A cauldron of history, arts, culture and food keeps multi-faceted Penang bubbling.
Artist Ernest Zacharevic’s illustrative paintings of local daily life are daubed on buildings across town and kick-started a trend for public art that keeps a curious crowd of tourists and residents hunting new works.
It’s late afternoon and the sun casts a syrupy glow through the open windows of the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. Gold paint glints from intricate carved panels and mother-of-pearl inlay shines from stocky dark wood tables and chairs. Upstairs, an ornate bed dressed in pink silk shimmers. Each room is so complete, so brimming with detail, it’s as if the Baba – the man of this impressive residence – has just stepped out for business and his wife, his Nyonya, has gone for afternoon tea. In fact, the mansion dates back to 1894.
Full of Stories
To visit Penang on Peninsular Malaysia’s northwest coast is to visit an island steeped in history, yet alive in traditions that continue to evolve. Historic sites in Penang’s charmingly timeworn Georgetown, where the Pinang Peranakan mansion is located, are plentiful, surprisingly cheap and easy to access. Ancient Chinese settlements, Indian temples, and white colonial buildings – Penang was settled by the British East India Company in 1786 – can all be glimpsed on an afternoon trip. Alongside Pinang Peranakan on any itinerary should be The Khoo Kongsi, the elaborate clan home that was also the location for, Anna and the King, the period film starring Jodie Foster, which features richly ornamented halls, houses and a theatre. Close by, vivid blue exteriors of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion jut strikingly against other white colonial buildings. Another must-see is clan jetties, of which the Chew Jetty is the longest, where stilted houses are built on water along the wooden ramp.
Hiring private cars is common among tourists, but a trishaw ride takes you to the sights up close and, if you are lucky, supplies personal recollections and recommendations from your driver. Tourists can dip and weave in and out of Saturday afternoon traffic (less busy than weekdays) around the well-preserved sites, sailing through the town’s quaint Chinatown section and through Little India, where Bollywood’s rhythmic tunes boom from speakers, stopping at points to sample local staples at food stands.
A Modern Face
However, Penang is not merely about looking back; culture spins just as close today as it did yesterday. Since being awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2008, Georgetown has welcomed new art and culture initiatives. Artist Ernest Zacharevic’s illustrative paintings of local daily life are daubed on buildings across town and kick-started a trend for public art that keeps a curious crowd of tourists and residents hunting new works.
“Before, people used to stay at home on weekends. Now, they have something to look for. It’s a lot busier these days,” says Lim, a trishaw driver.
On Armenian Street on Saturday evenings, a second-hand market displays goods on a grass bank while buskers strum and sing. Project Occupy Beach Street sees roads barricaded on Sunday mornings, freeing them for activities, such as rollerblading, Zumba, street markets and live music and performances. Traditional and contemporary arts are displayed every last Sunday of the month at the Little Penang market. All around these areas, little coffee shops are springing up next to traditional bakeries, like the Ming Xiang Tai Pastry Shop, which is still sought for its egg tarts.
At the centre of all of this is the food. Penang is a famous and undisputed centre of street food, drawn from the melting pot of ethnicities including Malays, Chinese and Indians that call the island home. Trawling stands and hawker centres as practised cooks ladle their steaming specialities into bowls puts a visitor smack-bang into the island’s continual and evolving melting pot of flavours and tastes. From the Laksas to the Nasi Lemak, Prawn Soups and Roti Canai, to Cendol Iced Desserts, visitors going home with empty stomachs will have missed half the experience.
Foodies can venture out of Georgetown to discover more culinary pleasures. A new hop-on, hop-off bus makes attractions shouldering Batu Ferringhi’s beaches an easy trip. About 45 minutes north of town, intoxicating scents fill the air at the Tropical Spice Gardens. Celebrated local cooks Rohana Turner and Pearly Kee share the secrets of Malay and Nyonya recipes amidst eight acres of lush gardens in hands-on classes that sell out and so should be booked ahead.
Lap of Luxury
At Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa, Penang, a tropical idyll with chirpy, smiling staff and a laid-back island vibe, durian packages are highly desired. The spike-skinned fruit, adored across Asia and famed for its pungent-smelling pulpy flesh, originates in Balik Pulau, an area famous for its durian plantations. In season, between June to September, the hotel and its neighbour, Golden Sands Resort, Penang, offers an all-you-can eat package that presents many species of the locally grown fruit for endless sampling. The resort's excellent service and high quality dining experience certainly make it a tourists’ favourite, but it is also exceedingly popular among locals who enjoy the finer things in life.
Durians are a good excuse to stay on hotel grounds, but so is a sprawling pool shaded by 100-year-old rain trees the hotel built around to preserve, a stroll on the private beach and a trip to CHI, The Spa. A traditional Rasa Asmaradana massage of herbs, lemon grass and pandan leaf applied using age-old healing techniques and performed in a luxury villa seems a perfect way to sum up Penang – embracing tradition, yet inviting change.
Top tips for travelling to Penang
- Beat the heat: Temperatures sizzle year round in Penang. Avoid becoming frazzled by sightseeing before 11 a.m. or after 3 p.m.
- Taste tours: Days could be spent wandering hawker stalls, so plan ahead. The government produces a pamphlet on the many types of street food, but ask locals for their recommendations or consider taking a tour.
- Explore: There’s more to Penang than Georgetown. Balik Pulau, known as “the other side of the island”, contains ancient fishing villages, mosques and temples, rice paddies and spice and goat farms, and can be reached by private car or toured by bicycle.
- Safety first: There’s an abundance of parasailing operators around Batu Ferringhi’s beaches. Check safety credentials or ask your hotel for advice before booking, as some are unregulated.
- Money matters: Bartering at markets is totally acceptable, with locals advising to begin haggling at half the suggested first sum. Tipping is not expected.