Wondering what to do in Penang? Check out Travelling Homebody's 7 day itinerary.

What to do in Penang: my 7 day itinerary

I arrived in Penang from Bali on Friday, 18 November, exhausted from a (very) early start and a long day of travelling, mostly spent hanging around waiting for my flight at Changi Airport. I’d arranged for a driver to take me to my hotel, and it was with much gratitude I saw my name when I exited into arrivals from customs.

I was taken to my hotel, the East Indies Mansion, and was made to feel most welcome by Jessie as he checked me in. The house was built in the 1700s by a wealthy Chinese spice trader, Koh Lay Huan. It’s in the perfect location of Little India within George Town, which is a UNESCO Heritage listed site. The mansion had fallen into disrepair over the years and was about to be demolished when it had a reprieve at the last minute. Now a boutique hotel, it is small and charming and friendly, and guests are invited to use the space as if it were their home. Easily done!

On Day 1, Jessie sat down with me at breakfast, armed with a pen and a map, and gave me personalised recommendations of where to go and what to do in Penang. I’ve loosely followed them for my time here. To note though: I was here for 8 nights, but I had a couple of days where I didn’t do much, so this is more like a 5 day itinerary!

Day 1

One does not come to George Town without seeing all the street art and murals. I loved finding them on the map, and backtracking if I missed any. It’s easy to get around here on foot, but if you don’t fancy the walk, you can cycle or take a rickshaw. It’s hot and humid, so make sure you pack a hat and sunscreen. Water is easily available from vendors which are (coincidentally!) set up at most of the murals.

I then walked Harmony Street, so-called because each of the main religions have built their mosques and temples and churches within walking distance of each other. I then walked to the museum, and spent a pleasant hour or so checking out the history of Penang. To be honest, I was seeking respite from the heat and figured the museum would be air-conditioned. I was kind of right: bits of it were and bits of it weren’t, but I’m still glad I made the decision to go. Entry fee was cheap—only a couple of ringgit.

By this time, it was 2pm, so I stopped off at Paul Loiis only because it was the first cafe I saw after the museum. It boasts European food, but I had a Nyonya-inspired vegetarian laksa. It was delicious, even with the (odd, to my taste) inclusion of lettuce, raw onion and pineapple. It was cheap, less than $10 with my Tiger beer.

I then wandered back to my hotel, stopping at an Indian mini-market on the way through. I bought some sandalwood soap, a facial cleanser and some sunscreen. These kinds are markets are fascinating because it gives a traveller insight into the culture.

By that time, it was 4pm and even though I intended going out for tea, I ended up tucking in early and watching a movie on my laptop. My late lunch meant that I didn’t need dinner, and I had left over duty-free wine from the day before.

Day 2

The night before had been stormy and rainy, so when I ventured out, it was cool with a few drops of rain. Perfect conditions! My first stop was Fort Cornwallis. I turned up at the right time, and joined a guided tour of the fort and learned about its fascinating history. I also learned that Penang is the sister city of my home town, Adelaide—I had no idea that we were so closely connected. Penang (and its capital, George Town) was founded by Captain Francis Light, and Adelaide was located and designed by his son, Colonel William Light. There’s a bronze statue of Francis in Fort Cornwallis, but it’s actually the face of William, because no likeness was ever found of Francis. No wonder he looked familiar!

I had stopped in the café at the fort and had a snack of samosas and ginger tea (cheap at less than $10) and walked The Esplanade. It was beautiful, what with the gorgeous colonial architecture, and the island stretching out along the coast. I bumped into a bus load Chinese tourists, and true to form, they all wanted their picture taken with me. The same thing happened yesterday when I was doing the mural walk. This also happened when I visited China in 2011— am in so many family albums in China—because white people are a bit of a novelty.

After the Esplanade, I took public transport (the 204 bus) to Penang Hill. At 2 ringgit, it was a very cheap trip, and I intend to use the bus system to explore the rest of the island. The journey was about an hour and very pleasant, driving through parts of Penang that I wouldn’t probably normally see. Penang Hill was crowded, but it was Sunday, so it was to be expected. The line for the funicular was long, and there was at least a 20 minute to half an hour wait each way. I could have got in the fast lane, but at twice the price of the normal lane (60 ringgit—$20), I couldn’t justify it.

