It’s rare for me to spend only less than 24 hours in a place and immediately fall in love with it. And yet Penang made me feel that way about it in such a short amount of time. Last month, after going to Malaysia for a conference (which I will talk to you about), the party from my university and I spent a night in Penang just because we thought we could have more fun there. Although it made us need to chip in more money, but it was a decision that was worth it in every way because we discovered what Penang was all about in less than 24 hours.
Here’s how I experienced Penang and fell head over heels in love with the island.
Crossed over Penang Bridge near sunset time
Imagine being in a car with some of your closest friends after a really awesome day together with this view, going 60 to 120 kph with Ed Sheeran playing and no one spoke, but you all just sang along. This was what happened in Penang Bridge. The roads in Penang were so smooth that cruising at 120 kph felt like nothing. Air pollution was also scarce here which made rolling the windows down okay. I think this was the most magical moment of my life so far.
Penang Bridge wasn’t short of beautiful scenery surrounding it that even getting stuck in some traffic was okay. Plus, it was also kind of cool to know that it was the longest bridge in Southeast Asia. However, there is actually some darkness surrounding the bridge as well as it turned out that Penang Bridge was the site where most suicides by jumping in Penang were committed – at least that’s what our driver said.
Had dinner twice at Chulia St.
My friends and I went to Penang without any particular plans as to what we were going to do so we relied heavily on Google, TripAdvisor, and travel blogs. We found out about Chulia St. in Georgetown from a travel blog and had no idea what we would find there except probably some street food. We ordered a GrabCar (the best way to commute in a Southeast Asian city when you’re not sure about the public transport system yet) and got dropped off there.
It turned out that it was a haven for street food and street photography!
Essentially, there are two parts of Chulia Street – the one lined up with bars and cafes and another one filled with street food stalls. As the students on the budget that we are, we went to the side covered with stalls selling various kinds of food.
First, we got some deep-fried snacks for RM1.5 each and some sauce.
We then ventured into a small alley at the side of the snack stall and found a middle-aged couple selling laksa. If there’s one thing I head about laksa in Penang, it’s that it’s damn good. So I decided to get a bowl of laksa (only RM3.80, what the hell!) and also a portion of Malaysian popiah (RM3.20) – a Malaysian spin on one of my favorite snacks from my mom’s hometown of Medan. My friends and I also got a portion of ice kacang for RM3 to share for dessert.
It was when I took my first bite of popiah that I realized Malaysian food is as brilliant as Nat Geo People makes it out to be. Even though the only difference between Malaysian and Medanese popiah was supposedly in how the former is not fried, but the Malaysian spin tasted less of MSG than the typical popiah sold by Indonesia’s street vendors. The ice kacang also tasted more of natural sugar with pieces of sweet corn, mung beans, and fruits found under the layer of shaved ice.
And the laksa, my gosh! Everyone’s right when they said Malaysian laksa is damn good! The broth tasted sour and savory since there’s pieces of pineapple mixed up with radishes in it. The vegetables were good and the noodles were easy to bite into.
We decided to walk around Chulia Street for a while and my friend Vanny had this great idea to buy mee wonton to share as our second dinner. We found this really crowded stall of mee wonton and bought a portion for RM4 from what looked like the father-son duo selling it.
It was love at first bite.
I’ve always been a fan of noodles in all shapes and sizes but when I tasted these noodles, I started tearing up internally because it was the best noodles I’ve ever had. The noodles were really small, the pieces of pork going along with it were thin and easy to bite into, the sauce into which it is tossed was the right balance of sweet and savory and the wonton had to be sent directly from heaven because it was SO EFFIN’ GOOD!
The best part was that it was only RM4!
Ventured into Love Lane
We heard about Love Lane from an Australian we met at the conference and after consulting our map of Georgetown, we found that it was near Chulia Street and so we decided to walk along it just to see what’s up.
It turned out to be a small road filled with bars and cafes. What was weird was that most of the workers in those bars and cafes didn’t look or sound Malaysian at all. On the contrary, most of them sounded American or Australian which was kind of fishy. We didn’t really go too far into the lane since there were some patches of really dark areas and shady people and before long, we decided to return to Chulia St.
Hung out at Lebuh Sungai Pinang Seafront
We were staying at Lebuh Sungai Pinang and thought we would spend the rest of evening outside at Seafront which turned out to be a place where a lot of locals hang out. There were people renting out roller blades, scooters and hovercrafts. There were also plenty of locals with their kids and their dogs enjoying the evening outside.
Needless to say, it was a great place to watch people, especially the cute young men walking their adorable dogs at night who feel no need to cover their biceps and the chubby little kids who smile and laugh so easily over everything.
The centerpiece at Seafront, however, was this sculpture built of lanterns and lights. A lot of people stop by this part of Seafront just to have their photos taken there and it’s a great site if you want to experiment with silhouette photos.
Stayed overnight at an Airbnb at Seafront
We rented this beautiful Airbnb in the apartment complex at Seafront which I really wish I could live in forever. It was absolutely luxurious and really worth the price since it only cost around IDR900.000 for 7 people. The apartment complex and the area around it were really posh. Angie was also a really sweet host considering how many calls we made to her trying to figure out how to get the keys to her place.
