Get to know Penang
By Martha Hales
It’s all about fusion on the island of Penang. Old meets new everywhere you look and cultures collide with joyous results, especially in George Town. The British chose George Town as the location for their first port in Southeast Asia, which drew workers from far and wide resulting in the enduring cultural mix of Indian, Chinese, Malay and a little bit of British. It may only be a small island, but Penang has a great mixture of nature, leisure and culture. From beaches to botanical gardens, from crumbling shophouses to lip-smacking noodles, all the elements of a great holiday are here on Penang Island. The fascinating history of this outcrop of land just off the coast of northwest Peninsular Malaysia is evident in the variety of architectural styles and places of worship, and in George Town particularly there is a slew of interesting sights to keep you busy for days.
Penang is up there among the best destinations globally for food enthusiasts - showcasing countless culinary delights. The brilliant combination of Chinese, Indian and Malaysian cuisines is executed with skill, making use of the fine fresh produce available and combining these ingredients with a dazzling array of spices, elevating the flavours to a delicious and memorable level.
One classic Penang dish is fried oysters, cooked up with chilli sauce and herbs and then served on a smoky omelette. Char kway teow is another noodle-based dish which originates in Penang, and consists of rice noodles, soy sauce, chillies, bean sprouts, prawns, shrimp paste and Chinese sausage, all cooked in a wok over a high heat and dished up at speed. It is served all over the island and it’s a cheap and filling meal. Authentic Indian food is also widely available, and cooked with flair and considerable spice - prepared for Indian diners and tourists alike. Nasi kandar, for example, combines traditional Indian and Malaysian flavours in the form various curries served alongside steamed rice.
Laksa is the ultimate dish to sample in Penang, and there are some legendary places to try it dotted around the island. Laksa is a spicy soup with a slightly fishy base note, layered with tamarind, chilli and lime, then piled with noodles, cucumber, lettuce, mint and fish or meat, with thick spicy sauce and sliced onion to garnish. A staple throughout Southeast Asia, laksa is a must-eat food in Penang.
Discovering the George Town street art is a popular way to get to know the character and heritage of the old city, where the variety and quality of the artworks on display is fabulous. Since 2012 artists have been invited to paint murals amongst the historic lanes of George Town, which has caused the street art scene to explode and given the whole area an alluring ‘art treasure hunt’ vibe. Some of the most famous murals include Brother and Sister on a Swing by Louis Gan, as well as some of the original murals by Ernest Zacharevic such as Little Children on a Bicycle on Armenian Street, and Reaching Up on Cannon Street. The UNESCO listed town is also heaven for anyone who likes poking about in little boutiques and galleries, or enjoying cafe culture - this town was made for strolling, browsing and stopping off for a coffee or a bite to eat.
Don’t miss the opportunity to visit some of Penang’s impressive cultural sights while you are touring the island. Kek Lok Si Temple is one of the largest Buddhist temples in Malaysia and one of Penang’s most spectacular excursions. There’s a mini funicular to take you to the top if you don’t fancy the climb in the heat, and from the top the views are fantastic. The pagoda is more impressive still, with its multi-tiered roof and colourful rooftops.
Call in at the Tropical Spice Gardens in the northwest of the island for an immersive experience where over 500 species of plants are grown, with an emphasis on spices and herbs. You can follow the marked trails around as you wish or find out more about the plants around you with an audio guide. The Spice Gardens also run cookery classes to put all those herbs and spices to good use, and there is a shop where you can pick up some fragrant souvenirs.
Penang National Park is a protected swathe of verdant forest and mangroves studded with undeveloped beaches and laced with walking trails. If you feel the need to be at one with nature on Penang then this is the place to do so. There is turtle breeding activity all year round on some of the beaches, plus there are monkeys and birds to spot in the forests. Take a fresh look at the protected corner of tropical woodland by following the canopy walkway high in the trees, giving you a great perspective on local wildlife. Don’t forget your swimsuit as the beaches here are worth the hike.
Penang is a holiday island and there are plenty of activities to experience. Take a trip up Penang Hill, accessible via a funicular ride from Air Itam to the 700 metre summit where you can choose from a handful of options to fill your time. Many choose to simply soak in the view, which is especially beautiful if the weather is clear or you arrive just before dusk to watch the twinkling lights of the island and the mainland spread out before you. Otherwise, visit The Habitat Skywalk, a dizzyingly high walkway above the treetops and surrounding areas. There are also many hiking trails which weave around the area, and restaurants are dotted around the hill for a meal with a view.
The major resort zone is strung along behind Batu Ferringhi Beach, and to serve the many visitors there are plenty of beach and water activities available for reasonable prices. As the sun goes down the whole strip comes to life, with stalls selling classic holiday souvenirs, street food vendors and families strolling along.
Discover the many faces of Penang island for yourself. Whether you want a holiday full of amazing flavours, natural experiences, cultural immersion or beach based action you can find it on Penang. Our specialist operators arrange exciting, bespoke trips calling on their local knowledge to make your holiday extra special. Get in touch with them today to make your dreams into reality. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.