Penang, Malaysia travel tips and things to do: 20 highlights
It wasn’t long ago that the Malaysian island of Penang was a decrepit south-east Asian cultural and culinary backwater. But the UNESCO World Heritage-listing of its capital, George Town, almost a decade ago, awakened the world to its myriad delights. Multicultural Penang has since emerged as a genuine gastronomic hot spot. Add to that heady mix some of the best, most stylish and affordable boutique lodgings in the region and you have a most appetising, if still somewhat underrated, destination. See malaysia.travel
2. DINE: TEK SEN
Malaysians of Chinese ancestry are the most dominant ethnic group on Penang, just pipping the Malays. It’s something that’s strongly reflected in the island’s cuisine. This convivial, unpretentious Chinese restaurant, which began life as a simple rice stall in the mid-1960s, occupies a pair of shophouses in Lebuh Carnavon (Carnavon Street). Highly rated among locals and expats alike, the bargain priced, Tek Sen menu includes dishes such as char siew bak, assam fish, fried chicken, house-made tofu, omelette with bitter gourd and potato leaves with prawns. (No website)
*3. HANG: CHINAHOUSE
Narelle McMurtrie, a visionary local expatriate Australian, has been at the forefront of the revival of George Town. Her most recent venture is the buzzy ChinaHouse, a sprawling cultural-cum-eating temple on Lubuh Pantai (Beach Road), built inside three traditional Malay shophouses. Here you’ll find everything from Australian-style espresso coffee as well as a range of cooling drinks, cakes, ice-creams and snacks. The casual restaurants and bars serve excellent Asian, Middle Eastern and Western fare (see below). See chinahouse.com.my
4. TRY: STREET FOOD
George Town is well on its way, if it hasn’t already arrived, to becoming one of the true street food capitals of south-east Asia. Classic hawker stand dishes include assam laksa, beef koay teow, oh chien (oyster omelette), char koay teow, nasi lemak and more. Lorong Baru, Gurney Drive and the Esplanade Food Centre are among the best places to try them. Grab a copy of Famous Street Food of Penang: a guide and cookbook (published by Star Publications) when you arrive. It provides an insightful overview of the island’s sublime sidewalk snacks as well as recipes to cook in your own kitchen on your return home (the gift shop at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel should have copies for sale). See malaysia.travel
5. STAY: EASTERN & ORIENTAL HOTEL
Penang’s signature colonial hotel, the 19th century E&O, as it is inevitably called, is tucked away in a prime location of George Town overlooking the Straits of Malacca. In 2013, this five-star classic hotel added a largely sympathetic 122-room high-rise annexe to coincide with the establishment’s 130th anniversary. The hotel, which preceded its more famous counterpart, Raffles Singapore by three years, includes restaurants, bars and lounges (see below) overlooking the sea. See eohotels.com
6. TASTE: ASAM LAKSA
One of Penang’s most famous and ubiquitous dishes, asam laksa consists of rice noodles in a hot and sour, fish-based gravy topped with aromatic herbs. Its distinctive sour taste comes from tamarind combined with ingredients such as lemongrass, galangal and chilli. Mackerel flakes, pineapple, fresh mint, onion, shrimp paste, ginger flower and lettuce are also often added to this irresistible dish. Everyone in Penang has their favourite spot for their beloved asam laksa, although locals tend to agree on Nan Guang Coffee House in Balik Pulau, Ayer Itam Assam Laksa on Jalan Pasa and Joo Hooi Cafe on Penang Road.
