Ellie Goulding hummed through the speakers of the airplane as I landed in Penang, a Malaysian island off the northwest coast of the country. Excitement built inside of me as I hopped off the plane, grabbed my sim card and ordered my uber. Every time I visit a place i’ve never been I can hardly wait to start exploring. Ariel sings in The Little Mermaid, “look at this trove, treasures untold, how many wonders can one cavern hold?” Although I don’t have a beautiful, lilting voice (and am also not a mermaid…surprise!), Ariel’s words adequately describe the way I see the world. So many treasures, just waiting to be explored!
My first treasure was my uber driver, who was able to tell me a huge amount of information in 40 short minutes. He told me about Penang’s crime rates (it is pretty dang safe), his favorite food (Indian, as he was raised on it), and his road trip through the East Coast of America (he really enjoyed the cheesesteaks in Philly). Connecting with locals is what makes traveling really rewarding because when you get their point of view, everything you see is put into a unique perspective!
He dropped me off at the Four Points by Sheraton (http://www.fourpointspenang.com), where I decided to stay for half my trip. Right away the staff were warm and accommodating. The room was modern and simplistic, and had a large window that opened up to a view of the ocean. The beds were incredibly comfortable (especially coming from Cambodia, where mattresses are made to feel like wood), and I found it easy to wake up to the ocean every morning. It was also easy to wake up knowing that a delicious breakfast buffet waited for me downstairs. I’m a sucker for breakfast buffets, and this one was full of diverse and delicious food- whether you wanted frosted flakes, donuts, or naan (or all of the above). As I ate I loved staring at the ocean, but nothing more as the staff warned me of the large jellyfish population that took residence in the serene waters. The calm waves tempted me to enter, but looking at another guest who had gotten stung was enough to help me overcome the temptation. For snorkeling/swimming without unfriendly sea creatures, the hotel informed me that it was possible to go to another island to do just that, but it required a whole day so I decided to pass.
One night I decided to take the free shuttle to the night market area. On board with me were two elderly couples, one from Germany, the other from Denmark. Both had decided to stay at the Sheraton 3 months out of the year…not a bad life, eh? I walked around, but found that the night market was nothing special. Even though it was night, humidity was at 80% and I began searching for something that would keep my sweat at bay. I stumbled upon a delicious Indian restaurant (Little India) nearby the market that had really cheesy cheese naan. And this girl loves her cheese naan extra cheesy. I washed it down with a equally unhealthy, but unequally delicious Milo McFlurry from McDonald’s (mostly because Mcy-D’s had the strongest air conditioning on the road). Cambodia has made me an expert at seeking out establishments with air conditioning.
After a few days at the Sheraton (mostly spent relaxing and avoiding jellyfish), I left for my next destination, which was an Airbnb closer to an area called Georgetown. The Airbnb I stayed at was adorable, really well located, and had a incredibly helpful and attentive host. I would recommend you check it out if you are headed to Penang (https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/15448072). I tend to prefer the Airbnb style of traveling over hotels for a few reasons: 1) It is easier to connect with the local population 2) I love seeing the style and taste of someone different 3) I enjoy staying in an apartment/house rather than a hotel- there is just a completely different feeling. Over the next few days I tasted and explored my way through Penang. Here are the treasures I discovered in the Georgetown area:
- Penang City Hall / I started my exploration here, because I was drawn to the massive and colonial inspired city hall. Once you enter into city hall you can walk through a Penang/Georgetown historical exhibit. I love to know the history of an area before I begin exploring, and this exhibit was really helpful.
- Fort Cornwallis / You can enter the Fort for a small fee, or just walk around its perimeter and imagine its past brilliance. You can also explore the area around the Fort. There is a clock tower of historical importance, a beautiful park, and the water all in walking distance.
- Penang Street Art / The street art is world famous, and it would not be a trip to Penang if you don’t catch a glimpse. You can easily pick up a map of all the street art and decide which murals you most want to see. I spent the day walking around to catch almost all of them (especially any that had to do with cats), peeking into coffee shops, and stopping by the stands of artisans. There is a lot to see and experience in this lively area. You can also see the convergence of the three cultures of Malaysia: Malay, Chinese, and Indian. I walked through an intricately decorated Chinese temple, passed a 200 year old Mosque as the call to prayer rang out, and smelled fragrant spices as I sauntered by Indian shops.
