26 September 2019

Three Days in George Town, Penang

If you're looking for my speciality coffee guide for George Town, Penang, please see this accompanying post.

I arrived on Penang Island, Malaysia’s fourth-largest island, on a Thursday evening. From Penang Airport, it was about a 30-minute (and 23 RM) Grab ride to the centre of George Town, Penang’s state capital, and Malaysia’s second-largest city with a population of over 700,000. In 1786, George Town became the first British settlement in South East Asia, but its rich cultural history has resulted in a diverse population, with migrants from China, India, Thailand and other parts of the Malay peninsula. The historical centre of George Town has also been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2008, and there are many beautiful buildings, in various states of restoration, to see. I spent about three days there, which gave me a good taste of the city — quite literally, given that the food was one of my main reasons for visiting.

I had hoped to take a foodie tour with Food Tour Penang, which runs four-hour ‘brunch’ and ‘dinner’ tours, taking you to a bunch of George Town’s best eateries ($62). I thought this would be a good introduction to the city’s food scene before heading off on my own. Unfortunately, they have a 2-person minimum booking and even though it was the weekend, they didn’t run any tours during my trip, so I was left to my own devices. NB, I found a lot of good speciality coffee in the city, and have put together a separate post.

Lorong Baru (New Lane) hawker centre. By the time I had checked into my hotel in the heart of Little India, it was 8:30 pm and I was very hungry. Based on strong recommendations from my Grab driver and Lonely Planet, I headed to the Lorong Baru (New Lane) hawker centre, which was a 25-minute amble southwest of the historic centre. After trying some delicious satay chicken from one vendor (though the smoke from the charcoal fire was intense), I joined a long line for a char kway teow without being entirely sure what it was. It turned out to be a delicious stir-fried flat rice noodle dish with seafood and duck egg. The two dishes cost about 15 RM combined, or about £3, with another 3 RM for the pineapple juice I had to buy in order to sit at one of the tables, rather than trying to balance 10 satay skewers and a noodle dish on one hand.

Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendul. Another hawker centre, this time open for lunch, is Penang Road, which came recommended by fellow coffee blogger, Bean Thinking. I started with curry mee, or noodles in a curry broth with seafood. This was spicier than I was expecting, so I cooled off with cendol (or chendul), an iced dessert made with green rice flour jelly droplets, coconut milk, palm sugar syrup and red beans. I am not always fond of desserts made with red bean, but this was sweet and refreshing, and soothed my burning tongue. If you're keen to try it, Penang Road is a good place to do so.

Presgrave Street hawker centre. South of the city centre, not too far from Lorong Baru, Presgrave Street has another hawker centre, which I visited on my last night. I started with some satay chicken skewers again, and then had some really tasty Hainan roasted chicken rice (4.20 RM). As I was leaving, I spotted a bao vendor and on a whim picked up a pork belly bao and a peanut bao (they were about 1.50 RM each). The buns were a little doughy, but the fillings were really good.

Tek Sen. I ate at this popular restaurant on my second night on the recommendation of my Lonely Planet. There was already a big queue when I arrived, which I was unsure of how to join. Luckily, a local couple spotted me and helped me get my name down — or rather, be given a playing card. These were being called in order. It took about 45 minutes to get seated, and various locals kept asking me how I’d heard about the place. I ordered a couple of dishes, a fried tofu with egg and shrimp, which was good, but the double-roasted pork with bird’s eye chilli was superb — the best dish I’ve eaten in Malaysia so far. The pork was sweet and sticky, with the chilli providing just enough of a kick. Both dishes, with rice and a soft drink ran to about 35 RM (£7). You can book but apparently it's quieter at lunchtime and on weekdays. 

Awesome Canteen. I’ll cover this in my coffee guide too, but this eatery in a beautiful industrial-chic space deserves a mention for the food too. I had cold foam noodles with prawns, parmesan and mussel oil, which had a great umami flavour and were the perfect meal for a hot day.

