Air Itam (also spelt Ayer Itam or Air Hitam), is a town in central Penang Island (Pulau Pinang). Located west of George Town, Air Itam is largely a suburban area home to the famous Penang Hill, or Bukit Bendera, and the gigantic Kek Lok Si Temple.
Orienting yourself around Air Itam is fairly straightforward. If anything, the biggest challenge is knowing where George Town ends and Air Itam starts as both now merge seamlessly together. For the purposes of this article, Air Itam begins west of Jl Masjid Negeri and Jl Scotland.
Central Air Itam is situated around three main streets: Jl Air Itam, Jl Pasar and Jl Balik Pulau. This area is often overflowing with pedestrian activity and a barrage of traffic courtesy of the popular local markets and businesses that help to congest this major, yet tiny road. To the north, along Jl Bukit Bendera, is the Penang Hill (Bukit Bendera) base funicular train station. Taking a ride on the funicular lifts you up to the top of the hill, offering scenic views and a much cooler climate.
Directly to the south of central Air Itam is the township of Bandar Baru Air Itam, more commonly known as Farlim. Largely a residential area, Farlim runs along Lebuhraya Thean Teik and is littered with housing estates and condominiums. Much of Air Itam's amenities, including banks, supermarkets, pharmacies, clinics and laundromats are found here. Northeast of Farlim and east of Central Air Itam, is Kampung Baru, another residential area, which runs along Jl Air Itam, and is the most common route from George Town.
|Climate chart (explanation)|
The climate in Air Itam is very much similar to George Town. Expect year round hot and humid days that are often broken with a cooling afternoon shower. Evenings are much cooler than the daytime, but rarely drop below 20°C. Being further inland than George Town, Air Itam tends to experience slightly less rainfall and lacks the cool breeze that occasionally blows in from the Strait of Malacca.
As an exception, Penang Hill tends to be much cooler compared to the coastal plains of George Town and Air Itam. Elevated 833 m above sea level, Penang Hill offers much welcomed cool climate once described by Isabella Bird, a 19th century travel writer, as 'delicious'.
Using the extensive Rapid Penang public bus network is a cheap and convenient way to reach Air Itam. Most people will be coming in from George Town, with bus 203 terminating within the town centre near the local market and Kek Lok Si. Another option is bus 204, which terminates at the base of Penang Hill, via Air Itam town centre. Bus 201 and 502 will also pass through the town centre and are also good options to take.
For those in Bayan Lepas, the Airport or near Queensbay Mall, bus 306 passes near the town centre. You must alight at Jl Air Itam and walk for about 20 minutes or take another bus. From Balik Pulau, bus 502 will also pass through the town centre before continuing on to George Town.
Taking a taxi to Air Itam is naturally the more expensive option, but is a good option if you are travelling late at night. A fare from KOMTAR, George Town, to Air Itam should cost around RM20-25, Batu Ferringhi around RM30-35 and RM45 from around Bayan Lepas. Keep in mind a 50% surcharge is applied after midnight. Whenever you do take a taxi keep in mind that most taxi drivers will attempt to inflate the fare and refuse to use the meter, so haggle furiously to ensure you are not ripped off.
The main town area of Air Itam is fairly compact and easy to walk around on foot. However there are many cases where footpaths do not exist and walking along the side of the road is common. Doing so is considered safe but do keep an eye out for traffic, wide open gutters and other hazards. Walking between Kek Lok Si to the base of Penang Hill is a leisurely walk, taking about 20 minutes and passes the War Memorial Park. If you are bothered waiting, bus 204 is another way to travel between these two popular areas. Venturing beyond the town centre on foot may not be the best option thanks to the hot and sweaty weather of Penang, but taking the bus to the outlying areas is a good option.
- 1 Air Itam Dam, Jl Balik Pulau. This was the first dam to be built on the island and is popular with locals as a picnic spot and jogging. The views of George Town at the crest of the dam are spectacular and rival Penang Hill. To reach the Dam you will require your own form of transport. Many locals walk or cycle up to the dam, taking around 40 minutes on foot from the Air Itam town centre.
- 2 Jade Emperor's Pavilion (Thni Kong Tnua), Lorong Pokok Celi (Bus 204, last stop). A Taoist temple located near the foot of Penang Hill dedicated to the Jade Emperor, one of the most important figures in Taoism. The current temple dates back to 1905, with a former temple existing on the grounds since 1869. The temple underwent restoration in 2002. During the Jade Emperor's Birthday, the 9th day of Chinese New Year, throngs of pilgrims come to visit and pray here. Free, donations welcome.
- 3 Kek Lok Si Temple, 1 Tokong Kek Lok Si, off Jl Balik Pulau (Bus 203, last stop), ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Daily 07:00-21:00, Chinese New Year 09:00-23:00, funicular 09:00-18:00. An impressive and expansive hillside temple complex, reputed to be the largest Buddhist temple in South-east Asia. Much of the temple is free and you could easily spend a few hours exploring the halls and shrines. Within the temple complex is the Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas, or Ban Po Thar, which is part of a separate paid area. The pagoda is styled with Khmer, Thai and Chinese influence and is one of the main attractions of the temple. A mini funicular train can take visitors to the summit of the complex where there is a giant, one hundred foot high, bronze statue of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, unveiled in 2002. The world's largest pavilion (two hundred foot high) was completed in 2009 to shelter it from the sun. There is a Koi carp pond and well manicured gardens, along with a few more temples. Views from the summit are impressive and are worth the trip up. One unfortunate side of the temple is that it reeks of commercialism with stalls scattered throughout, including in prayer halls, selling trinkets and junk. The temple is popular with pilgrims during the weekend. During the fifteen days of Chinese New Year the temple is colourfully lit with thousands of lanterns and remains open until late. If you are in Penang at this time the temple is worthy of a night visit after 19:20. Free, Entry to Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas: RM6, Funicular train charge: RM6.
