After watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain visiting Penang, Malaysia – I knew I wanted to go. The main reason? The food. Penang is famous for being one of the most culinary rich places in SE Asia – especially when it comes to street food – which happens to be our favorite. Our week spent here in George Town (the main city of the island) was definitely not disappointing as far as the food was concerned. That’s for sure. But there were things about Penang that surprised me, things that I wasn’t expecting and things I just wasn’t mentally prepared for.
Let’s start with our arrival. Our flight from Koh Samui to Penang was a short hour and a half. Even though we were flying west – we went forward an hour in time zones. The customs and immigration process was extremely easy and we were picked up by our Airbnb host, named Ocean, from the airport. Unbeknownst to us – the Airbnb we booked was very much in a residential and locals area. We didn’t see one other tourist on our block the entire week we spent here.
The great thing about the location of our apartment was that it was walking distance to two amazing food courts with hawker stands selling cheap, delicious and authentic Malay food. Truly – this is all I wanted out of Penang.
The food courts are so great. There are dozens of stands selling different items – usually specializing in 2 or 3 things. After arriving, we’d usually do a lap around to see what each stand was offering. After deciding what to eat, the next step was to find a table – each table has a number assigned to it. Then it’s time to order. All you need to do is place your order with whatever stand (or stands) you’d like to dine from, give them your table number, then they deliver it right to you! It’s so easy! And you don’t pay them until they’ve brought the food to you. I was just thinking how awesome it would be to have this system back home in Portland.
Before eating at the food courts – I did some Googling. I wanted to know what the “must-try” Malay street foods were and I wanted to eat them all. So I did and we did. Char Koay Teow was listed as the signature street food of Penang. It basically looks like Pad Thai but it’s so not. It’s similar but with a slightly different flavor, not very peanut-y and about a million times better. I was obsessed. I think I ate Char Koay Teow about 4 times in the 7 days we were here.
There were so many other great foods aside from this incredible noodle dish. We had fresh steamed fish, clay pots with rice and chicken, delicious Indian food – there were so many choices! Penang is known for having a diverse mix of cultures including Chinese, Indian and Malay so you could definitely see the influence in all the different food stalls.
Another thing that Penang has plenty of are museums. These aren’t the museums I’m used to back home – the kind where you visit to learn about a particular subject or view works of priceless one-of-a-kind art. The museums here are very…unique. And a bit cheesy. Each museum seems to have a theme – there’s a toy museum, a 3-D Glow in the Dark museum, a food museum, an Upside Down museum – the list goes on. It seemed to me that the point of these was to get a good laugh and take some great photos. Which of course we did.
Our museum of choice was the Upside Down museum. There’s about a dozen rooms or so and each room has furniture fixed to the ceiling or sideways on the walls. And for every room there’s an attendant there to tell you how to pose and then they take your picture. After the pictures are done? You shuffle to the next room and repeat the process. It was pretty silly but we had some good laughs.
Another thing Penang, specifically George Town, is famous for is the street art. This was probably my favorite thing about the city (besides the food, obviously.) Intricate and fabulous displays of art could be found in tiny alleys and random streets throughout the entire town. Typically the street art we’ve seen at home and other places around the world is with spray paint and generally with bright colors. These pieces were more detailed, realistic and painted with muted colors. Some even added real chains or pieces of wood to make it come to life. Truly works of art. It made for some even more amazing (and not so cheesy) photo ops.
Only having a week in Penang we wanted to make sure we saw the more nature-centric part of the island as well. To accomplish this we visited the Penang Botanical Gardens and the Penang National Park. Both of which were free! It was really nice to get back into nature and away from the hustle of the city. While walking around the botanical gardens, I think we both agreed that we prefer to be surrounded by nature than city life. The great thing about the botanical gardens? THE MONKEYS! Oh my god there were so many cute monkeys! The Macaques were everywhere. And so many newborn ones too! It was fantastic. Aside from the monkeys there were gorgeous tropical plants, huge palms and beautiful landscapes.
The national park is up on the northwestern side of the island – it’s actually the smallest national park in the world! We decided beforehand that we’d do an hour and a half hike to a place called Monkey Beach (yay!) The hike was fairly difficult – mostly because it was super hot and muggy outside but also because the trail was pretty tricky. The trails at times had overgrown vines to crawl over and under. Sometimes the trail was super steep and slippery. Another thing? There were gigantic water monitors along the shore of which the trail followed. Oh my god sometimes these things were 4 feet long! So scary.
But we made it! It was extremely rewarding to finally reach the beach. We saw more monkeys! And we had a nice lunch before heading back to the trailhead.
Overall we enjoyed our time in Penang but – I did mention earlier that there were some things that surprised me and things that I wasn’t really prepared for. One thing that I found surprising was how unfriendly the city is when it comes to walking. It’s not easy to get around on foot in this city. Sidewalks are hard to find. Traffic is crazy and unpredictable. And there’s no crosswalks anywhere so attempting to cross a street is like a game of Frogger. So nuts.
Another thing is – I knew before coming to Malaysia that it was a predominately Muslim so I was fully prepared to respect their traditions and culture. With that in mind, I knew I would be dressing a bit more conservatively (even though many blogs said not to worry about it.) However, I noticed right away that no matter what I was wearing people would stare at me. Not just take a look for a couple seconds then look away – but I mean STARE. People would be riding their motorbikes down the street and necks would crank just to continue staring. It was super uncomfortable. For the first few days I was trying to figure out why the hell I was such a spectacle. I wasn’t dressing inappropriately. I wasn’t acting in a way that was disrespectful. I just couldn’t figure it out.
After reading a few more blogs about other Westerner’s (specifically women’s) visits to Malaysia – I realized that it was just a stare due to the unfamiliar. As I mentioned – there were hardly any tourists in our area, if any at all. My blonde hair and blue eyes are something that is not seen very often and apparently the staring? It’s not considered rude. So…after a couple of days…I just started to expect it and deal with it. My defense was usually just a big fat smile back – it usually seemed to do the trick.
Penang was cool and we’re glad we saw it. It was nice to see the mix of cultures and traditions aside from the fact that it is run by a Muslim government. It still felt like a big melting pot. Our bellies are full, we’re a bit more knowledgeable about Malaysian ways and we’re excited to keep exploring the country! Now it’s time to hop on a train to the city of Ipoh!