Another reason why I really wanted to live in that place forever was because of this view I woke up to the next day.
Found kindness in G Times Inn
When we left our Airbnb the next day and explored Georgetown before our flight, we thought we could store our baggage at this one place at Beach St., but it turned out to be closed. So we thought maybe we could find an inn and store our luggage there. This is how we found G Times Inn and asked the owner about it. He was surprised about it, but let us store it there anyway at quite a low price. As if he wasn’t kind enough, he gave us a map of Georgetown, recommendations on where to eat and what to do along with directions. When we picked up our luggage later on that day, we had a lovely conversation about his former career as a journalist and our life as Communication students.
This was an act of kindness I would forever remember. If you’re looking for a place to stay in Georgetown, do give G Times Inn a look and say hi to Mr. Rajpal, the owner for me!
Had Char Kway Teow at Kafe Ping Hooi for breakfast
During our GrabCar ride last night, the driver recommended a bunch of places to eat in Georgetown and this was one of them. We walked for 15 minutes from G Times Inn in the sweltering Penang heat to find it and were pleased when we finally got this plate of Penang’s notoriously famous char kway teow for RM7.
It was essentially kway teow stir-fried with vegetables, tiger shrimps, and oysters and it was as good as I hoped it was. I’ve never been a fan of kway teow, but found my plate entirely clean at the end of the meal. It was really, really good.
It also helped that my friends Rachel and Vanny spoke really fluent Mandarin which bridged the language barrier I had with the owners. They were a lovely old couple who fussed over us the way grandmas do to their granddaughters. They even told us to move to the indoor area because they said that it was too hot outside and the smoke from the frying pan would dry out our hair.
Walked around Georgetown’s streets
I’ve never been to a place as photogenic as Georgetown. Every corner of this area literally screams to be photographed. From old buildings to street art and people, there’s so many things to capture in Georgetown that even a walk around the area without any particular place to go was something I would recommend everyone to do.
I also found this little postcard shop at Gat Lebuh Chulia which sold postcards of Georgetown and various floral designs for around RM2 each. The owner was a middle-aged man who spoke only Mandarin, but that language barrier was – again – overcome by Vanny and Rachel.
Most of Penang’s street art can be found in Armenian St. or Lebuh Armenian, but some street art can also be found at random places around Georgetown. I have to give it to the artists – these street art are really unique and deserve their hype.
Shopped at Lebuh Cannon
Lebuh Cannon is home to a lot of shop houses selling everything from accessories and clothes to vintage playing cards and food. Most of the stuff here also come at quite a cheap price which made shopping there quite fun. It definitely helped to be a student or a Mandarin speaker because we got lots of discounts just by saying we’re students or speaking a few words in Mandarin.
What I really loved about shopping here was that the shop owners were all chatty. Every shop we walked in, we ended up having a conversation with the owners too, especially since most of them were the same age as our moms and dads and were curious about what four Indonesian students were doing in Penang in November.
Had lunch in Little India
Before the trip, I’ve heard that Indian food in Penang was brilliant so as a lover of spicy things, I wanted to actually give it a try. My girl friends and I decided to have lunch in Little India and meet up with JV – the Filipino guy we became friends with at the conference.
When we got to Little India, it occurred to us that none of us had any idea where to eat. JV then picked this random restaurant called Daun Pisang and we went in to have our Indian feast.
The menu was written without explanation as to what the dishes are so we badgered the waiter with a lot of questions. Thankfully, he answered everything and we ended up getting roti naan, rice with various sides, chicken tandoori, and a plate of assorted desserts.
It turned out to be a really good meal and we were so full and happy by the end of lunch. The meal was quite pricey (RM94 in total), but well worth it.
And with that Indian meal, our trip to Penang ended on a high – that is before we got to Penang Airport’s chaotic baggage line and ran to our gate just 5 minutes before the boarding call thinking we had missed our flight and getting a lot of questioning looks from other passengers.
All in all, it was quite easily the best trip I’ve ever had. Penang turned out to be a melting pot of various cultures and religions that actually co-exist with each other peacefully (Indonesia, take notes!). It is a contradiction of every possible contradictory thing – nature and modern architecture, old and new, joy and depression, chaos and organization. But all these contradictions did not lead to complete disorganization. We also found a lot of kindness and smiles in Penang which made me feel so welcomed at the island.
Leaving Penang, I couldn’t help but think that it’s actually reasonable that a lot of Indonesians wanted to move there. It was a lot more organized than Indonesia, has less air pollution, and a lot more kindness. Everyone can eat anywhere regardless of skin color and religious affiliation without getting weird dirty looks. Warm conversations are easy to start.
So as I swore to myself to return to Penang someday, I also wondered whether Indonesia could ever get to Penang’s level of tolerance and organization.
(Ps: thanks to my Malaysia squad – Alex, Vanny, and Rachel – for being some of people I’ve clicked best with while traveling!)