Penang is one of the easiest weekend escapes from Bangkok, and it is also one of the best. The small island and its historic capital George Town offer a knockout punch of eye-pleasing delights, from George Town’s captivating colonial architecture and turn of the century Chinese mansions, to its iconic street art, which flourished after the city was listed by UNESCO for World Heritage Site status. Throw in some of the best street food in Southeast Asia and there is little to complain about in one of Asia’s most seductive spots.
Old George Town (and not Georgetown as it is so often incorrectly spelled) is a small place, meant to be navigated on foot with its winding narrow lanes that can barely fit cars inside. Those who find walking in the tropical heat a bit much can always hire a becak (trishaw) driver to pedal them around, and the drivers are usually a wealth of knowledge about where all the best spots are. Slowing down here also affords one the chance to really appreciate its superlative traditional architecture, comprised both of crumbling old colonial buildings and ancient Chinese mansions
The Peranakan Chinese, descendants of Chinese immigrants, who are also called Baba-Nyonya, have their own distinct culture, and some of their regal homes are open for touring in Penang. The Penang Peranakan Mansion (29 Church Street) was built in the late 19th century, and sports a unique mix of both Chinese and European art and architecture. This home, like most of the others here, belonged to successful merchants, an ode to the rise of immigrants in Penang, and while this mansion has been fully restored, even some of the nearby ones that have not still feature large and colourful wooden doors and shutters, along with gaily painted balustrades.
Rags to riches tales are part of the George Town lore, and the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (14 Lebuh Leith) is another must-visit architectural gem. Open for public tours, as well as operating as a bed and breakfast and museum, the mansion was the home of Boon Siew, who became a millionaire operating trade ships, but actually started out as a kid as a water carrier. The gorgeous old mansion is actually just one of a handful along Leith Street, which has been nicknamed “Hakka millionaire’s row” due to the number of immigrant success stories and lavish old homes here.
Wandering George Town’s charming alleys and lanes, you’re bound to come across its eye catching street art. In fact, the tourist office gives out street art maps these days, and don’t be surprised to see queues forming for photo ops at some of the top murals, as many visitors come here just for this. In 2010, the Penang government commissioned a studio to decorate parts of the city with 3D cartoon pieces, ranging from murals to steel structures, and this started a rage of street artistry, with the most prolific and famous pieces being rendered by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, whose murals of kids riding bicycles or local becak pedallers becoming as famed as the shophouse architecture surrounding them
Not to be outdone by the architecture, the hawker street food scene in Penang remains just as popular as a draw, perhaps even more visually stunning to some. Locals queue up for ages at some spots, like the ice cendol cart (pronounced chendul), a green jelly noodles and coconut milk concoction with shaved ice, sold by a vendor on Penang Road, or the nearby char kuey teow (stir fried rice noodles).
Also a big menu favourite in Penang are popiah (spring rolls). Over at the Chowrasta morning market, an old man known as Uncle Lim has made somewhere in the vicinity of 10 million skins for the tasty spring rolls, standing over the same griddle for over fifty years now. These kind of age-old traditions flourish in Penang, and continue strong these days with foodie tours now coming in to check out and support these old masters.
Another spot packed out with food tours and locals is a hole-in-the-wall cafe, known as Toh Soon, set in an open-air passageway, where a collection of rickety tables sit under lime green iron railings, where customers wait for up to an hour to get charcoal grilled toast and a cup of strong and sweet Hainanese coffee, one of Penang’s best.
Other dishes that make the bucket lists for Penang eats include asam laksa, thick rice noodles cooked in a sour and spicy soup broth laced with tamarind paste, and the Hokkien mee rice noodles that are cooked in a stock made of dried prawns, shrimp paste, and lard and then served with vegetables and sambal paste. Perhaps the best way to find all the best vendor stalls and learn about Penang’s culinary history (as well as how to make some of the dishes) is via a cooking class and visit to the wet markets with the experts. Penang native Nazlina Hussin (www.pickles-and-spices.com) runs traditional classes at her cooking studio as well as market visits several times a week.
The only thing you’ll complain about on a weekend in Penang is that it is far more suited for a week, meaning you’ll either just have to come back or else stay longer.
Getting There and Around:
A range of carriers, from Air Asia to Bangkok Airways to Thai Air, all have multiple daily flights to Penang. Transportation on the island is fantastic, with cheap public buses running just about everywhere, and taxis are also available. The center of George Town itself is quite small and suitable for navigating on foot.
For colonial elegance, The Eastern and Oriental Hotel 10 Lebuh Farquar, Tel: +60 4 222 2000, features two wings overlooking a primes spot on the Georgia Straits, and is synonymous with Penang’s classy history, being in existence for over a century.
The Campbell House (106 Lebuh Campbell, Tel: +60 4 261 8290) is the top choice for intimate boutique in the old heritage zone.
Penang Heritage Trust (26 Lebuh Gereja, Tel: +60 4 2642631) leads daily walking and trishaw tours of historic Penang.
Ice cendol and char kuey teow: Lebuh Keng Kwee off Penang Road
Toh Soon Cafe: 184 Campbell Street
Pasar Air Itam Laksa: Jalan Pasar, Air Itam