We arrived in Penang at 11am on a Monday morning after approximately 16 hours of travelling, 2 flights and very little sleep. Initially I feared I would crash and burn and have to hit the sack for a couple of hours but both of us were invigorated by finally being there, and the beachy view, so we checked into our (upgraded) room, unpacked, and set off to explore.
Although the majority of attractions in Penang are in the capital, George Town, we wanted to base ourselves by the coast for that all important paddle in the sea, so opted for Batu Ferringhi which is on the North of the island. Batu is little more than one long main street, with a number of hotels to suit all budgets, lots and lots of food establishments, mini markets and tailors shops (tailoring is big in Malaysia, the husband had a fabulous shirt made during our stay).
Batu comes alive early evening when the hawker food centres and nightly market open for business, both of which are a marvel to behold! The market stalls run for approximately 2km along the main street and sell everything from watches to sunglasses to bags, t-shirts, trinkets and trainers (mostly designer copies) and each stall is meticulously set up each and every night and packed away at the end (around midnight). We watched some stall holders wheeling their metal stall around 200 metres down the street, into the path of oncoming traffic, like it was the most normal thing in the world!
There’s not an awful lot to do in Batu Ferringhi, which suited us fine. It’s mainly focussed around eating (yay!) and sightseeing outside of the town. Because Malaysia is a Muslim country alcohol is heavily taxed, and therefore expensive, and there isn’t much of a drinking culture. Many restaurants don’t serve alcohol or, if they do, it will be purely beer. Booze prices are similar to at home, in some cases slightly more expensive, with a small glass of wine at around £5. We bought some drinks from a licensed liquor store and had a couple of nightcaps on our balcony and also spent a couple of evenings in the Hard Rock Café drinking delicious but overpriced cocktails! Hard Rock had a house band who played from 10.30pm each evening and were very good.
One of the things we were really looking forward to was the food, and it didn’t disappoint. There is a proliferation of both Indian and Chinese food in Malaysia, with Malay cuisine being something of a combination of the two, with lots of rice, noodles, fresh seafood and spices. You wouldn’t touch many of the streetfood stalls with a barge pole back at home but somehow, over there, eating from a hut constructed from metal poles with a corrugated iron roof, plastic patio chairs and a bucket at the side of the road for washing up seems perfectly normal! We had no stomach problems at all and ate some absolutely amazing dishes. A personal highlight was an amazing Mee Goreng (noodles cooked with meat and spices) for a ridiculous 80 pence. The husband pushed the boat out that night, his dinner was £1.20! The taste and flavours and freshness were just incredible. Also in Penang are a couple of large hawker centres, where lots of foodstalls are under one roof – all serving different cuisine. Our favourite was Long Island which we went to twice. The process is simple – get a table number and then go to whichever stalls you want, order your food, they will cook it fresh and bring it to your table where you then pay.
Dishes were no more than around £3 each at most, and the husband made the mistake of sending me off to do the ordering with a fistful of ringgits (Malaysian currency). We ended up with easily enough food for 4 people from about 7 different stalls! Examples included 10 sticks of chicken satay for less than £2, national favourite Char Kway Teow, Tom Yum soup, onion roti and chicken samosas. Amazing.
As well as spending time in Batu, we ventured into the capital Georgetown for two full days to soak up the sights and sounds. There’s a lot of building going on in Georgetown, lots of high rise condos and apartments (they have to build upwards due to lack of space on the ground) which sit along heavily adorned temples of such beauty and acres of green forest hills. It’s a really complex landscape with a different view at every turn, architecture influenced by British colonial days and a view across the Malacca Straits to the mainland. It also doesn’t seem to have a centre as such, and isn’t particularly easy to navigate, so a map is a must.
Technically outside of Georgetown, in the nearby Air Itam neighbourhood, Penang Hill rises 833 metres above the city and is a green and luscious area. Accessed by funicular railway which, at it’s steepest, rises at 50+ percentage, it’s definitely worth a visit. You could spend as little as 10 minutes for the views, up to most of a day exploring the summit of the hill and it’s attractions. We had a wander round, marvelled at the views, had some lunch, had a look round the Hindu temple, and took lots of photos. The funicular is a highlight in itself, and a feat of engineering, imagine building a railway on a hill that steep!
Dharmikarama Burmese temple
I was very excited to visit temples in Malaysia, not because I identify with any religion (I don’t) but because the architecture and attention to detail is so stunning. This temple and the Wat Chaiyamangkalaram Thai temple (below) are opposite each other, incongruously positioned on opposite sides of the street in the middle of George Town. At first glance it seems to be a competition between who can bring the most bling, there’s a A LOT of gold leaf, everywhere! The temple itself is very serene and picturesque, with dedicated areas for praying, although non praying people can also enter as long as shoes are removed.
Wat Chaiyamangkalaram Thai temple
This temple is famous for the reclining Buddha – 33 metres long and the 3rd biggest in the world, but it was closing as we arrived so we only got to peek inside. Again there are multiple buildings, gold leaf and mosaics everywhere. The architecture is incredible – everywhere you look is a stunning building or intricate piece of work. Amazing.
I’m going to be slightly controversial here and say that Little India was a disappointment. Firstly it wasn’t as busy and bustling as we’d hoped, which I think is because we were there in the afternoon and the main food sellers don’t open until early evening, but secondly it wasn’t that Indian, to us! Let me elaborate – I live in Birmingham which has a large Indian and Pakistani community, and there are areas of Birmingham where these communities live closely together and therefore develop their own “Little India” with sari shops, indian restaurants, mosques, and food stalls filling the air with pungent fragrance. So this place wasn’t really any different to anything I’ve experienced at home. If you live in an area or country that doesn’t have an Indian community that you’ve experienced, then you may feel very differently. Whilst there we did have an incredible thali style lunch at a restaurant which came with chicken curry, mutton curry, tandoori fish, basmati rice, pickles and poppadum, and it was spectacular, and I also snapped some pics of the Sri Mahamariamman Hindu temple but only from the outside as it was closed.
Street art in Armenia Street
We struggled to find Armenia Street initially, walking round in a big circle, trying to get in the map (a Friends reference!!) and starting to get ever so slightly narky with each other in the crazy heat of the day. When we did find it we were only there for 15 minutes or so, but it was good to see some of the fun street art which is a renowned tourist attraction in the city. Getting a photo without someone else in it who’s trying to do the same is something of a struggle, but a bit of patience goes a long way.
We also visitied Masjid Kapitan Keling and Kek Lok Si Temple, but I’ll be doing a separate post on both of those.
Would I recommend Penang? Absolutely. The people are incredibly friendly, generous and selfless, keen to tell you about their homeland (as we found with a couple of very chatty taxi drivers), the food is absolutely incredible and very cheap, there’s a good balance of city and beach to suit all interests and the mix of architecture is fascinating.