This post is my ode to Penang. My love letter to my highlight of our Asian adventure.
I was so glad when it was finally time to leave Thailand and head on to Malaysia.After six weeks of the land of smiles I needed that nervous/excited feeling you get when you’re about to land in a new country, and I’d been excited about heading to Malaysia ever since we booked our flights to Asia anyhow. But we hadn’t really had any idea of what we wanted to do there or where we wanted to go. I remembered that friends of mine had been to Penang previously, and although I had no idea what they thought of it my desire to not head straight to Kuala Lumpur combined with the option of a cheap Firefly flight from Phuket sealed the deal. And it couldn’t have been a better choice…
Upon landing in Penang our rough directions involved us bussing it to the KOMTAR complex in Georgetown and walking to our hostel, which turned out to be deceptively difficult for our tired selves in the Malaysian heat – we’d already travelled by longtail boat, catamaran, minibus, car, plane and bus from Ko Phi Phi that day – but as soon as we arrived at our hostel, the awesome Tofu Cafe, Beds and Bikes, Penang became progressively more awesome.
We had possibly stumbled across the best hostel in the world (so far!) by choosing Tofu, and we were made to feel instantly at home by the awesome owners Lucas and Joyce. Despite the fact we had only been there about half an hour, Lucas decided to give us a lift up to a cafe he recommended for dinner. On the drive up I realised to my delight we had picked a place – as usual – in the Chinatown part of Georgetown, and Lucas gave us a little tour around the maze of streets connecting this area and the Little India part. As we rolled past the masses of vintage Chinese shophouses and the colours of Little India, I knew instantly that this was going to be a place I’d love.
After a quiet first night and a first day of checking out the city centre and taking the lift up to the top of the KOMTAR tower, I was excited to get out and explore the streets of Georgetown at sunset. And the entire stretch, from the bottom of Lebuh Pantai up to Fort Cornwallis, turned out to be a photographer’s delight!
Georgetown itself has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, mainly thanks to it’s unique mix of cultures and heritage. The only state in Malaysia to have a predominantly Chinese population, and also a former British settlement, it was impossible to walk down a street in the northeastern corner of Georgetown without coming across a sight that made me flick my camera on and start snapping away. Ancient shophouses and temples could be found next to modern financial buildings and mosques, whilst many seemingly quiet roads and alleyways were decorated with superb examples of street art and buildings housing galleries and expositions. I was stoked to discover this scene, and Penang’s superb displays of free art and creative use of space was second only to Barcelona in my experiences to date.
As I mentioned before though, the sights and streets of Georgetown in general were an absolute dream, so it might be easier to let some images do the talking at this point…
Away from the visual feast of Penang however, the island also happened to offer a true culinary feast. Thanks again to the melting pot of cultures apparent in the state, this combination meant that it literally offered many melting pots of ingredients. From the incredible chicken we sampled in our exhausted states on our first night, to the Turkish mezze in a classy cafe on Lebuh Pantai (we needed a night off of Asian food!), and the superb Japanese teriyaki dishes at the fantastic Red Garden food court – which incidentally may have been the best meal I ate in Asia – we were spoiled for choice of cuisines in Penang. I fully expected Penang’s reputation as a food paradise to be an exaggeration, but the dishes I ate and the prices I paid meant I couldn’t argue one bit with this title.
And I even had no “westerner” shame in having a FAT waffle with ice cream for dessert in Red Garden! Although my stomach may have been a bit ashamed at my gluttony on the walk back to Tofu…
One other unique aspect of Penang was something that Lucas had told me about on our first night, but I wasn’t able to make time for until our last full day there. I initially wasn’t quite sure what he meant when he initially told me about the Clan Jetties along the Weld Quay side of Georgetown, but I decided to make use of Tofu’s available bicycles and take a ride up there, both to see what exactly these settlements were and to satisfy my cycling urges.
Surviving my cycle along the busy streets to the Quay, I arrived at the Lim Jetty. It became clear to me then that the jetties were literally wooden villages protruding from the water, which had clearly housed generations of Straits Chinese, and continue to do so to this day. These were impressive little settlements, and another unique aspect of Penang culture that I was delighted to have come across. I actually felt a little out of place and a bit cheeky peeking around the wooden “streets” of these people’s homes, but just like the rest of the Penangites that we’d met so far, the inhabitants of the jetties welcomed me warmly and seemed delighted at my interest in their homes. One cheery old lady in particular seemed surprised that I was from as far away as England, and enjoyed my interest in not just Penang, but Malaysia in general.
Alas, after four fantastic days in one of Malaysia’s jewels, it was time to move on. We probably would have extended our stay had we not already had accommodation booked in KL, but unfortunately it was time to go. We sadly bid our superb hosts Joyce and Lucas goodbye, and after a walk and ferry over to Butterworth, bid Georgetown and Penang farewell too.
As I said right at the start though, this is my love letter to Penang. If I haven’t spelt it out enough with all my photos, then I’ll just sum it up with a few final sentences:
Penang, I love your cultures
Penang, I love your cuisines
Penang, I love your creativity
Penang, I love your history
Penang, I love the warmth and friendliness of your people
Penang, I love you. And I will be back!
Have you ever been to Penang? And what did you think of it?