Penang, Malaysia was a big surprise for me, as it’s so incredibly different than all the other destinations in Malaysia I experienced.
We spent a few days in the capital, Georgetown, which as you might be able to concur by the name was colonized by the British.
The town is full of two-story British colonial style shopfronts and homes, which, if you’re imagining this in your head, might seem pretty regular, except now add in the fact that they are covered with Chinese or Indian writing.
This is where things get interesting. As the rest of Malaysia has a very high Islamic population, Penang does not, because the majority of Penang’s population is actually Chinese, followed by Malay, followed by Indian.
They all peacefully coexist, and all while inhabiting these traditional British colonial structures in the intense heat and humidity.
So the scene has been set. We arrived at our hotel, the charming Nam Keng, on a peaceful street in Georgetown late at night. The hotel was once an old British mansion, now decorated with rich wood and Chinese characters, with a beautiful courtyard in the middle, shutters casually tossed open to let the Malay sunshine in.
Or in our case, the night moon. The hotel was perfect. Jorge always makes fun of me and how much time I spend researching the perfect hotels for us but when you are on the road for six weeks, it’s amazing to come to a hotel and feel like you’ve arrived home.
As soon as we dropped off our stuff and I ohhed and ahhed over the hotel, we headed to Lebuh Chulia, otherwise known as the backpacker street. This to me translates to me as “incredibly cheap street food for broke travelers.” And cheap it was.
I got some kind of noodle dish with pork for 3 ringgit (about 50 cents) and on the pricier side at 5 ringgits, Jorge got the famous Char Kway Teow….. which is a famous Chinese Malay dish of rice noodles, complete with juicy pork, peanuts and shrimp. We also got fresh juices which came in a trusty bag, I got mango and Jorge orange and carrot. These cost about 50 cents each. Having stuffed our bellies for a combined total of approximately two euros, we headed back the hotel to crash after a long day of traveling.
We awoke the next morning and I was ready to explore the street art scene. Penang is famous for its art, and we were lucky enough to be in the city during the Georgetown Arts Festival.
The festival is one month long and offers several temporary art and photography exhibits as well as some dance and music shows. But first, we wanted to start with that permanent street art that Georgetown is known for.
So we braved the 99+ degree heat and started off. The street art did not disappoint! I loved the way the artists’ incorporated 3D items into the art, like a real bicycle and then children painted on the walls.
It was so much fun to take cheesy photos with the street art and see all the people enjoying it. Art really does make people happy.
Street art is so cool because it doesn’t discriminate: it’s for everyone! Locals and tourists alike can enjoy the art, free of charge, anytime.
This art really gives Georgetown its own quirky character.
We also braved the heat to enjoy two temporary art exhibitions in town for the festival, one from French sculpture artist and another by a Malay photographer called Panic, who edits his photos to create distortion and disarray.
We also headed down to the Clan Jettys, which are houses on stilts where Chinese people live over the water. I was previously excited to see these, but I unfortunately wasn’t that impressed in person, as I found them super touristy and just kind of smelly and gross. Oh well. It was still a neat experience to see them.
We were starving and considering we’d probably sweat out half our body weight in the heat, it was time for lunch. We decided to try the most famous Indian restaurant in town (I used the word restaurant lightly—it was more like street food with a roof on top), Kapitan.
As I previously mentioned, Penang has a huge Indian population and Little India is a great place to chow down. Kapitan is famous for its chicken tandoori. We ordered two sets: one with clay pot biriyani rice and another with butter garlic naan.
This was the best chicken tandoori I’ve ever tasted. And I’ve been to India. The flavors were unreal: the chicken expertly crisped, the tandoori sauce spiced to perfection, the naan buttery and soft…I was in heaven! I almost hugged our server I was so happy.
I feel like at least 1/3 of my life in Madrid is spent trying to find delicious Indian and ethnic food…one can only eat so many croquetas, after all. Oh, if only I could have this amount of SPICE in my life on a daily basis! It was so amazing that we’d end up back there AGAIN the next day, I just couldn’t get enough. In fact, it’s only been a few days and I’m already dreaming of those flavors. Better get that out of my head, because I’m a girl who’s been ruined: I know I’ll never find Tandoori like that again, at least not in Spain! After this overwhelming food experience, I decided I needed a back massage. I figured I need to start preparing to get my daily massages in Thailand.
