Unsure where to start my Malaysian adventure off from, I started looking up popular spots. I was in Singapore and while Kuala Lumpur might have been a sensible choice, I had to fly out of Kuala Lumpur to go to Bali, so I was going to end up there anyway. I decided to go with Penang for no other reason than my favorite type of curry is Penang curry.
As I would come to find, I have been spelling Penang curry wrong for my entire life as it is actually Phanaeng curry. The streets of Penang were not paved with curry as I had hoped. Thankfully, Penang had a lot more to offer than just the Penang curry I stupidly came for.
Including other food. A lot of other food. The streets of George Town may not have been drenched in the delicious Thai staple, but street art and vibrant colors brought an exciting life to the old colonial town. The town is over 200 years old and it shows. The dilapidated buildings are mere shadows of their former glory but still not lacking in charm whatsoever.
I came into Penang with no idea what to do so I spent most of my days wandering. Aside from a trip to the incredible Kek Lok Si, I didn’t have much of an itinerary in George Town. You don’t really need one, either.
My suggested itinerary would be:
Breakfast, followed by lunch, and then finally, dinner. You can have some flexibility with that itinerary to allow for a few snacks in between.
George Town is a foodie’s paradise. The cafe culture here is one of the best I’ve ever come across in the world. In the old town, there are at least one or two cafes on every street. Whether you’re actually coming for coffee or dessert or just to hang out, there’s a laid-back charm about George Town.
The street food scene in George Town is also pretty great. There are a few main streets where the street food is situated. Lebuh Keng Kwee is where a famous Chendol stand is. It can be recognized by the giant street art of a boy eating chendol right above it.
If you haven’t had chendol, you absolutely need to. Chendol and Ais Kacang have opened my eyes to a whole new world of desserts. I feel bad every time I eat it but it feels so good.
In and around that area are a ton of restaurants. You’re in the hub where Chinatown intersects with Little India, so of course there isn’t going to be a shortage of food or places to eat. The hardest part about picking a restaurant is picking just one. There’s such a wide variety of places to eat that you might be worried that you’re settling too soon. What if there’s a better place right around the corner, right?
To make sure you don’t have this problem, I recommend eating ten meals a day.
Just kidding, sort of. I definitely ate way too much in George Town, so all I can say is that it’s hard to go wrong. Most restaurants serve Asian food, but if you want to get a taste of home, I’ve seen plenty of Western restaurants. Italian, Mexican, and American places are scattered throughout the city, but they are there.
While the cafes and restaurants usually have nice interiors, the real sights are on the outside.
George Town started off as an old colonial town back in the late 1700s. Most of the area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the old buildings and streets. Like I said earlier, a lot of the buildings haven’t been preserved or renovated, making it a much more authentic experience. Going into Singapore’s “historic” Chinatown, on the other hand, did not feel as authentic since everything was redone to be shiny and new.
The buildings are clumped together. You can only separate which buildings are which by the change in pastel colors. I’m trying to figure out how to describe what you’ll see, but I literally don’t know anything about interior/exterior design, so I’ll just post a few pictures of what you can expect to see. It’s definitely something you’ll have to see for yourself.
The Street Art
Another one of the biggest draws to George Town is the recent boom in street art and unique displays. There is street art everywhere. It almost becomes like a scavenger hunt trying to find them all. Sometimes you’ll pass by without even noticing that you’re walking by a gorgeous mural. Stay attentive because you won’t want to miss any of George Town’s stunning street art.
I did hear some people say that it was overrated but I think it is what street art should be. It feels raw and authentic compared to the massive, pristine murals that become tourist attractions in other cities. I didn’t even take a picture of the most famous street art in Penang because that was definitely overrated. It’s the kids riding a bike, but the bike is an actual, real-life, bike. There was a massive line to take pictures so I opted to wander off and find other, less-trafficked displays.
Here are a few of my favorites. I saw quite a bit of street art but don’t think I even came close to scratching the surface. I sat at a bus stop for about 20 minutes before realizing that there was a giant mural of an old man chilling on a tri-shaw literally right above my head. The street art gives an important glimpse into Penang’s storied history.
Kek Lok Si deserves a blog post on its own, so check that out here. Aside from that, I felt like Penang was much more about the vibe than the sights. There are a few gorgeous temples and mosques here and there, but none that you should go too far out of your way for. George Town is an extremely walkable city, so you’re bound to stumble into them while wandering, anyway.
If you’re someone who likes views, you might want to make your way up to Penang Hill overlooking the city. I didn’t go up there but it probably wasn’t that much of an upgrade from the view from the Kuan-Yin Statue at Kek Lok Si.
Batu Ferringhi Beach
There’s a beach called Batu Ferringhi on the north side of the island. I also didn’t go because I was short on time but I wasn’t particularly dying to go either. A big part of that was because I probably gained 10 pounds in my three days in Penang alone.
The Clan Jetties
Some people also like to check out the clan jetties, the last remaining Chinese settlements from a long time ago. It is a short walk from the center of George Town so it’s worth the trip. It’s a good way to get a better view of local life in Penang.
There’s a big park on the east side of George Town by the water where you can see colonial buildings like the city hall, clock tower, and an old fort. There’s a nice energy surrounding that area around nighttime, but overall, you won’t miss much by skipping it.
I was lucky and unlucky enough to come during Chinese New Year. It has its perks but also, a lot of restaurants, shops, and museums are closed. It was a shame because there were a ton of promising “museums” in the area. I put museums in quotes because some of them aren’t actually museums, but more like a modern art display. I didn’t get to go to much so I don’t actually know what most of them entail, but for example, there was a Ghost Museum, Upside-Down Museum, 3D Interactive Museum, and Time Tunnel Museum.
One of my biggest regrets about Malaysia was that I didn’t allot more time to Penang. I wish I could have done a lot more there but I would definitely go back if given the chance. It has everything you could hope for in a travel destination. It feels authentic and real but also allows for you to take in more modern pleasures like vibrant street art, trendy cafes, and exciting nightlife.
Aimlessly roaming the streets of Penang 🇲🇾 No idea what there is to do around here but sometimes no plan is the best plan. Dilapidated buildings, crumbling walls, and rusted bikes are a stark contrast to shiny, towering Singapore, but Penang’s got a lot of character (traveler speak for old) and energy that I felt like Singapore lacked a bit 👌🏽 plus beer is way cheaper and no ones gonna give ya a ridiculous fine for drinking in public 🍻