Named for the pinang trees that once grew there abundantly, Penang, Malaysia is a highly urbanised island northwest of the mainland. I’d heard it’s a city primarily known for food, and since I’m a person primarily known for eating, I thought it was certainly worth a weekend visit.
I did some initial research (Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations) on where to stay on the island, and kept hearing a reference to a neighbourhood called Georgetown. As a Syracuse graduate, it was difficult for me to book anything involving the name “Georgetown,” but after some additional positive reviews from friends and the trusty Internet, I decided to pass an invisible olive branch and make a booking in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed neighbourhood anyway.
So, what was Penang all about?
In a few words: art, architecture, and food, food, food.
But if you think I dove right into the local dishes of creamy laksa and beef-heavy satay right away, you’d be underestimating just how basic I really am (cultural link for parental reference). Though Bourdain and many others refer to Penang as the “culinary capital of Southeast Asia,” my diet of no meat and limited dairy did make chowing down on the local dishes a bit of a challenge. But not to worry, because any good basic byotch can find a basic eatery within a few miles’ radius, complete with tofu bowls and granola galore. Luckily, upon landing at my hotel (Hotel Jen, which was quite nice, even though I generally prefer to stay at smaller boutique hotels), I was able to find a dish that was both local and somewhat veggie head friendly: nasi lemak. Nasi lemak is a composite dish of Malay classics, uniquely combining Malay, Chinese, Indian flavours: rice cooked in coconut milk, sliced cucumbers, fried chicken, hard boiled egg, and sweet, yummy chili sauce. I ate what I could, and basically called it a night right then and there. The week at work had been so exhausting, and I wanted it to be an early morning on Saturday. After flipping through a few pages of a magazine I’d brought along, I was out like a lightbulb.
So then we have Saturday, and what happened Saturday? After a quick hotel breakfast of toast and fruit, I was out and about close to 9AM. Penang is known for its culinary delights of course, but also for its prolific art scene. This very cool Lithuanian man (31 years old!) named Ernest Zacharevic was commissioned to do a series of six street art murals for the Georgetown Festival in 2012, and his murals shot both his art and the city to international fame. Since then, Penang has seem a boom in other noticeable projects, well-known commissioned artists, internationally-renowned galleries and festivals, and other independent efforts that have left the city covered in beautiful art. You can see some of the pieces in my photos below.
I had booked a place in a yoga class at one of the local studios for 11:30AM, so wanted to make sure I had enough time to do some street art hunting. I was prepared with a self-guided street art map, and was able to make it to all six of Ernest’s pieces, and more! There is art everywhere you look in Penang—from the tiles on the sidewalks to the columns on the buildings. I know two big art buffs (looking at you, Mom and Dad) that would be very happy here.
Next I headed over to Wholey Wonder for my yoga class, which was just as yummy and enjoyable as the nasi lemak. As I mentioned, it had been quite a busy work week, so I was feeling quite crunchy and needed to stretch out. Afterwards, I had lunch with a cool American girl and French guy I met while in class. Feeling refreshed and ready to roll, I left Wholey Wonder around 1PM for some shopping. Penang has been in the retail game since Sir Francis Light set up shop as an outpost of the British East India Company back in the day, so I had high hopes. I had done a bit of research on some cool boutiques with home wares, clothing, accessories, books, and other doodads, but honestly was not super impressed with my findings. The selections of things I would purchase were skint, and the selection of things I was not in the market for (loose leaf tea, Banglori silk) was most plentiful. I called it early on the shopping, walked to see the sea (get it?) and headed back to the hotel for some much-needed foot rest by the pool (the dogs were barking, as Natalie would say). Seriously—15,000 steps before 5PM!
Leaving the hotel, I was caught by one of the most beautiful sunsets I have seen here in Asia! Warm and pink and orange, like sherbert in the sky. I walked underneath it to my next destination: Sushi Kitchen, a vegan sushi restaurant and antidote for grumbling tummies. Delicious! Strange to be eating vegan Japanese in Penang, yes, but when Tolga Gencturk gives you a dinner recommendation, you don’t turn it down (Mama Bear, this is the man responsible for our food happiness across Australia). And I have just learned right this moment that Sushi Kitchen is rated #12 of 798 restaurants in Penang. BOOM.
After gorging myself with sushi, tempura, noodles, and all the green tea this cozy establishment could offer, I headed out to a local jazz club along with the friends I’d made at yoga class, to see what the nightlife in Penang was like, then headed home and video chatted with the world’s most epic duo, Mom and Dad Hayden.
On Sunday it was a bit harder to wake up (could’ve been those industrial-grade blackout curtains Hotel Jen Penang is working with), but I finally got my jets going around 9:30AM, headed downstairs for some cups of coffee (I requested an intravenous unit, but the hotel staff declined my request).
Though I did cover some major ground on Saturday, I had plenty of Penang still to see! On the agenda for Sunday: Macalister Mansion, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Hin Bus Depot, Occupy Beach Street, and last but certainly not least (in fact, most important of all), spa.
