Make sure you come here hungry!
Penang is one big fat foodie paradise in Southeast Asia. Honestly, we were blown away by the many culinary prizes available here…Asam Laksa, Wanton Noodles, Hokkien Prawn Noodles, Char Koay Teow…Penang is one place we'd definitely rush back to just for the food!
Penang is also famous for its street art murals, particularly in the UNESCO listed cutesy colonial-era capital, George Town. And the biggest surprise of all, despite being a small island of less than 2 million, in a country where homosexuality is a crime(!), there is even a gay scene!
We visited Penang as part of our big trip around Malaysia and totally fell in love. We were told by both Malaysians and fellow travellers that Penang is a not-to-miss highlight of the country and oh boy were they right! We ended up extending our trip in Penang from a few days to two full weeks. Based on our firsthand experience, we've put together our gay guide to Penang setting out the best gay friendly hotels, hangouts, foodie tips, and more:
Some gay apps and websites cannot be accessed in Malaysia…
Websites with (ahem!) “sensitive content” are blocked by the Malaysian government. Grindr is not blocked, yet, but the government is actively monitoring LGBTQ websites and apps. For your own safety, we strongly advise using a reliable VPN for your travels in Malaysia to ensure your online browsing is anonymous. This will also mean you can access any websites and apps that have been blocked in Malaysia.
Is Penang safe for gay travellers?
For the most part, yes…as long as you're careful and avoid any PDAs. It's not as bad as the Middle East here, but it certainly ain't no Barcelona, Bangkok or gay Berlin!!
There is a large LGBTQ community in Penang, both locals and foreigners, living and working quite openly. Penang is after all a touristic hub with a large international population, so people are more likely to be diverse, tolerant and open-minded here compared to other parts of the country.
BUT, remember, this is still Malaysia – a country with a nasty anti-gay law in place (punishable with up to 20 years imprisonment, fines, whips, lashes you name it!) along with a very homophobic government that is always looking to crackdown on the LGBTQ community claiming we do not exist! The Malaysian government even published a ridiculous checklist of things to look out for to spot a gay – “if you have a beard, wear branded clothing and go to the gym, then you may be a gay”!
The locals we met (both gay and straight) were extremely friendly and warm towards us. Malaysians are like that – they are excited to meet foreigners and show off their country. No one we met gave two hoots about our sexuality – at worst they thought we were brothers…
Our experience as a gay couple is that we had a blast in Penang and felt completely safe. George Town is so used to foreigners that we never faced any issue booking a double bed in the hotels we stayed in, and even found a gay bar! We were approached by many businesses who wanted to collaborate with us to promote themselves as gay friendly.
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Penang gay area
The bulk of the gay places of Penang can be found in and around George Town. However, it's a very small gay scene, so not something you could call a “Gaybourhood” by any means! Also remember, as homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia, places do not dare advertise themselves as being “gay” but instead, “gay friendly”. Nonetheless, as the beating touristic heart of the city, George Town is where people are most likely to be more open-minded and accepting with a couple of queer-friendly spaces like the super hip China House.
The main gay bar to check out in Penang is Seventy7 located just outside of George Town. See more about this below. Suffice to say, as a place to base yourself, we recommend George Town.
Arriving in Penang soon?
We recommend pre-booking your private airport transfer so you'll have your own personal English-speaking driver waiting for you in the Arrivals Hall to take you straight to your hotel. No queues, no waiting and no juggling heavy luggage! Just an easy stress-free start to your holiday in Penang!
Gay friendly hotels in Penang
We tried out several places in Penang of different budgets who embraced us and warmly welcomed us as LGBTQ travellers – the staff of some being even gay themselves. We recommend basing yourself in George Town so you're close to the main touristic highlights as well as the gay friendly hangouts set out below. These are our favourite tried-and-tested accommodations in Penang which we can guarantee are gay friendly:
Why we love it
- Gay owned hotel fit for a goddess!
