negotiate to hire the same taxi driver for the entire day and enjoy the ease of having him waiting for them when they are ready to move on to the next destination.

What are your top 3 tips for families travelling to Penang with kids? 

If you are not accustomed to a tropical climate, the head and humidity can be quite tiring. You should plan on doing most of your outdoor exploring during the mornings and late afternoon. Spend mid-day playing in the pool or relaxing in your air-conditioned hotel room.

Carry a bottle of water and have the children drink frequently to help compensate for all the sweating.

If your child is reluctant to use a squat potty, most public toilets also have a Western toilet. Check the other stalls if you do not see one at first. Bring tissue and hand sanitiser in case if supplies are lacking. [For more travel tips on how to use a squat toilet, see the suitcases&strollers story here.] 

Images: Michele Chan-Thomson of Malaysian Meanders,
Tourism Malaysia