I think I’ll miss you most of all. George Town, Penang
I closed my eyes and tried to imagine a historic colonial town in Southeast Asia. This is me two years ago, picturing Saigon. I was a little off. More like an enormous modern city that is not at all interested in preserving the evil French relics of times past. I close my eyes and try again, this time Yangon. Again, I was a bit disillusioned. A lot of history has happened and it’s been a tumultuous one. Take three, George Town. I think this is what I was picturing.
Penang is an island state in Malaysia with a population just over 800,000 people. It feels like a cozy town though. There is a large Muslim population contrasting the Buddhist and local Malay demographics. It’s been that way for a while, and it seems to be getting progressively more cohesive. Any stigma previously creating a divide appeared from my visit to have been broken. I saw young couples of all walks of life, married and happy with children and approving families. It has been described to me as what America was supposed to be. I’ll keep my hot take to myself.
This is a beautifully maintained, clean and progressive city. The space is limited so there’s no sprawl and a huge amount of pride is taken in preserving the old shophouses, temples and colonial English and Dutch buildings. The quality of life is apparent here and honestly I was thinking of how much I could see myself living here.
I hop on the Triumph and weave in and out of traffic to pick my daughter up in time at the university. We could spend some time at the jetty discussing the semester before returning to our 1800’s Chinese Teahouse turned cafe for an evening of records spinning and pages turning. It’s a school night so after bed time the wife and I could sort out the dates for our weekend trek through Laos, a short flight away from our super central locale. Home sweet home.
If we want to talk about food, you would be hard pressed to find a better food city. From Little India in the east to Pulau Tikus in the west and everything in between you’ll find a best of SE Asia culinary playlist. Order from any one of the stainless steel and super hygienic hawker stalls and try your best to find a bad meal. It will be difficult.
I started in Little India at the amazing Kapitan’s Restoran, where I filled up on chicken tikka. For about $8 USD I had what I would say without hesitation was the best Indian food in my admittedly limited portfolio. While they weren’t the most patient servers I’ve ever encountered (they were very busy), their clientele was there to help me order without too much ado.
Prices are a bit higher for lodging here than much of SE Asia but you get what you pay for. I stayed at the Moontree 47, a converted Chinese shophouse with 3-4 rooms that fill up quickly. I paid $24 USD/ night for a private room with shared bathrooms. Bonus, the bathroom is on the roof!
Between meals I wandered aimlessly and was rewarded. This is the perfect city to have no agenda. There’s no dead zones to speak of and every corner holds new eye candy. The art district is the ideal blend of modern street art and respect for the past. Political satire adorns the timeless architectural and gives a better sense as to the pulse of the city. No smoking please.
Walking stimulates the appetite. This holds doubly true when every step brings you to a new and delicious option. I’ve been walking for a while and I feel I could eat a whole pig(let).
It’s impossible to decide, but when in doubt, look for the longest line and just hop in. I found that at a siomay (Malay Shu Mai) place by the name of De Tai Tong Cafe. It’s kind of a big deal. Order from the cart. No need for a menu thanks.
Feeling utterly satisfied except for a failed attempt of buying one of their wicked staff shirts I decide to move on.
In the center of town you can’t help but notice the towering building Komtar looking over the city. I’m not one for heights but decided to go for a walk on the “Rainbow Skybridge”. At 68 stories I found myself more willing to cough up ringgit to be taken down than I was to come up. I dig deep though, do it for the blog I said, and was able to snap one picture before collapsing into an acrophobic episode. You’re welcome.
The Komtar building and amenities is very kid friendly, with a nice amusement park and shopping center attached. After kissing the ground and pretending I hadn’t just prayed to every deity I could think of I wanted to see what the night scene was all about.
Near the jetty one can find all of the creature comforts regardless of your demographic. I stuck to the hawker stalls and live music scene. The highlight for me was this prawn noodle soup with pork belly, short ribs, meatballs and a very complex shrimp broth, as fresh as it was rich. Pretty killer for $4 USD. Eaten to the tunes of Folsom Prison Blues as sung by a George Town native with a believable southern drawl.
I called it a night because I wanted to wake up early for a Malay breakfast staple. Nasi lemak is one of those dishes that people who are apt to sleep in may never get a chance to try. It is in every stall on every corner until about 7 AM when they run out.
I got up at the crack of dawn and began walking to the Pulau Tikus neighborhood to try the best of the best which I’m told is at Jin Hoe Cafe. Along the way I found another prolific dining establishment. This must be the flagship.
Fortunately I was able to stay the course and after a short while I found myself at the Pulau Tikus market with its immaculate produce ranging from durian and custard apple to pomfret and wild duck. Everything fresh as well as clean. A block later I was there, Mecca, aka Jin Hoe cafe. It’s about 6:30 in the morning and the line is out to the street. There are businessmen taking pictures and behaving like kids in a candy store. The man of the hour, a lone soldier manning what I gather is the to go station. Working at breakneck speeds he manages to assemble and pack the meals, take the money and move to the next guest at a rate of three customers a minute. Try and keep up.
On my way back I stumbled on to this process of making noodles draped over steaming baskets. It is similar to kanom Jin noodles and served with coconut and turbonado sugar for a starchy sweet breakfast snack. Yet another unexpected surprise in these beautiful streets.
At some point this post will have to end but know, I will be back here. It was very very hard to leave. If you’re looking for a greatest hits stop for this part of the world, it’s here. Penang is unlike any city I’ve ever been to and at least in my time there it fell perfectly into my idyllic vision. If you don’t want to visit there after reading this… Good! More for me.