A quaint old quarter, fantastic food and a beautiful beach.
I fell in love. Penang is one of the best places I have been, and a place I certainly hope to return to. I could have easily stayed for a few weeks, but sadly only had two full days. I flew in late from Singapore, arriving around 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 15. I was able to take the bus to the city, which took about an hour and cost 2.70 ringgit ($.83). The bus was my first glimpse at how nice the people of Penang are. I was a bit nervous about which bus to take, though I read that I was supposed to take the 401E, but thankfully there was an incredibly helpful bus attendant at the bus stop. He was a kind man and directed me on to the correct bus, which was indeed bus 401E, after sharing a pleasant conversation while I waited for the bus.
The bus terminated at Komtar, which I later learned was a main shopping center in Penang’s Georgetown. But at the time I was totally unsure of where I was. Luckily there was a really helpful girl, Hui Ting, on the bus who walked with me in the direction of her house, which was also the direction of my hostel. It was such a comfort to get pointed in the right direction, and she was a sweet girl. I got to the hostel I intended to stay at, but they were full. I was flustered for a moment, but just walked down the street a bit and found another place to stay, which ended up being cheaper. I stayed at Red Inn, and really enjoyed the place. It was a large hotel with several rooms, and I stayed in a four bed dorm. Breakfast and towels were included, which was a bonus.
My first day in Georgetown, which is a city within the state of Penang, I walked around the old city for a while in the morning and enjoyed its general splendor. I also was in search of sunscreen, having run out the day before. I found some at 7 Eleven, but at $10 for a 4-ounce bottle, I was reluctant to buy it. So I went in search of a supermarket and found Mydin, a shop comparable to a miniature Walmart. Mydin didn’t carry the tradition sunscreen brands, but did have two options. Neither had an SPF or description of water and/or sweatproof, but I decided to give it a try and bought the cheaper one for about $1.50. It actually worked quite well, but smelled horrendous! After my sunscreen adventure, I was quite hungry, so I headed to Kimberley Street, which Hui Ting said had a lot of good street food. I had read that Hokkien Mee was a good dish, so I gave it a try. It was absolutely scrumptious. Definitely my favorite thing I have eaten on this trip. It was essentially a spicy noodle soup with shrimp and vegetables, but so flavorful and savory that it really stood in its own echelon.
After a most satisfactory lunch, I took the long (about 1.5 hours) bus ride to Batu Ferringhi, the beach area of the city. The beach was incredible with soft, white sand and not too many people or too many peddlers. I spent the late afternoon and evening alternately lounging and reading on the beach and swimming. I forgot to bring a towel, so I had to improvise. I had purchased water and some snacks before heading to the beach, and received a clever bag made from newspapers. I decided to give the A Section a third life and laid it down as my barrier from the sand. It actually worked quite well until I swam and then got it wet. It quickly disintegrated and left a bit of story behind on my legs, but nothing that didn’t wash off easily with my next dip in the ocean. At that point I decided to rent a beach chair. The guy started at 10 ringgit ($3) but after I gave a slight hesitation dropped the price to 5 ringgit. The simplest bartering I’ve ever done!
The beach shuts down once the sun sets, but the main road nearby turns in to a night market around 6 p.m. I enjoyed walking through the market and checking out the merchandise. I met a persistent old man who was a chiropractor slash masseur. He squeezed my hand and pinpointed my tendency to have lower back pain and have swollen calves. The skeptic in me wonders if he had not followed me for a bit and studied my body movements to diagnose me rather than just with the squeeze of my hand, but I was impressed with his accurate diagnosis. I decided not to partake in his treatment, but if I happen to run in to him again upon a return to Penang (because I really hope there will be one), then I will have to give it a shot! I had dinner at a hawker food center and then took the bus back to Georgetown. The ride was much quicker without the traffic. I settled in for the night and got some rest.
