Two ‘pearls’ go head to head, including some reflections by guest writer TravellingMitch who’s from the UK
Penang was once the ‘Pearl of the Orient’, for most western travellers the only ‘orient’ they would know outside of Singapore and maybe Hong Kong. At the time Phuket wasn’t even known on the tourist map. It was the 1950s and 60s when jet travel had just started making the world smaller and the western middle class were in search of new and exotic locations.
But Penang’s popularity just fell off the map sometime in the 70s and 80s. In the mid 1970s people started to visit the little Thai island of Phuket and a new ‘pearl’ would go on to being a tourist favourite, and still is – Phuket, ‘The Pearl of the Andaman’.
The two islands are, geographically, very close and share a similar history of both European and Chinese trading heritage. Walking around Phuket Town and Georgetown you’ll see a lot of the same style of sino-porteuguese architecture although Penang has always had a lot more grand colonial buildings due to the British colonisation of Malaya.
The most obvious difference is that Phuket has great beaches. Penang has few and the water isn’t clear. Phuket has Patong and there’s really no equivalent in Penang (many would argue that’s a good thing).
Penang has much better roads and organised infrastructure, probably due to some early colonial planning and the large flat spaces for residential areas and towns.
And Phuket is Thai and Penang is Malaysian with all the cultural and religious differences that provide each island it’s own distinct personality.
If you want to drive from one island to the other it will take about 9-10 hours and you’ll cover 647 Km. There are now direct flights between the two islands with Firefly and Air Asia (it varies at different times of the year). As the crow flies, the islands are 357 kilometres apart. Firefly Airlines use a turbo prop aircraft and the flight is with Air Asia in an Airbus 320. In both cases the flight will take you around an hour, a bit faster in the jet. (Firefly is usually five days a week)
‘TravellingMitch’ travelled to the two islands back in 2010 and penned an article which, with permission, we’ve re-printed in bold.
Compared to Phuket, Penang is very low key. There is not the choice or variety of areas and scenery to stay in Penang as there are in Phuket. Penang is limited with its tourist areas, the town of Georgetown, and the beach resorts of Tanjung Bungah and Batu Ferringi, and the fact that the sea is not clear.
Having said that nothing is manic, like say Patong in Phuket, and Batu Ferringhi feels a bit like a small and quiet Karon or Kata. Tanjung Bungah is very quiet indeed. The hotels in the beach resorts in Penang are right on the beach.
Nothing much has changed since 2010, then…
Phuket is a place where you can just about find it all. You want mega busy with bars, shops coming out of your ears, Phuket has it. You want to be partying all night, Phuket has it. You want remote 5* luxury, Phuket has it. You want something in between, Phuket has it.
I hate to say Phuket has it all, but will say that Phuket has a huge range and choice of hotels and locations when compared to Penang. Many of the more remote beaches have hotels right on the sand, and as they are only 20mins from places like Patong, are very popular.
Think that the 20 minute travelling time has blown out a bit since 2010…
Penang is more sedate, and at the moment happy with being Penang. Only has 1, maybe 2 beach areas and the sea is a bit iffy but Penang is still a food heaven, has a much more laid back quality and does not have that really busy feel [even if it is] that you get in Phuket. Not much in the way of night life for those wanting to party until the early hours but there are a couple of night clubs in Georgetown. The only worry is if people try to turn Batu Ferringhi into Patong.
That hasn’t happened, yet…
Phuket wins hands down on beaches. Penang does not compare. The water is clean and clear and snorkelling possible right off hotel beach even in the busiest resorts in Phuket whilst Penang is not so lucky.
And Penang doesn’t have the assortment of islands off the main island that Phuket has…
Both are equal contenders for food. There is a good choice of cheap local food around in both but in Penang you get a wonderful eclectic mix of Malaysia, Thai, South East Asian, Chinese and Indian. All are very, very tasty.
Penang’s food scene is legendary and on-par with anywhere in the world offering excellent quality street and restaurant food. Phuket’s street food tends to be more exclusively Thai.
Shopping, well, Phuket gets it, but only just, and that is because of there are more markets – a thing that Penang is limited in. Although the modern malls are the same the world round, and most modern malls you could be anywhere, Bluewater in the UK, or the Gurney Plaza / Queensbay in Penang or Central shopping malls or Jungceylon in Phuket. The brands and shops are pretty global and in the modern malls only the signs give the indication where you are.
Generally we found that the cost of clothes is about the same as the UK throughout both Malaysia and Thailand, be it the hi-end or mid range original items or replicas.
Bargaining is a necessity in SE Asia, and you will get a better deal the more you buy. There are some great replica products and some absolute rotters in both countries, shop wisely and expect to pay more for the better stuff, again prices are about the same.
Given the cheap price of clothes and other products in the UK and the weak pound when travelling, we often found we were actually paying more than we could at home.
That also hasn’t changed but with the Thai baht surging it’s making costs higher for international tourists than before. They both have great shopping options at both ends of the price spectrum.
There are some lovely souvenirs in both, and the usual household stuff like cushion covers and table runners, which are popular, throughout both Phuket and Penang. Although I would say that Phuket, with the larger number of markets does seem to have a larger choice.
But there’s also a lot of copy-brand rubbish floating around Phuket markets. Turn your brain on before paying for your 150 baht Gucci T-shirt.
We always use local laundries to avoid the expensive hotel laundry fees. You will get a really good deal by the kilo for washing, and washing and ironing in both Penang and Phuket. Came back clean and fresh.
Hotels are pretty standard for both places, and not much to choose, a bad 3* and a wonderful 5* are pretty much the same the world round. There is a huge number of hotels in Phuket to pick from compared to the number in Penang. You do find many more really nice smaller boutique hotels in Phuket – and they are a real pleasure.
The ’boutique hotel’ scene and the newer high rise ‘residences’ are a growing trend in Penang with superior planning and development controls than the haphazard condo boom in Phuket.
Both island have amazing sights both natural and man made. Both have the culture of their old towns, Georgetown and Phuket Town. There is a great choice of things to see and do, and as what to see and do is a very personal thing no one could get bored in either as long as they have done their homework.
Georgetown is a lot larger than Phuket Town and is a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site. This has dampened a lot of the renovation of the old shop houses in Georgetown compared to what we’ve seen around Phuket in the past decade. But you could wander around Georgetown for days whereas Old Phuket Town might take you an afternoon at best.
So, I guess there is no real comparison, they are both very different, and it will depend on what each person wants for their experience to which is the better option. Please don’t go to one expecting the other. But if you do plenty of reading and research you will see which one is for you. Or you might be like us and love them both for what they are.
Couldn’t agree more, thanks TravellingMitch.
AREA Phuket 576 Sq Km, Penang 1,048 Sq Km
POPULATION Phuket 480,000, Penang 1.7 million
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