Our guide to spending Chinese New Year in Penang – what to see and do, and what to expect during the holidays.
Chinese New Year in Malaysia is something very special and I can highly recommend spending CNY, as it’s often written, on the island of Penang.
Penang’s an amazing place to visit all year round – regular readers will know I’m a big fan of the island and particularly its food – but spending Chinese New Year here is an amazing experience, as there’s a variety of special new year celebrations that take place across the island.
When is Chinese New Year?
Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, is the longest holiday of the year, lasting 16 days. It always falls between January 21st and February 20th, but the dates change every year as it follows the Chinese lunar calendar.
A good place to find out the dates for upcoming years, as well as lots more info on CNY itself is https://chinesenewyear.net/.
What to expect during Chinese New Year
Penang Chinese New Year celebrations last a lot longer than just New Year’s Eve – you can expect around two weeks of events, and many nights of fireworks!
Sure, there are dedicated fireworks shows taking place at set times across the island, but from New Year’s Eve onwards locals will be putting on their own ‘displays’. It mainly begins at midnight of New Year’s Eve, but for the following week we saw – and heard – fireworks going off every night.
They’ll set them off anywhere, so be careful when you’re out and about at night – when we were walking through Batu Ferringhi night market some of the stall holders just started setting them off on the side of the road!
Also be prepared for lots of firecrackers, everywhere. It’s fun to watch, but may scare little kids and there isn’t much consideration for health and safety.
Chinese New Year Public holidays – does everything close?
I was actually worried that everything in Penang would shut down during CNY, but that wasn’t entirely the case. Yes, you can expect some places to be shut during New Year’s Day, and potentially the New Year weekend, but overall there’s still things to do and places to eat.
All the main Penang attractions will be open to cater for tourists and the Malay wanting to make the most of the public holiday. However, that also means they can be busier than normal.
We sillily decided to go up to Penang Hill during the CNY weekend and discovered the Penang Hill Funicular had a massive queue weaving out of the station.
There was no way I was going to hike to the top and we’d booked afternoon tea at David Brown’s Restaurant and Tea Terrace for a half’s hour’s time, so we had to work out what we could do.
We discovered that by buying a fast lane ticket, we could fast track through the queue and get on the next available train. We arrived at the restaurant in the nick of time. For an extra £10 I recommend getting one of these tickets whatever time of year you visit though, as the funicular is always pretty busy.
Many local tour guides don’t work over the public holiday so you may need to give some thought to planning any outings over the CNY weekend, and local shops and restaurants will most likely shut. My favourite food court, Long Beach Cafe in Batu Ferringhi, shut on New Year’s Day for example, but was open for business as usual throughout the rest of the CNY period.
Expect some closures, but in areas aimed at tourists you’ll always find one or two spots open for food or drinks.
Travelling during Chinese New Year – what you should know
Chinese New Year heralds one of the world’s biggest movements of people as hundreds of thousands of people across Asia head home to be with their families. This means the cost of transport rises during the holidays – quite dramatically.
We actually timed our trip to Penang with CNY accidentally and discovered this was the case when our ‘cheap’ Air Asia flights came up at £250 per person (we were expecting them to be around £50). Plan your travel ahead, and shop around, but still be prepared to pay a premium if you want to travel across Asia during this time.
Also expect all forms of transport to be busy – trains, buses, air travel and roads. Penang, and Georgetown in particular, is renowned for its traffic issues, but this can go up a level during the holidays. If you use Grab, Asia’s ‘Uber’, expect prices to be at a premium during the celebrations too.
Things to do in Penang during Chinese New Year
Where to start?! Here’s our guide to the biggest and best Penang CNY celebrations…
Chinese New Year Open House
Do as the locals do and go along to a Chinese New Year Open House event! There’s usually loads taking place throughout CNY but the main ones are held in Penang’s main arena, the Setia Spice Convention Centre and hosted by Penang’s Finance Minister and First Minister. Expect up to 10,000 people at each event!