Although this one was rather pricey by Southeast Asia standards: about eight euro for 30 minutes, it was amazing and much needed after many days of planes, trains and automobiles, not to mention tons of walking around.
That night, Jorge and I decided that we needed more Indian food and headed once again in the direction of Little India. We tried to get samosas but they’d run out for the day, so instead we got Roti Jala, which is a type of soft bread with a curry dipping sauce. As if I hadn’t had enough bread and spicy sauce already that day! It was insanely amazing and just 3 Ringgit. This plus a couple of fresh juices and we were full. We decided that we wanted to splurge and head up to a fancy rooftop bar to get an overpriced beer and views of the city.
So we found one called Three Sixty, which is on the top of a hotel. It has a revolving restaurant and an outdoor Sky Bar for drinks. We ordered two beers for a total of 40 ringgits (8 euros or so) which actually cost more than the total of our dinner three nights in a row! But it was fun to see views of the city at night, so it was worth it.
We try to walk that fine line between splurge and save during our trips, so this was definitely a fun splurge. However, since Malaysia is Islamic, they don’t brew their own beer, so we couldn’t taste anything local. Instead, the offerings were mainly European, which is why I found myself drinking a Carlsberg.
The next day, we took the local bus (an experience in itself) about an hour to the base of Penang Hill, and then prepared to take the funicular up. After waiting in line with a lot of annoying tourists, we headed up.
The views from the top of the hill were expansive, but it was hazy, so it wasn’t the best day to see for miles. It was still neat to be so high up, though. I will say the hill is very much geared towards families, with tons of things for kids to do (extra $$$ of course) but we stopped into the mosque and the Hindu temple at the top and then ordered some chickpea masala for a $1 that was delicious.
We headed back down to then head to the Kok Lo Si Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, perched at the base of the hill and quite possibly one of the most spectacular temples I’ve seen.
However, it was unbelievably hot out, so this temple excursion was definitely a sweaty one. We grabbed the local bus and then of course, got off at the wrong stop, but it was fine as we wandered through a more authentic area of Penang, where locals went about their business, shopping, working, cooking up a storm of street food. We finally discovered the entrance to the temple, which sits at the base of the hill. Covered with market stalls on each site, locals try to hawk you souvenirs too you as you make the climb up uneven, dark stone stairs. Once near the top, there is a creepy pond filled to the brim of turtles that looks rather like a construction zone, and then the temple fun starts.
The structure itself is enormous, with several pagodas and twists and turns. Of course, too many Buddhas to count. As the temple is perched up high, there are so many spots that make awesome panoramic viewpoints. The first section of the temple visit is free, but if you want to climb the famous Pagoda of “Ban Po Thar” or Pagoda of the Ten Thousand Buddhas, you have to pay 2 Ringgit per person, about 40 cents or so.
The structure is extremely interesting because it combines three main architectural styles: Burmese, Thai and Chinese. Having visited many temples in Myanmar, the first thing I noticed was the top of the pagoda, which is gold and tapered in the typical Myanmar style. Whereas I am sure there are more accurate architectural terms to describe the differences in the three styles, I did notice the typical Thai minaret peaks in the middle section and then the base of the structure is Chinese.
The view from the pagoda was amazing and each level provided a different angle of the city, perfect for taking an excessive number of photos, which of course, we did. It’s worth noting that during the Chinese New Year, you can view the temple at night, when it’s lit up with Chinese lanterns. It must really be a sight to see!
After the temple, we headed back down to the city center. After exploring some street food in Chinatown, we decided all we wanted was more Indian food in Little India, so that’s exactly what we did. Two tandoori chickens, two carrot-and-orange smoothies and two massages later, we ended up back at the hotel. The next day we were finally heading to the beach, but not before exploring the morning market. Many markets in Asia are in the evening to beat the heat, so I was surprised to hear their market was open all day.
Of course, we headed there on the early side and the market was filled with locals, both selling and buying food, like noodles and curries for breakfast and also things like raw fish and meat for the week, fruit etc. The market also sold housewares, clothing, even lingerie!
Jorge and I picked up a few things at the market and then it was time to head to Thailand.
Penang, Malaysia was a big surprise for me, as it’s so incredibly different than all the other spots in Malaysia I experienced. I highly recommend visiting to experience a plethora of unique cultures, gastronomy and art mixed into one.