The view over Penang from the top was shrouded in mist, but it cleared for long enough to take a few decent photos. On a clear day, you would be able to see for kilometres, and I’m sure the view would be stunning. Today wasn’t my day, but I was ok with that. I stayed for around an hour before making my way down from the top via the funicular. I caught the bus back to George Town and by this time, it was 5.30 and I was starvationing. And tired.

I stumbled upon the Tang Heritage Inn, about 100 metres from my hotel, and had a laksa, a Tiger beer, and a huge meringue covered in whipped cream and passion fruit. While I was there, a dude asked if I was there for the food tour? My curiosity was piqued. ‘A food tour?’ I asked, ‘Where do you go and how much does it cost?’ The dude gave me his card, and told me the cost (USD$46) an how to book, which I did as soon as I got back to my hotel.

When I returned to my room, I was exhausted. I had a shower and put myself to bed with a laptop, a movie and two cans of Tiger.

Day 3: Part A

I’m having a quiet day today, catching up on my blogging and writing (I haven’t done any while I’ve been here). I’ll do my food tour, which is a 3 hour food hop around Little India, checking out all the favourite food stalls, as well as learning about the dishes themselves and the communities who make them.

I went next door to the Golden Pearl for a light lunch of eggplant and tofu in hoisin sauce. It was delicious. Unlike the awful, diarrhea-inducing tofu I almost ate in Bali, this tofu was crispy and brown on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside, with a delicate flavour. And cheap! With my tea, I was set back 11 ringgit, or just under $4.

I wandered down to the clan jetties, which were cool. Bumped into a bus load of Chinese tourists, had the obligatory photos taken with them—I’m a novelty and I don’t mind. I pretty sure I am in so many Chinese family albums!

You’ve got to take your hat off to the entrepreneurs in every culture. Clan families had set up shop (souvenirs and refreshments) outside their houses to cater for the tourists. I was there for around an hour, and stopped at Yin’s Sourdough Pizza for a matcha latte (which I didn’t care for in Japan, and didn’t care for here, either. It still tastes like seaweed-infused milk) and a slice of passionfruit cheesecake (which was nice—not too sweet—although it had this weird jelly with a strange texture on the top that I scraped off. Cost me about $7 all up.

Day 3: Part B

Oh My Noms! The food tour was fantastic, made even better because I was the only one on it. So it went like this. I was met by Jeremy from Heritage Food on a Plate at Tang Bistro (only a 100 metres from where I am staying here at East Indies Mansion), and while I was a little surprised he was an American from Boston, I was soon completely in awe of his knowledge of George Town and the variety of food here. He really knew his stuff. The three hours flew by, not least because we talked and ate our way around this part of Penang.

This is a summary of where we stopped and what we ate (which Jeremy emailed through to me after the tour so I could revisit and re-eat my favourites):

  1. We tasted kolkatta, mixed flour and palm sugar dumplings, and also a savoury chickpea biscuit, from the Tamil Auntie (who has lots of relatives in Australia, I found out) and whose stall is on the corner of Penang and China Streets—My Verdict: I preferred the chickpea biscuit;
  2. We sampled the Penang-Indian style chicken samosas from a stall in Queen Street—My Verdict: they were delicious;
  3. We sat down for the duck kway chap, which is a duck broth, with duck meat and homemade rice noodles, garnished with garlic an parsley from the Teowchew cart on Kimberly Street. I also had a chrysanthemum tea, which was sweet and delicious—My Verdict: yummo;
  4. We wandered across the road for the rice and coconut pudding. It was made with sweetened black rice and a salty coconut milk drizzled on top. The saltiness and sweetness was delicious—My Verdict: yummo
  5. Next we went to the Hoping Cafe on the corner of Penang Road and Kampung Malabar Street for and Indian Muslim version of mee goreng. We also had umbra juice with the salted sour plum—My Verdict: I’m addicted to umbra juice;
  6. Last stop was Hameediyah on Campbell Street, where we tried the local version of murtabak, which is a flat bread pastry wrapped around a curry seasoned omelet, served with a side of dhal, curry and pickled shallots—My Verdict: delicious and I wished I had more room so I could eat more.

By this time, I was so full I thought I would burst! I can highly recommend this tour, not least because Jeremy accommodated my I don’t eat anything with fur, wool or hair dietary requirements, made it a tad challenging because pork lard is used as a ubiquitous cooking fat for a lot of Asian cooking. He was a gracious and entertaining host, that’s for sure. And at USD$46, it was money well spent.