- Located right in the heart of George Town
- Super lavish, set in a row of 19th-century converted terrace houses
- Enchanting swimming pool
“Darlings, you'll feel like a Goddess staying here!”…so said our gay Australian friend Rob who worked as a manager at Seven Terraces. He sure as hell wasn't wrong!
Serving charm, opulence and Peranakan ELEGANZA, Seven Terraces is one super gay luxury boutique hotel you're not going to forget in a hurry! It's not actually gay gay per se (remember, this is Malaysia and that sort of thing isn't officially allowed) but it's the closest you're gonna get.
Seven Terraces is gay owned and historically the most popular choice with most LGBTQ travellers to Penang.
This gem of a hotel is located right in the heart of George Town just behind the Goddess of Mercy Temple. It's housed in a grand row of seven 19th-century Anglo-Chinese shophouses (aka “terrace houses”). Each suite is bloody impressive, furnished with ornate furniture and antiques. Perhaps the most dramatic feature – the massive carved four-poster beds. It's the sort of bed you'd imagine the likes of Cleopatra or Queen Victoria sleeping in…perfect for me and Seby!
In terms of communal spaces, we love the Seven Corners lounge area. The pool, although small, gave us Michelangelo-The-Creation-of-Adam vibes if you know what I mean. And at around 5pm each day, the General Manager invites guests for an Afternoon Tea with darling little finger sandwiches and cupcakes. Next door to the suites is the inhouse restaurant, Kebaya. It's rated for its divine Chinese Nyonya dishes, spread over a sumptuous four-course dinner.
Why we love it
- Our #1 romantic highlight of Penang!
- Located on Penang's main shopping street
- Incredible attention to detail…the little touches that make it special
- Beautifully decorated rooms
Campbell House is special!
We initially found this gay friendly haven on Tripadvisor where it has ridiculously impressive feedback from former guests – including us! It's a 12-bedroom boutique hotel set in 3-storey colonial corner building on Campbell Street.
The place oozes charm from the moment you enter. The original features have been preserved with lots of rich wood and colourful Peranakan tiles, giving it a nostalgic ambiance.
Put it this way, there's no elevator here. Instead, a large rope hangs from the top floor, which is used to haul up your luggage to your floor. It's quite mesmerising to watch!
As we entered our Sari Room, it felt like we'd walked onto the set of a cheesy Bollywood romance! Picture this – striking Sari silks, an extravagant rug, intricate antique furniture, high ceilings and a cute private balcony. We loved it! Yet it's the fine detail that really made it special. For example, the all-important Nexpresso machine in each room (a big deal for me!), the daily morning note with the weather report and fresh iced tea with homemade cake placed in our fridge every afternoon!
Breakfast is in the hotel's inhouse Italian Il Bacaro restaurant, where Chef Mauro offers an ever-changing Specials board each day inspired by his Mamma – don't leave without trying the homemade Gnocchi and tiramisu! In terms of location, Campbell House is just down the road from some of our favourite restaurants in Penang, like Hameediyah for the tasty murtabak, the Toh Soon Café for delicious Penang Coffee and Tai Tong for the best dim sum we tried in all of Malaysia! The hotel is also well located, just minutes walking distance to George Town.
Ryokan Muntri Boutique Hostel
Why we love it
- Our favourite gay friendly budget option
- Has its own hip street art mural!
- Excellent breakfast and free cookies 24/7
- Cheap and cheerful: clean, inexpensive and simple
You've come to Penang to follow the famous 3D streetart trail of George Town right? So why not stay in a place which is literally part of it all?
The Ryokan Muntri Boutique is located slap bang in the middle of George Town's artwork mural trails with its own unique mural by Gabriel Pitcher on the main entrance outside. Hoards of tourists stop every second to pose by it, which made us feel a bit celeb-like each time we left the hostel!
The gay friendly hostel is in fact located close to Love Lane and Chulia Street, which is where some of the best bars are, but despite this, it's always quiet at the hostel. It was the perfect mix of feeling like we were right in the middle of Penang, but not being disturbed by the buzzy nightlife.
