Penang truly is a treat for the senses. Firstly, our time there was something of a non-stop gastronomic adventure – our food babies went from first trimester to ready to pop. Georgetown has been listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 2008, and it’s no wonder why. The colonial buildings nestled down small roads with romantic Parisian style street signs are charming, and the modern street murals (which you’d be mistaken for thinking have been there a lot longer) that Georgetown is now famous for are an equally prepossessing sight. The hubbub of non-stop beeping traffic is also a sound you’ll learn to love when in Asia! Smells, tastes, sounds, and views – Penang really does have it all. If you traverse Malaysia, be sure to make it a stop on your route.
Somehow Elyza and I managed to convince Haris and Stu to join us on our mini-holiday, and we’d also convinced Stu to drive us there. Driving took about three and a half hours, or alternatively you can catch a train which takes about five or six. Or you may even be able to fly if you don’t fancy the journey, though that’s not something I’ve looked into. Stu did a sterling job of driving in the dark and over the 23 kilometre bridge to the island (!) and Haris absolutely killed it playing DJ, providing us with some tunes that would stick for the rest of the trip. It was gone 11pm by the time we reached Georgetown, but due to a mishap with contacting our Air BnB host for the keys, we didn’t get inside for over an hour. Fortunately, our apartment was absolutely perfect, especially considering we only paid £10 a night each for it. It was above Penang Times Square shopping mall, close to amenities and a short walking distance from the old Quarter, so the location was ideal too.
The next morning we all had a lie-in and then wandered down the road for some brunch, starting off our 3 day street food tour. We tried to visit the famous Cheong Fatt Tza Mansion but our lack of research meant we weren’t aware there were set tour times, and it was in fact closed. So naturally we found a cute cafe close by and ordered a round of pints to help us decide where our next stop would be.
We pottered about until we came across Joo Hooi Cafe on Jalan Penang, renowned for it’s Penang classics. The seemingly run-down little cafe might not be the most appealing looking place, but with countless customers jostling for space and a very sought after plastic chair, it’s one of the more authentic Georgetown experiences you’re going to get. The cafe is most famous for its Assam Laksa which is a rich mackerel based broth with thick noodles, tamarind juice, chilli paste and shrimp paste. With an allergy for prawns and an increasingly apparent overheating issue I decided against soup and opted for their Char Koay Teow instead. Potentially Penang’s most popular dish, you’ll find this almost everywhere you go. It is a noodle lover’s dream, consisting of flat rice noodles, chilli paste, prawns (which I obviously skipped), pork, egg and crunchy bean sprouts, all stir fried in a charcoal-fired wok. We concluded our afternoon snack (lol) with Malaysia’s favourite pudding: Chendul. Conveniently Penang’s most famous stall is located right outside Joo Hooi Cafe, aptly named Penang Road Famous Chendul; it’s been there for over 60 years and you can spot it easily as its the one with the massive queue. Chendul is the chewy and bright green rice flour jelly noodles that are mixed with shaved ice, red kidney beans, coconut milk and a splash of gula melaka (brown sugar) syrup. It’s as peculiar as it sounds, and something I’m pretty sure I’d never choose to eat again. We found something very similar in both the Philippines and Indonesia so it must just be an Asian thing! Penang has an incredibly diverse culture and this is definitely most noticeable in its kaleidoscope of food fusions. Malaysian, Indian, and Chinese are the most noticeable influences.
Waddling back to our apartment, we showered off the sweat and got ready for a night on the town. Pre-drinks commenced in the apartment, and then we grabbed an Uber to Upper Penang Road where you’ll find most of the bars and ‘clubs’. We spent the majority of our night in a place called the Beach Bar. The struggle the next morning was immense, so Elyza and I popped out for coffee and breakfast whilst the boys slept. I tried a traditional Malaysian breakfast of chicken porridge. Another alien sounding meal, but this one I’d have again! Made with rice instead of oats, it has a similar glutinous texture, with a savoury flavour of course. Probably as a result of my upset stomach in KL and a sudden onslaught of unhealthy, stodgy food, I found myself with the opposite bowel problem. I drunk ALOT of coffee and fruit juices – any attempt to get that Penang food baby moving!
Another item on my Penang Food Bucket List (yes, I had one), was ‘Oh Chien’ or otherwise known as oyster omelette. This isn’t quite how we know an omelette, as they add a healthy serving of starch flour which gives it a mix of a gooey and crisp texture, depending on where you try it. They’re always generous on the oysters, and the addition of chives gives it an awesome flavour. We first tried ours at Kedai Kopi Seng Thor on corner of Lebuh Carnavon and Lebuh Kimberley after a recommendation from a book, and also online. The dish was good, but as Stu said: ‘I would have liked some egg to go with my oil’. The demand was high and so he cooked a massive portion which may have resulted in a lesser quality, who knows. I’m just glad we got to try it again and confirmed it’s a dish worth ordering, albeit very heavy!