- 4 Penang Hill (Bukit Bendera), Jl Bukit Bendera (Bus 204, last stop). Ticket counter hours: M-F 06:30-21:00, Sa Su 06:30-22:00 (Last train to base 1h after counter closes). Arguably the best views of George Town and the Malacca Strait can be found here, especially at night. Most people take the funicular rail to the top of the hill. The trains, upgraded in 2011, lift you out of the heat and humidity of the coastal plain and up to a fabulous view and cool breezes, taking around 10min to the top. Those who are adventurous and fit have the choice of hiking to the top of the hill, taking around 2-3h. Trails start around the Botanical Gardens at the Moon Gate near the Botanical Gardens, inside the Gardens just before the reservoir, or along the boring paved road next to the entrance of the Gardens. When you reach the summit, you can walk around the hilltop, stop for tea, enjoy a leisurely lunch, buy a souvenir, try to photograph George Town and the Strait, or simply breathe deep lungfuls of cool, clean hill air. Can be very crowded during weekends. Funicular fare Malaysians/Foreigners: Adult RM10/30, Child RM4/15.
- 5 Penang Hill Mosque (Masjid Bukit Bendera). A simple but ornate mosque located at the top of Penang Hill.
- 6 Sri Aruloli Thirumurugan Temple. A small Hindu temple that is also one of the oldest in Penang.
- 7 War Memorial Park, Cnr Jl Bukit Bendera & Jl Paya Terubong. A small park that is dedicated to the fallen of World War II.
- Hike up Penang Hill.
- 1 Air Itam Market (Pasar Awam Air Itam), Cnr Jl Pasar and Jl Air Itam. The main market within Air Itam, selling almost fresh produce, clothing and other products. The market spills out beyond the main market building and runs along Jl Air Itam. There are also a variety of hawker stalls scattered throughout.
- 1 Astaka Bukit Bendera, Penang Hill Complex, Jl Stesen Bukit Bendera. 09:00-18:00. A modern multi-storey hawker centre located at the top of Penang Hill. The hawkers sell some decent local cuisine that you typically see around Penang, with a slight inflation on the price.
- 2 David Brown's Restaurant & Tea Terrace, Strawberry Hill, Bukit Bendera, ☏ . 09:00-21:00. Set in a British colonial building at the peak of Penang Hill, with colonial decor to match. They serve up western food including steaks, hearty stews and roasts. For a snack they also sell cakes, scones and sandwiches, along with tea and coffee. There is a nice garden area at the restaurant and the views of the city area are some of the best on Penang Hill.
- 3 Pasar Air Itam Laksa, Jl Pasar. 11:30-20:00. A simple and popular hawker at the local market selling one item, Assam Laksa. This particular stall was popularised by a visit from Anthony Bourdain. If you like your food a little spicy be sure to request chilli. Look out for their red sign with gold writing along the outside wall of the market. RM3.
- 4 Sister's Curry Mee. 08:00-12:00. A hawker stall that is popular among locals and run by two elderly sisters, selling Curry Mee.
If you are in Air Itam to look for bars and clubs, then you are definitely in the wrong place. Those looking for the party scene should head on over to George Town. If you are looking for an alcoholic drink your best bet will be to have one with a meal at certain restaurants, kopitiams and hawker centres. Take note that Muslim establishments will not serve alcohol. Another option would be to purchase liquor from a convenience store or local supermarket to enjoy back at your room. Out of respect to Muslim locals it is best not to consume alcohol in public streets.
- 1 Bellevue Hotel, Jl Stessen Bukit Bendera (near the top station of Penang Hill), ☏ . The only hotel at the top of Penang Hill, with good views to match. A colonial style bungalow with 12 rooms that are very simple and a little worse for wear. A simple breakfast of eggs, toast, spreads, tea and coffee is included. You are paying for the privilege of staying on the peak with exceptional views. Weekdays/Weekends from RM300/380+.
- 2 Fastbook Hostel, 1228L Jl Paya Terubong (Level 3). Check-in: 14:00, check-out: 12:00. A small hostel with 6 private rooms including bathrooms, but separate toilets, and a short walk from the Air Itam town centre. Rooms include air conditioning and TV. There is also a communal washer/dryer, refrigerator, microwave and toaster available. There is no signboard for the hostel, but look out for Gops Cafe, with a big pink signboard, which is located next door. RM66+.
Most of the Air Itam area has full network coverage from all of the major mobile telephone networks. There may be some mobile coverage black spots, particularly on Penang Hill away from the major tourist area or if you plan trek around the hills. Public telephones are available and scattered throughout, mostly found around the major town centres within Air Itam.
There is still plenty more of Penang to visit, simply hop on one of the local Rapid Penang buses.
- Continue further into Penang's backcountry at Balik Pulau. The area is literally the back of the Island and is a slice of an undeveloped Penang. Around the expansive area you will find kampungs, fruit farms and rice paddies scattered throughout.
- Relax on the beach at Batu Ferringhi and the nearby resort town of Tanjung Bungah. If you're hungry for seafood look no further than the fishing village of Teluk Bahang and if you still have some energy left go for a leisurely trek in Penang National Park.
- Cross over to Penang's mainland (Seberang Perai), which is somewhat off the tourist track. The towns of Butterworth and Bukit Mertajam are a great place to start.