Next up on the
menu travel itinerary was Penang, Malaysia. Penang is known as the food capital of Malaysia and we’ve heard about its gastronomic prowess even before we left on our travels. So for that very reason, we had to make it part of our travels plans. Yah, I wasn’t kidding when I described how Jason and I sometimes make travel plans based purely on food.
As excited as we were for visiting George Town for its renowned food culture, the capital city of the ‘food capital of Malaysia’ does have way more to offer than just delicious food. We ended up staying in George Town for 12 awesome days because there was so much to eat, see, and do.
George Town is located on the island of Penang, which is on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia. It’s a beautiful, well-preserved historical city which still feels like a small colonial town. And thanks to its UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 2008, the historical colonial core of the city will hopefully stay well-preserved.
We spent the first few days on the outskirts of George Town – just a couple of of kilometres from Batu Ferringhi. Batu Ferringhi is a famous beach area in Penang but since we had just come from the beautiful Perhentian Islands, we couldn’t help but we couldn’t help but feel like “beach snobs”. The area has some decent stretches of white sand beaches, but we were there for the carnival-like atmosphere of its open-air night markets. An endless amount of stalls line the main road and after awhile, you start seeing the same wares over and over again.
The markets can get really crowded so when you start feeling a little claustrophobic, you can stop at the many hawker food centres and grab a bite. They’re like glorified outdoor food courts and you’re guaranteed to find something to suit your taste. You order at one of the food vendors, they deliver it to your table, and you pay for you dish when it arrives. I think it’s a great system – there’s no need to flag down a busy server at the end of your meal to settle up. You just pat your full belly and waltz on out. It’s the legit form of dine-‘n’-dash.
After seeing these all over Vietnam during our honeymoon, we finally broke down and tried them: Fish spas!
The concept seems really weird, but when you see enough of them, it sort of becomes the norm (which we learned later as they are literally at EVERY street corner in Thailand). You stick your bare feet and legs into a giant tank of fish and these ravenous little buggers eat all the dead skin off your feet – leaving you with baby smooth feet. Gross, yes? But oh so needed after 3 months of trekking in South America!
It’s actually a very
ticklish torturous sensation since the fish in Malaysian fish spas are a little bigger – you can definitely feel their little teeth nibbling at you. We bought 30 minutes of fish time but it took us over 10 minutes justto get used to the feeling enough to keep our feet in the tanks. At the end though, our feet were pretty baby soft.
After a couple of days in the outskirts, we moved into the colonial core of George Town into one of the converted shophouses. The historical centre of George Town is covered with original shophouses – some dating back to the 1800s. Some of these original shophouses still house olden day tradesmen who hammer away at hot iron, labour over antique sewing machines, or construct paper lanterns. You feel like you’ve stepped back in time when you walk down these streets
Other shophouses have been converted into guesthouses – like the one we stayed in for a few days. Nazlina has two guestrooms upstairs and teaches cooking courses on the mainfloor.
A great example of a beautifully refurbished structure is China House. Exposed beams, heritage textiles, and warehouse light fixtures juxtoposes modern and heritage into one space. Several interconnected shophouses have been converted into a massive music, food, drinks, and art locale. The front area serves as a restaurant and cafe (we had an amazing rum cake there!), while the back is an artsy, deconstructed bar/lounge area
Climb the rickety stairs to check out the second floor art galleries
One of my favourite things about George Town (besides the awesome food) is its incredible arts culture. The whole city is dotted with fascinating street art, music and art festivals run throughout the year, and artisan shops abound.
It makes this city so much fun to explore on foot or by bike. In fact, we rented bikes several times to check out all the street art.
The city provides a street art map (that you can find in almost all hostels and guesthouses) which indicates the location of all the street art locations. It was a great resource for a DIY street art tour.
The “wire art” was especially interesting because each art piece represented a cultural or historical fact about the city.
We rented this awesome novelty bike during one of the street art tour days.
We would navigate through the city in search for each street art piece and I would jump out of the bike to take a picture. Some pieces were in plain sight while for others, you had to search really hard for it (Actually there was one we never found – we think the building that it was attached to was demolished)
Once, after coming back from taking a photo of the street art, I returned to Jason and the bike and saw this:
I thought he was being mobbed by a group of angry Malaysians. But it turned out that they were all fascinated by this novelty bike. We became B-list celebrities (B for Bike..haha) while we were riding around town in this bike – people would stop and wave at us as we pedaled by.
Even though we had left the beach behind in the Perhentian Islands, we didn’t leave the beach weather behind. Temperatures soared to a sweaty, sticky 38ºC (it felt even hotter with the humidity!) on a daily basis so when things got too unbearable we ran to the malls (you remember how Malaysians had a thing for malls?) for multiple air-conditioning breaks. Komtar Complex has a pretty popular mall, as well as the tallest building in Penang. Five ringgit ($1.60 CDN) will get you to the 60th floor, which has a panoramic observation deck. The views were pretty spectacular up there and gave you a 360º view of the island.
We also rented a motorbike one day and got to explore a little further outside the colonial core.
We headed over to Penang National Park with the intent of hiking over to the other side of the park to to Monkey beach. But it turned out the entrance of the park was already overrun with monkeys. Good thing too – because we never actually made it to Monkey Beach. The hike got really tedious, mosquitos started eating us alive, and at one point the heat just did us in.
We hiked for an hour into the park and ended up turning back before we got to our destination. It was a little disappointing – a two hour hike with nothing to show for. Oh well – at least the scenery at the entrance of the park was pretty nice.
We rode back towards town and saw this awesome floating mosque, also known as Masjid Terapun.
We stopped to check it out in person and the awesome guide at the entrance gave us this super informative tour of the mosque and a beautiful explanation of Islam. Prior to starting the tour though, we had to don some pretty unflattering outfits.
The mosque was beautiful – both inside and out.
Our stay in George Town was simply exceptional. We fell so deeply in love with this city that if we could, we would bring it home to meet our parents. George Town is the whole package – fascinating history, cultural diversity, an awesome arts vibe, and beautiful architecture. And I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet – the food! More about food in my next post, but until then, here’s a parting shot of the beautiful city of George Town.