*7. VISIT: TROPICAL SPICE GARDEN
If you’re travelling along the seaside road between Batu Ferringhi, Penang’s original resort playground, and Teluk Bahang, a small coastal town, do factor in a visit to the Tropical Spice Garden. Built from an abandoned rubber plantation, the three-hectare garden is an easy-to-navigate showcase of exotic flora and fauna, with spice the star (anise) attraction. There are four guided tours daily as well as night walks every second and fourth Saturday of each month. There are onsite cooking classes, a restaurant overlooking Teluk Bahang Bay and a variety of spices available for sale at the gift shop. See tropicalspicegarden.com
8. VISIT: FISHING VILLAGES
Many visitors to Penang are understandably consumed by the delights of George Town and end up not exploring the compact and accessible island beyond it. Rent a car – or better, hire a driver – and explore Penang’s coastline, which is dotted with fascinating fishing villages such as Teluk Kumbar and Kampung Pulan Betong. The restaurants are often jammed with locals and tourists on the hunt for some of south-east Asia’s best and freshest seafood. Closer to George Town are the remarkable Chinese clan jetties, a series of six ramshackle seafaring communities built on stilts and defined according to various local societal groupings.
9. DRINK: KOPI C ESPRESSO
Kopi C Espresso is claimed to be “the longest cafe in Penang”, stretching along the narrow interior of the trio of shophouses in which the aforementioned ChinaHouse compound is built. Whatever. To those in the know, this Australian-inspired cafe in a distinctly Penang setting, is long on atmosphere with top-notch coffee and an already legendary range of cakes and other delights. It’s the perfect pit stop after a sweaty stroll around the amazing streets of George Town’s old town and an excellent place to commune with Penang’s hip and hedonistic millennials and savvy tourists. See chinahouse.com.my
10. DINE: BLUE MANSION
On an island where street food dominates, there’s no shortage of upscale though affordable restaurants from which to choose. One of George Town’s most distinctive buildings, the Blue Mansion (also known Cheong Fatt Tza Mansion after its original Chinese owner) is these days a newly-renovated boutique hotel operated by the owners of Villa Samadhi, a resort hotel in the middle of Kuala Lumpur. Even if you’re not staying here, it’s worth booking a table at the hotel’s Cheong Fatt Tze restaurant, serving modern and traditional Chinese dishes, if not just for the food but to experience the building’s exquisite interiors. See samadhitretreats.com
11. EAT: DAVID BROWN’S RESTAURANT AND TEA TERRACES
After a thrilling ride to the top of Penang Hill on the funicular railway, delivering panoramic views of the densely-populated island below, ignore the crowded cafe atop the cable car’s station and head straight across to Strawberry Hill. Here you’ll find this welcome tranquil retreat from the heat and hustle and bustle of George Town below. Set in gardens with a centrepiece colonial-style British house overlooking a gorgeous lily pond, the quality of David Brown’s location surpasses that of its food. But it’s a beautiful spot for an English-style afternoon tea. You may care to take a light jacket as, at an altitude of nearly 800 metres, it can get a little chilly on Penang Hill. See penanghillco.com.my
12. CHILL: THE CANTEEN
During the day, this cafe-cum-lounge venue, yet another ChinaHouse attraction serves a mix of Western and Asian flavours served bento box-style. By night, comfort food dominates. Every first Thursday night of every month there’s a comedy night and The Canteen is also a venue for music. If that’s not enough to keep you amused, there’s BTB, a restaurant serving Asian and Middle Eastern inspired dishes as well as the Reading Room, a space with a selection of magazines, books and CDs for browsing and buying.See chinahouse.com.my
13. TASTE: NYONYA CUISINE
Nyonya cooking is one of multicultural Malaysia’s most characteristic cuisines. Its origins can be traced to the original Chinese migrants who married local Malay women and who then developed their own traditions and customs including food. The food is basically a blending of Chinese ingredients mixed with local spice and cooking techniques and Penang is one of the best places in Malaysia to sample it. Check out local favourites such as Mama’s, with just 10 tables, in Abu Siti Lane and Auntie Gaik Lean’s, where the menu changes daily, in Bishop Street in George Town.
