Penang: Simple Pleasures

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This post was written by Pamela Nowicka.


If you’re a person for whom the phrase “island delights” conjures up a vision other than sand, sea, and sunbathing – perhaps one of culture, entertainment, and even art – Penang is the island destination of choice for you, a cornucopia of experiences just waiting to be enjoyed.


Penang, off the northwest coast of Malaysia, is an under-discovered gem, a tropical mixture of easy culture, easy travel, and good food. From the carved and golden gorgeousness of the numerous Chinese temples to the exquisite and evocative finery of the shop houses, Penang’s George Town is an accessibl and friendly “Asia lite”. The seasoned traveller can enjoy French toast, visit local cafes serving excellent kopi-o, and ride the air-conditioned local buses, while the less venturesome can indulge in shopping malls, rickshaw rides around town, and evenings spent in pubs and bars.

One of the best things about Penangis that there is always something going on. From art exhibitions and galleries (try China House, A2 Gallery in Bangkok Lane,or Galeri Mutiara in Armenian Street) to street markets, afternoons need never be empty. My favourite malam is the flea market at the junction of Jalan Acheh and Armenian Street, but don’t overlook Lorong Kulit near the stadium, both ideal for wandering, watching, and haggling.If you time it right, Little Penang Street Market will be on (it takes place on the last Sunday of the month), and you get everything from books and bags to cupcakes and hand-made soap.
The trick with Penang is to keep track of events, and many societies have busy schedules. The Malaysian German Society organises talks and events like the Oktoberfest. The IWA (International Women’s Association) holds coffee mornings and visits to local places to learn skills from the experts; spend the morning at an Indian vegetarian café and learn to make veggie food and roti. The Penang Institute organises talks, film screenings, and other events, and there’s often something going on at Straits Quay mall.

Catching up with new film releases is simple in the civilised (and a/c-heavy) Park Avenue multiplex. And is anyone bored with beach-sellers and gypsies flogging overpriced beads and rubbishy trinkets? Fancy some real shopping? George Town has three malls in the glorious, labyrinthine KOMTAR complex, where you can lose yourself for days in a consumer haze of branded shoes, glasses, and chain store cafés. Alternatively, hop on a bus to Gurney Drive for more spending, and then onwards to Straits Quay, which is more upmarket yet still affordable. The upper level of Straits Quay is home to Penang Performance Arts Centre, where audiences flock to plays and concerts that are the talk of the city.


But life in Penang doesn’t have to be rush, rush, rush. Take a stroll down to Little India for roti, masala dosai, or cups of steaming chai (teh tarik). Try the delightful Chai di Amma (closed Tuesdays) in Lebuh Queen for a comfy and unpretentious chill zone, where the lovely Queen Lee runs a tight ship producing home-made smoothies, yummy sandwiches, and noodle dishes in a shop house-cum-craft and art gallery.

Bored with hawker stalls? Or just want to sit and relax? Then Jing Si Books and Café, 31 Jalan Pantai, is a wonderful place to sit, drink teas and coffees, read, and watch the world go by. Charming volunteers bag your shoes and give you slippers to wear, and videos of the Taiwanese spiritual master play quietly in the background as you sip you tea in an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity. There is a selection of well-made gifts, including food items, at the back of the spacious premises for great gifts.

Chuliah Street has travellers’ hangouts, guest houses, and bars for those who prefer want to socialize, but an easy option is simply sipping sweet, sugary drinks in coffee shops with the locals, or hook up with free wi-fi while you eat cheesy toast at The Old White Coffee House in Little India.

If all else fails, just wander the streets of George Town, enjoying murals, oogling into shophouses, and stopping for treats at tiny bakeries like Cinnamon 6 (note to self: eat fewer custard puffs). And if you’re bored with mysterious meats and MSG, veggie relief can be obtained at the Water Drop Restaurant (often looks closed but isn’t), or the nearby Healthy Leaf (can buy muesli here), and don’t miss the small and homely Warmland, which also sells cute handmade soft toys.



Rehydrated and spiritually refreshed, saunter down Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling to the Esplanade, where you can hang out with local families as the sun goes down. There are plenty of hawker stalls for grabbing a quick snack, and you know you will find an army of those people who always pop up near a seaside flogging toy cats, bicycles, or your name on a grain of rice.

Just across the small park is another hawker area, where locals enjoy the sugary goodness of ais kelapa, an impressive mixture of ice cream and sweet red beans, and watch another day slip away in this charming island paradise.

You’ll never be bored in Penang, you just need to know where to look. And there are always sandy beaches and beer, if all else fails.

Source: The Expat January 2013

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