IT’S A LAZY SATURDAY, and waiting for “something to develop positively” has bored me; I sense it’s time to mind my blog, which I had left for a while (because of other important concerns).
In July 2016, I made a trip to Penang, Malaysia to finally count for myself what’s in the place that I had discovered and read so much about in online travel magazines.
To be specific, two things attracted me to Penang: street food and street art.
Not so long ago, Penang was a doddering cultural and culinary backwater in the federal constitutional monarchy Malaysia. No one ever conceived that the listing of George Town as a UNESCO World Heritage Site would set its heartbeat fast on development.
It has come out (if it hasn’t already) as an important island territory that is known the world over not only as a bona fide gastronomic hot spot, but a multi-cultural trading region with all the global tourism industry’s bright prospects.
It’s the cradle of true Malaysian street food, they say, because sold everywhere are Char Kway Teow, the famed stir-fried rice cake strips, a national favorite that has been passed through generations; Assam Laksa, a proud signature fish-based recipe that is rich and spicy; the iced sweet dessert Cendol with red adzuki beans; Roti Canai, the classic flaky breakfast (and its other variations); slow-cooked dry curry Beef Rendang, etcetera.
If you’re a history or architecture junkie, George Town is the place that will surely keep you entertained during your holiday as it is where you will find British colonial buildings that have been kept up due to their cultural heritage value.
Any place that embraces modernity while retaining its colonial traditions — for the island state, 171 years of British rule — is worth traveling to.
I, on the other hand, looked forward to managing the “Walking Trail” of Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic‘s murals, and sitting to be served Malaysian dishes in Lorong Baru.
Okay, so here it goes. And, please, pardon memory fails and slips (just in case I mix up street names, spellings, and all) because this trip was done last year; I may have a hard time remembering.
HOW TO GET TO PENANG FROM KUALA LUMPUR
Penang is really an easy tourist destination in Malaysia, and every sort of transport is available. If you’re not traveling on a budget, you can buy a plane ticket for a 55-minute flight to the island state from Kuala Lumpur. Or hire a cab to get you there within 5-6 hours.
Bus schedules to help you figure out your travel are the following I’ve managed to get:
- 12:40 p.m.-8:38 p.m. from Pudu Sentral (Puduraya)
- 12:40 p.m.-10:05 p.m. from Bus Terminal Perkililing
- 5:25 p.m.-12:53 a.m. from Pudu Sentral (Puduraya)
Bus fares range from MYR 38.00 to MYR 42.00 (USD 9.05560 to USD 10.0088/PHP 461.185 to PHP 509.731) for standard VIP, which means just an air-conditioned seat; and coaches at MYR 74.00 (USD 17.6346/PHP 898.098) to MYR 103.00 (USD 24.5454/PHP 1,250.06) with personal TV, meals, and wi-fi.
The inexpensive transport mode is, well, taking the bus, or the ferry boat. If you don’t have a problem with road trips, then the best and most fun way is to hire a car (if you don’t have one) for you to also enjoy the scenic attractions along the way.
Our group of six traveled to Penang by using my friend Lolit Whorlow’s car. If my memory is still serving me correctly, we popped out our journey via the Lebuhraya Utara-Selatan/E1, the fastest route under usual traffic from the Kuala Lumpur federal territory.
Under this course, normal travel is more than three hours. However, if you make stops like we did, then your arrival time would increase by over an hour and a half to maybe around 5 or 6. The stops we made were for sightseeing, comfort room breaks, and snacks.
The road travel was highlighted for me by the Penang Bridge, which is a symbol of pride and the source of deep pleasure for the Malaysians. In the 50’s, when Penang’s traffic condition started to congest because of its booming economy, the idea of the bridge came up along with suggestions to build an underwater tunnel road and extending the ferry service (the only transport that connects the island to the mainland).
Among the three, it’s the mega-scale bridge that stood out only to be laughed at for failing to happen. But in 1981, former Malaysia prime minister Mahathir Mohamad pushed for the project despite negative criticisms and other obstacles. By 1982, he sank the first pile of cement in the land between Seberang Perai and Penang Island.
I genuinely wanted to take a long-exposure photography of the Penang Bridge with its huge flashes of light glowing brightly at night; sadly, TIME IS THE ENEMY. It was also difficult to look for an area where to set up our gears, and it was constantly raining.
What unsettles me when it comes to traveling is TIME IS THE ENEMY. I’ve been writing the line all caps to emphasize that no matter how much you want to stay and do all things possible, you simply couldn’t because time is a limited source.
Indeed, it is our most important and most limited source.
There are at least 5 listed BEST EAT CENTERS in the island state that I found and wanted to try, and they’re not all necessarily in malls or hotels. They’re largely found in hawker stalls and in open air venues.
These are New Lane Hawker Center, Gurney Drive Hawker Center, Presgrave Street Hawker Center, Long Beach Food Court, and Just Food, which is inside a shopping mall.
We arrived in Penang at about 3:00 p.m., just in time for the daily opening of the hawker center in Lorong Baru. We headed there soon after depositing our bags in Sri Sayang Resort Service Apartment in Batu Ferringhi.