Day 4

I’d heard a lot about Batu Ferringhi, which is a resort area in the north of the island, so I caught the 101 bus up there to check it out. There wasn’t much going on (unless you’re into water sports and associated activities, or were staying at one of the resorts), so I had a coconut water on the beach, people-watched for a while, took a few photos and caught the bus back. Apparently, this area is jiving at sunset. I simply picked the wrong time to go i.e. late morning.

I got back to George Town in the middle of the afternoon, and was hungry. I realised that it was past 2pm. I really wanted a decent feed of Indian, but I also wanted air conditioning (and was prepared to pay for the luxury), so I parked my butt in the first Indian restaurant I found: Karaikudi Restaurant. I sat down to a feed of vegetable samosas, tandoori fish with a shallot pickle, aloo gobi and steamed rice, all washed down with a Tiger beer. It was absolutely delicious, and so filling that I didn’t need dinner. I tucked in early like the nanna I am and watched a movie on my laptop.

Day 5

Feeling a tad guilty that I didn’t do much on Day 4, I planned a full day, taking in some of the famous mansions in the area. Also, I hadn’t taken many photos of Little India, so I walked to the Blue Mansion—the home of Cheong Fatt Tze—and joined the guided tour, snapping a few pictures along the way. I don’t know who the tour guide was, but he was awesome. He was entertaining and made the history of the mansion come alive with his stories. I can highly recommend visiting this little piece of history while you are in Penang, not least because the house is absolutely beautiful.

Next I took a stroll along Lower Penang Road. I had spotted this busy shopping strip on the various bus trips I had taken. It was a hot walk, but interesting and I checked out the bazaars that dotted the strip.

I spotted the Prangin Mall, and not that I find shopping malls particularly interesting, I ventured in because I needed another pair of shorts. Note to self: always pack more than one pair of shorts—trying to find them in Asia when you are built like an Amazon (by Asian standards) is nigh on impossible. I gave up on the women’s shops, and ended up in a man’s jeans shop and found the perfect pair for only $7. And they don’t look like men’s shorts, either! Next, I bought a plastic watch because my stainless steel one had given me an itchy rash—and I never have trouble with it. I guess the heat and humidity just brought out a sensitivity in my skin. I picked up my new watch for about $3.

By this time, it was almost 2pm and I was starving, so I walked back to Little India, and ate in the first (air-conditioned) cafe I stumbled upon. This was Il Bacaro at Campbell House. I just wanted something light, because I planned to take myself out for dinner, so I had bruschetta, char-grilled prawns in a rich, spicy tomato sauce, and a Tiger beer. It was delicious and the staff were absolutely lovely. They even asked me to join them for lunch—what a pity I’d already eaten, so I politely declined.

Feeling satiated, I ventured onto the next part of my cultural tour: the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. The mansion was impressive—even more ostentatious than the Blue Mansion—and I joined the guided tour. I wished I hadn’t because, unlike the guide at the Blue Mansion, this guide was elderly, difficult to understand and, well, boring. Others thought so too, and our group went from six to one (me) over the course of an hour so. I drew the line when he wanted to show me the kitchen and departed. I should have just wandered around on my own, because the house was massive and there was lots to take in, and it was fascinating. Oh well. You win some, you lose some.

I was just about to head back to East Indies, when I saw the free CAT bus stop, so I jumped on. It traversed the streets of George Town—all the ones that I’d been walking! I stayed on it for a half an hour, grateful to be sitting down, and then walked back to East Indies.

The beauty of travelling solo is that I get to talk to all different kinds of people. I’m pretty sure if I travelled with someone else, I wouldn’t be so chatty. My chattiness led to me talking to Gary from the UK who was sitting in the hotel’s foyer when I returned from my big day out. He was staying one night at East Indies Mansion, and then heading to Hong Kong in the morning. We chatted amiably for at least an hour, and ended up dining together at Tang. He was delightful company and I’m glad our paths crossed. Oh, and Gary owns The Dolphin Guesthouse in Scarborough, so if you are ever over that way, make sure you stay for a couple of days. I told him not be surprised if I appear on his doorstep as part of my gap year!

Day 6

I haven’t written for a few days, so after my big day out yesterday, my laptop and I found a quiet spot (easy to do here) and worked, catching up on my blogging, my novel, and a course I started designing.

I ducked out to the Golden Pearl for a cheap and cheerful lunch again. I had Gung Pao chicken, spinach sautéed with garlic in an oyster sauce, steamed rice and umbra (woot!).

