Tanjung Tokong, a suburb-like village of Georgetown, was my home for 35 days. It is sandwiched between the old and endlessly fascinating city and the new sky villas and luxury beach hotels. Settling in, I found it easy to buy everything I wanted – lots of grocery choices, easy to get around on the excellent bus system and the inexpensive taxis. So after setting up home with coffee, wine, and instant noodles, I set out to see all of Penang.
Pulau Pinang – Penang Island – sits just off the coast of northern Malaysia. It has always been treasured for natural beach and rainforest beauty, and strategic commercial value on shipping lanes. Hence, it has “changed hands” many times, with lasting legacies left by Chinese merchants, Arab traders, Indian travelers, and British imperialists. The architecture and ethos of Georgetown – the island’s major city that is almost synonymous with Penang – are compelling examples of how they still live together. Could I live there? Here are 35 reasons why I think I could – 35 ways to enjoy time on Penang.
- Wandering the streets of the historic Chinese section of Georgetown.
I confess to having fallen in love with Chinatown, and I created a whole separate post. While Malaysia is a multicultural nation, I am shamelessly enthralled with all things Chinese.
2. Feasting on traditional Chinese noodle soup or dim sum – almost the same as what I enjoy in China.
3. Trying something new – Nyonya food – originally Hokkien Chinese food adapted to Malaysian tastes in this flower-burst restaurant. Flower Mulan Nyonya Cafe is supposedly famous as the most instagrammable setting in Georgetown.
New to me also: Gado Gado – a delicious Portuguese specialty at Lagenda jazz cafe and hotel. It was exactly as advertised, and I was pleasantly surprised because the food that arrives is seldom like what has been pictured on the menu – everywhere in the world.
4. Window shopping – there are blocks and blocks, like Armenia Street and Little India and all of Chinatown, with shops of all sorts. I particularly liked the Sixth Sense shop with the simple and beautiful creations of local designers.
The variety is endless. I am drawn, always, to traditional Chinese pharmacies, to stationery shops and to fishing tackle stores (for my Omani fishing guy at home.)
5. Speaking of fishing, another reason to enjoy Penang is poking around the local fishing village, Tanjung Tokong, where I am living. Tragically, land reclamation is systematically destroying the harbors and fish habitat. There were a lot of organized protests by fishermen and their advocates while I was there; protests I whole-heartedly support because of the disregard for this important and traditional industry. I wasn’t going to engage with this 2-meter monster.
6. Experiencing unchanged Malaysia in a traditional kampung: almost completely obliterated, the few remaining kampungs give a picture of village life that, surprisingly persists.
7. Checking out the beaches scattered around the edges of the island. Those easily accessible are at Batu Ferringhi where luxury resorts crowd against each other. The road from Georgetown gives tantalizing glimpses as the bus races along. I never knew who were racing against, but my bus always seemed to win.
8. Exploring on the free CAT bus and just watching city life pass by.
9. Buying a bus pass and riding around the perimeter of the island – getting out in the countryside.
10. Touring the largest Buddhist Temple in SE Asia, although it was disappointingly devoid of soul. Kek Lok Si is a really large landmark, and thankfully there are funiculars to carry pilgrims and shoppers to the top where Guanyin surveys all below.
The Temple complex seems more like a giant shopping mall for religious Chinese paraphernalia.
11. Comparing the temples from the different religions at home in Georgetown – Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu. There are lots of Christian churches which, oddly, I don’t seem to photograph, maybe because it is my cultural heritage.
Georgetown is a city of towers and temples.
12. Admiring the local flora and fauna – Penang is a tropical island!
13. Taking refuge from the tropical storms – lashing rain and howling winds. And taking comfort from the ensuing Dragon Moon.
14. Watching the sky change from sunrise to sunset – like an artist’s canvas.
15. Riding the funicular to the top of Penang Hill and admiring the view.
16. Checking out the city beach bars and sea views from Northam Beach cafe – a collection of seafood hawker stalls and from Beach Blanket Babylon – which is wildly misnamed.