The boutique hostel offers small dorm rooms (with a max of six beds) to book as well as private suites with choice of a king or queen-sized bed. It's cheap and cheerful here: simple, clean, inexpensive, with the basics you'll need for a comfy night's sleep. Fresh towels are provided daily as part of the room rate, and there is always tea, coffee and even cookies available for guests throughout the day. Breakfast is also included, which includes a mix of western and Asian – baked beans, noodles and even pancakes.
Gay bars in Penang
As we mentioned above, there are no official “gay” bars in Penang because the owners would risk police harassment and lose their licence. Therefore, places say they are “gay friendly” to get around this.
We did manage to find a small but vibrant gay scene in Penang with afew popular hang outs for the LGBT community. The main gay bar of Penang is Seventy7, which has really fun mixed nights on weekends. Otherwise, check out the super quirky China House and That Little Wine Bar:
Seventy7 is the main real “gay bar” of Penang. It's only open on weekends, Friday through Sunday with themed nights like “TGIF”, “Hola Latino” and “Slowdown Sunday”. It's a very mixed crowd here of both locals and foreigners. If you come before 10:30pm, you're in time for their Happy Hour. We liked it here. It's a very personable crowd and very easy to make friends. We came around 10pm but it didn't really start to get busy until after 11pm. Seventy7 is located at 54 Jalan Chow Thye in George Town and is only open Friday to Sunday evenings from 7pm to 2am.
You'll spot it by the giant pink tank outside! China House is an institution in Penang. It's spread across 3 heritage buildings, linked by an open-air courtyard. It has 14 separate spaces – one for live music, another is a shop, cafe, restaurant, galleries and even a bakery. This is not an official gay bar but is so hipster and Bohemian that it has become a queer-friendly safe space. We felt comfortable with PDAs here, which is something we are very cautious about when travelling in a country like Malaysia. China House is located at 153 & 155 Lebuh Pantai and 183B Lebuh Victoria Streets, right in the heart of George Town. It is open daily from 11am to 8pm.
Beach Blanket Babylon is a gorgeous seafront restobar, more a place to bring a date than to party. It's not a gay bar by any stretch, and we didn't see many gay guys here when we came for our romantic sunset cocktail. But we did notice a few tourist gay couples here who also came for a drink together. It's a chic, trendy safe space you can bring a date and we include Beach Blanket Babylon for this reason. BBB is located at 32 Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah in George Town and is open daily until around 11pm/midnight.
Another queer-friendly space in Penang. Like China House, 54JCT is not a gay bar, but a place that welcomes the LGBTQ community – a safe space where, for example, Seby and I felt comfortable dancing together without feeling threatened. This used to be That Little Wine Bar restaurant but recently rebranded. We recommend checking out some of their themed events, in particular their Comedy Open Mic nights on the 1st and 3rd Wednesday of each month. 54JCT is located at 54 Jalan Chow Thye tucked down a side street just outside George Town. For their latest information, check their Facebook page.
Gay clubs in Penang
The short blunt answer is that there are no gay clubs in Penang. At least we couldn't find any when we went, nor have we seen any appearing since (we work hard to keep our content up-to-date!)
Therefore, we advise saving all the gay partying for Kuala Lumpur or Singapore where there are more options. If you do want to party in Penang, one of the places recommended to us is Soju Penang – a large trendy club with a capacity of 1,500 playing electro dance music. It is located at B2, Entertainment City, Penang Times Square and is open Monday to Saturday from 9pm to 3am.
Where to eat in Penang!
Penang is one big foodporn, often regarded as one of the foodie capitals of Asia! It has taken the best from all the Asian cuisines and created its own eclectic mix to produce this foodie paradise. Naturally, we were dead excited to go face down in the many food offerings, so we couldn't wait to set foot here.
