Penang also known as George Town, which is its capital and main hub, has something that no other place in Malaysia has – a genius loci. While other major destinations could only dream of picturesque alleys oozing history, an abundance of trendy, hipster and cool cafés topped with real culture and art, Penang not only has it all, but the compactness with which it’s found there makes it a unique place with a vibe easily comparable to some towns in Europe. No wonder George Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, this blog post isn’t a comprehensive guide to Penang’s must-dos, which has been beaten to death anyway. Rather it focuses on the little things one will find in its heart and impressions they create. After all, travel during the pandemic has been whacky so why not. Let’s go!
I first visited Penang in 2016. I didn’t remember much from that trip apart from the hotel where I stayed, how I got lost, the fact that I overslept and almost missed my plane to Langkawi, managing to shower, dress and pack my big suitcase in under 7 minutes, and that I felt slightly overwhelmed as then George Town swelled with tourists, the heat was unbearable and coming slightly unprepared I didn’t really know what to do so I was just monkeying around. You see, the fact that details from our past trips more often than not fall into sweet oblivion does awfully great justice to travel blogging. If nothing else, at least the memories stay alive because every time I open an article from a place I visited, my brain rewards me with a series of vivid flashes that teleport me directly to that destination in no time. Isn’t that an insanely good reason to blog?
I always imagine how as an elderly woman I read my blog, sunk in a wooden rocking chair by a window with a postcard view. Not only does going through the lines make me travel in time but I also smile at everything I was so blessed to experience. They say you should treat your blog as a business from day one. I guess I disagree exactly for this reason. It’s not all about money. Of course, it would be great if one day I found a way to monetise my efforts, but for now I’ll just happily ride on the wave of creating an awesome memory bank, not only for myself, but also for my readers. Am I right, folks?
Nostalgia drags me to Penang
My hasty retreat from Tioman propelled among others by the unexpected monsoon coma, as I describe here, was well worth it because it came with a spontaneous plan to go to Penang for the New Year and revive my forgotten memories. Another reason was that I wanted to find a place where I could do the same as during the first visit, i.e. monkey around and wing it, only that this time I would do it as an already somewhat experienced traveller.
Flying with Air Asia is quick but if you have time and want more adventure, you can try train too. I haven’t done that, so I won’t go into detail here, but it’s an option to consider. Grab from the airport will cost around 20RM and take approximately 30 minutes. This always reminds me that Penang is actually really big but the ‘life’ is to found mainly in George Town.
Hotels during Covid-19
The silver lining of the pandemic (if I can allow myself this optimism at all) are the incredible prices. 4- or 5-star hotels that would normally make a dent in your otherwise modest budget are now ridiculously cheap. So cheap that you are wondering how come you’ve always willingly paid so much more for your accommodation. I stayed at Le Dream Boutique Hotel. Oh yes, I did it again and let the ’boutique’ charm put me under its spell. Unlike in Alor Star, this boutique experience was great. The room, location, staff, cleanness, comfort, simply everything… except for one thing – the TV. I am one of those hippies who has no Netflix, nor regular TV channels at home so I normally rely on YouTube and whatever its random selection grants me with. Therefore, if I go to a hotel, I need TV.
Before every staycation I feel as a junkie who’s been starved and needs a full dose of international channels. But that was not meant to be. Not only mine but most hotels in the country, as I found out later, had stopped streaming international channels as a consequence of covid -19. No BBC, CNN, National Geographic, Fox Movies and so on. That’s a bummer. As a junkie looking for a fix, I couldn’t accept that so I begged and nagged and the girl I spoke to arranged a couple English speaking channels for me. Hats off to her. Lazy afternoons and late nights were saved. My approach might not have been justified given the debilitating effect the pandemic has had on tourism, and since it’s probably one of the worst crises an industry has seen in a long time, but junkies are hardly reasonable.