Batu Ferringhi is the next most visited destination after George Town for water sports and seafood eateries. It’s where I experienced my first-ever Assam Laksa (see picture above), served by a smiling restaurant owner on a rainy morning.
You know you’ve reached New Lane Hawker Center in Lorong Baru, George Town the moment the comforting aroma of garlic and onions frying together hits your snoot, and you don’t want to do anything except look for the nearest wok where it is straying from.
What I had in this food center was not Char Kway Teow despite hearing about it over and over from my friends. They ordered that, and since the serving was large enough for all six of us, we decided to share and moved on to order other Malay dishes.
What I got was a steaming bowl of Koay Teow Th’ng cooked by a grinning peddler, who was too happy to hold his first customer of the day.
The flat rice noodle dish was served in clear soup broth, topped with fish balls, slices of boiled pork intestine, chicken, golden brown garlic bits and chopped scallions. A condiment of red chili sauce accompanied it.
You will be disappointed if you expect the fish balls in your soup to be stiff and bouncy. In Penang, they are made fresh to be softer in texture and to feed the travelers the soothing comfort they need after a long journey.
There’s always a spot in my heart (especially my tummy) for fragrant-smelling roasted wings coated in honeyed marinade to give it a glazed sweet touch. The burst of flavors in your mouth — smoky, tangy, sugared — leads you to nothing but absolute delight.
A plate of Char Kway Teow would cost around MYR 6.50 or USD 1.54886 or PHP 78.8809, which is really cheap as they’re served in large portions. Koay Teow Th’ng made me pay MYR 5.00 or USD 1.19143, which is around PHP 60.00 in Philippine money.
STREET ART TRAIL
Zacharevic’s walking trail starts at Penang Road with the The Awaiting Trishaw Paddler that we didn’t see because we got down our walk on a different trail. In fact, we didn’t follow any footpath, we merely walked around looking for any artwork because George Town is really full of them.
From Penang Road, there is a turn one has to make to Muntri Street, George Town, to see the giant wall painting of the Little Girl in Blue balancing herself on two windows. Standing in front of it closely made me think it was rather chilling. But then it was really the shadow of the hair cutting through her eyes.
I was recounted that in the original photo of the little girl, she was smiling so, it beats me why the artist would render her that way on the wall.
On Cannon Street, if you’re curious enough to look at the walls, you’ll see the mural of a little boy standing on a chair with his right arm reaching the low window. It’s hard to spot it at night so, be really eager to check out each and every wall in the street area.
LANG HOOSE may not be a well-known mural in George Town, but it’s one of my favorites because its full of energy, exhilaration, and sunshine. I don’t know, the healthy flush in her cheeks, no matter the stain in the artwork, gives her an atmosphere of innocence that is infectious.
Below are other interesting art pieces and murals I found in Penang, which made the walking trail a blast for me. Please check slideshow below.
The cultural scene in Penang really evokes interest in a powerfully irresistible way, and I wish that one day soon, Puerto Princesa would also be as colorful and creative if not equally.
We have a lot of local creative people, and they can certainly make their murals build a sense of community respect and camaraderie.
TRAVEL HINTS AND TIPS
Before the tips, did you know that Jimmy Choo, who is noted for co-founding Jimmy Choo Ltd (where your expensive handmade pairs of shoes are from), was born in Penang, Malaysia, into a family of shoemakers?
I didn’t know this trivia until I went there. That Choo guy is based in London now, but he regularly visits Penang to see his family members.
Here is a list of 10 useful tips if you’re considering Penang as your next travel destination:
- Your Penang trip will never be complete without trying the ubiquitous Assam Laksa.
- Read before exploring the heritage sites, and follow rules by not throwing your trash anywhere you fancy.
- It was a mistake to walk looking for Zacharevic’s murals. The best thing to do is hire bicycles or ride the trishaw.
- Ditch staying at Sri Sayang Resort Service Apartment because thought it’s cheaply-priced, it’s really bad accommodation.
- Don’t miss Penang’s flat round bread cooked on a griddle. It’s called roti (chapati is its other name), and it has a lot of delightful variations.
- Don’t forget the sunsets and sunrises.
- July is a rainy month in Penang so, bring umbrella to help you still explore.
- Valuables should never be on show because snatching is also common there like in other big cities.
- Your travel documents should always be with you because you never know when you’ll need it.
- No public display of affection, please, if you’re traveling as a couple — that would be heavily frowned upon.
Just because Penang is a popular tourist destination does not mean you’re free to wear your beach attire while touring. Beachwear is for the beach area, not the commercial districts.
Majority of the settlers of Penang are said to be Chinese, and they’re over 50% of the population. Two of the well-known Penangites are Choo and former Malaysia deputy prime minister and opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim.
Staying in the place for 2 nights/3 days weren’t enough for us to get to know any resident, but I could say that they’re helpful and friendly.
Don’t be offended if you hear some of them addressing you “auntie” and “uncle,” as that is one way of making you feel their hospitality.
To date, I’ve already visited two heritage cities in Malaysia — Penang and Malacca (Melaka).
Cheers lah 🙂