The next day I headed to Penang Hill to take the funicular up to the top of the hill. The price for an adult was 30 ringgit ($10), but I was able to use my student ID for a student discount, scoring a ticket at half the price. Prior to the ride, I thought the price a bit steep, but once I realized how steep the funicular’s journey was, the price was absolutely fair. Especially considering it was round trip. I would have been happy to pay the full adult fare had there been no student discount. The ride itself was quite fun, and it would have been an intense climb otherwise. I believe there was indeed a staircase to the top, so not an all out hike, but still a journey I was much more inclined to take by railway. There were several attractions at the top of the hill, including an Owl Museum and some gardens for an additional fee. I didn’t bother with the extras and instead walked around the hill top. It was a cloudy day so the views of the city below were dismal, but I was still happy to have gone. The funicular ride was worth the cost and time to get to the area in itself, so everything else felt like a bonus. But, of course, it would be ideal to go on a clear day.
On the way back to the city I considered stopping at Kek Lok Si Temple, which is only a few kilometers from Penang Hill and recommended as a top spot to visit. But I felt to lazy and contented myself with glimpsing at the temple as the bus passed by back on its way to Georgetown. It did seem like it would have been quite spectacular, but I’ve long ago given up the desire to see every temple a country has to offer. It’s unattainable. Had I had more time in Penang, I would likely have gone to check the temple out, but I just wasn’t up to it this time around.
After returning to the city, I went on a search for lunch. I was planning to get more Hokkien Mee from the same cart on Kimberley Street, but much to my dismay, the man and his cart were not present (nor were they later present when I went to check again at dinner time). As such, I was quite disappointed and grieved that I was only able to eat his delectable dish once. I ended up eating at Subway, which was mediocre but filling.
With a full tummy, I headed back toward my hotel to drop of some things when I caught a sign for a camera museum out of the corner of my eye. I decided to go in and check it out. I was able to get another student ticket (yes!) and ventured through the museum. There were cameras of all shapes and sizes representing centuries of camera development. I started off just wandering around by myself, but soon a staff member was nearby and gave me detailed information about the cameras in the museum and camera history in general. It was one of the better museums I have been to. And at the end, there were a series of photos of cool street art, which I learned was in Penang! I was excited to have more to admire in the city and set off in search of the street art.
Much of the street art is around Armenian Street, so I headed there first. But I should mention, the picture above is one of the wrought-iron caricatures, which I had seen several of before. With 51 of them around the city, they are hard to miss. I really enjoyed reading them and learning a bit of the city’s history in such an attractive way. I think more cities should adopt a similar style. Back to the point, the street art in discussion was mainly murals. And some of them were interactive, like the two children on a bike and the kids on a swing set. Georgetown has some of the best street art that I have seen in the world. I loved that it was interactive and often incorporated the heart of the city.
I found as many of the murals as I could, and then decided to head to Fort Cornwallis. The fort wasn’t the most impressive I’ve seen, but at 2 ringgit (less than a dollar), it’s worth a visit. The area is fairly quiet and has a nice bed of grass along with some trees. It is a relaxing place to see, and one of the walls gives a nice view of the marina on the other side. While there, I asked a guy to take my picture, and then we followed up with the common question, “Where are you from?” I was a bit surprised when he replied, “Iraq.” And he seemed equally startled when I answered, “The U.S.A.” We had a fleeting moment of awkward tension before realizing we were fine and that didn’t change anything. Turns out he used to live in the US before the war, but had to flee once it broke out. He was a kind guy, and really I would have loved to talk with him more. I was intrigued by what his view on the war and America now would have been, but alas time is a finite resource. Still that brief moment left me contented and hopeful for the future.
By this time the sun was setting, so I decided to grab some dinner. I got some dim sum, which is popular in the area as it is largely influenced by the Chinese. Still a bit hungry, I also had some Hokkien Mee, but from a different place than the one I dined at on Kimberley Street. It was no where near as good as the first, but interesting and tasty in its own right. I then called it a night and headed back to my hotel to sleep before my early flight the next morning.
Penang is truly a treasure and a place I plan to return to.
Penang Gratitude Journal
1. I am grateful for helpful locals.
2. I am grateful for people asking permission to take my picture (happened at the beach).
3. I am grateful for people accepting “no” as an answer to above request.
4. I am grateful for student discounts.
5. I am grateful for a diverse world with a variety of food.