First stop? Macalister! This was my favourite site of my trip to Penang. This is a 100-year-old-colonial-mansion-turned-quirky-boutique-hotel. First off, the architecture is stunning: it’s a huge white mansion with a terracotta-colored roof, and each of its eight rooms has its own bespoke features and artwork (I know this because, while not a guest of the hotel, I was able to convince the concierge to give me a full tour of the place. Charm was set to HIGH). The bottom level of the hotel has two restaurants for casual or fine dining, a cool mosaic lap pool, and a decadent room for wine and champagne. I instantly felt like I was living in the Victorian era, minus the corset and petticoat (thank the Lord). I sipped my coffee in their bright and airy cafe, and walked around the rest of the bottom of the floor to see more of its colonial-to-contemporary touches.
Next it was straight to the pop-up market at Hin Bus Depot, an old bus depot that’s now home to indoor and outdoor art exhibits, a cafe, classes like free tree climbing and other workshops that confused me, plus a weekend marketplace. Super cute! I perused the tees and teas, walked past the stationary and handmade cards, and eyed the noodles from afar. But it was time for a proper meal as the stomach was a-rumblin’, so I headed to a cafe/gallery called Kesum Art Restaurant for their prix fixe menu of three courses straight from Johor: the Gado-Gado (salad with blanched veggies, potatoes and fried tempeh, and a bomb.com peanut sauce), a chilli/fish dish as my main (yes I leaned over the vegetarian fence for this, because sea bass is the catch of the gods), and the Pengat for dessert (banana cooked in sweetened coconut milk). I can’t say I’m an expert on Southern Malaysian food, but the quality and taste of these dishes was just so-so. Nothing super special about it. But, the meal answered the call of my stomach and I was ready for my next adventure, which was…wait for it…a group tour.
As I’ve mentioned in past posts, I’m generally not a fan of group tours because I like being on my own schedule when I travel, and you always end up with that one person in your group that’s asking too many questions (I feel confident this was the same person that held up your political science class in college with “If I can just make a comment before class ends…”). Okay, rant over.
Anyway—I headed to this tour because it’s literally the only way you can enter the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, or the Blue Mansion. This place is BADASS. Historically, it served as the home of one of Georgetown’s most celebrated millionaires (“the Rockefeller of the East”) but today, it serves as the inspiration for the baller home I picture myself owning one day: 18 guest rooms, 19th century art from wall to wall, 5 courtyards, 220 gorgeously decorated timber windows. You know I keep it fancy.
A few fun facts about the Blue Mansion:
- He had eight wives and 14 children (play on, playa)
- He built the house for his family and descendants (and housed nine generations after he died)
- The site won UNESCO’s Asia-Pacific’s Heritage Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2000
- This home claims to have the best feng shui in the world (more on this below)
- The mansion provided the setting for a crucial scene in the 1992 film Indochine, starring Catherine Deneuve (Full disclosure: I don’t know what or who this is. I also have the film knowledge of a person living on Jupiter, but the rest of the tour group was very impressed by this information)
- It currently operates as a heritage museum and boutique hotel
Walking around this place gave me a glimpse of what life must’ve been like for the Penang’s rich and famous back in the day. Everything was so well preserved, you could really picture the city’s most elite living out their lives under the shady palm trees.
Cheong Fatt Tze had a full-on obsession with feng shui, and learning about this was FASCINATING. My favourite part of the tour (besides the guide herself, who was a straight-up Asian reincarnation of Iris Apfel in aesthetic and approach. Meaning fabulous beyond belief). As one of Southeast Asia’s most loaded tycoons, he of course built the house with the assistance of the best feng shui masters from China. They placed extreme emphasis on the landform and energy flow of the house, even facing the house in the direction of his natal chart life direction (if you know what a natal chart life direction is, I am unequivocally impressed by you as a person).
Other examples of good feng shui in the house include:
- A central courtyard that doubles up as a well to trap rainwater, as the movement of water carries energy, and the incoming flow of water is said to bring in energy, while the outflow of water carries it away
- The mansion is painted blue because the house faces southeast, and blue is the preferred colour for properties that face this direction (more specifically, the element for that direction is wood, and based on the productive cycle of the five elements, water feeds wood and enhances growth. Feng shui is cool!)
I’m not entirely sure how this works, but I assume since I took the tour that some of the feng shui magic will work its way into my life, so I too can have 18 guestrooms in my home.
There wasn’t much time to spare between finishing my tour at the Blue Mansion and heading to the airport, so I spent it how any reasonable person would: by heading to the spa for 2.5-hours of pedicure, body massage and foot reflexology ($30 USD). Readers of this blog will not be shocked at my hedonism, but for those that are new, this is THE BEST THING ABOUT ASIA, HANDS DOWN. It was quite a relaxing way to finish off the weekend.
I know I did Penang a bit backwards as I didn’t dive into the foodie scene quite as deeply as I could have, but prioritising art and culture here was no mistake. Exploring the obvious historical crossroads between East and West (temples next to colonial buildings) left my brain feeling culturally rejuvenated. The local AND veggie-friendly food options catered to my always-watering tastebuds. And my strolls around the tree-lined streets, on the tiny criss-crossing laneways, and along the sea left my eyes and heart just as happy.
A few photos from Penang: