So after the best part of a week in KL we decided to head to a slightly more chilled part of Malaysia, yet equally as infamous. Penang is a small island about five hours north of KL, made famous for its relaxed island life feeling whilst also having enough infrastructure and services to keep a homesick westerner happy. More importantly though, Georgetown is here!
Georgetown is without a doubt the most famous area in Penang, and for good reason too. The capital of the Penang state became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2008 due to its historic architecture and historical value (it was the landing point of colonialism in Malaysia). If you walked down the streets and just looked at the architecture, there’s no way you’d ever think you’re in Asia, the buildings look way more suited to pre war European dwellings, all offering slats over the windows, almost Victorian style decor inside, high ceilings and vaulted entrances. Whilst some look pretty run down this just adds to the experience for me. Whilst this is wonderful to experience from the outside the inside can have its downsides. The UNESCO status effectively means many of the buildings are listed, so no internal or external changes can be made. For hotels looking for workarounds, this often results in rooms made out of semi permanent plywood, with no permanent fixtures (like lights for example), super creaky floors and windows that never shut. We managed to endure this for one night before feeling like we were getting a raw deal, and checked into a hostel with quite the reputation.
We ended up moving to Tipsy Tiger party hostel. The clue should have been in the name really. This place offered free breakfast, free drinks, a bunch of drinking games and incentives for all residents (which ended up being rather deadly), and normally ended with being up way too late, spending way too much money, and having a hangover from hell the next day. Fortunately I didn’t partake in the spending too much, but did milk the free drinks for all they were worth, so had to endure the headache to end all headaches once or twice. ANYWAY, this is definitely not the reason we came here, I just wanted to highlight this is a great place to meet people and blow off some stream!
Georgetown is known for three things in particular. Incredible street food, street art, and architecture, but there is so much more here to please any kind of tourist. More on that later though. We spent our first day hunting out the famous street art. What’s worth noting here, is there is so much more then what’s commonly advertised in lonely planet guides. It’s really worth spending a day exploring everywhere rather than just following a street art map, as there’s such a great mix of styles around the city. This was just on the end of our hostel road for example, but wasn’t advertised anywhere!We’ve seen some great street art on our travels, but this art seemed to blend into the surroundings so much more than other places. Of course, everyone hunting out the street art HAS to pose in the cliche manner, so I decided to do things differently (obviously).
Sorry, I couldn’t resist 😳. I did take some normal ones though..
So, the following day we tried to find some of the lesser known tourist type activities that didn’t cost an arm and a leg with our new room mate Cormac (we actually met in KL and happened to be sharing a room here). Starting the day at the chocolate and coffee museum was a massive let down. Essentially this is an overpriced shop with a room describing the production process.
Feeling totally underwhelmed we wandered to the floating part of the city. This is essentially a bunch of houses on a jetty. It was great exploring the small alcoves and alleys all precariously perched over the water, but what really astounded us was the ingenuity of the structural engineering! I mean check this out!
Following this we caught an uber to the north of the island to explore the tropical spice garden. Now this was a great find! Essentially it’s a chunk of the national park edge that’s dedicated entirely to showing off the stunning array of plants, herbs and spices that grow in Malaysia. Penang was originally formed as part of the spice trade route, so obviously this was a huge part of the garden. Wow, what a place! I never thought I’d enjoy walking around a garden so much! In particular, it was great to see the raw form of so many plants I frequently use in Asian cooking, but had no idea what the plant or tree looked like! We spent a good two hours here at least enjoying the coffee and tea plantations, spice gardens, whole areas dedicated to palm and bamboo, and even a section on deadly plants before heading back to the city to decimate the street food.
I can’t stress this enough, the street food here is something else, and in huge abundance. You could spend a month here and not eat at every stall that’s for sure! We used our own top tips for street food selection (eat where the locals queue) to get what we hoped would be the best, and I’d like to think we did rather well. That night the three of us shared so many snacks and dishes, in an attempt to enjoy as much as possible. We had everything from noodle broths, Laksa, satay, fried spring rolls, Malaysian deserts, and my personal favourite, named granny fried oyster (basically an omelette fried with clams, no grannies were harmed in the making of this omelette). What a great way to end a great day!
It should be said that the food options in Georgetown are in no ways limited to the street food, which only really comes alive at night. Down every street there’s something magical to be found, and just like in KL the smaller districts like chinatown and little India offer some real gems. During our five days in Georgetown we went on a few voyages of discovery for the best local food, and found quite a few. The absolute show stoppers for me we’re both in little India, one place only serving tandoori chicken and biryani (arguably the best tandoori chicken I’ve ever had, even beating India!) and another selling pandan thali for about £1.20 for effectively all you can eat. If Indian cuisine isn’t your thing, there are hundreds of eateries around, and I’d challenge you to find a bad feed. It really is worth a trip to Penang just to eat your way across it! You’ll need a while though….
After so much eating (and drinking) the three of us agreed some exercise was needed, as well as actually exploring a wider part of the island! We got a cab to the national park, and undertook the hike to the turtle sanctuary directly through the park. The lady at the entrance told us this was the tougher hike, but totally rewarding. She wasn’t wrong! The hike was nothing in comparison to Rinjani (no volcanoes involved this time) but was a slog none the less, especially as we didn’t set off until the midday sun was at it hottest. We never learn… after two hours of rather interesting terrain we made it to the beach. At this point it all became worth it! What a stunning and secluded beach! Only accessible via boat or via the jungle, we pretty much had the whole place to ourselves! Later, we managed to hitch a boat ride to another beach called monkey beach which was equally as beautiful! Malaysia seems to have beautifully white beaches (albeit fairly coarse) but the water is a beautiful pale blue unlike any I’ve seen elsewhere. It’s really all rather lovely.
So in a nutshell, that was our five days in Penang. Totally worth the trip, but I wish we had longer to explore other parts of this island. It’s definitely got its own character and I can why there’s such a strong tourism pull. Our next stop is as far north as we can go without being in Thailand, the island group of Langkawi!