The reason for this strong culinary reputation is that Penang was a major trading port during the British colonial times, which brought significant culinary Thai, Indian and Chinese influences. This tradition has remained strong in Penang with so many great places to eat. We've listed below some of our favourites which we think you should check out:
Red Garden Food Paradise
Red Garden Food Paradise at 20 Leigh Street is a busy hawker centre/night market selling everything from satay, laksa, dim sum, noodles of all sorts and many more delicious dishes. We loved coming here every evening for the buzzy atmosphere. It's a mix of locals and tourists who order food from the surrounding stalls and gather in the communal seating area to eat. It's open every evening from 5.30pm until around 1/2am. We think all visitors to Penang should come here at least once, to experience the ambience as well as the delectable dishes.
Tai Tong Restaurant
Tai Tong is located on 45 Lebuh Cintra. It's famous both for its delicious dim sum and the very cute old ladies (aka “aunties”) who wheel around a trolley of these little Cantonese prizes. You pick which dim sum you want from their trolleys and bon appetit! They have lots of yummy varieties of dim sum along with delicacies like chicken feet (just try them before judging!), soups, noodle dishes and plenty of vegetarian options. Tai Tong is open daily from 6am until 11pm although they close between 2pm and 6pm. Whatever time you come, there's always a crowd – it's THAT popular!
Hameediyah at 164a Campbell Street is a family-run institution, serving up mouthwatering traditional Penang style Indian food for over 100 years. They're most famous for their murtabak, which is literally an ‘Indian pizza', although there are so many other yummy things to try here like the nasi kandar and the kapitan chicken. Hameediyah gets so popular that there's nearly always a queue outside, but it's definitely worth the wait! The Hameediyah family running it are extremely charming. They love meeting foreigners and talking about the history of the restaurant – they even allowed Stefan to try playing head chef, with some mixed results…
Teochew Chendul (also known as Penang Road Famous TeoChew Chendul) is located at 27 & 29 Lebuh Keng Kwee street and was highly recommended to us for Malaysian “chendul”. Chendul is a popular Malaysian dessert of rice flour noodles made green from pandan leaves that are served with coconut milk, shaved ice and red beans. It reminded us a bit of the halo halo dessert we tried in the Philippines. This roadside stall also sells yummy curry, asam laksa and other dishes, but the chendul is definitely the most popular. Sebastien just couldn't help himself, terrorising the poor staff at Teochew until they gave him his 6 helpings of chendul…
Kapitan restaurant at 93 Lebuh Chulia street is a 24/7 Indian heaven selling Indian classics like tandoori and naan bread all hours of the day! This restaurant is legendary in Penang for amazing curries, claypot biryani, tandoori chicken and chicken masala. It gets very busy here because the food is so good, but we promise it's worth the wait. We loved the mango lassis we had with our meal as well as the Kapitan piece de resistance – badam milk. This drink is made from pure cow milk, which is boiled with ground almond, cashew nuts, raisins and sugar.
Il Bacaro Restaurant
Il Bacaro restaurant at 106 Lebuh Campbell street is the in-house restaurant of the Campbell House boutique hotel (see above). It's the perfect little haven for you if you're craving a break from local food and fancy a pizza or pasta dish instead! In fact, this was some of the best Italian food we've ever had, rivalling some of the highly-rated restaurants back home in London. A bacaro is a simple restaurant or wine bar that's typically found in Venice, so you can expect lots of “cicchetti” (small plates of food like Spanish tapas) and simple Italian dishes. The homemade gnocchi is just incredible as well as their pizzas and tiramisu, all rounded off perfectly with excellent Italian wine.
Top things to do in Penang
Well if you haven’t booked a foodie tour and a cooking course, what the hell are you waiting for? Penang is THE place for it! We've set out below some of the highlights from our trip, but as we keep repeating, it's all about the food here:
Do a cooking class
We did a cooking course with the adorable Pearly Kee, who is world-famous for her Nonya (ie Chinese influenced) style of cooking. Pearly is funny, sharp, sassy and super cheeky. We absolutely fell in love with Chef Pearly and had one of our favourite ever cooking experiences with her. Pearly taught us to make beef rendang (a coconut milk-based curry, cooked until it’s dried) and Curry Kapitan (a coconut based curry soured with tamarind and lime juice). Our class with Pearly also included a fascinating tour of her local market.
