Travel Guide: Penang

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I accepted a job here in Malaysia, but then Mitch and I spent the weekend in Penang’s largest city, the UNESCO World Heritage Site George Town, and I found what I’d been hoping to find here – neighborhoods to explore, streets to walk, cafes to sit and eat and drink, bars with really good food, places to visit, and a multicultural, historical society. We had a wonderful weekend and I can’t wait to go back! (In fact, I’d rather like to relocate, but I don’t think there are many opportunities for Mitch there. Actually, I don’t know if there are any opportunities for me there. Anyway, we’re not relocating. At least, not to Penang.)

An example of what I thought I'd see in Malaysia
An example of what I thought I’d see in Malaysia

Part of the reason our weekend was so special is because we stayed in a perfectly comfortable, simple bed and breakfast in the heart of George Town. Steven, the proprietor of the Pedal Inn (I highly, highly, highly recommend it), told us what to do, where to go, and, most importantly, what to eat. Penang is famous for its seafood-based street food, most of which I can’t eat, but there are multiple vegetarian places, too! It really is a wonderful place.

We arrived late Friday night and began exploring on Saturday. Street art is both common and famous in Penang, so we spent a good bit of Saturday just wandering around the various historic neighborhoods and looking for it. There are maps to follow, but that would have been too easy. Some of the pieces were funky and fun and others were rather informative about the history of Penang. Still others, my favorites, made excellent use of the space around them.

China Town is a great place to see where real locals buy food. Literally all kids of food. I made it past 3 stalls selling various meats and fish and had to backtrack through a maze of people. The smell. . . . But there were others places to look around!

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We bumped into a batik-painting museum in China Town that we quite enjoyed. I didn’t know batik is only around 60 years old!

The third floor of the batik-painting museum
The third floor of the batik-painting museum

Since Deepavali (also spelled Divali or Diwali) is this coming week, Little India was a hopping place, too. We ended up eating lunch there at a banana leaf place, much like No. 1 Top Curry, my favorite restaurant in Seremban.

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We walked down to the waterfront and passed some British colonial buildings along the way. My favorite feature was this post box:

Why yes, Malaysia is a former British colony
Why yes, Malaysia is a former British colony

It was also really neat to see people driving their cars off of the ferry. The mainland is rather close by – right across the Straits of Malacca – and you can see it without trying too hard.

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Dear Rochester, this is what the fast ferry was supposed to do

Other wanderings took us past various religious buildings that are everywhere. Penang has more churches than I’ve seen elsewhere in Malaysia, even in Malacca. It also had mosques, Buddhist temples, and Hindu temples.

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We also wandered around Fort Cornwallis, which is one of the most depressing historical sites I’ve seen. This former British fort has not been particularly well maintained and contains very little historical information. It feels a bit stale and cost RM2 per person for a reason.

Statue of Lord Cornwallis
Statue of Lord Cornwallis

It started to rain (we’re in the rainy season now so that’s a daily event) so we headed to the Blue Mansion for a tour. The Blue Mansion is iconic in Penang because it’s, well, blue. It was designed, built, and lived in by Cheong Fatt Tze, a Chinese immigrant to Malaysia in the late 1800s. Unfortunately, most of it is a hotel now so we weren’t able to see much. The 45-minute tour is mostly about what the architects found when restoring the house in the 1990s. Not worth RM16 per person.

Cool Blue Mansion windows
Cool Blue Mansion windows

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We went to a British-style pub called SoHo for a while to get out of the rain, wandered in the rain to find dinner, and ended up back at said pub. Great food, not impressed with the drinks, pleased that a cocktail menu existed.

On Sunday we explored Penang Hill and Itam, an open air market neighborhood. It was cloudy (rainy season) when we went up the hill, but it got brighter the longer we were there. We seem to have poor luck with hills. It’s hard to see anything in the fog! When the clouds cleared for a moment, though, it was really beautiful.

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Looking down on Georgetown
Looking down on Georgetown
Looking at another hill in the area
Looking at another hill in the area
Looking at Penang Hill
Looking at Penang Hill

We drove through Itam by bus on the way to Penang Hill and much of it had cleared out by the time we went back there to eat, but that didn’t stop us from sampling various vegetarian foods, durian ice cream, and a coconut tart at various stands! When we drove through originally, Itam was swarming with both people and cars. I’m not exactly sorry that we were there at a quieter time.

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Our visit ended with a trip to the heavily commercialized Kek Lok Si Buddhist Temple, which combines Chinese, Thai, and Burmese architecture. It opened in 1905 and renovations and additions took place in the 1930 and early 2000s. There were hawkers everywhere, which was weird, but the architecture was beautiful.

Take-home message: Visit Penang!

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