New Year New Hair
Since my hotel was at a stone’s throw from a hair salon, I decided to give it a try. I went to De Love Hair and Justin cut my hair. What an idea! Compared to my ridiculously expensive hairdresser back in KL, who I luckily said good bye to, this was a nice surprise. My hair received a lot of care and treatment for a very reasonable price (100RM). It’s true though that Justin and I won’t probably see each other again. I wanted to extend the pleasure of this new vain experience by buying a few products which sadly never reached me. Justin got a roasting that he’ll probably remember for the rest of his life and had to return all the money. How someone is not able to copy a shipping address properly is really beyond me, but well, similar mishaps are quite the norm here. Having said that, I came there for a hair revamp and got it! I left the salon happy, refreshed, energised, so it was well worth it.
This is clearly the best part of Penang. That’s the genius loci I’m talking about. In KL everything is just so inconveniently far and invisible. All the cool spots are hidden and difficult to find. If you crave variety, you either need to walk days on end to find anything nice or constantly beg Google for any new spark in the otherwise monotonous concrete jungle. But not in George Town! In fact, George Town hands it all to you on a silver platter. Even if you don’t want to, you will inevitably run into unpretentious, quaint, quirky cafes and you’ll not know which one to hit first. I can’t wait for the travel to be allowed so that I can go to Penang for some cafe hopping again!
My personal faves
For breakfast I really enjoyed Le Cafe with insanely tasty toasts coming in even more insanely original combos. The coffee was awesome too. In Yin’s Sourdough Bakery and Café I gave thumbs up to their creative menu for breakfast and lunch. Ome was my respite from mindless walking in the scorching heat. The decor, ambiance and all were just what I needed and their selection of teas is worth it too. Narrow Marrow lured me in by its tiramisu. I have a sweet tooth and a completely uncontrollable weakness for the Italian delight. I guess after quitting smoking and seriously limiting alcohol, sugar is my only drug now. I loved the unpretentious service, simple environment and pleasant temperature. And finally Le Petit Four Patisserie hypnotised me with its name and an unusual selection of pastries. In the end I only had a croissant as I wanted to add a bit of French twist to my existence, but even that felt great. I can’t wait to try all the other pastries next time though!
Probably the only place I don’t like in Penang. Masses and mediocrity shake their hands there, propelled by an artificially created good name. Reviews rave about this area and its establishments for to me totally unknown reasons. If you like low quality cheap booze, low level of service and stupid remarks of pub touts, be my guest. It seems that some cities or islands just adore having their own Khao San Road, to prove to the world yet another time that want it or not disgrace attracts crowds. I do remember I was similarly appalled also during my first trip, and I admit I was way more rock and roll then, so I guess it’s pretty clear here.
Hawkers and Laksa
If you want a truly enjoyable experience with a genuinely local twist, hawkers is where you should be. When the sun starts to set, the normally uneventful streets, transform into the buzz one so truly awaits on any holiday or getaway. Thank God Penang has kept this vibe alive. To find best hawkers you just need to have a walk around Chulia Street, the George Town’s artery and choose which one would be to your liking. You can’t go wrong really. But personally I liked most ‘the midnight soup’. An incredibly tasty broth I was served on my way home after a modest night out. Mouth-watering experience par excellence! Also, let’s not forget that Penang Laksa, the famous spicy fish broth with noodles and vegetables, made it to the top 10 of “The World’s 50 Best Foods” by CNN Travel! And that, my friends, is no mean feat! So when in Penang you must dip your nose into a bowl of this super delicious dish.
UFF aka Unbelievably Friendly Firefighters
On the 31 of December I hit the streets to observe the frenzy most mortals succumb to on the threshold of a new year, accompanied by hedonism in many forms and also coupled with naive beliefs that the pendulum swung towards a completely covid-free future. The anticipation was clearly tangible. Personally, I don’t celebrate New Year or actually anything for that matter. It seems as a fool’s act to let myself deviate from the usual carpe diem and let such ordinary dates bully you into a rush that decays more quickly than memories from any well spent regular day.
