After hearing horror stories of the boat journey across the open sea of the Malacca Straits from Langkawi to Penang, we opted to fly between the two. Air Asia (the Ryanair of Asia) provided us with two seats PLUS luggage AND a ‘meal’ (which turned out to be a chicken pasty-type roll) for the frankly ridiculous price of 22€ per person.
We checked in at 8am and boarded promptly at 9:15am (much more on time than Ryanair) and settled into our seats (slightly narrower than Ryanair) for our 9:55am departure and supposed 45 minute flight to Penang. Our captain was very apologetic when announcing a five minute delay to our take-off time due to another landing plane but 15 minutes later, with the plane in the sky after take-off, we needn’t have worried about being late.
With the attendant announcing we’d be “landing shortly” while the plane was still pointing upwards, it became clear that Air Asia pull the same trick as Ryanair by saying that the flight takes about 50% longer than it actually does. After leaving the tarmac in Langkawi just after 10am, we landed in Penang at 10:24am – certainly the shortest flight either of us has ever taken!
Walking through the arrivals hall to baggage reclaim, I felt slightly ashamed of our rapid mode of transport. Backpacking is supposed to be about uncomfortable overnight bus journeys with even longer stopovers at places no human would ever wish to visit. This was all too easy! To make matters worse, our bags were two of the first to come out onto the baggage carousel! After considering letting our bags travel round the carousel a few times to punish ourselves, I decided that you have to treat yourself sometimes, grabbed our backpacks and headed for the bus stop outside the terminal.
After arriving at our lodgings for the next three nights; Siok Hostel, Tessa wasn’t feeling too well so whilst she had a little nap, I headed out for a wander around the historic capital of Penang; George Town.
George Town was established by the British East India Company in 1786 and after a rollercoaster two centuries, firstly as an important trade hub followed by recession, a large influx of migrants from China and occupation by the Japanese during World War Two, it started to develop into a major tourist destination before being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. Thusly, the oldest portion of George Town city, a 2x2km grid on the north-eastern coast is well-preserved and features a huge variety of architecture.
Walking around the narrow streets between towering wooden townhouses with cafés on every corner spilling out onto the pavement, I thought the place had a distinctly European feel quite unlike anywhere we’d been on our South-East Asian adventure so far. (Tessa: “It is definitely different to the cities we’ve seen in Thailand, I wouldn’t compare it to Europe though…”) After purchasing a quite expensive but very tasty coffee from ‘The Daily Dose’ café, George Town further solidified it’s Euro-vibe as the heavens opened and I was stuck in an almighty monsoon. Taking refuge next to a red 1970s Honda Civic with a slightly unnerving human-sized Garfield teddy in the driving seat, I texted Tessa the details of my predicament to the sympathetic reply of laughing-crying-face-emoji. As the water in the road-side drains rose higher and I feared I might be washed away, the rain mercifully relented. Ever the optimist, I decided there was no way the rain would start again any time soon and, rather than turn around and head straight back to the safety of the hostel, I’d continue my winding exploration through the streets. Of course, it did rain again. And this time my cover weren’t so good. So I returned to Tessa at the hostel a little more moist than previously but a whole lot wiser to our new surroundings.
That evening we headed to Red Garden street food market, just a few minutes walk from our hostel. There we tucked into Hokkien Mee (Malay noodles), crispy pork and rice, dim sum pork buns and, finally homemade ice cream. And all for about 4€ each.
Next morning, we planned a sight-seeing itinerary of the George Town grid with a long list of museums and streets to see. First stop was the Camera Museum, which purports itself as the first of it’s kind in Malaysia. Seeing as Trip Advisor said there were two camera museums in George Town itself, barely ten minutes apart, we were rather suspicious of this claim but nevertheless enjoyed seeing the hundreds of decades old cameras they have on display and were treated to a private guided tour of the museum explaining the stories behind some of the more unusual items including a Lego Kodak camera, a picture of the ‘1920s Selfie’, a converted automatic rifle with a camera in it used for target practice by the Japanese Army and also a 19th century camera obscura.