14. EAT: SUFFOLK HOUSE
Such is the quantity and quantity of colonial buildings in and around George Town that the producers of the British TV series Indian Summers, a drama based on the days of the Raj, chose to shoot the series, not in India where it’s set, but in Penang. One of the locations for the series is Suffolk House, a Georgian-style mansion built in 1809 that served as the home of several early British governors. There’s a restaurant serving lunch and dinner as well as English-style high tea, at just $30 per person every day, in perfectly authentic surrounds. See suffolkhouse.com.my
15. WANDER: LITTLE INDIA
Although George Town is dominated by Malaysian-Chinese, with many of its streets designated by Chinese guilds, slapbang in the middle of the World Heritage zone is the sizeable Little India enclave. The action is centred on three streets, namely Lebuh Queen, Lebuh Chulia and Jalan Pasar, and its focal point is the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Penang. Aside from the plethora of saree shops, there are plenty of places to sample authentic roti canai, thosai, briyani rice, tandoori chicken and more.
16. DINE: SEVEN TERRACES
ChinaHouse’s Narelle McMurtrie isn’t the only expat Australian who can claim credit for having put George Town firmly back on the map. Malaysian-Australian Christopher Ong, a former banker, has created several boutique hotels in George Town, including this one, his crowning glory, a row of skillfully converted 19th Chinese terraces. The hotel, with just 18 rooms, competes with the aforementioned Blue Mansion as one of Penang’s most beautiful buildings. If you’re not staying at Seven Terraces, book a table at its classy in-house Kebaya restaurant specialising in classic Straits Chinese Nyonya dishes. A four-course degustation menu is served, Chinese style, allowing guests to share all the dishes. See seventerraces.com
17. DRINK: FARQUHAR’S BAR
Even in Penang, a state of a Muslim nation which frowns on the consumption of alcohol, there’s no shortage of drinking holes at which to kick back. This wood and leather-clad English-style bar at the E&O Hotel, overlooking the hotel’s seaside swimming pool, was named after Robert Townsend Farquhar, who served briefly, and controversially, as one of Penang’s British lieutenant-governors. And the street outside the hotel is also named after him. With its deep armchairs and long dark wood bar, Farquhar’s Bar exudes an exclusive private club room atmosphere – the perfect setting for another round of sundowners. See eohotels.com
18. TASTE: CHAR KOAY TEOW
A Penang street food favourite, and viewed with some reverence by Penangite foodies (read: the entire population), char koay teow is essentially stir-fried noodles with prawns, cockles, beansprouts, Chinese chives, egg and sometimes Chinese sausage made with soy sauce and chilli. For the best char koay teow, preferably cooked using a charcoal-fired wok, Penangites head at lunch time to streets such as Jalan Siam and Lorong Salama for their daily fix, where hawkers can compete fiercely with each other by adding lavish ingredients such as mantis prawn, crab meat and even lobster meat.
19. DRINK: MEWS CAFE
Muntri Mews, a row of erstwhile 19th century stables and carriageworks in classic Straits Chinese style, is another of Christopher Ong’s suite of George Town boutique hotels. Aside from being an affordable and stylish place to stay right in the heart of the George Town World Heritage area action, it’s also the location for another relaxed Australian-style cafe where you can rely on a good cafe latte made in the style to which you’re accustomed. There’s also an agreeably eclectic menu featuring everything from steak sandwiches to nasi lemak. Ong has more recently opened more accommodation in the form of Muntri Grove, 10 converted shophouses with their own private street. See muntrimews.com; muntrigrove.com
20. DINE: SARKIES
There are more exciting and edgier places to eat in George Town than this restaurant at the Eastern & Oriental. But if you’re not staying at the hotel, and if you baulk at eating from the street, then dining here is the best way to absorb some of the heritage of one of south-east Asia’s most historcal colonial establishments. Sarkies, after all, is named after the four enterprising Armenian brothers, who founded the hotel as well as Raffles Singapore and The Strand. If a more formal ambience appeals, opt for dinner at the posh 1885, located in the original heritage wing, where high tea is also served between 2pm and 5pm.
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The story Penang, Malaysia travel tips and things to do: 20 highlights first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.