Malaysia: The ultimate guide to Penang
Malaysia: The ultimate guide to Penang
The ‘Pearl of the Orient’, Penang is a tropical city that offers it all: atmospheric heritage streets, soft white sandy beaches, a dense jungly interior, an endless array of gastronomic delights, and a wealth of outstanding hotels. It has a diverse mix of cultures, with its urban areas a blend of modern developments juxtaposed with mosques, temples and historic buildings, giving way to a coastline lined with sleepy fishing villages and luxury resorts.
Sitting at the mouth of the Malacca Strait, the island’s historic port links the Indian Ocean with the spice islands of the Far East, and over the centuries has become a hotbed of trade and multiculturalism. Penang today is a microcosm of wider Malaysia: bright, busy, diverse, and hugely welcoming. It’s one of Southeast Asia’s must-see city and no trip to Peninsular Malaysia is complete without calling in here.
Penang’s island capital is Georgetown is a multicultural capital rich in heritage architecture, magnificent mosques and preserved shophouses. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is also arguably Southeast Asia’s all-time top spot for mouth-watering street food.
The settlement of George Town was the British East India company’s first foray into Southeast Asia, established as a small trading port in 1786. The coming years have seen mass comings and goings: Chinese merchant settlers, primarily the Peranakans, have left just as big a mark as the British, with further influences also evident of Tamil Indians, Burmese, Arabs, Persian, Armenian, Filipino, and of course ethnic Malay.
Georgetown today sees all these cultures live side-by-side. A typical day in the city will see you walk past Chinese ‘clan’ houses down by the waterfront, admire a Hindu temple, barter for clothes and trinkets in bazaars, and hike to small villages in the forest interior. Breakfast could be Indian, lunch Malay, dinner Chinese, and dessert European.
What to see
Without doubt the number one attraction here is the stupendous food. The best place to sample Penang’s many delights are in the hawker centres of Georgetown. Designed for hard-working locals with neither time nor cooking space, these culinary playgrounds consist of numerous stalls each catering to a specific cuisine or dish. Imagine your typical shopping mall food court but much, much more exciting!
The largest of Penang’s Chinese ‘clan houses’, Khoo Kongsi is an exquisite and highly ornamental former home and current temple, and is situated right in the heart of Georgetown. An excellent onsite museum provides more background on the Straits Chinese traders which built it.
It’s not a misnomer, the Snake Temple is so-called as this 18th century Chinese place of worship is home to intricate architecture, thick clouds of incense, and…a small gang of pit vipers! The incense is believed to render the snakes harmless, but they have be ‘de-venomed’ just to be on the safe side!
What to do
Your first night in Penang should get right to the heart of the issue: join a guided food walk around the very best hawker centers and have an enthusiastic food-obsessed local introduce you to the key dishes and the multi-generational stalls which serve them.
Your first full day should see you continue your exploration with a guided city tour of Georgetown. Key sites in the UNESCO World Heritage city are Fort Cornwallis, a British bastion from 1786 onwards; the Khoo Kongsi clan house and nearby Peranakan Mansion to tell the story of Penang’s Chinese influences; visits to Wat Chayamangkalaram and the Dhammikaram Temple to taste the island’s Indian and Burmese links respectively; and highly entertaining walks through Little India and Chinatown.
A full-day tour of Georgetown can be rounded out to include a street art walking tour. The city streets are littered with colourful graffiti projects, many of which have a photogenic and immersive element. Don’t miss the art on Weld Quay, Leith Street, Armenian Street, and Muntri Street.
Should you have a second full day a wider round-the-island tour takes in attractions of the island beyond Georgetown. Stops include the sprawling Kek Lok Si Buddist temple; tropical spice gardens, educating you on key ingredients in Penang cuisine; a scenic funicular train up to Penang Hill; butterfly farms; and a drive through the beach resort of Batu Ferringhi.
What to eat
- Nasi Lemak – Malaysia’s signature dish, coconut rice served with a rainbow of sambal, pickle, crunchy peanuts and anchovies, and a protein of your choice.
- Hokkien Mee – peppery noodle soup topped with fresh prawns, bean sprouts, water spinach, and a soft boiled egg
- Roti Canai – an Indian speciality of crispy, buttery paratha – a type of flatbread – served with dal and/or curry.
- Oyster Omelette – juicy, fresh oysters quick fried in an egg batter and served with spicy chilli sauce
- Popiah – fresh (not fried) rice paper spring rolls usually filled with shredded vegetables, omelette, and Chinese sausage
- Penang Laksa – Penang’s brand of sweet, sour, spicy, richly vibrant coconut milk noodle soup, typically served with fish
- Lobak – crispy, crunchy, deeply more-ish five spice meat rolls. A typical starter in Chinese restaurants.
- Rojak – a common side dish of Malay ‘fruit salad’ – mixed fruit and vegetable lathered in a spicy palm sugar dressing.
- Cendol – for dessert, a super sweet ice-cold glass of rice jelly droplets sitting in coconut milk and palm sugar
- Ice Kacang – also for dessert, a mountain of shaved ice drenched in syrup and topped with red bean, corn, jellies, and toasted palm nuts
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This article was first published in issue four of the Unforgettable Travel Magazine.