Take around 700,000 people, throw in a steamy, equatorial climate and one of Asia’s largest Buddhist temples. Add some breathtaking coastal beauty, a UNESCO-listed capital, a compelling mash-up of cultures, languages and religions, one healthy durian-growing industry, a dynamic tech hub, lush jungles filled with... oh, pythons and stuff... and some of the best food in the whole darned world. Shake everything up, stick it all on an island just off the Malaysian coast and call the place Penang. (Actually, Penang is a Malaysian state, the island as well as a chunk of the mainland. But for ease, let’s just call the island, ‘Penang’. And we’ll revisit the food another time and in greater depth, because it deserves more than a passing mention.) For the rest, suffice to say this is a jewel of a destination where, if culture, heritage, history and nature tick your boxes, rock your world and float your boat, you could easily fill up several weeks. We’ve visited Penang a few times and we fall for it a little more each time we do. Here’s what we do when we’re there.
Depending on who you talk to, the pit vipers inhabiting this unique venue either have, or have not, been devenomed. Either way, the sign says not to pick them up and it’d be a prize idiot that argued with common sense. Said reptiles twine themselves around little stands dotted about the temple, which dates from 1850. They’re apparently kept in sedation by the heavy incense fumes and locals believe the reptiles stay of their own volition. Hanging around with a whole bunch of snakes hanging around is really quite an experience and, if your inner herpetologist craves more snaky action, there’s plenty just next door at the Snake Farm. Where you can handle a couple of albino Burmese pythons and gasp in wonder at their room-mate, a ginormous reticulated python, its head the size of a small planet. If you’re given to queasiness, dont ask what they feed it. Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah, 11900 Bayan Lepas
In season from June to August, depending on the weather, there’s no escaping durian in Penang, where they’re a significant crop. If you’re new to the infamously odiferous fruit, do be brave and try it; the taste is delicious, the custard-like texture is dead sexy and you’ll never get a better introduction to it than you will in Penang. Sellers set up make-shift tables right on the street and dextrously hack open the spiny fruits to order. The selection process is serious business and there are a number of different varieties, each with their own nuances. The Musang King, said to taste rich and creamy like toasted marshmallow, is particularly prized. Determining ripeness involves a ritual of shaking (the seed should move slightly), tapping (which should result in a particular ‘thunk’) and sniffing (the odour should be strong). If you can’t get past the smell, with those heady notes of pudding and putrefaction, at least try the home-made durian ice cream at atmospheric Kek Seng (382-384 Penang Road), one of the oldest kopi tiams in George Town.
Grab bus 101 from the Komtar, or hail it as it chugs up Chulia Street. Pay your 2RM then sit and watch the coast and condos slip by, until the 101 arrives at Tanjung Bungah. There’s not a whole lot here per se (it’s a few clicks south of Batu Ferringhi), although the bus ride is undeniably chillaxing. But the impressive “floating” mosque, built on stilts over the sea, is worth the trip. It replaces the original, destroyed by the 2004 tsunami; the Moorish-inspired design and towering minarets are eye catching. Walk to the adjoining bay where two Chinese restaurants (the Tsunami and the Hollywood) have beach-side dining options and unusually, given their proximity to a mosque, plenty of cold beer flowing. Tajung Bungah Road, +60 4250 2800
Sam's Batik House
Since 1982, Sam’s has been plying a trade in cotton and silk kurtis and kurtas, Punjabi suits, blouses, shirts and homewares, mainly sourced from India. Think dazzling colors, flattering shapes and stunning hand-embroidered embellishments. The shop is so crammed with goodies, it’s almost impossible to make rational buying decisions outside of taking two of everything you fancy. Owners Michael, his wife Rachael and their staff are super-duper helpful. They’re accustomed to the dazed stupefaction that hits most first-time punters and will patiently help you connect with garments you love. 185 Penang Road, +60 4262 1095
Gurney, Batu Ferringhi and George Town - these are the places you’ll most likely be floating about in while in Penang. But also consider Balik Pulau, situated on the southern end of the island, where the pace is s-l-o-w. Rice paddies, traditional villages and orchards are scattered about bucolic topical landscapes, hemmed in by the coast to one side and towering hills on the other. This magical pocket is famed for nutmeg, coconuts, durians and sugar cane. Balik Pulau township has enough old architecture and ramshackle charm to warrant an afternoon of ambling - lunching on assam laksa and made-to-order sour plum and nutmeg juice is a highlight. Do this at Kim’s Laksa at Nan Guang Coffeeshop (67 Main Road, Balik Pulau); note they are closed on Wednesdays. While in these parts you might also want to check out the fishing hamlet of Pulau Betung, a kilometer or two out of town, for a taste of local life. To get to Balik Pulau, jump aboard bus 401 or 401E from the Jetty stop, in George Town.
