It’s a question I’ve been asked many times by clients and friends: should we book our holiday to Penang, or to Langkawi? It’s a tricky choice: both have glorious weather, gorgeous scenery, friendly people and a surprising amount of things to do.
If you can do it, I would absolutely recommend heading to both islands. It’s a 25-minute, affordable flight between the two, and there are several ferry departures daily. However, if you haven’t got enough time up your sleeve, you’re going to have to make a choice. Here’s my guide to choosing the best option between Penang and Langkawi.
Okay, “honeymoon” in itself is hard because some couples are more adventurous than others, but for the purpose of this exercise, I’m taking “honeymoon” to mean romantic sunset dinners, seclusion, and plenty of opportunity for alone time. In that sense, Langkawi is your destination. It’s peaceful, luxurious, and surrounded by untouched coastline. Take your pick of any number of five-star resorts that offer honeymoon packages; in fact, if you’re game, many offer wedding packages too (side note: here’s my list of reasons to consider a destination wedding). As a romantic and indulgent honeymoon destination (for a fraction of the cost of Tahiti or the Maldives) you really can’t go wrong with Langkawi.
Holiday with young children
Again, the resorts. Having a place to recharge with the kids – a room that’s big enough and well-equipped, pools that are safe, and activities to keep them occupied – makes a huge difference when you’re travelling with little ones. Picking a nice resort gives you that soft space to land. You’re less likely to encounter meltdowns in an environment that caters well for the little ones, from the right meals to staff who understand and welcome children. Our experience at The Andaman in Langkawi is a great example: they gave each child a plush toy, Bop (their mascot otter) to keep as part of check-in and happily played with the children while we filled in the paperwork, and when our youngest dropped his dummy (pacifier) on the roof of the suite below, they dispatched housekeeping to try and find it and offered to run up to the pharmacy to get us a new one!
While Penang does have a couple of great, child-friendly resorts (the Hard Rock and the Shangri-La Rasa Sayang are both excellent), Langkawi has made an art form out of providing perfect hospitality to younger travellers.
Holiday with older children
While Langkawi is still a great option for a restful family holiday with older children and teens, Penang is where you’ll find more cultural immersion. And as the kids start to get a bit older, having them explore different cultural ideas becomes both more important, and more fun.
Older children will love Entopia and the butterfly garden, while teens will get a huge kick out of the atmosphere of hawker food centres and the history of Kek Lok Si temple. Older kids are more able to get their walking legs on, making it a lot easier to explore the UNESCO World Heritage City of George Town or hike through Penang National Park to Monkey Beach.
I love Penang so much but I’ll be honest, lugging two really small children around such a walkable city felt pretty frustrating at times. If they were a bit older, everyone would have been happier.
History and culture
If exploring historical sites and learning about history is your thing, Penang is a must-visit destination. And if you’re after an experience where you can immerse yourself in a different culture (or three!) Penang is also perfect.
Walking around George Town’s historical centre, you’ll see prized examples of Chinese, ethnic Malay, and Indian culture within metres of each other. You’ll have the opportunity to explore amazing temples and mosques, learn about the colonial British era, and understand what life was like in Penang during the Japanese invasion in World War Two. In fact, I talk about a lot of this in my guide to the best historical sites in Penang.
Penang also has a ridiculous amount of museums, many of them very offbeat. Some of them, like the Upside Down Museum, are hilarious while others, like the Chocolate and Coffee Museum, are glorified gift shops. All are a fun way to spend some time though.
Langkawi has a few cultural attractions, but they’re quite touristy or made to sell items. Definitely not an attraction in itself.
Given that Penang is one of the world’s premier foodie destinations, it wins this category hands-down. Food is another area where you’ll find a fascinating mix of Malay, Indian and Chinese culture. Not only that, but the food scene is really dynamic: frenetic hawker centres add a thrill to the dining experience, while beachside seafood restaurants add a chill, tropical vibe. You’ll find street food everywhere, especially Indian-inspired snacks, and there are a few fancier options too.
