TL;DR for our Penang Post:
We’d been making noise the entire trip about finding a place to settle down for a few weeks (or more) but it’d somehow never come together. Either we didn’t fall deeply in love with the place or we had an already-booked plane ticket that forced us to leave a place earlier than we might’ve liked.
But here we are, two weeks after arriving on Penang Island, wondering what the heck happened. THIS is the place we decide to hunker down?
Malaysia is a bit off the backpacker trail in Southeast Asia. It’s not the beach-rich paradise that you can get elsewhere and it isn’t as cheap (though it’s plenty cheap by western standards). We had originally zero’d in on Malaysia because of the Perhentian Islands off the east coast (supposedly some of the best snorkeling on the planet) but we’d (too late) realized that it was lousy snorkeling in the rainy season. So what to do?
We had time to kill where we’d have to deal with the end of Monsoon season somewhere, so we settled on Penang Island— an Island on the northwest coast of Malaysia that boasted a recently UNESCO’d Georgetown (Malaysia) and what many call the best street food scene in Southeast Asia. If we were going to be huddling under cover from the rain, might as well be doing it with a face full of street food, right?
Monsoon – Tempest in a Teapot
It turns out that the monsoon isn’t very dramatic on Penang. There were a few heavy rain showers over the weeks that we were there, but that’s it. It DID mean clouds– wonderful, wonderful clouds that kept the sun off of our necks as we got used to 86-90 degree days and 65% humidity. We carried umbrellas and even used them a few times, but otherwise, it was PERFECT.
We started in Georgetown proper, staying in a “heritage” hotel (read: old building with peculiar smells). Georgetown is the UNESCO bit of Penang and it definitely feels a bit historic in a shabby way. The heritage buildings range from lovingly restored to totally falling apart and there is no shortage of tacky signs jutting off of the buildings. There aren’t many/any sidewalks in Georgetown, so you’re walking on the road and dodging the (surprisingly polite!) drivers, rickshaw jockeys, and bikers. Malaysia isn’t a honking country (for months now we’ve been in places where a horn was as commonly used as a turn signal), so that was a nice change.
Georgetown is a melting pot that makes the US look like an Episcopalian Church on Sunday… When the British set up shop, they brought in a swarm of Indian folks from their most recent colony as well as Chinese workers from the North. Mix that with Malay folks and the pink-faced tourists/ex-pats and… Well, it’s different. You have a 2 x 4 block chunk of Little India (which truly feels just like a cleaner swath of Delhi), a much bigger Little China, and the Clan Jetties– whole Chinese neighborhoods built on pilings over the sea.
The good news with all of this is that nobody speaks the same language– so English is kind of the Rosetta Stone that allows all of this to work (most folks speak Malay, too). And you get a mishmash of cuisine, with purists serving up food from each culture and wilder folks coloring outside of the lines.
After poking around for a less-moldy place to stay, we found the Sunway Hotel Georgetown— a $70/night gem that was (I am a bit ashamed to say) about as western as it could be. High-rise, sealed rooms, shower with a door (the LUXURY!), and moderately solid wifi all sounded pretty good to us. While it didn’t feel very “local” to stay in such a place, it did have the benefit of being a hundred yards away from the New Lane Hawker Stalls, which offers some of the best street food Penang has to offer.
Penang street food is called hawker food. Finding our way through the choices and the locations was dizzying, but there is a huge culture of food bloggers that showed us the way, explaining dishes and telling us where the best stalls were. By the time we were done wading through the dozens of articles we’d saved, we had a truly massive list of things to try and places to try them. Here were our favorites:
1) Oh Chien (Oyster Omelette) near Lah Am Coffee Shop (in the UNESCO zone)
It sounds kind of dull, but it’s not. Start with a thin rice flour batter ladled into hot oil and drop a few eggs on top. The edges of the batter get crispy, the eggs get cooked, and the middle of the batter stays kinda glutinous. Drop a bunch of tiny oysters and some curry sauce into a fresh pan and warm/reduce a touch and scoop this onto the crispy/gooey foundation. Top with cilantro and serve with chili sauce. Here’s an article with a few more locations/variants and here’s a video I took:
note: you can’t watch this on mobile because YouTube has decided that I can’t use a song that I own as background music
2) Popiah (cooked shredded veggies, 2 sauces, nuts, and crab spring rolled with a thin wheat crepe) – We ate it at New Lane Hawker stalls a ton, but the best was purportedly at Pedang Brown.
