Three days in Penang, Malaysia

3 Oct

Taking the long bridge into Penang that connects it with the mainland, the sights are not that impressive. Large vacation resorts and strip malls line the main streets, looking a bit dated and tired. But the closer you get to the historical core of Georgetown, the capital, the more your surroundings completely change.

Indian restaurants at Lebuh Penang and Chulia in Georgetown.

Indian restaurants at Lebuh Penang and Chulia in Georgetown.

Georgetown was established as an outpost for the British East India Company. It has the little back streets with colourfully painted buildings and converted shophouses of Hoi An mixed with the dustiness and dilapidation of Havana.

Penang is off the northwest of peninsular Malaysia, less than 200 km from Thailand. I arrived by bus from Kuala Lumpur, the trip took about five hours. I stayed on Lebuh Chulia which is lined with guesthouses, restaurants and cafes and has a vibrant street food scene in the evenings.

Old advertisements in historic Georgetown, Penang.

Old advertisements in historic Georgetown, Penang.

What to see and do in Penang:

Wander the historic core on foot

The northeast corner of Georgetown has been certified a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s old, crumbling and charming. Old converted shophouses fill this area, their insides carved out, making for soaring ceilings and ground floors that seem to stretch back a city block.

Walking the area is easy, save for the punishing heat. Strolling the streets in August, during Ramadan, I encountered the odd foreign traveler or group of Chinese tourists, but generally only the haunting call to prayer at designated times stirred the silence.

You can obtain a map from the tourist information centre, or print this one. Of particular interest are Lebuh Armenian, which has many artsy shops, and Lebuh Pantai, with cafes and restaurants. The area about Lebuh Armenian also has many historical buildings.

Little India

It’s smaller than Kuala Lumpur’s Little India and a bit more rustic, but just as colourful. Shops sell Indian fabrics, spices and Bollywood films. There’s also great street food, with fresh produce, prepared meals and sweets. Start at the corner of Lebuh Chulia and Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling and start wandering east.

Indian sweets and snacks on sale in Little India in Georgetown, Penang.

Indian sweets and snacks on sale in Little India in Georgetown, Penang.

Clan Jetties

What do you do when you move somewhere and can’t afford to buy land? Why not live on the water?

The boating area of the Chew Jetty -- the largest clan jetty in Penang.

The boating area of the Chew Jetty — the largest clan jetty in Penang.

The jetties are little villages built over the water, with houses on stilts all coming off one main runway.They were built by Chinese immigrants from the 19th century. There are currently six jetties, each one was home to a clan — a family or group from the same place in China. Unfortunately some of the jetties have become fairly touristy, with souvenir shops lining the main platform. But it’s still neat to wander the jetties and peek inside all the old houses and shops.

Little houses off the Chew Jetty.

Little houses off the Chew Jetty.

Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi

To see how wealthy Chinese immigrants lived and worshiped, visit Khoo Kongsi. It’s a clanhouse centered around an ornate, impressive temple filled with gold and covered in stone carvings. The compound is located just off of Lebuh Armenian, they have a great website with lots of information.

Inside of the Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi temple in Georgetown, Penang.

Inside of the Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi temple in Georgetown, Penang.

China House

In terms of modern remodeling of old shophouses, this is the mother lode. Three heritage buildings were converted into this very long space, now comprised of restaurants, art spaces, bars and a courtyard. It’s a beautiful building with many small, differently themed rooms. One room is a large restaurant with its centerpiece a table covered in cakes. Walk further down the hall and you encounter a library with games, turn a corner and you’re in a dark whiskey and wine room.

The courtyard at China House, in Georgetown, Penang.

The courtyard at China House, in Georgetown, Penang.

It’s great to explore but a bit difficult to navigate socially, in that people were waiting for seats in different places but other areas were entirely empty. I flagged down a waiter and asked if I could sit anywhere. He put me on a narrow bench to enjoy a giant slice of chocolate cake and a glass of red wine. Pleasant but a bit strange.

China House stretches between Beach and Victoria streets near Lebuh Chulia, visit their website for more information.

I can appreciate a restaurant with a giant table of cake.

I can appreciate a restaurant with a giant table of cake.

Penang Botanical Gardens

After all that time hitting the streets, it’s nice to be around some plants and trees. The gardens are about 8 km from the city centre and can be reached via the number 10 bus, that leaves from the jetty quay and the Komtar mall. The gardens are free to enter and are a good size, with many monkeys scampering around.

Cheeky monkey at the Penang Botanical Gardens.

Cheeky monkey at the Penang Botanical Gardens.

 More photos:

No comments yet

Leave a Reply