Also, given the many cultural influences of Penang, it’s easy to find foods that cater to specific dietary requirements. Vegetarian food is easy to find thanks to Buddhist and Hindu influences in the region, while the ethnic Malay Muslim influence makes halal food available too.
The concept of gluten-free is less discussed, but if you stick to rice dishes, Assam laksa (make sure they’re using rice noodles) and avoid battered foods and dumplings, you might be okay. If you’re really sensitive, double check for soy sauce.
For a complete guide of everything you need to try in Penang, read my Penang Foodie Guide.
Now with all that said, you won’t starve in Langkawi. In fact, if you’re in the mood for more high-end eating, Langkawi is great. Many of the resorts feature world-class chefs in their restaurants. Obviously, though, this comes with a higher price tag. But you’ll also find some cool, cheap eateries along the Pantai Cenang strip.
Nature and beaches
For an experience where you see pristine, untouched nature around you, Langkawi is the winner here. But I guess, like anything, it depends where you go. 90% of the areas we saw (and we drove around most of the island) were gorgeous rainforest, and the island has two big geopark areas where the rainforest is preserved. Some of these areas are 100 million years old! That said, sometimes when we were driving we saw a lot of logging, and that did feel a bit sad.
Penang, on the other hand, is very built-up. It has big commercial areas, both in the city of George Town and in the industrial area of Bayan Lepas near the airport. One would be forgiven for thinking it isn’t a nature destination. However, Penang National Park is beautiful. You can organise a hike through the National Park. Given the heat, the hike can feel challenging, but the reward is pristine, secluded beaches. You can then choose to take a long boat ride back to the starting point, or make your own way back on foot.
In terms of beaches, outside of Pantai Cenang, Langkawi wins. Many of the beaches, including my favourite Datai Bay, have coral reefs and don’t allow motorised watersports. This means the water is clear; a gorgeous blue-green that reflects the surrounding rainforests. We were even lucky enough to spot otters playing in the rocky shallows. Penang beaches (with the exception of Penang National Park, of course) are often disrupted by commercial activity, making them a bit murky and not very appealing.
Verdict: Both (surprisingly!)
You saw this coming since I’ve already mentioned it a bunch of times, but if a gorgeous luxury resort is your kind of thing, Langkawi is full of them. Don’t get me wrong, Penang has some great ones (read my review of the Hard Rock Penang, as an example) but Langkawi has all the big names. Not only that, but many resorts in Langkawi have private beaches and sit among the rainforest, making your surroundings truly spectacular.
Resort holidays are great because they offer so much in-house: it’s easy to not leave the resort if you don’t want to, but if you do, the staff will help you organise everything. The resorts in Langkawi, in particular, will ensure you have an absolutely wonderful holiday. For inspiration, read some more about the best Langkawi resorts or my full review of The Andaman resort.
Langkawi definitely has a sleepy vibe throughout most of the island, though you might find cool cocktail parties and beach bars at your resort. The exception, though, is the beachfront strip in Pantai Cenang.
Think of Pantai Cenang as a kind of Bali-lite: trendy beachfront cocktail bars, well-supplied sports bars, and the compulsory Irish pub. While the vibe is fun but chill, sunset over the Andaman Sea certainly adds an extra layer of delight. There are a couple of nightclubs, but most of the bars are a sit-and-drink type thing.
Penang’s nightlife has a different vibe. In fact, Penang’s bar and club scene is similar to what you might find in the smaller capitals of Australia: British-style pubs that have their own nightclubs attached. The big “pro” to this is that you can order something to eat (important if you’re trying not to be too messy!). If you like to dance, Penang is the place. Bonus: if you like to sing, Penang is also the place! You’ll find a few cool karaoke bars here too.
For something really cool, I love the rooftop bar on the top of the Bayview Hotel (there’s a revolving restaurant here too).
Verdict: Langkawi is my scene, but choose Penang if you’re a real party animal
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