My hotel, Ren i Tang, also brought me breakfast from a different stall each day, so I got to try a dish with two types of noodles, char teow kway and roti. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite have time on my last day for lunch at Kapitan, an Indian restaurant that came recommended.

Exploring the UNESCO World Heritage zone. I spent a lot of my time in George Town walking through the historic city centre, admiring buildings representative of the city’s many cultures, from the glorious central mosque — whose Star of David windows were remarked upon by Einstein on his visit to George Town in 1923 — to the colourful buildings of Little India, to the various ‘clan houses’ or mini-embassies for different groups of Chinese immigrants to the city.

Several times a week, the Penang Tourist Information Centre, runs a free 90-minute walking tour of the historic centre. Register at the tourist office on Beach Street by 10 am for a 10:30 am start. Our knowledgeable guide Ron did a great job of bringing the city, including the colonial period, and its history and people to life, rather than reeling off dates and facts. If you can do this your early in your visit, it makes a nice introduction.

You can also stroll around some of the jetties along the eastern waterfront. Chew Jetty is perhaps the most well-known and is particularly nice at sunset — assuming the haze hasn’t cancelled sunset for the day.

Mansion hopping. Two of George Town’s most famous buildings are two grand 19th century mansions. Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, better known as the Blue Mansion on account of its vibrant cobalt walls, was built by the titular Cheong Fatt Tze, a Chinese labourer made good, for his seventh, and supposedly favourite, wife. Three guided tours (17 RM) of the 38-room house run every day — more recently, it was the filming location for the mahjong scene of Crazy Rich Asians.

With its pistachio green exteriors and ornate decor, Pinang Peranakan Mansion
was owned by another wealthy bigwig. Entrance is 20 RM and includes a guided tour (I arrived at 10 am and an English tour was just starting) that covers the history of the house and the family, as well as the impressive jewellery collection.

Street art. There is a great deal of street art throughout central George Town, including numerous cat- and dog-themed works, perhaps most famously, a giant mural of a ginger cat called Skippy. There are a few others clustered around Beach Street, Victoria Street and Armenian Street, some of which you can interact with, like Brother and Sister on a Swing. You can also visit Art Lane, a street art alleyway just off Victoria Street.

Keep your eyes peeled for some of the wire-art caricatures all over the city centre, which capture life in George Town and the city’s history in a tongue-in-cheek way. There’s even a coffee-themed one on Victoria Street, in which a customer’s overly complicated coffee order is translated just to ‘black coffee’.

Penang Hill. A few miles west of George Town — a 20-minute, 12 RM Grab ride — is Penang Hill, the highest point on the island. You can take a funicular to the top (30 RM; every 15 minutes at peak times) and on a clear day, the views are supposed to be spectacular. However, the haze put pay to that on my visit and the visibility was extremely poor. Instead, I decided to visit The Habitat (55 RM), 1.3 km of aerial walkways through the top level of the rainforest. I saw numerous birds, butterflies and a large black squirrel, and one of the bridges is the longest of its kind in Southeast Asia.

Shopping. I didn’t come to George Town for the shopping but came across a few interesting stores. Writer, on Campbell Street, has lovely stationery. Sixth Sense (pictured) has minimalist fashions plus a few accessories and homewares. Finally, Mano Plus Select Store is a well-curated boutique with various Malaysian design goods. I bought a new Turkish towel from Real.m, but there were a lot of nice pieces, including a good selection of tea- and coffee-making kit, and travel mugs and bottles.

I stayed at the Ren i Tang, a boutique hotel inside a lovingly restored former Chinese medicine warehouse in Little India. With period features throughout, it was a beautiful place to stay and many of the rooms have features that reflect their former uses — one has a soaking tub, for instance. It was a bit of a steep climb up the rather precarious stairs to the second floor (hence the shoes-off policy) but I rather enjoyed this. There was even a pulley to hoist luggage to the top floor. The staff were very welcoming too and although I was concerned about the night-time noise, it wasn’t too bad, even though my room faced Penang Street (the view is pictured below). I was keen to stay in a restored heritage building while in Penang and there are a number of other options, at a range of budgets.

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