15 Things to Do in Mainland Penang, Malaysia on Your First Visit

15 Things to Do in Mainland Penang, Malaysia on Your First Visit

Skip Penang Island and explore mainland Penang instead, where you can tuck into hearty local cuisine, visit underrated attractions and embrace nature.

“Oh you’re from Penang? Which part of the island? George Town?” If I had a dollar for every time I heard that whenever I tell people I’m a Penangite, I’d be able to travel the world for a whole year. The conversation usually continues with me telling them that I was from “the mainland”. Then it goes on with me explaining to people how there’s this whole other region of Penang on the other side of the Penang Bridge.

Yes, located on the opposite end of the Penang Bridge is Mainland Penang, collectively known as Seberang Perai (previously Province Wellesley). It consists of Butterworth and Bukit Mertajam, two charming little areas that most tourists have never even heard about.

Such is the fate of Penangites who live not on the island but in the obscure cities of its forgotten half. Since Penang Island hogs all the limelight, mainlanders get to keep their secret travel gems to themselves without having to deal with the hordes of tourists! If you’re wondering, here are some of the mainland’s best-kept secrets.  

1. Hang out with feathery friends at Penang Bird Park

Image credit: Ah Wei (Lung Wei)

Despite its name, the Penang Bird Park is actually located in Seberang Jaya, near the town of Butterworth. This 5-acre park is located near the Penang-Butterworth Ferry Terminal and is Malaysia’s first ever bird park. You’ll be able to spot over 300 avian species from around the world, including hornbills, pelicans and various other colourful birds. In fact, there are close to 3,000 birds roaming the park, promising a fun day for the family.

Open daily from 9am to 7pm (even on public holidays), Penang Bird Park is easily one of the most popular things to do in Mainland Penang.

2. Discover serenity at the famous St. Anne’s Church, Bukit Mertajam

Founded in 1846, St. Anne’s Church Bukit Mertajam is one of the most famous Catholic Churches in Malaysia. Its original shrine was built in 1888 and is the highlight of the church’s annual Feast of St. Anne. Held in late July, the 10-day feast draws in thousands of pilgrims from around the world.

However, if you’re not a fan of large crowds, the church is equally beautiful all year round. Right next to the historical shrine is the new church that was built in 2002, one of the biggest in Malaysia. The surrounding church grounds exude a calm, serene ambience, making it a popular spot for photography and evening walks.

3. Trek through lush greenery at Bukit Mertajam Recreational Forest

Image credit: Maxgerms

One of the favourite pastimes of people living in Bukit Mertajam is to visit the Bukit Mertajam Recreational Forest. Also known as Taman Rimba Bukit Mertajam, this area is akin to a natural green oasis in the town. With over 37 hectares of hilly terrain, this spot is popular for jogging, hiking, and jungle trekking.

One of the best activities here is to hike to the top of Tokun Hill to catch the magnificent sunrise. There are two trails, one which leads you through a tar-covered road, and one which takes you across jungle trails. Both paths enable you to enjoy verdant greenery as you enjoy a simple hike to the summit, a mere 457 metres above sea level.

4. Enjoy the sunset at Mengkuang Dam

Image credit: bahtiar1070

The Mengkuang Dam is the second dam to be built in Penang (the first is in Air Itam) and is another popular recreational spot for locals. Since its renovation ended in 2016, the dam has been welcoming visitors with pristine views and lovely jogging paths. This is also one of the best spots on the mainland to catch the sunset.

More importantly, during the month of December, the Mengkuang Dam plays host to the yearly Penang International Dragon Boat Festival. Be mesmerised by the plethora of colourful boats and the carnival-like atmosphere as dragon boat teams from all over the world engage in a thrilling race to be crowned champions.

5. Discover a gem to photograph at Guar Petai, Kubang Semang

Image credit: Muller_CY

One of the more obscure things to do in Mainland Penang is to visit Guar Petai. Once a bustling quarry in the township of Kubang Semang, Guar Petai has since been abandoned and is now a must-visit location for all photography junkies. Climb to the top of the quarry, and you’ll be able to feast your eyes on one of the most breathtaking views in the region.

Against a backdrop of emerald green ponds, take your time to experiment with different angles to find that perfect shot. In fact, some of us locals have even called this spot the “Jiuzhaigou of Malaysia”, named after the alluring nature reserve in Sichuan Province, China. I suppose that just about sums up the beauty of this often underrated location. Get snapping!

6. Explore the rural Malay villages of Permatang Rawa

Image credit: Steve Jeremy Soosay

Despite the fact that most parts of Seberang Perai have seen rapid development in recent years, the Malay kampungs (neighbourhoods) of Permatang Rawa seem to have held on to their charming traditional vibes. While you won’t find that many wooden stilt houses, you’ll immediately notice the rural feel of the area.

Featuring wide open spaces with little to no skyscraper in sight, this is another one of mainland Penang’s photography gems. One of the best things to witness is the sunrise here, although you would have to brave the darkness and relatively harsh weather conditions of the rural lands.

7. Visit the Nine Emperor Gods Temple in Butterworth

Image credit: Butterworth Guide

The Nine Emperor Gods Taoist Temple is said to be the biggest temple complex in Butterworth. Featuring intricate architecture and bright colours, the temple and its pagodas are a true treat for the eyes.

The temple is at its busiest during the Feast of the Nine Emperor Gods. During this time, the temple and its surrounding areas are filled with devotees and pop-up stalls selling vegetarian food and prayer materials. You might also be able to witness some devotees partaking in acts of dedication and faith such as walking on fire and flagellation.