As well as stuffing one’s face, one of Penang’s biggest draws is its street art. In 2012, Ernest Zacharevic was commissioned to create pieces under the title ‘Mirrors George Town’ for the GeorgeTown Festival. Since then, other artist and murals have popped up, bringing the Old Quarter to life. Now, it’s the perfect tourist treasure hunt. Although some of the paintings are deteriorating or have already faded so be sure to visit soon! Maps with the paintings locations are fairly easy to pick up, although most of the points are in exact to say the least. The vast majority of the artwork can be found on the small roads between Lebuh Carnavon and Lebuh Pantai, but if you’re in no hurry then wandering around until you spot one is bound to be an enjoyable afternoon. Haris had previously injured his leg which made walking long distances troublesome for him. So instead we ended up hiring a 4-wheel bicycle for an hour. We paid 40 MYR and I’m so glad we did it – it was hysterical. After our comical self-made bicycle tour (which included Stu dancing in the middle of a traffic jam to the amusement of some young Asian girls), we stopped by at China House. Artsy and hipster, it was the kinda thing you’d find straight out of London, but with an Asian twist. Anyway, along with the cool art and the interesting heritage building, they did an unreal selection of cakes. Ive learnt that Asia is notorious for having great looking cakes that taste like crap, so it was lovely to have one that tasted as good as it looked!
On the way home we stopped by Bayview Hotel off Lebuh Farquhar to have a drink at their 360 view Bar. Still feeling the effects of the night before – or in Haris’ case, the past 4 nights – we were struggling somewhat with the enthusiasm for another big one. We headed home to get showered and then made our way to Pulau Tikus night market on the western side of Georgetown. We ordered a selection of treats including a much more enjoyable oyster omelette! We headed back to Upper Penang Road where we played darts for a while and then decided to call it a night around 1.30am. Elyza ordered us an Uber which we arranged to meet us just up the road. When we spotted the car we also saw two men speaking to our driver through the passenger window. It evidently wasn’t a pleasant conversation, and as we rocked up they got even more vexed – clearly realising we were his customers. Their aggression got worse, and they started shouting and kicking the car. Stu couldn’t even safely get in so we had to drive a little down the road and pick him up there. I’ve mentioned in other posts about the enmity towards Uber, but this was definitely my worst experience so far. Yet from what we heard this was mild; Uber drivers apparently are often physically and verbally attacked, or find their cars vandalised. As I mentioned from our time in Bali, most of these taxi drivers seem like less than pleasant people, at least not people you’d feel comfortable hopping in a car with alone. They take purposefully circuitous routes, sometimes because they don’t know the roads all too well or don’t have a satnav, but also because they want to charge you a heck of a lot more. They will ‘forget’ to put the meter on, and many in fact have bogus meters anyway. Their service feels pushy, unsafe, unreliable and their unrecorded nature makes it all the more worrying for foreign travellers like myself. I know it’s all very well and good for me to say, but rather than hurling abuse at those providing a service people clearly want, perhaps they should take a deeper look at what their service is lacking and make some changes! Rant over. Our young Uber driver clearly seemed a bit shaken up, so we asked him where was good to eat at 2am, and invited him out with us. He was delighted to tell us about Kapitan’s – as were we – so we all sat down for an Indian curry. This restaurant is awesome and well worth stopping by! It’s big and red on a corner on Lebuh Chulia so you can’t miss it. It’s famous for its tandoori chicken, and pretty much everything else on the menu. I stopped by for lunch the next day and tried the butter chicken with a garlic naan which was amazing.
The next morning we checked out of our apartment and said our goodbyes. I grabbed an Uber across to Love Lane off Lebuh Chulia which is a bit more geared towards backpackers. Uber’s are considerably cheaper in Penang than anywhere else, at about 20-40p for a 10-15 minute ride. The drivers are all working multiple jobs and are genuinely lovely people, so I ended up giving my lady a bit of extra cash to say thank you. I checked myself into Red Inn Hostel for one night for 25 MYR, with the plan to head to Thailand the next day. My original plan was to take the train up to Bangkok, however I didn’t realise that that week was a Malaysian bank holiday, and so the train was booked for another five days…. Unless you can hang about, travelling demands a fair bit of forward planning – not only deciding what route to take, but when, what company and cost, what method of transport and then actually getting something booked in. And not everything is self explanatory like at home! If you are interested in booking the train from Butterworth to Penang then there’s no need to get a ferry across to the mainland to book it; you can go to the small KTM office at the end of the footbridge and shops at the ferry port. Of course you’ll then need to get the ferry across to catch the train. I did many hours of umming and ahhing about going to the Perhentian Islands, or the Cameron Highlands while I waited for the train, but decided in the end to stick to my original plan and just get the overnight bus. Hundreds of tour companies sell tickets for buses leaving at 5am, 8.30am or 12pm, but for a wide range of prices and some stating it took 15 hours and some stating 24. I found the most legitimate looking offices to be close to Prangin Mall. I booked mine at Shanhua Express Agency for 115 MYR which was the cheapest and by chance also had the most pleasant staff. I also went for the midday departure so I didn’t arrive in Bangkok in the early hours of the morning.
After sorting out my plans I stumbled upon The Camera Museum on Jalan Muntri in the heart of the old heritage area. The museum is well put together, taking you through a story of photography with a sizeable collection of vintage cameras amongst other things. Like China House, it’s pretty quirky and retro, and suits Georgetown perfectly. It costs 20 MYR per adult and takes 30mins – 1hr to get around. Although it’s pretty small, I would definitely recommend it if you are interested in that kind of thing, or are just looking to spend an hour or so doing something a little bit different.
One of my favourite things that I ate in Kuala Lumpur with Elyza was roti canai. An Indian- influenced flatbread that is super simple but, just like a good piece of bread and butter, I really enjoyed. I was determined to eat it again before I left Malaysia, so I got up early and walked to Argyll Street where the best roti canai in Penang can be found (according to our Uber driver and many blogs!). It did not disappoint, and was such a yummy breakfast to set me up before my long bus to Bangkok.
Love, Lottie xx