3) Loh Bok (I assume the translation here is “lots of fried stuff” – prawn fritters, tofu, sausage wrapped in bean curd, and more– all deep fried and served with 2 sauces). Great at the New Lane Hawker stalls.
4) Tandoori Chicken (alright, it wasn’t street food, but Kapitan Restaurant in Georgetown had the best Naan/Tandoori chicken we’ve ever tasted!)
5) Wan Tan Mee (noodles, wantons, bean sprouts, etc., served with soup broth or “dry” with a brown-tasty sauce)
6) Assam Laksa (sour/spicy fish broth with mint leaves, onions, cucumber, lettuce, pineapple, red chili, and bunga kantan (torch ginger bud), with a spoonful of prawn paste) — the best is supposed to be at Laksa Air Itam, which is right near Kek Lok Si, the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia– worth a (free) visit.
7) Char Kuoy Teow (wok fried noodles, blood cockles, shrimp and bean sprouts).
Penang also features some non-edible bits that are worth checking out. The (outstanding) local bus system can get you all around the island for $1-4/leg. Other than a few short runs to dodge the heat, we never bothered with a taxi. Of the places we saw, we most enjoyed:
Penang Butterfly Farm: Not cheap by SE Asia standards and not huge, but chock full of butterflies, which made for some beautiful photos, and other interesting critters like stick bugs and millipedes.
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion: This mansion had fallen into hard times with 35 (!) families living inside, but after some amazing restoration work, it’s fascinating. Tours are given at 11 and 3 and you can also stay in one of the rooms.
The Clan Houses in Georgetown + Armenian Street: Sprinkled around town are various old clan houses that are fantastically ornate. Not much to do there other than take photos, but they are certainly worth the drive-by.
The street art! There were two flavors of street art around Georgetown. One was wraught-iron-graffiti style (when looked at straight on it looked like it was done with a black magic marker). The other style was a Norman Rockwell from the east type of thing…. Cute paintings on walls showing happy scenes but with a 3-D Twist… The paintings were integrated with objects like bicycles embedded into the wall!
Kek Lok Si Buddhist Temple: Okay, this was tacky but it was terrifically photogenic. When we uploaded our Penang photos we were both surprised about how pretty the place looked– this was largely because of Kek Lok Si. As photogenic as it was, this place felt like Buddhism Disneyland, complete with vendors, restaurants, gift shops, and garish colors. But it was neat to visit (and free!).
Monkey Beach: You can reach this via a boat ($20+) or a hike thru Penang National Park. The beach is nice enough and does feature some monkeys running around. There are vendors who’ll sell you drinks and food if you like. The best part about the beach is getting there (however you choose to do it).
The Malls: Okay, it was nice to shop. We had a few things we needed to buy and it was nice to wander around an air-conditioned mall to find ’em. We even saw a movie (Gravity)!
Penang Hill Funicular: We weren’t a huge fan of this, from a dollar-to-fun ratio, but it kills an afternoon and gives you a killer view of the city.
Two Weeks in Penang: Worth it?
Knowing what we know now, I’m surprised we stayed for 2 weeks in Penang… It didn’t match up with the type of place that I thought we’d hunker down. It was too urban, too traffic-y, and too damn hot. It wasn’t CHARMING in the way that a hunker-downworthy place had to be in my brain. But somehow, the time passed in a happy way… Which is a testament to how delightful the food was. It’s a quick hop down from Southern Thailand, so if you’re in the neighborhood (or if you’re food nuts like we are), it’s well worth a detour to visit.