George Town is the capital of Penang, a small island in northwest Malaysia. It’s a cultural melting pot, as it was a major trading route in Southeast Asia in the 1780s.
While you’ll encounter influences in Penang from India, China, and Indonesia, among others, most people visit George Town for its British colonial architecture. Given that colonial architecture is largely inaccessible, you’re understandably wondering—how accessible is George Town, Malaysia?
Unfortunately, George Town offers poor accessibility for wheelchair users. Sidewalks are few and far between, and many buildings have at least one step to enter.
Nevertheless, if you’re set on visiting Penang and seeing George Town, I’ll shed some light on what you can expect to encounter.
Note: The information here is based on my observation as someone who doesn’t use a wheelchair. If you have firsthand experience as a wheelchair user in George Town, I’d love to hear about your time there in the comments section. I appreciate it, and I’m sure our future readers will too.
General Accessibility in George Town
George Town was founded in the 1700s. And infrastructure-wise, it feels like it’s changed little since that time.
Pedestrians must often use the road, between a lack of sidewalks and a lack of continuous sidewalks when the option is present. Drop-down curbs and ramps aren’t a common sight.
However, Malaysians are friendly people, so you can expect them to go out of their way to help you get around their town.
Nevertheless, the easiest way for wheelchair users to get from point A to point B in George Town is by a vehicle.
As a silver lining for manual wheelchair users, George Town is a very flat city.
Shops & Restaurants
The buildings in George Town are short, meaning that many shops and restaurants are on the first floor.
While there’s often at least one step to enter the buildings and close quarters once inside, it isn’t uncommon for there to be outdoor seating along the sidewalk and souvenir shops displaying their goods on the street. That’s especially the case on the street where the famous Children on a Bicycle mural is.
Manual wheelchair users will likely have an easier time than power wheelchair users navigating the obstacles that’ll inevitably arise when exploring George Town.
Getting Around George Town
A vehicle is the best way to get around George Town.
Rapid Mobiliti (yes, it’s spelled with an “i”) is a transportation service that offers wheelchair accessible vans in Penang. Their vehicles are equipped with a hydraulic lift, allowing you to stay in your chair.
If you’re able to transfer out of your chair into a vehicle, Grab is another option. Grab is the Uber of Malaysia and is a cost-effective way to get around George Town and Penang Island.
Parking in George Town
Wheelchair accessible parking in George Town is essentially non-existent.
Therefore, it’s best to let someone else do the driving so they can find a spacious enough area to drop you off and pick you up.
Accessible Restrooms in George Town
I didn’t encounter any wheelchair accessible public restrooms in George Town, so you’ll likely have to rely on your hotel.
That’s not to say there aren’t any; please let me know in the comments if you visit there and find one.
Wheelchair Accessible Things to Do in George Town, Malaysia
George Town is small, and you can easily see its main attractions in a day or two. Below are some of the accessible things to do during your visit.
1. Explore the Street Art
Despite being frustratingly inaccessible, George Town’s colonial architecture is gawk worthy. But upon closer inspection, you’ll often encounter beautiful street art that’s woven into the structure of the buildings.
The most famous street art in Penang is the Little Children on a Bicycle mural. It’s common for there to be a line of tourists waiting to take a photo with it.
But upon further exploration, you’ll encounter other stunning murals, such as this one of a tiger.
The George Town tourist office offers a map of the city’s most prominent street art if you want to ensure you hit all the must-sees.
2. Wander Along Armenian Street
Armenian Street is the road where the Children on a Bicycle mural is located. As such, it’s a touristy area, filled with souvenir shops and restaurants selling traditional Malaysian dishes.
In classic small town fashion, Armenian Street is only a few blocks long.
Saturday evenings are among the best times to visit Armenian Street because they shut down the road to traffic, allowing an evening market to take place. That way, you can wander through this area via the road, given that it would be nearly impossible for a wheelchair user to navigate the cracked and often blocked sidewalks.
If you won’t be in George Town on a Saturday evening, it’s possible to wander on the road as long as you’re careful. Since so many tourists congregate on Armenian Street, they often nearly turn it into a pedestrianized area.
So, scooters are usually the only vehicles that venture down that road.
3. Visit the Chew Jetty
One of the most unique aspects of Penang is its jetties, which are Chinese villages built on stilts.
These 19th-century wooden houses were built when the Chinese arrived because they wanted to be close to their jobs, which mostly consisted of working on boats and at the dock.
Nowadays, tourists can visit the jetties. Of these, the Chew Jetty is the most popular, and it’s also wheelchair accessible.
A wide (albeit often crowded) wooden boardwalk will take you by souvenir shops and snack stands. As you approach the end of the jetty, you’ll get great views over the ocean and will be able to admire how the stilt houses hover over the water.
4. Fort Cornwallis
Fort Cornwallis is the largest fort in Malaysia that’s still standing. The British East India Company built it in the 18th century.
Since Fort Cornwallis never had to withstand a war, it remained in decent condition.
There’s a barrier-free entrance to Fort Cornwallis, and most of the paths around the fort are accessible, although some of them aren’t perfectly maintained.
5. Wander Through Little India
No, that’s not a typo—you won’t find a Little Italy in George Town, but their Little India is thriving.
George Town has a large Indian population, in great part due to the British bringing them there to work in mines and plantations during the colonial days.
Nowadays, the Indian culture in George Town is thriving, and Little India is the perfect place to experience it. The main street that runs through Little India is wider than many streets in the town. The sidewalk is also quite wide.
That said, although items frequently block the sidewalk, you should be able to relatively safely use the road as a sidewalk. Many other pedestrians do the same.
6. Esplanade Walkway
The Esplanade Walkway is a small concrete boardwalk that runs along the ocean. I won’t lie—it sounds more exciting than it is.
Nevertheless, the Esplanade Walkway is the most accessible way in George Town to take in views of the ocean. You’ll also get great views of the city hall, which has a White House-like resemblance.
The crosswalks and sidewalks between the Esplanade Walkway and the city hall are accessible, so you can easily move between them.
7. Appreciate Religious Harmony on Kapitan Keling Street
Although Malaysia is a Muslim-majority country, it’s a nation that welcomes all religions. One of the best places to see this in action is on Kapitan Keling Street in George Town.
There, you’ll get to admire the Kapitan Keling Mosque, Goddess of Mercy Temple, and St. George’s Church.
As a result, Kapitan Keling Street often goes by the nickname, “Street of Harmony.”
The sidewalk around and front entrance to the mosque (for narrow chairs) are wheelchair accessible, and visitors are welcome to stop by as long as they dress appropriately.
8. Try Cendol
Cendol is Malaysia’s pride and joy dessert. But George Town gives it an extra twist, for you can eat it in ice ball form.
It’s impossible to compare cendol to Western desserts, for it contains shaved ice topped with red beans, green worm-shaped starchy jelly (often from green bean flour), coconut milk, and liquid palm sugar. You may even be served cendol with pieces of boiled corn kernels.
It’s an acquired taste for sure.
But you just might find yourself craving it by the end of your time in Malaysia!
Ready to Visit George Town?
George Town is a far cry from Kuala Lumpur in terms of its wheelchair accessibility. It likely isn’t the right fit for many wheelchair users, as the time it takes to arrive there may not be worth the challenges this small town poses.
If you have questions about traveling to George Town as a wheelchair user, leave a comment and I’ll do my best to help.
I’d also love to hear back from you if you decide to take this trip. How was your experience in George Town? What recommendations do you have for wheelchair users wanting to travel there?
P.S.—Will you be visiting Kuala Lumpur? If so, check out our guide on wheelchair accessibility in Kuala Lumpur.