8. Visit the historical Raja Uda Apollo Market in Butterworth

Image credit: Butterworth Guide

With over 400 vendors selling everything from fresh groceries to delicious street food, the Apollo Market in Raja Uda, Butterworth is undeniably one of the biggest open-air markets in Penang. Despite starting off with only a handful of stalls more than 50 years ago, the market has grown into one of the mainland’s most frequented hot spots.

Apart from staple groceries, you’ll also find a multitude of trinkets on sale here. It’s such a busy market in fact that some people have called it the Chatuchak Market of Butterworth! I don’t know about you, but any market that is comparable to Bangkok’s famous Chatuchak Market is worth a visit in my book.

9. Shop till you drop at Design Village Penang, Batu Kawan

Image credit: Design Village Penang

Design Village Penang is the biggest outlet mall in the state. Built on a 24-acre tropical garden, the outlet mall contains no less than 150 stores selling a variety of exciting branded wares ranging from fashion to beauty to even home decor.

Apart from the usual shopping therapy provided, Design Village Penang also houses a whole host of different restaurants and stylish cafes, enabling visitors to truly enjoy an unforgettable shopping experience. The outlet mall also occasionally plays host to different events like charity runs and food fairs, so you might want to check their calendars before planning your trip there.

10. Go cafe/bar hopping at Auto City and Icon City

Image credit: BKtung

Located mere minutes apart, Auto City and Icon City are easily THE spots to enjoy the nightlife in Mainland Penang. In either area, you will find impeccable dining options offering you a taste of regional cuisines and several themed cafes and bars.

These two areas are often also the meeting points between Mainland Penang and Penang Island as they are located close to the highway which leads to the Penang Bridge. Auto City, in particular, is known to organise exciting events throughout the year and its Shop-in d’Park area is a romantic place for a lovely evening.

11. Savour the ever-popular Raja Uda Tom Yam Noodles

Most of the time, when a mainlander mentions Raja Uda, one of the first things which comes to mind is their famous Tom Yam Noodles. Located on Lorong Tanjung Jaya, this tom yam noodle store allows you to add an unlimited amount of different ingredients to your savoury tom yam noodles.

From fresh seafood to various meatballs and vegetables, the combinations are endless! Don’t forget to top your noodles with a slice of creamy cheddar cheese for that extra satisfying finish.

12. Hunt down the famous Bukit Mertajam Yam Rice

For those who might not be familiar with this dish, yam rice is more of a (mainland) Penang delicacy. Rice is boiled with chunks of yam and served with a peppery pork soup and spicy chilli paste. Sometimes, you also have the option of enjoying this dish with vinegar-braised pork trotters.

The top two favourites are the ones located in the old town of Bukit Mertajam, and the one located in the corner coffee shop off Jalan Sentosa, near the aforementioned St. Anne’s Church.

13. Head to the town centre of Bukit Mertajam for a refreshing plate of rojak

Image credit: lumei

Rojak is essentially the Malaysian salad. Crunchy fruits and vegetables (usually cucumbers, turnips, and guava) are tossed with pieces of deep-fried tofu and you-tiao (Chinese pastry) and dressed with a savoury (sometimes spicy) shrimp paste. The result is an immensely satiating sensation of contrasting flavours.

You will find plenty of rojak stalls in Penang, but I reckon that the best rojak in the mainland is in the quaint town centre of Bukit Mertajam. Not only is the rojak here cheap and yummy, you get to enjoy the ambience of the dated buildings in the area as you munch on your delicious snack.

14. Sample the unique “cup rice” of Bukit Mertajam

“Cup rice” is basically chicken rice served in ridiculously skewed proportions. You get a literal cup full of rice that is topped with slices of roast chicken and pork. The dish is then flooded with savoury gravy till the dangerous point of overflowing.

It’s not a pretty affair as you dig in. The gravy-covered rice and meat means that a fair amount of slurping will be involved. It’s a unique way of eating chicken rice and only found in the old town of Bukit Mertajam. You’ll recognise the place either by the long queues or by the sign which reads “B.M. Cup Rice”.

15. Head to the old temple of Bukit Mertajam and eat… duck meat kway chap

The folks at Bukit Mertajam often head to the Tua Pek Kong Temple in Bukit Mertajam Town Centre for a hearty bowl of kway chap (think kway teow, but replace the strips of rice noodles with square rice sheets) with roasted duck meat.

In fact, more people head to the Pek Kong Cheng Hawker Area in front of the temple to eat than to actually offer prayers! Apart from the kway chap, the wanton mee and bee tai mak (silver needle noodles) are pretty popular as well. However, the area has limited sitting so you might have to wait a while for a table. But trust me, it’ll be worth it!

Also Read: 20 Fun Things to Do in Penang on Your First Trip

And there you have it, 15 things to do in Mainland Penang! Yes, Mainland Penang is a foodie’s paradise, offering great food for dirt cheap prices. You could say that out of all the things to do in Mainland Penang, the most important one is to eat! In fact, there’s even more good food to discover apart from the five mentioned. You should definitely come over to this side of Penang and see what else is in store.

About Author

Darren Yeoh
Darren Yeoh

Darren enjoys the finer things in life and loves exploring unfamiliar places on foot, guided with nothing but instinct and a good-old fashioned map. He enjoys cultural experiences and exciting adventures and is not a stranger to travelling alone. When he's not putting his travel experiences into words, he's probably sitting behind his laptop, planning his upcoming adventure.