- Gurney Plaza Mall / While a mall might not be your first choice, I often stop into a nice mall because I don’t get to experience that in Cambodia. Gurney Plaza was bright, modern, and luxurious. They had stores of all price ranges covering all sorts of needs, but would also be a good place to stop if you just want air conditioning and to look at pretty things.
- Penang Hill / If you have the chance head to Penang Hill to catch some spectacular 360 views of Penang. You can choose to hike to the top (would take along time) or my preferred method- take the train. There is a small cost for the train ticket, but it is worth it as you sit and take in the breathtaking view all the way up the mountain. I went right before sunset and missed the busy crowd (as I had read reviews that there is a long cue for the tickets) and got my ticket right away. It probably helped that it had just finished raining, so people didn’t think to come to the hill. I recommend grabbing a drink or a bite to eat at one of the restaurants after you are done walking around, and soak in the beauty of Penang.
- Escape Adventure Play / This is not in Georgetown, and is actually closer to the Sheraton, but I decided to go while staying at the Airbnb so I included it in this portion. Whether you are alone, or have a family, this adventure play park (http://www.escape.my) is great for you! I tried most of the rides and games, and would recommend you do the same! My favorites were Atan’s Leap (you literally take a leap of faith…I may have closed my eyes the whole time, and as a result did not land on my feet…so keep your eyes open people), the zip lines, the rope course, and the tubby tubes. Just make sure you wear athletic (lightweight cause you will sweat sweat sweat) clothes, sneakers, and protective gloves if you have them (for the ropes course). They have lockers, so if you want to stock up on water to avoid buying it in the park you can. I didn’t find the food too pricey, but it was a little more expensive compared to the same type of food you would buy elsewhere on the island.
Penang has so much to offer in the form of food! Although I could only get to the places listed below, I look forward to the day when I can return to indulge in more fusion foods and tasty treats. If you are staying longer peruse the internet for more of what Penang has to offer, or just ask the locals and trust they will send you on a culinary adventure!
- Hokkien Noodles / One of Malaysia’s most popular dishes. You can get Hokkien noodles on a number of street stalls (especially walking around Georgetown) and also at restaurants. I enjoyed mine at ‘BARN’ located in the outside food area of Gurney Plaza.
- David Brown’s at Penang Hill / If you get the chance to venture up Penang Hill, I recommend catching the sunset with a bite to eat or a cocktail at David Brown’s. They tout it as the “highest restaurant in Penang” and the views are stunning.
- Kebaya / Nyonya is what malaysian-chinese fusion is called. It is uniquely Malaysian, and there are quite a few places that make this fusion food, including Kebaya. Kebaya serves creative and tasty Nyonya food in a nice setting.
- Sri Ananda Bahwan / This local chain of Indian food was recommended to us and did not disappoint. You know a place is good when you walk in and you see 90% local people. I sampled quite a few dishes, including the chicken tikka masala, and butter chicken. The pineapple mint lassi was the perfect company to make it a wonderful meal!
- Nandos / A South African chicken joint with Portuguese flavors, Nandos can satisfy the pickiest eater with its flavorful and tasty chicken dishes. We don’t have Nandos in America or Cambodia, so when I see one I make sure to stop in. This trip I may or may not have stopped in three times.
- Sweet treats and tasty snacks can be found at the very bottom level of Gurney Plaza. Over two days, I sampled everything from Uncle Tetsu Cheesecake to 100% natural coconut ice cream, and churros. There were so many more small shops I wanted to explore, but didn’t have enough days or a large enough sweet tooth.
Penang definitely has plenty of treasures to discover, and is such a fun mix of culture, food, and play that I would definitely recommend it if you are going to be in or around Malaysia. If you give yourself 4-6 days you will be able to leisurely experience the best of Penang, but could do a condensed trip in 2-3 days if you just want to see the UNESCO World Heritage area. To get to Penang, check out Air Asia (http://www.airasia.com/us/en/home.page?cid=1) where you can find cheap flights to Penang from Kuala Lumpur with Air Asia (about $15 each way). Once you are on the island, use uber or one of the other car services as they are super cost efficient. When I was there they even had a deal that if your ride was less than $1 they would cover it. Can’t beat that!
If you’ve been to Penang before let me know what you loved about it, or if you are about to head there – happy travels!!