There's no malaria in George Town, but the whole of Malaysia continues to suffer epidemics of Dengue Fever - a nasty mosquito borne virus which kills 1 in every 100 of its victims. Even surviving it can leave you damaged for life. It's common enough that few people living in the region don't know someone who has suffered from it. It shouldn't put you off coming - you will in all likelihood not catch it - but you must take precautions.
First consider the vector - the aedes aegypti mosquito. It's not the same as most malaria mosquitoes, as it is more commonly found in urban areas (not jungles) and is happy to fly around during the day (not just at night). It's big and tends to hug the ground, so your ankles are particularly at risk. It breeds in any kind of stagnant water, even roof gutters. It only has a range of about 100 meters. Like all mosquitoes it dislikes cool, dry locations.
So what can you do? Apartment blocks are the worst affected, so if you are visiting family or renting an apartment, be wary. Hotels are the safest place, because the mosquitoes carry the virus from one infected person to another, and so the mosquitoes limited flight range will only have it biting foreign tourists, who are very unlikely to be carrying the virus. If your hotel is big, modern and air-conditioned, you will be most safe.
Protect yourself all day. Cover your legs and arms, and especially your ankles. Where mosquito repellent that is effective, and especially effective against aedes aegypti. I used (high percentage) Icaridin spray throughout South East Asia and didn't get bitten once. Make sure to respray throughout the day (follow instructions). If you use it with sun cream, let the sun cream dry for 30 minutes before applying the spray.
And, of course, if you see a cloud of mosquitoes, move on.
Although some parts of the old town can be a bit dark and gloomy, there was nothing that made me feel uncomfortable. At night it gets pretty busy with the street food stalls, so you never really feel alone, and only a few prostitutes coming out on Chulia Street after sundown gave any impression of seediness. I've read of a few pickpockets on the buses, especially the free one, but I had no problems at all.
Travel with Small Kids
The pavements in George Town are generally pretty good, but there are few places to cross the often busy roads. What crossings there are can involve vast overpasses and many steps up and down. The pavements in much of the old town consist of covered "five-foot ways", which are like extensions of the shops and businesses. They aren't well maintained, and often impossible for a push chair. You can often find yourself pushing along the street, and the cars there can be inconsiderately parked, even double parked, making it quite dangerous at times. If it's not that, then there are huge roadworks with confusing pedestrian diversions. It's a bit chaotic. You can make it about with a pram, but it's difficult and requires some thought and planning. While exploring the old town you might want to avoid it.
The locals are friendly towards kids, especially the Malay women who would ask for group photographs with my son. There's not much in the way of playgrounds, though. We found one near Fort Cornwallis and another at the top of Penang Hill.
Dont feed the monkeys & other animals
Dont feed the monkeys in the Botanical Garden, it is an offence that will be prosecuted and it is also quite dangerous, as the monkeys might scratch you and when an open wound of your body gets in contact with blood or spittle of the monkeys, you never know what comes out of this.
It is a pity that lots of people dont care a lot about this !
- Family Travel
Dont touch the "holy snakes"
The whole scenery looks quite strange with snakes all over the rooms, the trees, the floors etc. and you might get the feeling you can just touch them, because they dont move at all and mostly they also look like they were dead anyway.
This is a good place to get close to the snakes as long as you keep some distance and as long as you move very slowly yourself.
- Family Travel
As in many parts of SE Asia, open drains are used in Penang. It's obvious to say so, but don't fall down one. As you're walking along, watch where you are stepping.
Coming to Malaysia from Singapore especially it can be a bit of a shock to suddenly be confronted with a lot of poverty on the streets.
A warning for the girls ...
There are lots of handsome, eligible men in George Town. Watch that you don't get carried away and lose your heart to one of them.