We had no idea what to expect but were keen to go along and check it out. On the long drive down to the arena, which is near the airport, our Grab driver pointed out the First Minister’s car as it overtook us on its way down to the event. We got there around 15 minutes after it started (they usually last just two to three hours in the middle of the day) and joined a long queue to get in.
Jokingly I turned to Justin and said “hey, we’re not queuing to meet the First Minister are we?” and well, we were! Turning the corner to enter the arena we saw the First Minister, his wife and an entourage of officials queued by the door, welcoming guests with oranges – a symbol of good luck. We were sincerely welcomed for coming along, shaking hands with everyone lined up before joining the throng of people in the arena and trying to work out what was going on whilst holding an orange. Surreal is an understatement.
What we learnt was this – everyone comes along for a free meal and a show! Along the edges of the arena is a massive buffet table, so you grab yourself some food, find a free seat in the arena and then watch the performers on the stage. We only stayed for an hour but saw some singers perform, a fire breather and even got to see a lion dance performance. If you want to get a feel for how the locals celebrate this is definitely worth checking out.
Kek Lok Si Temple’s light display
Do not miss the light display at Kek Lok Si Temple during Chinese New Year, it’s absolutely spectacular. Throughout CNY the temple lights up the night sky, with every inch of the grounds covered in colourful lights made up of 20,000 traditional Chinese lanterns and thousands of modern neon and LEDs bulbs.
It’s a long climb up to the temple (with many more stairs once you go into the grounds – it’s one of the biggest Buddhist temples in South East Asia) so if you can get a Grab driver to drop you off near the main entrance to save your legs.
Get there for dusk in order to see the lights burst into life and then wander around the temple and immerse yourself in this epic display.
As the display runs for a long time I recommend you don’t go during the public holidays – we did this and the place was absolutely packed with people vying to get photos. Even so, I really did love it there, although my legs very much didn’t…
Ban Ka Lan Snake Temple
During the CNY period the Ban Ka Lan Snake Temple holds a lively celebration to honour the birthday of the temple’s god, Cheng Chooi Chor Soo Kong, which falls on the sixth day of the Chinese New Year.
This includes lion and snake dances, warrior drum performances, as well as food stalls and surprise, surprise, fireworks! It’s well worth checking out, especially for the highlight of the event, the ‘flame watching ceremony’, which is supposed to symbolise the god’s prediction of Penang’s economy for the upcoming year…
Penang Hot Air Balloon Fiesta
Penang’s annual balloon fiesta is always timed to take place towards the end of the CNY celebrations. Lasting two days, it sees balloonists from all over the world come together and fly colourful and quirky balloons, plus there’s games and activities and of course a night glow show – but is it as good as Bristol’s renowned Fiesta? We didn’t have a chance to find out, but if you’ve been to both I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Hokkien New Year
The Hokkien New Year, also known as Pai Thee Kong Celebration, takes place on the ninth day of the Chinese New Year and is known as one of the biggest events on the CNY calendar.
Held at the Chew Jetty, near the ferry terminal in Georgetown, you can expect dancing and fireworks galore in celebration of the birthday of the Jade Emperor God, who supposedly saved Hokkien ancestors, hailing from Fujian province, China, from a bloodthirsty army.
Chap Goh Meh
Chap Go Meh marks the end of the CNY celebrations with an epic party.
Held at the Esplande on the island and at Jetty Bukit Tambun on the mainland, there’s a carnival atmosphere with performances, hawker stands and fireworks.
Chap Go Meh is also known as ‘Chinese Valentine’s Day’, and traditionally women would throw oranges into the sea in the hope of finding ‘Mr Right’. I’m not quite sure how that works, but hey…
Today it’s evolved into people writing their names and wishes onto the fruit before throwing them in the water – something that’s done at the end of the evening, before people head home.
Chinese New Year in Penang
So, if you were thinking about where to go during Chinese New Year in Malaysia, I hope I’ve sold you on Penang. There’s so much to see and do throughout the festivities – the majority of which is less than an hour from wherever you might be based on the island.
If you have any questions feel free to ask away in the comment section below and I’ll help if I can, but a great resource for finding out about all the events taking place during Chinese New Year in Penang is My Penang, which has a great events listing.