Situated on the Malacca Strait, just a few miles beneath Langkawi lies the small Malaysian island of Penang. Filled with a multicultural history, Penang stood between the trade routes of the West and East. Its capital, George Town is a vibrant city and a UNESCO World Heritage site preserving many of its old, quaint buildings. Penang provides one of the best food destinations in Malaysia; with Chinese, Malay and Indian cuisines on offer. Combined with its cheap affordability – the island is popular with many visitors that come to sample its delights.
WHAT TO SEE
George Town was our base, we stayed here for a week and discovered there are many things to do – not only in the city but the whole island offers a wide choice of sights and activities. One of the first places we went to was the top of Penang Hill which overlooks George Town. A modern funicular train takes you up to the upper levels in a few minutes. The views at the top are spectacular, but that wasn’t the main reason we were here for.
Between 2014 and 2015, a British TV drama was filmed here, Indian Summers. The production team chose Penang (in particularly the Hill) for it’s collection of original British colonial homes that were similar to the properties of the British-Raj era in rural India in which the story line is based. Being fans of the show, we researched the filming locations beforehand and set off to find the houses.
The first property, was the Crag Hotel (the Royal Simla Club in the show). The former hotel was built in 1890, then turned in to a school and later abandoned for decades – it became one of Indian Summer’s most popular sets where it was used as a private members club. On entering the derelict building, we were amazed how dilapidated it looked with broken shutters and holes everywhere. When filming finished, the production crew had taken almost every fitting and object that made it the glamorous set it was on its TV series. The bar, some props and signs is all that remains…
We later moved on to Woodside Bungalow, or known as ‘Chotipool’ – the residence of civil servant Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes).
During the British colonial era, the British built a number of homes on Penang Hill to escape the heat and humidity lower down. Many of these properties still stand, some are currently occupied and some in poorer states. If you are interested in colonial architecture these homes are great to see whilst up at the Hill. Whether you watched the TV show or not as it gives you glimpse of Penang’s past and the styles the British tried to bring to Asia.
Penang Hill provides many hiking opportunities, with marked signs and it is still a great place to escape the heat of downtown George Town. A recommended day out at the Hill is to take the funicular train up, see the sights and then walk down towards the Botanical Gardens.
George Town is best explored by foot, this vibrant town is filled with cool streetart, little cafes and enough food stalls on each corner you will never go hungry. A new bike rental service is available for tourists and locals to use, with bike stations dotted around the town (you pay for what you use, a credit card is required).
We also visited two heritage mansions that have become a museums; Cheong Fatt Tze – The Blue Mansion (also a luxury hotel) and Pinang Peranakan Mansion. An interesting history lies with these two imposing homes, and can only be seen with a guided tour which is available at the point of buying the tickets.
We had plan to go to beaches in the north of Penang such as Batu Feringghi and Monkey Beach in Penang’s National Park. Due to our tight budget we didn’t go and remained in George Town instead. The beaches we’re told are not to the standards you would find in Langkawi and are quite developed, but they are there offering a nice day out and can be reached by bus/taxi.
WHERE TO EAT
Penang is regarded as one of the food capitals of Malaysia, Lonely Planet named Penang as the Top Food Destination in 2014. Food is cheap here, and you can eat like a king for little money. The choice of food stalls in George Town can be mind bending, finding a place to eat can be challenging but go with your instincts and recommendations by your host rather than the reviews you have read.
Some of our favourites places to eat were the Red Garden Cafe – an open food court by the Blue Mansion. We loved Kimpo Famous Roasted stall, serving great Chinese style roasted meats with rice. The stalls on Chulia Street, off Love Street should not be missed either. Try the wonton noodles at Mother And Son Wantan Mee and there is another noodle place just up the road is Yeap Noodles where the noodles are freshly handmade.
Don’t leave Penang without trying the Penang Laksa at My Own Cafe just off Armenian Street and the Chicken Satay sold at stall oustide Mr. Shawerma on Chulia Street. Just further down the street towards the piers, stop by Ming Xiang Tai Confectionaries for delicious sweet pastries and cakes.
For coffee lovers you will not be disappointed by the number of cafes here, a couple of places we can recommend is Coffee 45 – inexpensive drinks and free ice cream with any cake (go for the brownie and ice cream!) Newly opened Ome by Spacebar Coffee is situated on quiet lane not far from the sights, it has a contemporary interior – serves great herbal teas and coffee.
Durian fans you are in heaven, when they are in season they are sold almost everywhere especially the morning market at Pasar Chowrasta.
WHERE TO STAY
Staying in a heritage house or a period building is popular with visitors that want to stay in the historical heart of George Town. We stayed at Muntri House, a traditional Chinese clan house located near Love Street (the backpacker street) but far enough to be quiet.
- The Penang Hill Railway is a very popular attraction and long queuing is likely especially during peak season. We recommend you go as early as you can in the morning or purchase a fast track ticket (double price of standard) to queue jump if your time is limited. Hiking up the hill should not be taken lightly, the hill is very steep and can be unpleasant to hike during the heat and high humidity.
- If you visit the Indian Summer filming sites, be careful you do not trespass. Most of these properties are private. With the exception of the Crag Hotel as a public path intersects the site, do make yourself known and your intention to cross to one of the neighbours (if they come out to see who you are).
- There are snakes, biting insects and as well monkeys in the Hill. Take care when hiking, do not feed the wildlife, the monkeys can get quite aggressive if you are too close.
- Take plenty of water and snacks during hikes, there are resturants and shops to stock up at the top of the Penang Hill Railway station.
- Uber is operational in Penang, providing a cheaper way to get between sights across the island. It is also available for airport transfers.
- Ask your accommodation host/receptionist for maps of George Town, especially the food map will point you to the best places to eat. There is also a map to show you where the streetart pieces are. You can also pick up these maps at the main Tourist Information Office.