I’ve just been to Penang – Again!
Okay okay, before you get started on the “there he goes – bragging about where he’s been again!” thingy – Penang (the main city is Georgetown) happens to be in one of those ‘sweet spots’ around the world – kind of a stopover point between the big players kind of thing!
Penang is tucked into the north west corner of Malaysia and is a great stopping point before the madness and hedonism of Thailand; a jumping-off point to Langkawi or Sumatra; a little bit of city life before heading to the quieter east coast and the Perhentian Islands, or if you’re heading south, a break before you hit the big cities of KL and Singapore.
And I keep finding myself there, almost against my own volition it feels like sometimes! But this time was different. Penang seems to be getting its groove on a bit, and I like it!
Sure its traffic is still a bit manic, its buildings are still pretty grimy and in need of a good lick of paint, and that horrible Komtar building hasn’t fallen down yet unfortunately. But if you scratch the surface, Penang is slowly but surely coming out of the shadows of its colonial past and into a very modern and up-to-date city, with a chilled, relaxed vibe away from the main streets, and an entrancing art scene that pops up around the corner when you least expect it!
I spent 4 days there – 2 more than expected due to an Islamic public holiday (most of Malaysia is Islamic), so was forced more or less to investigate further into this beguiling city of almost 2 million inhabitants.
I stayed at the Broadway Budget Hotel next to Little India on Jalan Masjid, a clean and friendly place run by some very nice Indian guys and just up the road from Lebuh Chulia which, along with it’s surrounds, is a fairly popular hangout for travelers and backpackers alike.
Here you’ll find some great Indian food, along with an eclectic assortment of bars, clubs and coffee houses.
Just up the road from the Broadway Hotel is Lorong Stewart and Love Lane – these 2 small streets are home to some great looking architecture adorned with all sorts of fabulous art.
They also have some pretty funky places to stay so definately keep these two streets in mind if you’re heading here.
There’s plenty to see and do around the island but I’m going to give you a few tips to help you on your way as well.
There is a Hop On,Hop Off bus that costs 45 ringgit per day and takes in 2 routes – City and Beach. If you want to save yourselves 2-3 hours of life, DON’T take the Beach Route – it’s really boring, the scenery is pretty rubbish, and the only place mildly interesting that it stops at is the Butterfly Farm – see what I mean!?
BTW, in case you’re thinking of it, Batu Ferringhi is TOTALLY overrated – wait til you get to Thailand for a beach – you have been warned!
The City Route is MUCH more interesting, taking in the Botanical Gardens for all the botanists out there; Penang Hill, where you can get off and take the Funicular Train up a 12 in 1 gradient, 15 minute ride to the top; the Kek Lok Si Temple complex, which is pretty amazing; plus some good views of some of Penangs’ architecture from its colonial past along the way.
A better option might be the CAT bus – a free ‘hop on, hop off’ service that seems to run all over Georgetown – we found out about this in the last hours of the last day we were there – D’UH! – so didn’t get a chance to try, but other travelers swore by it!
At around 800 metres above sea level, it’s a pretty good view from up there, and the tram ride is worth every penny in my view – it reminded me of a rollercoaster, only on valium!
It’s also about 10 degrees cooler up there which is a welcome respite from the tropical heat and humidity of the city.
A lot of the tourist brochures also mention Lebuh Armenian – this street is dotted with lots of trinkety stores and cafes, and is home to one of the more famous examples of Penangs’ street art – the girl on the bike (below).
Get there early before the hordes, otherwise, I think there are far nicer streets to see than this one!
For food, head to the very popular Red Garden Food Paradise and Night Market. here you will find travelers and locals alike, all tucking into some of the most delicious local food on offer. You will NOT be disappointed!
Walk up to the city end of Lebuh Chulia, take a hard right turn and it’s about 300 metres up on the left with big red signs outside – it’s also (I suspect anyway!!) sponsored by Carlsberg, so you can definately get a drink there as well. Right next door is the Chocolate and Coffee Museum – don’t bother honestly!
The drinks waiters are also very honest btw – ours was Salim from Bangladesh – when, after a few too many Carlsbergs, we wandered off into the night, only to get almost home and my brother and head photographer Phil suddenly realised that he’d left his bag on the chair beside him – I’m talking passport, money (lots of), camera, tickets etc. here.
After some brief panic, a brisk evening sprint, and some urgent enquiries, Salim had found said bag, and stored it in the Squid Man shop until our return, completely intact. Thanks Salim – you’re the Best!! – and yes we tipped him bigtime!
For a night-time drink, you have a lot to choose from, but my pick (and a little insider tip here – Shhhh!) is Lorong Stewart.
Head north-west from Jalan Masjid, and at the first dog-leg turn, is Antarabangsa Enterprise – it’s really just a bottle shop, but the owner has set up some tables and chairs and you just head inside, buy a bottle of your favorite tipple, pull up a chair with whoever and make some new friends over a couple of drinks.
The night we were there, we met Edwardo from Uruguay traveling the world on a 250cc motorcycle, and a very nice Indian gentleman drinking his whisky and sodas, and explaining the intricacies of making gold jewellery. The place was packed with all sorts of people from all walks of life and a great place to hang out!
If you walk along this street a bit further, you’ll see some great examples, I think, of where Penang is headed – buildings are being renovated and art is being added – I’ve added some examples below for a few tasters.
I’ve also added a few insights to what you’ll see along the way – Penang has a distinctly Indian and Chinese heritage – especially the latter, so the influence is obvious right from the get-go when you land there – it IS South East Asia after all!
I thought Penang was off my list of to-do’s, but now I’ll be more than interested, and just a little excited to go back in a few years and see how far she has come – it’s certainly heading in the right direction if you ask me!