April 2018 – my second visit to Penang, the first having been some 34 years ago; to be honest I don’t remember much apart from getting there by ferry. There are now 2 bridges and Penang is very much connected to mainland Malaysia.
Despite its size Penang is one of the wealthier states in Malaysia, and whilst in this part of the world wealth often equates to development, the residents of Penang have recognised the value of their heritage buildings and tradition. Where Singapore and Kuala Lumpur have all but erased older areas, Penang is hanging on to them and work is going into preservation and restoration; much of this is world class and giving small personal hotels and restaurants in what would have been large private houses.
Georgetown is still very much a working town though, not just a tourist destination; a wander down side streets can reveal all manner of activity from cake making to noodle manufacturers carefully slicing up that days produce.
The leading restoration project has to be the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, described as one of the top 10 mansions in the world and previously home to the man with the same name, despite being known as the ‘Rockerfeller of the East’, the estate fell into disrepair, but has now been rescued and operates as a small hotel and restaurant.
There are parts of Georgetown that are labelled as being China Town and Little India, most of Georgetown feels quite Chinese, however Little India is quite distinct: Indian music blasting from DVD shops selling Indian movies, lots of fabric shops with Saris and so on, and of course lots of food places – many of which are vegetarian. One of my favourite snack foods is Dosa and you can get them here for about a $1. Full buffet for about $4.
The Chinese influence on Georgetown is undeniable, making up about 50% of the population there are many clan houses, these act as social centres and welcome points for new arrivals. The largest being Khoo Khongsi, which has a temple and accommodation within its walls. Another reason for these places was security, the security being provided by the ruling British at the time, being considered inadequate.
Many parts of town are quite lively for food and drinks: Chulia St and Love Lane offer plenty of choice, many venues with live music. Whilst all areas are frequented by locals as well as visitors, another area to the west of town a little seems more local, look for Nagore Sq/ Jalan Nagore.
Many Nyonya restaurants in this area, which brings me to the next Penang attraction: food. People come here just to eat, as many as 180,000 cross from the mainland at weekends with the sole purpose of eating. There are lots of street food zones as well as more established places, and is often the way in Asia, areas of town that specialise in one type of product or food. You can pick up maps, and armed with these just wander and enjoy.
A funicular railway lifts you some 800m above the coast, worth a trip for the view and cooler air.
There is a small ‘pop up’ market held at the old Hin Bus Depot on Sundays, its no Camden Market but provides a distraction for an hour or so, there are a couple of cafes on site.
Nearby is another food destination on Lebuh Keng Kwee, very busy on Sundays with crowds looking for Teochew Chendul.
Penang has a lot to offer for a short break, I’d happily go back and explore more outside of Georgetown.