We had wanted to escape to the cooler Cameron Highlands after the oppressive heat of KL but we found ourselves traveling in the midst of the Malaysian school holidays so all the hotels and guesthouses were seemingly completely packed. Rather than pay higher prices, we switched destinations and headed to Georgetown, Penang next instead. Penang was high up on our list of places we wanted to visit, so we planned to take our time and spend 5 days there to explore.
We were sad to learn that due to some unfortunate circumstances, our food blog idol, Robyn Eckhardt (who lives in Penang) was not going to be able to give us a food walking tour as we’d originally hoped. Still, she offered us some links to articles she’d written about eating in Penang as well as a few recommendations on her personal favorite places to eat so we felt well equipped to have a great eating experience while we were there.
Despite Penang being an island, it still felt about as hot and humid as it did in KL. Luckily, Georgetown did not lack anything in terms of charm, character or pedestrian appeal. This was a city you wanted to get lost in, because every street and alleyway offered something different and new to explore. The old city is filled with beautiful and fun street art, with incredibly charming traditional shophouses (mostly built pre WWII), and with truly awesome food. Walking around colourful Georgetown allowed us to observe people at work in their shops, chatting with neighbors or sitting outside waiting for their next customer to arrive. Some shophouses have been restored and converted into really fantastic restaurants, art galleries or stores. It felt like the art and green movements there are in full force which is both refreshing and exciting when compared to our less favourable impressions of KL. In addition, much of Penang’s colonial heritage can also be easily seen in some beautiful and grand buildings and hotels around town.
It also didn’t take long to discover that the people of Penang were warm, friendly, and laid back. We were always met with smiles as we walked around town and often would have nice chats with locals when we’d eat at the smaller eateries. It really felt like the residents of Penang loved their city, and they were intent on maintaining its unique and undeniable charm. We couldn’t blame them. We’d already fallen in love with Penang too.
Of course Malaysia is an ideal place for us because seemingly everyone can speak English here, no matter what their age. So communication is hardly ever an issue. We also love the fact that Malaysia has its own kaleidoscope of cultures, with a population made up of Malay, Indian and Chinese people (amongst others). In Georgetown you can walk down one street and pass a budhist temple, a Hindu temple and a mosque all within a few minutes of each other. This of course also translates directly into the diverse and distinct food offerings around which makes it a bit of a food heaven here in Penang.
To put it simply, we had some of our absolute best food of the trip here in Penang, starting on our very first night with made-to-order and made-with-love Char Kuey Teow noodles made by an old man impressively wielding a wok, fan and spatula simultaneously over a fiery charcoal grill. It was well worth the 20 minute wait for a dish we gobbled up in about 3 minutes flat. We also had our first lime juice that night which would be the first of many to come.
The next day we followed Robyn’s foodie walk around Georgetown that focused on visiting and eating at family-owned restaurants that have existed for generations. Each place we visited had a distinctly nostalgic feeling to it, often with old photographs and newspaper clippings adorning the walls and with loyal customers who looked like they’d probably been coming for years. It felt like we were taking a tour through a little bit of Georgetown history. We ate some gravy-filled noodles called Lor Mee at a small coffee shop called Lean Thye, then sampled some crisp and addictive South Indian rawa thosais, gorged on some tasty Malaysian Cantonese dim sum at Aik Hoe’s, had a nice break with classic Malaysian iced coffees at an old Kopitium called Toon Leong Coffee Shop and a finally ventured out to an outdoor foodcourt near Fort Cornwallis to chow down on a plate of fiery mee goreng (fried noodles) followed by the best dessert we’d had since mango sticky rice – chendol! We’d tried this icy, green jelly dessert before in our travels but this one was really different. It had deep, rich gula (palm sugar) syrup in it and the mixture and texture combination was just perfect. We craved it all the time, and would make a repeat visit again later on.
We also signed up for a half day cooking course with a former engineer-turned-entrepreneur chef named Nazlina who took us on a market tour to buy all our fresh produce and then taught us how to make the most incredibly fragrant Chicken Rendang and a simple yet fantastic Char Kway Teow. We loved her cooking so much that when we learned she was putting on a dinner party that night with more of her own home-cooking we immediately asked if there was still room for us to sign up. For dinner we had a delicious chicken soup, followed by Beef Rendang (totally different from our chicken version in the morning!), fragrant shrimp lemongrass salad and some addictive pandan-leaf infused coconut crepes for dessert. It was the most wonderful meal, which we shared with two other couples who were equally as in love with this fantastic Malay dinner. Sadly, we completely forgot to take photos of this meal so you’ll have to take our word for how awesome the meal was.
The incredible meals just never seemed to end for us, with a few standouts being an awesome “everything looks amazing I don’t know what to choose” plate of Nasi Pedang at a Sumatran breakfast/early lunch joint, a killer hand-made chapati with chicken curry and teh tarik in the Indian Quarter, some incredible street-side veggie samosas and perfectly tart mango lassis (both suggestions from Nazlina) and finally a wonderful Teochew and Malaysian meal at Tek Sen Restaurant (seems to be a bit of a Penang institution and the place was packed for good reason – lovely staff and incredible food.) It almost felt like you couldn’t go wrong in Penang in terms of food…there was so much on offer, but it was all soooo delicious.
One day we decided to rent a car in order to see a bit more of the island (we’d heard that riding a motorbike in Penang traffic can be extremely stressful, plus the A/C was a welcome perk!) It was actually a nice change to be back in a car again, though we always needed to stay on alert since driving on the left is still not intuitive for us! We had a lovely drive around the island, had a kick-ass bowl of the local Asam Laksa (this one is made with a thick, sour, fish-based broth and was definitely my favourite meal in Malaysia) and took the funicular up to the famous lookout point at Penang Hill that has views all across the island. We also went to visit and explore the impressive and expansive Kek Lok Si temple complex which was quite beautiful. There you can make a small donation to be able to hang a ribbon up with your wish written on it. We chose one for my grandmother, wishing her “Bodily Health” as she’s been having a difficult time with her health since we left home.
Spending 5 days in Penang allowed us to take our time each day as we explored. But walking long hours in the heat meant planning our days around the ability to stop into shopping malls or big hotels for a/c and bathroom breaks. One day we found ourselves waiting inside a mall for an impressive rain storm to let up. But when it seemed like the rain was only getting worse, we decided to take advantage of the movie theatre inside and check out the hilariously unrealistic though thoroughly entertaining “Olympus Has Fallen” film where we were introduced to some delicious movie popcorn flavour options like caramel and spicy chili. Yum!
Jesse also finally decided h e could no longer stand the length of his bushy hair anymore (I was wondering how long it would take him to finally give in), so we popped into a local Indian barber who gave him an efficient and excellent cut (with neck cracking and neck massage bonus!) for the equivalent of $2.25 CDN. Amazing!
All in all Georgetown, Penang turned out to be one our favourite places from our entire trip. It had everything we could have hoped for in terms of character, variety, ambiance, people and food. It’s a walkable, livable, and dynamic city that definitely made us feel like 5 days wasn’t nearly enough to get to know it properly. We hope we’ll be able to return again one day soon!
Actual travel dates: March 21 – 26
Penang city photos:
Penang food photos: