What do you get when you mix trendy bars sporting mid-century modern furnishings with the unrivaled affable nature of Southeast Asians, some of the best and most unusual street foods in the world, and a veritable melee of cultures? The impossibly cool city of Penang. We adore Penang! Street art galore, funky coffee shops and bars to get all hipster in to your heart’s delight. It’s like what Portland, Oregon is trying to be, but cooler. It’s not so much hipster-ism as it is awesome-people-ism, because the pretentious element is completely missing, replaced instead by an enriching openness and sense of engagement. You like yourself more in Penang, because everyone is so nice and friendly and happy that you want to be nice and friendly and happy, too.
It’s a place where you can meander down Love Lane and pop into an art gallery where a small band coos over acoustic guitar, and then wander over to an open-air bar for cheap beers while you mingle with tourists and the nicest locals. You can stroll around stopping occasionally to admire the street art and tiled sidewalks abutting a great mix of Western and Asian architecture.
And to top it off, you can order drinks with ice, eat street food without a dose of Pepto-Bismol, and go home and brush your teeth with tap water! Can I get a “HELL YEAH” for (moderately) clean water?!
A highlight (for Jenni at least) might be the coolest new trend of 2014: a tea shop where you come in, drink tea, and – get this – play with cats! Cats, books, life is good. Funny enough, we read an article a day later pronouncing this is an up-and-coming trend in various Asian countries. I’m considering bringing a puppy and tea shop to America. New career? I think so. Purrfect Cat Café (yes that’s their name) hadn’t opened their doors to the public yet, but kindly invited us in to play with the main attractions. I was delighted to be photographed as their first kitten-petting guest.
Perhaps what Penang is best known for is its food. Penang is a foodies haven, particularly the cheap and delicious street eats on offer. And we tried our fair share of what we could squeeze in our bellies over the course of a day and a half. Below is a breakdown of some of the spots and (sometimes strange!) delicacies we enjoyed.
Tek Sen: we went here for dinner our first night. Highlights:
- The homemade barley and lime drink – tastes kind of like Quaker Oh’s cereal (my absolute favorite cereal in the world, how is it not more popular?)
- Double roast pork with chili padi – one of their signature items. Delicious. Sweet and fatty.
- Less impressive were the braised duck with dried oyster and the stir fried bitter gourd with salted duck egg, minced pork and minced prawn. Though I think I may just not be a fan of bitter gourd. Note to self, avoid items with bitter in the name.
Red Bean Ice at the hawker stands near the corner of Lebuh Carnarvon and Lebuh Chulia: Despite Kenny regaling us with a story of how he ate so much of it one night that he literally made himself sick, we found this one a little unexciting. Not bad, but I definitely would never eat enough to make myself sick.
Kafe Mews: we tried the guava mojitos, good but quite sweet. Jenni was tempted to order scones with cream, but abstained, saving her calories for more unique Malay treats to come.
Aik Hoe Dim Sum: we went here for breakfast. White coffee is superb, like a hot frappuccino. The dim sum is primarily self serve, you just go and pick up little plates of whatever calls your name from those steaming baskets of goodness. The water chestnut and prawn dumplings were DIVINE. I could have eaten seventeen of them. We tried a few others whose contents were a mystery, though a gingery dumpling was quite good as well. We ordered pork buns after seeing them on someone else’s table. They didn’t quite rival the BBQ pork buns we had in Hong Kong, but they were good nonetheless. We also ordered the fried noodles on our waitress’ suggestion, which were good, but arrived after we’d stuffed our faces with so many other items we could barely make a dent.
Food stalls outside Fort Cornwallis: Hainan chicken rice, meh. Mee goreng from Mee Sotonic. Real spicy, kind of like pad thai. The lime is key. Sadly, the coconut shake place was out of cendol so instead we tried ice kacang. In addition to something you might hear on Hot 97 FM, ice kacang is a scrumptious and unusual conglomeration of flavors and textures. Rather than spelling out each dish we will assume Google has that covered, but just as an example here’s a paraphrasing of how ice kacang is described in this foodie map we found: fill a bowl with finely shaved ice topped with sweetened red bean, creamed sweet corn, attap chee (palm fruit), strips of dried nutmeg as well as colorful jellies drenched in palm sugar syrup, sarsi and rose syrup. For a finishing touch, drizzle liberal amounts of rich evaporated milk. And add a generous scoop of ice cream.
The tea truck (Otea2u) outside Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion was awesome. Impressively detailed list of teas with various add-ons like tapioca pearls, grass jelly, coconut jelly, etc. Alan tried the peach green tea with coconut jelly and Jenni the strawberry pearl milk tea, both are recommended.
At a warehouse-like store selling bulk candies, dried goods, jellies etc, we sampled some superb oat chocolates. The blue potato chocolates fell short.
China House is a funky, cool, mixed space with galleries, food and beverage. There is live music at Canteen Bar on weekend nights. Vine & Single is a cozy bar that serves cocktails but specializes in wine and single malt whiskey. Beach Street Bakery is best known for tiramisu but our coconut milk chocolate cake did not disappoint. Not even a little. There is a tapas menu and also a courtyard where one can dine.
Hawker stands by Carnarvon (again):
- Wan tan mee was Jenni’s favorite dish in Penang: ramen noodle with sliced pork, dumplings, bok choy, chili.
