Having an unexpected three-day holiday around the Chinese New Year, and the travel bug still eating on me even after moving to my dream place, Thailand, I took the chance of a discounted return flight and traveled to Georgetown, Penang. Among the hundreds idyllic islands and cities spread between Thailand and Malaysia, why Georgetown?
Because the city (Malaysia’s second largest ) boasts an incredible combination of art, business, colonial heritage and a delightful local cuisine. In reason of the different cultures that call Penang home, Georgetown’s architecture is incredibly varied, and temples stand just steps from mosques while traditional Peranakan houses are around the corner from grand colonial buildings. Coming from the hustle and bustle of downtown Bangkok, it’s such a pleasure to walk in this pedestrian friendly city where time stands still. It’s China meets the British, meets Malay, meets India, meets the Dutch, meets Portugal, and for sure I’m forgetting someone else. So, why not?
I had been in Penang in 2006 but at that time Georgetown hadn’t impressed me: all I remember was an old fashioned and depressed city with dirty roads. However I heard that things had changed for the better, and I wanted to give it a second try.
It all started in 2008 when, after being listed as World Heritage Site by the UNESCO for its many original Chinese shophouses and historical architecture, the city council asked a team of artists to create art installations to tell its story. That first project paved the way for more artists to come and nowadays street art is displayed in many buildings in downtown, while ongoing projects attract artists and artisans, and new galleries and boutiques open every month.
Street art is the perfect excuse to go on a treasure hunt by foot, by bicycle or trishaw, and this is what I did. Both days I woke up early and started wondering around, phone in one hand, a map in the other, looking for Lithuanian artist Zacharevich’s series of murals called “Mirrors George Town”. The “Boy on a bike” and “Little boy with pet dinosaur” are two of the most famous and interesting paintings in the city. “Little children on a bicycle” is a variation of the former, with a real bike instead of a motorcycle. “Little girl in blue” is a 20-foot mural, again by Zacharevich, in Muntri street. Ah Quee street, Armenian street, Lebuh Leith and Weld Quai are some of the streets with worth-to-see murals, but keep your eyes open all around the city, or pick up a Penang street art map at the Tourist Information Centre, because Art is everywhere in Georgetown.
The second reason why I chose to go back to Penang is the food. Food in Georgetown reflects the mixed nationalities and cultures that call the city home, and restaurants (hole-in-the-wall restaurants as well as hipster coffee places and haute cuisine venues) are thriving. On my second day, after a full English breakfast near my hotel, I ventured out for a walk in Little India and couldn’t resist a second serve of freshly cooked samosa from a street stall. Then it was lunch time, and who could say no to a Malay spicy soup and curry? Certainly not me. At dinner I had jaozi (Chinese dumplings) and some steamed veggies in soya sauce, followed by Italian gelato.
Chinese New Year (known as Spring Festival in China) was approaching, and the city was embellished with red lanterns and decorations all around houses and temples. Most of the Malay Chinese that live in Penang come from Fujian province, or from Guangdong, and today 40% of the island’s population is of Chinese ethnicity, so no wonder that the Spring Festival in Georgetown involves large celebrations.
Among all the red and gold decorations displayed in the festive city, though, my new favourite colour are the Indigo blue walls of the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion. In an ideal life I would be eating samosa for breakfast, ride a boat to work everyday, and live in this house with a monkey pet, ten cats and a guy who can cook like Tony Bourdain. This famous mansion was the creation and nest of one of the wealthiest Chinese industrials in Asia, and it has been turned into a boutique hotel by the present owners. It can be visited three times a day, and the one-hour tour is led by the lively landlord herself. Go check it out, and you’ll learn some interesting facts about the house and the man behind it.
Penang Hill & Entopia
Besides eating and art hunting, in Penang I spent a day hiking the famous Penang Hill and visiting the incredibly beautiful butterfly garden of Entopia. The former is the most famous place in Penang for trekking as not only it offers fabulous views of Georgetown, but the fun part starts even before reaching the destination: a funicular train to Penang Hill leaves from the bottom of Bukit Bendera. The ticket is quite expensive for foreigners (around 30 Ringit), however this railway is the steepest tunnel track in the world, and Asia’s longest funicular track. You will pass some picturesque century old colonial-style buildings before reaching the upper level station. At the top of the hill, there are several trails of different lengths and other attractions including shops and restaurants. I did a 2-hour trekking by myself (but free guided walks are available at fixed times) then ate a bite in a food court and descended just after noon in order to go visiting Entopia.
This is a giant covered garden with a glass roof that lets the sun rays light up the whole area. And it houses two worlds: Natureland is the outdoor garden where around 15,000 free-flying butterflies, over 150 species of insects and reptiles and more than 200 species of plants live, and The Cocoon is the indoor discovery centre with some educational stations and indoor activities to self discover the insect world.
All insects are interesting, but to experience butterflies like you do at Entopia is just fantastic: there are about 60 different species, some as little as a daisy’s petal, some as large as a hand, and they all fly freely around, sometimes landing on you, if you stay still long enough!
Reaching Entopia takes about 45 minutes from the center of Georgetown, however it’s a very pleasant journey: buses are frequent and air-conditioned, and the routes quite easy to navigate; plus you’ll have the chance to get a glimpse of the island and some beaches. Another option is Grab, very useful if you don’t want to wait for the bus, and quite cheap compared to normal taxis. I used it a few times and both drivers not only spoke perfect English but were eager to provide tips and info.
I only had two full days to spend in Penang, and that’s why I limited myself to the city of Georgetown and nearby destinations, however the island is a fantastic escape for travellers who want to experience a combination of nature, culture, food and even some beach life: don’t expect the turquoise waters of Samui and Koh Lipe, anyway the island has got plenty of long, white sandy beaches where you’ll have a chance to relax in between tours. Isn’t it great?
Several airlines fly to Penang via Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.