Next we wandered through the Little India section of George Town to Armenian Street which, despite the name, has nothing Armenian about it whatsoever. It is however, a bustling street with lots of graffiti art on the walls and small boutique shops and galleries. Behind Armenian Street, we visited the Cheah Kongsi clan house. Built by Chinese immigrants from the Cheah clan, it is a large house in a very traditional Chinese temple style that has been restored to its former glory in the last ten years. After that, we headed towards the former house and now museum of Sun Yat Sen, a Chinese revolutionary who planned an ultimately successful rebellion against the ruling Qing dynasty in China from George Town whilst in exile in 1910. Before we reached that however, we came across a small stall selling ‘1970s Ice Balls’ and thought we’d have a try. The woman at the stall crushed ice into two half-sphere moulds, pressed them together and rolled the ice into a solid ball before pouring your choice of flavoured syrup over it to make a refreshing ice lolly-style snack. She gave us instructions to “roll and slurp, roll and slurp” the ice ball in our trays of syrup and it certainly beats a choc ice! (For our German readers: a choc ice is a very common ice cream that we all have as children in Britain.)
After reading about the interesting history and struggle of Sun Yat Sen, we headed to the sea front to see the Clan Jetties. The Clan Jetties are an expansive set of restored walkways out over the sea with people selling all sorts of foods and other items. It was here that we first encountered the durian fruit. “They look good. Shall we try?”, I said to Tessa, pointing at some pastries with light yellow filling. “We’ll take two please”, I asked the woman at the counter. “Are you sure?”, she replied which I thought was a little odd; why wouldn’t she sell me her delicious pastries. “Here…”, she said, passing me a small spoon of the light yellow filling, “…try this”. As I put the tiniest amount of the filling into my mouth, I could see she recognised we didn’t realise just what the filling was. Despite it’s lovely looking colour, durian fruit tastes of a mixture of onion (Zwiebel) and garlic (Knoblauch) and the taste stays on your tongue just as long. After deciding that maybe we didn’t want to try two of her lovely pastries after all, and bidding her goodbye with a smile, we wandered around the rest of the Jetties before heading back towards the city centre.
Unfortunately, at this point, Tessa’s cold caught up with her and she started to feel unwell so we headed back to the hostel so she could rest. In the evening, after dinner, we headed to the Bayview Hotel for a drink at their rooftop bar which has spectacular views across the city centre, before heading to bed intending to finish our exploration the next day.
First port of call for day two of our George Town exploration was the Pinang Peranakan mansion which Trip Advisor says is the number one thing to do in Penang and number two in the whole of Malaysia!
Peranakans were a large Chinese immigrant community in Penang and other colonial parts of South East Asia and Pinang Peranakan is the former home of a rich member of this community called Kapitan Cina Chung Keng Kwee who lived there at the end of the 19th century and his family occupied the house for four generations. Bought in the 1990s by a wealthy Chinese-Malay resident of Penang, the house was fully restored and now houses his vast collection of jewellery and art, as well as showcasing the history of the former residents. We were given an introductory tour by a guide and then explored the house and jewellery gallery. Whilst it is a very impressive building with beautiful architecture and fittings, it is hard to place yourself in a 19th century version of the building with all the gleaming furniture and jewellery around so we were left to wonder why it received such rave reviews but still glad we went.
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the streets and alleyways of the city in search of the famous street art of Penang. Several installations can be found across the city including a motorbike that you can sit on with a graffiti drawing on the wall behind of a child driving. There is a similar one with a bicycle propped against a wall with two children on the wall behind. (See pictures below.)
Exploring complete, we headed for dinner at ‘Danish Biryani House’ which served up some very nice Indian food indeed – maybe the owner went to Denmark on holiday once or something?! We headed to bed early as our bus was due to pick us up at 7:30am next morning and take us to one of the places I’ve been most looking forward to; the mountain hill station of Cameron Highlands.