- Lorbak: pork wrapped in red bean and deep fired. The accompanying sauce was phenomenal.
- Alan ordered char kway teow and loved it.
Special thanks to Robyn Eckhardt, a prominent food writer, who was unavailable to give us a tour but provided great suggestions in a personal email.
For the non-foodies, Penang still has plenty on offer, perhaps most notable is the abounding and impressive street art. We went on a bit of a scavenger hunt to find a number of these bad boys. And more and more keep popping up. We even spotted one guy in the midst of painting a new one.
The art doesn’t stop at the streets; there are charming shops full of hand-made crafts and stunning photographs and paintings. The galleries on Armenian Street were particularly lovely. We hope one day to return to Studio Howard when we have a home to decorate, and our fingers will be crossed that the sweet grandmother who chatted us up will still be there.
There are a number of intricate and eccentric temples and clan houses dotting this city. Penang has a rich history as a trading post and has attracted large communities of Indians, Chinese, ethnic Malays and Europeans. Some of these settlers built small compounds or villages specific to their own clan. Khoo Kongsi is perhaps the most famous clan house. We enjoyed lingering around this one, and the attached museum below, admiring the intricate stone carvings and delicate details painted inside.
In addition to clan houses, the waterfront is home to six remaining clan jetties. These mini-villages built on stilts are still home to clan members but tourists are welcome to walk around the planks. We checked out Chew Jetty where Jenni may have uttered “that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life” for the first time on this trip. She tends to be less than discerning in her use of this platitude, but these amphibious creatures were like little dragons. Dragons, I tell you. They alternate between land and water by taking out their arm/leg/fin things. They’re like tadpoles on steroids (not yet urine-tested by the MLB). Their faces puff up into giant triangles, they stick out shark-like fins when they fight (mate?) with other dragons. They have two eyes bulging out of the top of their heads that face opposite directions but touch each other.
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, also known as Le Maison Bleu for its deep indigo-colored exterior, offers daily tours. It houses a heritage bed and breakfast and one may also rent out the entire property for weddings and events. The building is lovely, but we were not so impressed by the tour. That said, our guide is bringing back the balding woman’s rat tail trend like it’s nobody’s business. And Cheong Fatt Tze was apparently quite a guy: when he died in 1916, Dutch and British authorities ordered flags be flown at half mast throughout their colonies.
For the SJP, SATC, and pure Jimmy Choo enthusiasts among us, we’re told you can go to the factory where Jimmy Choo made his first shoe at the age of 11.
Granted our standards have been somewhat lowered along the way, what with our champagne taste and backpack budget, but Chulia Heritage Hotel rocks. It’s clean, the lobby is pretty, you get FOUR pillows! And the icing on top: a blowdryer. I don’t think we’ve seen a blowdryer since we left America. Did we use it? No, but still. Downsides: rooms are not huge, a bit loud, and I guess if you’ve spent a significant amount of time in psychiatric wards the all-white design scheme might cause flashbacks. Also, a rather large cockroach did make an appearance in Alan’s shoe as we were headed out the door, so, there’s that.
Penang is a state and actually covers some mainland territory in addition to the more famous island portion. The island itself has some nice hills and supposedly good beaches on the north and west, though we limited ourselves to historic George Town, the main city on the northeast corner.
Transportation: We took a ferry from Langkawi, which cost $39 for two and took a bit over three hours. Upon arrival at Kuah Jetty in Langkawi you can pay a small fee (10-20 MYR depending on bag size) to check your luggage, which is a good idea. This ride was inside a proper boat and infinitely smoother than the ride from Koh Lipe to Langkawi. They were even showing Dark Knight Rises on the TV screens, albeit without sound.
There is an international airport here, and I believe ferries from Malacca in addition to Langkawi. There is a very long bridge connecting the island to the mainland.
While sightseeing we walked everywhere. If you wanted to visit the beaches (or stay at the beach and visit George Town), you would need to take a car or motorbike.
A taxi from our hotel in George Town to the airport at 6 am took 20 minutes and cost MYR 60. The front desk said it usually takes 30-40 minutes and costs MYR 40.
The airport at Penang is quite nice, but at least Air Asia’s terminal in Kuala Lumpur (where we stopped en route to Chiang Mai) was much grimier. Three hours free WiFi is available at each airport.
Accommodation: We stayed at Chulia Heritage Hotel in George Town’s UNESCO heritage district. It was cheap and nice for the price at $40/night. Options are abundant. Other names we came across for George Town include the classic Eastern & Oriental, the heritage B&B at the restored Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, and Muntri Mews. There are several beach resorts in other parts of the island.
Food: We covered this pretty well above. After all, it is arguably the main attraction. Various food tours are available, and that would probably be a good idea. Prices were not dirt cheap, but far cheaper than in most developed countries. I think our meal at Tek Sen cost less than $20, including a Guiness foreign extra stout. Breakfast at Aik Hoe was ~$7. Most food stall meals cost $1-1.50.
Activities: Eating. Beaches on other parts of the island. Visiting Fort Cornwallis, temples, Khoo Kongsi (admission is 10 MYR each), the clan jetties, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansions (the tour costs 12 MYR each), etc. There is also a funicular to the top of Penang Hill which probably affords nice views on a clear day. Alan’s mom’s friend recommended going to Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion and asking for Joanne who gives city tours.
January 22-24, 2014 (Wednesday-Friday)