Kek Lok Si Temple
Kek Lok Si, or the Temple of Ultimate Happiness, is a doozy. Built on a spectacular hillside location overlooking the city to the ocean beyond, it was constructed between 1890 and 1931. A warren of worship halls, sanctuaries, shrines, pavilions, ponds, walkways and gardens, it’s a tranquil place to spend a few hours; the views from up here are impressive. A place of pilgrimage for Buddhists from all over Asia, and a significant centre of religious teaching, it’s always pretty busy. Don’t miss the short cablecar ride up to the thirty meter tall bronze statue of the Goddess Guanyin. She’s surrounded by a hundred, two meter-tall goddess statues and enclosed within a sixty meter high pavilion that’s supported by sixteen granite columns, each intricately hand carved. It’s quite something to behold; from the base of the statue to the tip of the pavilion is the height of a twenty story building. 115000 Ayer Itam, +60 4828 3317
Walk the streets
While much of Asia was busy hurling wrecking balls through quaint, historic quarters, reworking centuries-worth of character and charm into cookie cutter condos and splashy malls, Georgetown quietly mouldered. In 2008, UNESCO pronounced its well preserved core a World Heritage Site, protecting the pretty, pre-war shop-houses, temples, mosques and clan halls. What’s fantastic about George Town today is that it still feels delightfully gritty and authentic, with a business-as-usual air despite the gawking tourists. Sure, Armenian Street is a little commercialised but for the most part, Georgetown is scuffed and worn in the best possible ways. Some shops and restaurants have been passed down through three generations and are still run by the original families. There are elderly tailors toiling over antiquated Singer machines, crumbly kopi tiams exuding clouds of cooking steam and old-time craftsmen carving wooden shop signs, hand-working rattan chairs and making name chops. Some of these represent the last of their trade, sadly. Then there’s the incredible architectural mix - from the Persian-esque domes of the Capitan Keling Mosque, the fantastical reliefs on the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple and ubiquitous Chinese roof detailing to myriad European colonial touches (columns, window shutters etc). Penang Tourist Information Centre (No 10, Ground floor, The Whiteaways Arcade, Pantai Road) dispense maps and pamphlets that are a few cuts above normal tourist lit; be sure to grab a handful.
Pinang Peranakan Mansion
Built in 1893 by Chung Keng Kwee, the wealthiest man in Penang at the time, this place is incredible. Even museum-phobes will be fascinated by the architecture and contents, painstakingly restored (and the latter painstakingly collected) by owner Peter Soon, a passionate devotee of all things Peranakan. Write off a couple of hours to immerse yourself in the singular grandeur; the rooms and exhibits just go on and on and the items on display are spectacular. English tiling, Scottish iron lacework, gorgeous old family portraits, Chinese carved panels, intricately inlaid furniture (including a traditional bridal bed), embroideries and collections of glassware, flatware, jewellery and other antiques... it’s a head-spinning glimpse into another way of life. 29 Church Street, +60 4264 2929
Wander along busy Weld Quay to the handful of atmospheric old wooden clan jetties that still survive. Essentially little villages on stilts, built over the sea in the late 19th century, each jetty is named after the shared surname of the original inhabitants. Hence “Ong”, “Lim”, “Chew” etc. Initially the jetties were used to handle cargo and moor boats; gradually, families began living in the simple sheds built along them and over time these gave way to permanent homes. The jetties are still places of residence, so tourists need to maintain decorum when looking around. Chew Jetty is the most commercialised, with its souvenir shops, drink stalls and quaint old temples. The Tan Jetty is perhaps the most dramatic. Past its cluster of homes, it peters out into a long, rickety, wooden finger that takes you way out over the water, ending at the solitary Temple of Goddess of Seafarers Mazu. If you’re nervy without hand rails, maybe stay closer to shore.
Gurney Drive Hawker Center
In a place where what’s “the best” - culinarily speaking - is a hotly debated topic, everyone has an opinion on which hawker centre to dine at. And yes, technically, there might be ‘better’ ones than that on Gurney Drive; New Lane Hawker Center on Lorong Baru, for example. But for our money, the trip up the coast, the open-air vibe and the happy throngs jostling for the huge variety of dishes at Gurney Drive, all make for one satisfying excursion. Come hungry so you can make the most of what’s on offer - from curry mee, rojak, assam laksa, sotong, pasembur, char kway teow, popiah, grilled fish and satay through to cendol and ais kacang, you’ll find pretty much every Must Eat proposition Penang will throw at you. It’s open from around 6pm-midnight, every day. 5 Persiaran Gurney
On Chulia Street, there’s a cluster of shops bursting with collectibles; old enamelware, Chinese export porcelain, antique mooncake moulds, crumbling old posters, 1930s studio photographs and other bits and bobs. If you love a good rummage - and who doesn’t? - you’ll find some treasures. Start your crawl at Lean Giap Trading (443 Chulia Street) where the astounding collection of old china is always our downfall. Then, walk toward Penang Street and take in the few more antique shops along the way. A little out of the town centre, Lorong Kulit Flea Market is worth the taxi ride. Open weekends only from 8am to 2 pm, there’s a heap of junk (car parts, cheap wallets and sunglasses, that kind of thing), but some vintage gems too. Get here first thing for the good stuff as it goes rather fast.
The Eastern & Oriental Hotel
Built by the fabled Sarkies brothers (also responsible for Raffles Hotel in Singapore) in 1884, here’s where we retreat when the urge for pinot grigio gets the better of us. With its commanding sea frontage and intimate, clubby corners, such as (our fav) Farquhar’s Bar, this is the perfect retreat from the relentless heat and clamour of Georgetown’s streets. Although parts of it have been significantly restored or even rebuilt, the property still exudes the grandeur it did when Rita Hayworth, Douglas Fairbanks, Somerset Maugham, Hermann Hesse and other notables swanned about its glittering interiors. 10 Lebuh Farquhar, +60 4222 2000
When we win the lotto, this is where we’ll stay. Seven Terraces is an opulent boutique hotel, fashioned around seven gorgeously renovated terrace houses in the centre of Georgetown’s historic district. It fuses the best of modern amenities with traditionally-inspired decor and the result is a thing of staggering beauty. If you’re not a house guest, you can still avail yourself of their elegant Kebaya Restaurant and bar, where the menu gives local dishes a French haute cuisine twist. 2-16 Stewart Lane, +60 4261 8888