Learn about the food of Penang
The foodie aspect of Penang is just incredible, and we recommend getting a ‘taste' of it all by joining a food and heritage tour like we did. Our lovely guide drove us around to try some of Penang's classic dishes like assam laksa (rice noodles with fish broth, soured with tamarind), chendul dessert, ban chan kuih (Chinese crepes), hokkien mee (shrimp broth with yellow noodles, popiah (similar to fresh spring rolls), murtabak and many more. We loved our food tour and were particularly impressed by the way the 3 dominant cultures in Penang (Malay, Chinese and Indian) are so well integrated together, united by food.
Visit the UNESCO buildings and clan temples of Penang
Penang does, of course, have a great deal more to offer than its impressive mix of food. The central George Town area itself is UNESCO protected, with a variety of beautiful cathedrals, temples and mosques to visit. The Khoo Kongsi Clan House, in particular, is definitely worth a visit – it's a stunning building with a history of over 650 years, as well as a museum where you can learn more about it. For a deeper understanding of Penang's eclectic history, you can join a tour of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites with an English-speaking guide to explain the stories behind the magnificent structures you will see.
See the pretty jetties of Penang
The clan jetties of Penang are another not-to-miss highlight in Penang. They are a row of really unique waterfront houses on stilts. The remaining 6 jetties in Penang are over a century old, each named after a Chinese clan like Yeoh, Chew and Lim. The wooden houses on stilts were literally built on water (i.e. not on land) so that its residents could avoid paying any tax. To this day they still don't have to! The Chew Jetty is the most popular to walk along as it's long and quite picturesque – there's even a temple here, which we recommend checking out. Just remember that people do actually live here, so be mindful while trying to get that perfect sunset snap!
The street art of Penang
As part of the campaign to obtain the UNESCO status in 2008, the Penang State Government started a competition to install street art around George Town, with a full brochure explaining each one and where they can be found. All of the murals are quirky and cute, some even incorporate real objects like motorbikes or swings so that you can interact with them. Our favourite was “Kids on a Bicycle” – seen here being told off for their recklessness by Momma Seby! We recommend using the official website to see the map and try to hunt them all down.
Plan your trip to Penang
We've put together our practical tips and advice from our firsthand experience travelling in Penang as a gay couple to help you plan a fun and safe trip:
How to get there: There are multiple ways to get to Penang from within Malaysia, including train, bus, car, boat or flying. You can fly into the Penang International Airport from within Malaysia and from nearby countries, plus the tickets are usually very cheap. You can only reach George Town from the airport via bus, taxi or private transfer, which is our personal favourite choice. There's nothing more stressful than trying to figure out public transport in a foreign country while also juggling your luggage, but a private airport transfer removes all that worry!
Visa requirements: Many nationalities are able to visit Malaysia visa-free for up to 90 days, so long as you have at least six month's validity remaining on your passport. Make sure you check your personal visa requirements before making any travel plans for Penang.
Getting around: The easiest (and most rewarding) way to explore George Town is on foot. This way you'll be able to stop and try all the street food you smell along the way! You can also use trishaws or taxis to get around the city as well as buses for travel within the city and to other parts of the island. For more info check out this guide to transport in Penang.
Power Plugs: Malaysia is nice and straightforward when it comes to power plugs/sockets, only using type G. This is the same as the United Kingdom, but travellers from other countries will need to bring a travel adaptor with them to Penang.
Travel insurance: We never travel without having travel insurance to protect us and strongly recommend all travellers do the same! You never know when you may miss a flight, lose your luggage or get sick. Travel insurance gives you the comfort of knowing you'll be able to claim most of this back. We've used World Nomads Travel Insurance for years and can't recommend them highly enough. Their cover is comprehensive, affordable and extremely user friendly.