Many nights travelling, I can’t be bothered going out for dinner. Tonight was no exception. I went to the Indian market around the corner and bought… noodles in a cup! To add to the gourmet nature of my meal, I ensured it was Assam Laksa flavoured.

My evening was spent chatting to another guest, who was local but travelling around Penang. His name was Deo, he worked in marketing, and he showed me pictures of his cat (who he adored), his children and his wife. We bonded over Macaroni, East Indies Mansion’s house cat, who decided that she really liked me and was happy to have a snuggle. Sorry Bella—I’ve been seeing other felines! Deo, who also gave Macaroni some love, enlightened me about the politics and economics of Malaysia, and that increasing Islamisation will mean that over the next five years, tourists will not find it an attractive place to visit.

I also spent a lot of time talking to Jessie over the course of my stay here. He’s originally from the Philippines and has a 5 year contract at East Indies Mansion—he’s on year 4 and considering his options (and I suggested Canada as opposed to Australia, just because it’s more progressive). He’s such a wonderful young man: driven but kind, goal-oriented but compassionate. If I were running any sort of hospitality venture, I would employ him in a heartbeat.

Day 7

My last day in Penang was spent packing and sorting out my luggage. I’ve considerably downsized the number of bags I am carrying on (I ditched my laptop bag in Bali) and am now just taking my small wheeled backpack on the plane. This carries all my electronics: laptop, hard drives, cords, chargers etc. I have 20kg luggage allowance, so I check my large wheeled backpack, and cram as much stuff in there as I can (I don’t have that much, so it’s not really crammed). My travel documents wallet has been ditched, and I’ve packed my tablet in my checked luggage (which I get the airline to label fragile), so I don’t carry a large tote now, just my regular bag with purse and passport, and I’ve tucked my currency (US dollars and dong) into a safe spot.

I had a visitor this morning, too! Who knew that I knew people in Penang so I could be visited? It was Rosie from the Golden Pearl. Her son is considering moving to Australia (in particular, Adelaide) and she wanted him to meet me so I could give him relevant info about jobs etc. He was told that Adelaide was up and coming, as was Perth, and I told him Perth was on the way out (failure to invest wisely from the resources boom which has now bust) and Adelaide was a dying city (high unemployment rate, ageing population, limited job opportunities). I said go to either Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane. Better yet go to Canada—they are much more progressive than Australia, which currently is being crippled by our conservative government. We also talked Malaysian politics and way of life: it was so interesting have these discussions with another local!

I’ll have one last Indian meal, and then it’s over and out for Penang! I’m heading to Vietnam (Hanoi) on the morrow.

Things I could have done, but didn’t (because I was too lazy)

Last word

I loved Penang. It was easy to get around, friendly, safe and cheap, cheap, cheap! I especially liked staying at the East Indies Mansion. It was close to the bus station and ferry (only a few hundred metres) and within walking distance to everything in George Town, as well as The Esplanade. And it was smack bang in the middle of Little India. Jessie and the staff here are absolutely lovely and they couldn’t do enough to make me feel welcome and at home. Staying eight days, I almost felt like I was part of the furniture! I can highly recommend it for these reasons.

A word of warning, though—if you are sensitive to noise (and even if you aren’t), request an upstairs room. The floors are timber, uninsulated and if you have inconsiderate people (couples and families with loud stomping children!) above you (as I did on 4 of my 8 nights, even though everyone is TOLD to be considerate and WHY it’s important) it’s incredibly noisy. Apparently walking quietly is the most difficult thing in the world for some people. Grrr. The wonderful Jessie took pity on me though, and organised for me stay in an upstairs rooms—an upgrade! Oh My God! It was so delightfully quiet!  So a big THANK YOU to Jessie for being such a caring, thoughtful, generous and decisive host.

 

3 Comments

  • Melinda Kovac November 30, 2016 at 1:12 pm

    Finally catching up on reading your blogs, Disey! Love reading about your travels. Very much missed you at the Christmas party xx

    Reply
    • Diane Lee November 30, 2016 at 5:04 pm

      Glad you’re enjoying my posts, Melsy. Hopefully, you and Andrew will get to do some travelling of your own in due course, and write your own adventures. I’m bummed I missed the Xmas party too, but at least I didn’t have a mother of a hangover to contend with like last year ha ha ha! I bet you had an awesome time Xx

      Reply

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: