The New and the Old in Penang
Yeoh Siew Hoon reveals some of the lesser-known delights of her hometown.
If you’re still in the mood for more old-world charm, then head to the well-established Rumah Perut on Jalan Kelawei for some of the best Peranakan food on the island.
Travelling as often as I do – this week alone, I went from Penang to Phuket to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic via Paris – I spend a lot of time at airports. The first thing I do is to check for free wifi and try to log on. In this respect, of these four airports, Penang wins hands-down for being the easiest to access wifi and stay connected. No registration, no password – just click and you are on.
Anyway, back to Penang. This island has changed much in the past couple of years as it has embraced the new world of connectivity to attract a new generation of travellers: those who are tech-savvy enough to make use of various social media platforms to suss out the best things any destination has to offer.
In the last couple of years, images of Penang, its heritage area and its striking wall art have gone viral on social networks and, these days, you sometimes have to queue to take turns to take photos of the wall art.
While Facebook and the like have been good with helping travellers discover hidden gems, the drawback is that they send everyone to the same places, especially the eateries. Travellers also use social media to find the best places to eat and, if you spend a couple of days in Penang, you can find yourself bumping into the same crowds at the same places. Best chendol (a traditional dessert in Southeast Asia)? Penang Road. Best zhi char (home-cooked food)? Tek Sen, Chulia Street. Best cool café to hang out at? China House. Best char koay teow? Lorong Selamat.
So what I thought I’d do this month is to tell you a few things that you may not yet know about Penang.
1. Most locals will tell you that Penang Hill is the most underrated tourist attraction on their island. There is now a new audio guide available that helps you get to know the hill better as you walk along its path. A British television series called ‘Indian Summers’ is currently being filmed in Penang with the Hill being one of the major locations. The old Crag Hotel and Woodside bungalows have all been transformed into film sets. The series stars British actress Julie Walters, who co-starred with Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia. If you have expatriate friends living in Penang, don’t be surprised if you find them appearing in the series as extras. And, oh yes, my friends from Penang Global Tourism told me that a new canopy walk is being constructed on the Hill, as well.
2. When you drive from the airport to the Shangri-La establishments on the island, you will pass a massive construction site with the sign ‘SPICE’. That’s the new convention and exhibition centre that will hopefully bring more business to the island. Scheduled to open in 2016, it will be the first subterranean convention centre in the region.
3. If you love bicycling, you will have something to look forward to – the state government has plans to put in cycling lanes throughout the entire island.
4. Komtar, the high-rise tower in downtown Penang, will soon have bubble lifts to take people up to the rooftop for a unique wine-and-dine experience.
In the meantime, continue to explore the inner city of Georgetown. Lots of new places are opening all the time. On this trip, I discovered a new wine bar called Georgetown Wines. Right across from the Blue Mansion on Leith Street, it’s converted from an old shophouse and stables. It’s no doubt a great spot to imbibe and soak in the old-world charms of Penang.
If you’re still in the mood for more old-world charm, then head to the well-established Rumah Perut on Jalan Kelawei for some of the best Peranakan food on the island. I like the fact that, even though their main clientele is tourists, they haven’t watered down the spices.
This is what I love about Penang, the mix of the old and the new.
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Oh, the bicycle in the picture is not a picture!