Seeing Penang for the first time, there’s a great awareness of new confronting old; local versus imported; and the amalgamation of cultures and ethnicities. History vies to stay relevant as modernity slowly slithers its way into the ethos of the city, paralleled by Singaporean money and Western influence. For now, these things live together and their roots intricately intertwine into one cosmopolitan family tree.
Penang, particularly its renowned UNESCO World Heritage sight of Georgetown, the historic capital of Penang, is a plural of artistries, noises and smells. Its unique architectural and cultural townscapes remain unrivaled around the world, as does its inimitable Malay DNA, a product of centuries of hybridization. Multilingual signs, a cornucopia of cuisine, and its myriad narratives that trace back in all directions of the globe make Penang eclectic, antiquated, contemporary, and fascinating all in one go.
As rainy season begins its dissipation and we make way for the pummeling beach crowds, we consider the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ for a weekend. It’s much closer than ever before as Firefly Airlines began connecting Krabi to Penang this past September, with non-stop flights three times a week.
Penang is the epitome of east meets west fusion. A long history of the spice trade, colonial empiricism, and a bustling port culminated in a Southeast Asian intersection of mainly Malay, Chinese, Indian, British colonial, and modern tourist influences. Yet, over 22 different ethnic groups have been in Penang and although many of their presences are slightly felt, their legacy lives on in place names like Burma Road, Gurney, and the Jewish Cemetery to name a few.
British control over Penang played a vital role in the size and the diversity of Penang’s population. In addition to small numbers of Europeans, there were immigrants from other parts of Malaya, Borneo, Siam, Burma, Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), Southern India and Southern China. Chinese and Indian immigrants continue to represent the largest ethnic groups in Penang aside from Malay, an accepted singular term defined by migration patterns across centuries.
And the abundance of faith is everywhere. Mosques, Taoist and Buddhist temples, Indian and Sikh temples, Burmese shrines, Thai Wats and churches of different denominations dot the neighborhoods of Penang, and often in close proximity to each other. Armenian Street alone is a convergence of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity harmoniously existing side by side.
No other place in the world impresses upon visitors a feeling of being there, yet everywhere else all at the same time.
Temples, ruins, museums, preserved forests, and beautiful beaches; there’s a lot to pack in during a visit. From the water’s edge at the Clan Jetties, the brilliant blue sheen of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, the towering Goddess of Mercy at Kek Lok Si Temple overlooking Penang, and the lush jungle that meets the beach at Taman Negara National Park, the long list of sites are fairly impressive.
Penang Street Art is a must, and it’s practically everywhere in George Town. Iron wall caricatures blend humor and history to give old buildings a new lease. Streetscapes are littered with evocative hand painted murals mimicking life, thanks to the Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, who’s taken up residence in Penang.
Southeast Asia’s first ever, The Camera Museum is an eclectic shophouse collection of the history and evolution of cameras and photography with a nostalgic flare. A fascinating look (and play) with photography’s long history, it’s a highly recommended visit.
Culture and history blend with sheer fun at the Made in Penang 3D Gallery, where visitors can pose with trick art and 3D murals created by local Penang artists.
Armenian Street is packed with art galleries, cafes, vintage and jewelry shops, street art, and is closed to traffic on the weekends to a street fair and local Penangites cycling the neighborhood. Strolling this street should be at the top of a visit to Penang.
The island is said to be the country’s unofficial food capital, and there’s not enough carbon space to scratch the surface of the diversity of cuisines and dishes in Penang…but here we go.
Penang is perhaps the most famous, second only to Bangkok, for its copious amounts of street food, and street food is life for most Malaysians. Dining at pop-up street restaurants or ‘hawker centers’ is an everyday occurrence. Of course, a few of the many staples worth mentioning: Char Koay Teow, fragrant, garlicky and rich flat rice noodles; Chee Cheong Fun, steamed rice flour ‘dumplings’ miced with chili paste, fish paste, a reddish sweet sauce and roasted sesame seeds; Nasi Kandar, and Indian-Muslim dish of rice with curries, meats and vegetables; and Cendol, a dessert of aromatic pandan noodles, finely shaved ice, red beans, and sweet syrup.
Teksen Restaurant, although top rated on traveler review sites and always crowded, is worth the fuss. This local Cantonese comfort food establishment is known for its Fried Sea Cucumbers with vegetables in a gravy sauce, sweet and sour Malay Chicken, Assam Prawns in tamarind sauce, and most famously it’s BBQ’d Pork. Go for it, and thank us later.
The Yeng Keng Café at the historic Yeng Keng Heritage Boutique Hotel is a lovely 1930’s style Hainanese and Western food eatery. The Hainanese were famouse for their cooking during the colonial days of yore, and in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s many café’s modeled themselves after American diners. Yeng Keng Café is yet another style of fusion synonymous with Penang.
Go utensil-less and try southern Indian Banana Leaf Rice served with curry and vegetables, scooped into hungry mouths by hand. A tea that rivals Thailand’s Cha Yen, the Three Layer Tea is a visual treat of red tea, ‘Gula Melaka’ or palm sugar syrup, and evaporated milk.
Getting To Penang
Firefly Airlines newest nonstop route is a quick and affordable way to visit Penang from Krabi. Flights are every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday in the mornings, and round trip fares start around 2000 THB. Penang is also reachable by van service from Krabi, with estimated travel times (including border crossing) of about nine hours.
The Malaysian ringgit (RM) consists of 100 sen coins, and locals sometimes refer to the ringgit as a ‘dollar.’ At the time of this writing, one Malaysian ringgit coverts to approximately ten Thai baht.
Penang has an equatorial climate like the rest of Malaysia. Temperatures range between 22°C/72°F at night and 30°C/86°F during the day. It’s quite humid, with average levels between 70% and 90% and an annual total rainfall of about 2400mm. January and February are the driest months, with September to November and August being the wettest.
When To Visit
Penang’s high season falls around Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Chinese New Year. Refer to the lunar calendar for the latter; it could be around the end of January or early to mid February. During this time, the east coast of Malaysia is drenched so it’s a popular time to visit this west coast island.
Nationals of most countries receive a 30- or 60-day visa on arrival. As a general rule, if you arrive by air you can receive 60 days automatically, though overland entry affords you 30 days unless you specifically ask for a 60-day permit.
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