Arriving in Penang felt like slipping into completely different part of Asia after Thailand, as we crammed onto the tiny ferry that takes you from the mainland to the island. We noticed people’s skin was darker, eyes more almond-shaped; there was a noticeable mix of cultures – Indian, Chinese – with exotic fragrances wafting and colourful saris blowing in the wind.
We arrived in Georgetown – the cultural capital of the island – and strolled through the kitch streets adorned with cute coffee shops, trendy graffiti and hipster touches like a ‘camera museum’ and a ‘cat cafe!’ Hackney eat your heart out. We found a hostel on cutesy ‘Love Lane’ with a lovely owner, but a TINY box room (as is common in Georgetown as many hostels are converted from Chinese shop houses), and we headed out for dinner.
Georgetown is known as one of the best foodie spots in Malaysia, and after a quick stop-off at the more touristy night market (average noodles), we headed down to a popular street food road and chowed down on ‘carrot cake’ – not to be confused with actual cake, but a hearty dish of glutinous rice blobs with delicious spices and veggies. Eating out on the street on little plastic chairs felt good and reminded us of Vietnam (though minus the beer!). We also tried an INCREDIBLE ‘curry mee’ noodle soup, and then hit up Little India where we ate – for the first time – what would become an ongoing obsession. Roti Canai! Delicious greasy roti bread (literally meaning ‘flying dough’ because of the extravagant way it’s thrown onto the hot plate!) dipped in delicious curry sauce…. Words escape me.
We absolutely loved the vibe and buzz of ‘Little India’ – a district full of busy restaurants, DVD shops blaring out Bollywood tunes, colourful shops selling bright flowers and silks, and the friendliest people in Georgetown. We found a couple of thali restaurants here that – despite our determination to try all the local foods – we ended up visiting at least once a day, for their sumptuous tasty Veggie thalis that were essentially bottomless (free unlimited rice) – that we doted over, with sickeningly sweet coffees and ice drink concoctions like iced ‘pulled tea’ made frothy with condensed milk.
The next day, after moving to a hostel with a bigger room, we explored town, visiting delightful mosques, blood-red Chinese buddhist temples adorned with all the colours of the rainbow; shared North/South Indian veggie thalis (obvs); walked to the touristy Dutch Fort Cornwallis and sat by the sea; took a peek around the mall; and – defeated by the heat – punctuated the day with MANY delicious ice coffees. We loved the ambiance of the city – bustling with locals and tourists alike – but not too ‘big city’, and the mix of cultures in both the religious buildings and the food felt pretty unique, similar only to neighbouring Singapore. That evening we went out for yet more street food (a daily addiction) – dishes like Hokkien Mee (spicy prawn noodle soup); puff pastry things, spring rolls…
A visit to Penang also wouldn’t be complete without doing the self-guided tour of the city’s amazing graffiti scene. We weren’t alone in this, as we kept meeting the same cute tourists as we travelled around, offering to take pics for each other and waiting to pose in the same silly ways. A lot of the graffiti encompasses 3D parts, so you can sit on motorbikes that jut out of the wall, stand on swings, or ring bicycle bells. Most are commissions so they’re well preserved, and hark back to a simpler time in the city. There are also 3D wire text pieces that tell you a little about the city’s evolution, and some of its famous inhabitants….
We also wandered around the pretty jetty and pier, which was great for photo ops. There are tons of temples and mansions in town, not to mention Chinese clan houses, so we chose carefully as some of them charged admission (and we are tight!). We chose to visit the Fatz Ze Tung Mansion, aka ‘The Blue House’ – which was owned by the ‘Eastern Rockerfeller’ – a dude who started as a house servant, then climbed the social ladder, to eventually being married into the (original house owner’s) family! The dude was pretty eccentric, kept multiple wives, and designed the house around fong-shui principles, and it’s very beautiful inside – with original tiles, a huge open courtyard in the centre, and many pieces of stunning art deco furniture. Apparently the family fell into debt after Malaysia’s currency took a hit post-independence, and now the house is rented out as rooms and a fancy restaurant, and the family have moved on (after briefly working in the house as servants!)
On our last day, we took a bus out of town to visit Kek Si Lok Temple, which is a truly stunning Chinese Buddhist temple that looks out over a big hill. Now, I’m sure everyone differs in what they like from a temple, and I have to say I’m a sucker for COLOUR, dramatic views, and a certain kitch element, and – by this criteria – this temple has it all! There are pretty gardens, big stupas to climb, pagodas assembled from hundreds of buddhas. There are hanging lanterns everywhere, giant statues, neon religious symbols, and – at the top of a big rickety funicular – a GIANT bronze goddess! The place was photo-op crazy, and we spent a few hours walking around in the heat, but after a few hours we were exhausted as it was about 35 degrees, so we headed back to town.
So, all in all, Penang was a great place to start our Malaysian adventure. It had colour, flavour, amazing people, and a fascinating mix of cultures. We chose not to drink while we were there, as booze was so pricey and the food/coffee shops provided enough of a social backdrop sans booze – and this became our blueprint for Malaysia: a month with (almost) no booze!
And next, we headed to cooler climbs, the scenic Cameron Highlands…!