17. Buying something really special – perfume with the tantalizing Malaysian scents. I bought these for the words – the lovely compelling language that hooked me first. “Fresh notes of dawn break” “exotic oud” “precious trees” “fresh seawater” cinnamon and nutmeg and roses. I swoon still.
Another special purchase is hand-made incense, but first you have to find this tiny shop!
18. Cruising the two famous bookstores – Areca and Gerakbudaya. Sadly, as a traveler, I can only buy as many books as I can carry. Malaysia has a rich and varied literary history, and these two shops are pivotal is supporting that. I perused but I didn’t buy this time: I had a great library that I had to leave behind when I moved from KL to Abu Dhabi. I still regret it. No trip to Kuala Lumpur without a pilgrimage to Kunikuyia!
19. Watching a seasonal festival unfold – this time the Hungry Ghost Festival – evening performances of Chinese opera. Lots of food offerings to bribe the ghosts, and loud noises and smoke to scare them off.
20. Figuring out how to use Grab – the app for taxis. Brilliant service! Let them deal with the traffic and the serpentine roads! At the end of a busy day, I could be home in minutes in a Grab taxi with zero hassle.
21. Riding the train to Kuala Lumpur: starting with a ferryboat over to Butterworth, a four-hour ride in a train so cold I almost froze solid. But watching green and lovely Malaysia passing by is worth it. Seeing how people live off the island and outside the metropolis of KL.
22. Falling in love with delicious oddities not available at home – sweetcorn coconut popsicles, real peanut spicy crisps, butterscotch toast, nutmeg/vodka sundowner. I am addicted.
23. People watching: the wedding photographer with his sweet young clients, the actors getting ready for the Chinese opera, others as they waited.
24. Strolling the clan jetties – the piers out over the sea where fishermen and their families have lived for generations.
25. Looking closely at the fine details of the old Chinese shophouses, many now hosting Heritage Hotels that are just gorgeous.
26. Wondering at the size of the British heritage buildings – some abandoned, some incorporated into new structures, some left to rot away.
27. Spending a Sunday afternoon at the Hin Bus Depot craft market.
I was pleased to find one of these – indestructible and for a good cause!
28. Stopping to focus in on the traditions and symbols of Buddhism in Chinatown.
29. Eating. Eating all sorts of delicious things. I confess that I don’t care for the ubiquitous hawker stalls – they don’t seem really clean but maybe that’s my sanitation obsession coming from a different culture.
30. Exploring my neighborhood – a combination of kampung and skyvillas.
31. Heading to a night market for local food and a little shopping.
32. Marveling at the huge amount of street art and public art throughout the heart of Georgetown.
34. Appreciate the interesting logos and advertising messages.
34. Visiting dear friends and making new ones. One of the joys of being a traveler is that I have great friends wherever I have lived.
35. Making a list for next time: top of the Komtar tower to see the night lights, botanical gardens and Moongate 5 and hope for no monkeys, Dharmikarama Burmese Temple, Cabin in the Park and Penang Digital Library, Him Heang for Chinese pastry, Penang Road Rattan Shop, Tek Sen Restaurant, Jason’s Nyonya House. There will always be reasons for me to spend more time on Penang!
If you find yourself in Penang, GoogleMaps is a must, and you need more than one paper map because they focus on different things. I routinely used at least three:
- Georgetown World Heritage Site Map
- Rapid Route Map (bus)
- Penang Tourist Map
These are the Apps and online services that I recommend. Grab is essential!
- Grab (taxi)
- Moovit (buses)
- Food Panda (food delivery)
- Touch ‘n Go (electronic pay)
- FoodCrush (recommendations)
- KTM Train (Malaysia train schedules)
- Easybook (online tickets for trains, ferries, etc)
- Penang Tourist Information (maps, etc)
- Penang Off line Navigation
- My Tesco Online (grocery delivery)
- Penang City guide (attractions)
- Viator (tours and attractions)
- Rentalcars (international car rentals)
- Socar (car sharing app) And I temporarily joined some Facebook Groups for the insight they shared. There are more, but I really appreciated:
- Penang Foodies
- Penang Expats
- Areca Books
- Penang Online Bus & Sell