Vaccinations: All travellers to Malaysia should be up to date with routine vaccinations like measles, mumps and chickenpox. Most travellers should also be vaccinated for hepatitis A and typhoid. Some travellers may also need vaccinations for hepatitis B, cholera, Japanese encephalitis, malaria, yellow fever and rabies, depending on what you'll be doing. Check the CDC website for the most up to date info and also consult your doctor or travel nurse before heading to Penang.
Currency: The currency used in Penang and the rest of Malaysia is called the Malaysian ringgit. The official currency code is MYR and it's usually written as RM. $1 converts to around MR 4.33, €1 is worth about MR 4.70 and £1 makes around MR 5.31.
Tipping culture: Penang, and Malaysia in general, doesn't have a strong tipping culture, so you will never be expected to tip. A service charge is often included on restaurant bills and locals will sometimes round up the bill and leave the change. You can tip if you really feel like it, and it won't be refused.
Internet access: There are free WiFi access spots in Penang, although the speed of the internet isn't always fantastic. Most hotels, restaurants, cafes, hostels etc will also provide free WiFi. If you are worried about having good enough access or know you will need to get work done then you could bring a portable WiFi device with you or pre-book a local SIM card to pick up on arrival at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Online privacy: While gay dating apps are not outright banned (yet!) in Malaysia, an increasing number of LGBTQ websites and apps are being monitored and sometimes blocked by the government. We recommend that all gay travellers to Penang should get a VPN before visiting so that you can access all websites and app anonymously. A VPN hides your location, which therefore allows you to browse the net safely and securely.
Accommodation: For more accommodation options in Penang we like to use Booking.com. They have so many excellent choices, many of the listings offering free cancellation as well. Their online customer support is excellent and available 24/7 as well.
Sightseeing and adventure: When we're looking for fun activities and tours we love GetYourGuide. They offer a comprehensive list of options, which helps us get inspired when planning. Their tours are also affordable and very easy to book.
When to visit: You can visit Penang all year-round, although May-October is the wettest season so it's best to avoid that period unless you don't mind getting a bit wet. November to January is the busiest time of year, with lovely weather and lots of people visiting during the festive season. February to April is still nice weather-wise but less busy if you prefer a holiday with fewer tourists.
Is it ethical for gay travellers to visit Malaysia?
We get it – “why should I spend my Dolly Dollars in a country that wants to imprison me?”
That's how we felt at first when we found out about how homophobic the government is. We almost didn't come for this reason. And when we did make the decision to visit, we rushed to remove any reference to “gay” on this website and also set all our social media accounts to private so they were not public.
The reality is that there is an incredibly warm and super friendly LGBTQ community in Malaysia who LOVE meeting foreigners and so excited to show you their country. To turn your back on the country is to turn your back on your Malaysian gay brothers and sisters. In addition, there are many hotels, bars, clubs, tour agencies etc that are gay-owned or gay-friendly. These are the businesses that we like to spend our money so that they can thrive. We think you should as well, if anything, to help them win the daily struggle they face against a government who is constantly trying to battle them.
We explore this topic more in our article about what it's like travelling in Asia as a gay couple. Also check out our video from our Malaysia trip right here:
Gay map of Penang
This is our gay map of Penang showing all the places we've mentioned in this post. Use it to plan your own fun and fabulous trip:
For more inspiration:
- Find out what it's like to grow up gay in Malaysia in our interview with Ronnie from Kuching
- Check out our gay guide to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia
- As well as our gay friendly guide to Sandakan in Sabah
- Have a look at our beginner's guide to the Rainforest World Music Festival which is held in Sarawak, Malaysia
- Read these interesting facts about Malaysia you may not know about
- These are the most delicious Malaysian dishes you have to try
- Find out about the time we were interviewed on Malaysian National Radio!
- These are the most gay friendly countries in Asia
- And some fantastic gay cruises that visit Asian countries