However the George Town’s firefighters took the threads of human factor driven by the long awaited change seriously and prepared judiciously. I caught them in the middle of an important briefing as I inconspicuously stood behind with my camera. I took a couple shots when suddenly the boss giving instructions to the team looked in my direction, raising his hand and waving in a sign of invitation. “Come here young lady, you can also take photos from the front” he nicely clarified. ‘Unbelievable,’ I thought. Yet another great example of Malaysian friendliness and the fact that my buddy Fuji xa3 is an excellent ice breaker. Perhaps it was also thanks to my new haircut and cute smile I wore that helped me get inside the briefing. I took more photos of them. And then they took photos of me. And then they invited me to the car. And then, and then and then… Sometimes I really love being a young female from a different country. I stood there long after they left for the night shift thinking how such ‘little’ things are really the grandeur of it all. Also, you can buy souvenirs and T-shirts there, so it could be an idea for a gift.
Hop on Trishaw
It looks like a kitsch and you may initially frown upon this seemingly mainstream activity in Penang. But I’d definitely encourage you to drop any conventions and fears of judgement and just hop on it. Especially now, when the business has dwindled to a trickle and so many trishaw riders balance on the edge of absolute poverty. Slow ride on a traditional bicycle, by the way the only vehicle in Malaysia remotely reminding tuk tuk (yes unfortunately Malaysia is void of them), is the right thing to do on a sunny afternoon in George Town. My trishaw guy even told me lots of facts about the sights. True, it was in Malay so I didn’t retain anything but I understood tiny bits. I responded in my still broken Malay (I guess by now I can confess that I’ve reached my limit with this illogical language and will gladly consider myself a forever lower intermediate student) which caused the guy to enthuse even more about every corner we’d passed. Oh, how I like when people do their jobs with passion! ‘Nice touch, brother’ I kept thinking as we slowly rode through the cute lanes.
I booked the guy for 90 minutes – I think I already said I was a hedonist – and could easily spend even longer. Nowadays 30 minutes will cost you 20RM and the tour will take you along the main street art spots, fortress and port, and other nooks and crannies, depending on how long you’ll book them for.
Clan Jetties of Penang
That’s a rather touristy spot but can be good for sunrise or sunset shots. It’s a complex of stilt houses; by the way also tax free since it’s on the water and not land. Anyone consider moving? It’s not as great as other stilt villages I’ve been to, for example the awesome Pulau Ketam or slums in Kota Kinabalu but it is still worth a try. You will find there shops with the usual stuff (clothes, trinkets, you know) but it’s probably the quickest access to water. If you like sitting by the sea, observing horizons, this could be your spot.
When I first came to Penang I was shocked how quiet it was past 10pm. And that was back in 2016. This time around I enjoyed the fact that the streets were deserted and generous to anyone looking for a bit of solitude and photo inviting atmosphere. Like I said – genius loci – even if nothing is happening, there’s always something going on. The genius loci never sleeps. Abandoned trishaws, lonely riders, murals whispering lullabies to roaming cats and romantic lights will keep you company.
I have to include this one. Even if everything fails, you can’t miss Penang’s street art. Amazing murals are hidden in many corners of the town and it’s actually fun discovering them by chance. Some of them are extremely exposed and you’ll see constant queues of people trying to take their photos of a lifetime there. But by now you know that I’ll obviously recommend going against mainstream and look for the more inconspicuous but evocative art creations. Actually I have just decided that I’ll make this part of my do-nothing-much itinerary next time as I’m sure there plenty of hidden murals that I haven’t seen. Therefore, it’ll be cafes, murals, street food with a new twist and maybe I’ll say hi to firefighters too!
So here you go friends. Of course, you can do much more in George Town. There are museums, sky bars, food courts and plenty of other stuff. But it’s advisable to leave something for another visit, don’t you think? Adieu for now!