Penang is known as the “Pearl of the Orient”.
When learning about Penang’s colourful and culturally expansive history, you realise it is aptly named so. Penang was a meeting ground for European settlers- Dutch, Portuguese and British primarily, whom also traded with Arabic merchants for incense, gold and other mystical goods. Penang being situated on an island, means that Penang was a mecca for all kinds of boats men from international waters and cultures, all searching in Penang for entirely different things: prostitutes, opium, gold or trade.
Arriving in this modern day pirate town, things have changed somewhat. Settlers whom have emigrated here many years ago, have created and shaped their own lives, culture and religion into Penang and have many influences over the style and architecture. You pass Chinese Malaysian families lighting incense in worship to a temple, Indian Malaysian waiters roasting chicken in tan door clay pits, and other Malaysians becking and calling for you to ride on their tricycle as you walk past, meandering through the dozens of streets. Sections of Georgetown– where all the backpackers stay, are dominated by Chinese stores, writing and infrastructure, others with Indian influences, and other areas highlight the modernization of the town, with garish 7/11s and numerous internet cafes.
I hired a bicycle from one of the many stores, at 12 ringgit for the entire day. Its useful to travel a far from Penang, however bikes are not really necessary to use in Georgetown itself because of the size of the place. I headed straight to the Penang Museum– a building which used to be a traditional school many years ago, run by the British. The price is only 1 ringgit for entry and you do find out a lot of interesting information about the heritage of the place: the colonizers and colonized; the modern various ethnic groups, and their influence on modern society in Penang. After learning about the “Khangi’s“- clan houses in Chinese, head over to to the most decorated one in Penang: Khoo Kangsi. Taking off your shoes you wander in to what could easily be a temple and you marvel at the living conditions of some of those many years ago, in Penang. Head over to the Jetty to see traditional wooden panelled houses stacked floating above the sea. Stalls of Durian are sold here as well as other tourist knick knacks.
One of my highlights of Penang and what brings a number of tourists flocking here is… the street art. Large murals painted in various styles of art are gloriously swirled onto fading plaster, designed to mystify, inspire and amuse. Each painting is placed next to temples, mosques, restaurants, food stands, abandoned streets and even garbage bins. It feels like street art has multiplied and consumed the walls of Penang. I am a massive fan of street art and enjoy experiencing it decorated on the walls, however in Penang, I feel the constant queuing behind large groups of tourists posing for pictures and crowding around certain pieces lacks the authenticity and individuality of the art, making it less unique. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the art, but I felt I could have enjoyed it more if the streets were empty.
Another aspect of Penang that is known on a global level, is the cuisine. The variation of culture and lifestyles means that the food served in Penang has an extra ordinary diverse array, and is sold on every street corner- at cheap local prices. Passing wafting smells of Nasi Goreng, curries, stir fry and sweets, I headed straight to Red Garden Food Court. This food court is open in the evening and is renowned for its numerous tasty options and its cheap beers.
Making a documentary on food in Malaysia meant I was able to order a number of dishes and not feel guilty about it.
I ate juicy roasted duck and BBQ pork with rice from Kim Po Pork and Duck, which was recommended to me by the Lonely Planet and boy- it did not let me down! The succulent roasted skin with BBQ sauce and tender meat was beautiful and reminded me of the meals I ate in Vietnam of “pork and rice” sitting on kids sized plastic chairs and dining on this dish in My Tho. Next I headed to the Dim Sum stall, ordering crab meat, prawns and garlic scallop dim sum. The garlic scallops exploded in my mouth with goodness that only can be described as a food orgasm- and took me to another level of heaven in taste and texture. My taste buds were mystified, who could create such a fantastic thing and where can I find it at home? I tried the local (and traditional) Hainese chicken and rice, which was tasty, but in no comparison to the other dishes. I decided to try more bizarre dishes, ordering fried bean curd, (I felt like it was a sponge with sweet chilli sauce on top), fried cuttle fish head- which was disgusting, I suffered greatly when I had to film the clip again- and chicken heart. The chicken heart was surprisingly tasty because of the BBQ flavour, however the texture was incredibly rubbery and reminded you of what you were eating- making it much harder to look at, the petite organs speared on a stick- and to digest without throwing up.
Food courts are a cheap place to buy a beer, although Penang is filled with many drinking dens down main streets and little alleys. Some bars are expensive in taste like the “Tapas Bar” on the waterfront, others bring a sense of community through acoustic music session and others, offer free drinks for ladies for 5 hours like in Reggae Inn and Reggae mansion (the bar not the hostel bar). I stayed at the Hostel of Reggae Mansion, which was recommended to me by a friend and is the chain of that also in Kuala Lumpur. It is a greatly organised hostel, however- it is a money machine. There is no personal touch or connection I found, and it being expensive (35 ringgit a night)– as well as the bar and restaurant it has, which allows no outside food or drink, makes this place for flash packers. Remember to check your sheets- I got bed bugs from this place!
If you do have some time check out Penang Hill, taking a crazily fast cable car up to the top of this prestigious hill to catch a glimpse of a view that shows the whole of Penang, the Botanical Gardens known for its beautiful blooming flowers, and the Kek Lok Si Temple, one of the finest and largest temple complexes in South East Asia.