26 Nov Penang: Food, Street Art, Turtles and Hilltop Views
A Thai visa run took us to the Malaysian island of Penang last week. Here’s what we got up to during our Penang trip, from discovering Georgetown’s street art, delicious food and unique cultural heritage to enjoying hilltop viewpoints, jungle treks and visiting baby turtles.
Six days in Penang Malaysia
Our six-day jaunt to Georgetown in Penang was all in aid of topping up our Thai visas. We stayed in a budget hotel in Penang right in the heart of Georgetown called My Guesthouse, a beautiful old building with shutters and high ceilings that had been recently renovated. The first thing that hit us when we arrived was the intense heat. The air was thick and soupy with humidity and the sun scorched our skin, but we were still determined to explore Georgetown’s rich heritage.
Penang Island was once a key port of call along a vital trading route between Asia, Europe and the Middle East. This brought settlers from various countries to the island, including Chinese, Portuguese and Dutch settlers. In the 16th Century, the British arrived and took over, renaming the main port Georgetown, after King George III. This has created a diverse cultural mix of people, architecture, religions and food, making Penang a fascinating place to visit. In 2008, Georgetown was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We spotted evidence of Penang’s unique history everywhere we went in Georgetown, from the British Fort Cornwallis, to the streets of Little India and the Chinese Clan jetties which stick out over the sea and have been home to generations of the same Chinese families. The streets of Georgetown are a mix of European colonial buildings and Chinese merchant houses, elaborately sculpted temples, white churches and dome-roofed mosques.
Street Murals in Georgetown Penang
Our Georgetown highlight was the street art that’s dotted around the crumbly walls around town. Back in 2012, the Penang Council hired the Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic to create street murals that would bring to life the rich history of Georgetown’s streets. The project was a huge success and new murals have sprung up since the initial project launch; many tourists now travel to Penang specifically to photograph Georgetown’s street art.
We spotted all kinds of murals as we made our way around town, from giant cats and rickshaw drivers to street-food sellers, a kid walking his pet dinosaur and even Oscar the Grouch. Take a walk around these key areas to discover some of Georgetown’s most famous murals: Armenia Street, Lebuh Leith, Au Quee Street and Muntri Street.
Penang food, food and more food
One of the most famous Penang attractions is its fusion of Indian, Malay and Chinese cuisine. We headed straight to Little India and Woodlands, a vegetarian restaurant with a no-nonsense ambience that serves delicious, cheap dishes. We gorged on thin, crispy masala dosas for just 3.50 MYR (£0.70) and headed back for a lunch special, a huge tali dish and chickpea curry accompanied by chewy bread.
At The Healthy Leaf restaurant we sampled some Chinese-influenced bowls of veggie dumpling soup, Vietnamese wraps and vegetable rolls. We also visited one of Penang’s traditional bakeries to try a famous coconut pastry, which we found disappointingly dry and dull. For a western food fix we bought croissants from The Rainforest Café and went to The Daily Dose for quality brunches of waffles, eggs, muesli, omelettes and tasty French toast.
The view from Penang Hill
We caught the funicular train up to Penang Hill late one afternoon for a dose of fresh air and some views over Penang Island. We were greeted by views of the city sprawled between the mountains below and skinny bridges stretching over the teal sea to the mainland. Although the hilltop was packed with tourist-trap cafes, shops and cheesy photo props, we spent several hours wandering around in the refreshing mountain air, watching the day turn to dusk. As darkness fell, the city lights twinkled on and black clouds rolled in below as the sky lit up with flashes of lightning.
How to get to Penang Hill: we took the 204 local bus from Komtar in Georgetown to the end of the line, which cost 2 MYR (£0.60) per person, one-way, and took around 45 minutes. From there, we caught the funicular train up the hill, which cost 30 MYR (£6) each, return.
Baby turtles at Penang National Park
For us, Malaysia is all about nature and wildlife. Our 2013 trip to Borneo was filled with trips down murky rivers in long boats, with birds swooping above us and monkeys rustling in nearby trees. So, once we’d had our fill of Georgetown we decided to visit Penang National Park in search of more natural Malaysian treasures. In the mid-morning heat we began a 90-minute sweaty jungle trek towards Kerachut Beach, accompanied by the sounds of twittering, croaking creatures. Within minutes we were greeted by a group of Macaques hanging out in the trees above us.
The trail coughed us up on a deserted white-sand beach, the nesting place for various breeds of endangered turtles. Eggs are collected by the park’s Turtle Conservation Centre and hatchlings are released once they’re large enough to stand a better chance of survival in the wild. This made sense to me when we saw the centre’s current batch of adorable Olive Ridley hatchlings. They looked so fragile with their delicate flippers, tiny little beaks and soft white bellies. The centre also had two adult Green Turtles; although they were being temporarily kept for research purposes, it still wasn’t pleasant to see them swimming around a small, bare tank.
How to visit Penang National Park: we caught the 101 local bus from Komtar in Georgetown to the park, which runs every 20 minutes and costs 4 MYR (£0.80) each. The park is free but you must register at the entrance booth. There are two main treks, one to Turtle Beach which took us 1.5 hours one-way and another to Monkey Beach, which takes 2 hours one-way. We hired a boat to pick us up and take us back via Monkey Beach, it cost 40 MYR (£8) each. The park is open from 7.30am – 6pm every day. The Turtle Conservation Centre opening hours are 10am – 4pm.