At the very heart of our South East Asian foodie adventure was Penang. Coined as ‘Pearl of the Orient’ or once known as Pulau Pinang, more fits in this small island than it seems possible. Coming to Penang, we didn’t know what to expect. All we knew for sure was that this state-island just off the northwestern coast of Malaysia is world renowned as the best food destination in South East Asia providing the most delicious and conclusive flavours of Asia.
Georgetown, the capital city, is where we spent roughly two days. This rare frozen-in-time city is a food lovers dream and an art lovers haven. The captivating street art and whimsical architecture reflects Penang’s colonial past and gives you the feeling that you’re walking through a path of history. As an unexpected street art hub of Southeast Asia and declared a UNESCO World Heritage site for its well-preserved heritage buildings, it’s as if you’ve just entered a different time period.
Our approach to Georgetown was simple – strolling the chaotic streets, getting lost in a maze of narrow lanes, relishing the street art murals, and taking in all the sights, sounds and smells as we make our way from one dish to the next – practically feasting non-stop on delicacies such as char kuey teow, satay skewers, and roti canai.
Two days was nowhere near enough to indulge and take in all that Georgetown has to offer. A and I have already started plotting our return every time we find ourselves dreaming about the food. If you’re headed to Malaysia or searching for the ultimate foodie experience to fill your bellies and feed your souls, Penang is simply a must.
Day One |
View of Georgetown from our hotel
Gurney Drive Hawker Center.
We learned the hard way that most hawker centers don’t open for business until about 4pm. Also, each hawker stall has their own varying days of operation and business hours. We found that some stalls were open one day but closed the next. If you have your heart set on a specific stall, be sure to research their hours to avoid disappointment. For our earlier meals, we usually went to the food center inside a mall which is equally as delicious and the options are endless.
A traditional and popular dish called Rojak
Satay International is a stall at Gurney Drive Hawker Center serving, hands down, the best beef, chicken, and lamb skewers we had in Malaysia. This stall is not open every day so plan your visit accordingly. Trust me, it’s well worth it.
They close down as soon as they’re sold out and the line is always long so get there early!
I was amazed by the organized chaos that this man was managing. 15-20 people would approach him at one time with their orders and he would remember each one while cooking the skewers over a hot open fire in the grueling Malaysian heat and humidty.
We became mildly obsessed with these satay skewers. Our favorite was the lamb ones.
First time trying the famous char kuey teow dish – flat noodles cooked over very high heat with shrimp paste and bean sprouts. This dish also became a mild obsession.
Fresh sugar cane juice
New Lane Hawker Center
Chee Cheong Fun is another favorite dish among Malaysians’ that was coined a must-try. It’s translated literally as pig intestine noodles but it’s purely rice noodles and visually resembles a pig intestine.
More satay skewers
Fried Oyster Omelette
A nightcap to finish off a successful first day of eating the most delicious food
Day Two |
Heading into Little India for breakfast
Started the day with some roti canai from a restaurant called Sri Ananda Bahwan. Round 1 – we ordered the plain ones to test it out.
Round 2 – we got one with onion and one with eggs. It tastes amazing with eggs!
Doesn’t get fresher than this
Stepped across the street for some more char koay teow and coffee
Attempting to recall everything we had eaten in our travel journal.
Stopping for a coffee so that we can use the WiFi to get an Uber to our next stop, Penang Hill.
Uber is the best way to get around Georgetown. A 15-20 minute Uber ride in Georgetown was always under $10 for us. We learned that taxis were harder to come by in the city and they were a lot more expensive. The common red and white taxis are also not metered despite what their signs might say. There is no train/metro system but there are buses. Although buses would be the cheapest option it often involves a long wait.
The downside with Uber for us was that you needed to be connected. If you weren’t using data on you’re phone like us, this proved to be slightly inconvenient. Before coming to Penang, we read that the island launched “Penang Free WiFi”, an initiative that created over 1000 hotspots to allow the island of Penang to be entirely WiFi connected, no matter where you are. However, when we got there, we learned that it didn’t work as flawlessly as it sounded in theory. You were asked to create an account but were usually required to provide a Malaysian identification number, which we obviously didn’t have. However, you can always get a prepaid data plan or pick up a SIM card.
This is the Penang Hill Railway, which goes up over 6500 feet, taking you to the top of Penang Hill. The entrance fee to go up is about $10 per person. I wouldn’t say this is a terribly noteworthy attraction but it was something to do and you can catch some nice views of the island.
A panoramic view of Penang from the top
After coming down from the hill, we stopped at a random hawker center nearby for a quick plate of char kway teow (I told you we were addicted). We managed to catch just enough WiFi signal to get us an Uber to our next stop, Kek Lok Si Temple.
Fresh sour plum juice
Kek Lok Si Temple stands on a hilltop and is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. The view of the entire temple from afar is quite impressive.
Back to Gurney Drive Hawker Center for dinner. We found this hawker stall serving up char koay teow and the lineup was never ending. After trying it, I can safely say that this was, by far, the best char koay teow we had.
What you also learn from eating at all these hawker centers is that if you are ever unsure of where to eat, always go with the one that has the longest line. More often than not, you will not be disappointed as it will lead you to the best of something.
Day Three |
Ming Xiang Tai Pastry Shop
We got a last minute recommendation from a friend to try these egg tarts. Luckily it was walking distance from our hotel so we trekked there before saying goodbye to Georgetown.
Came across this hole in the wall serving roti canai. We couldn’t resist so we picked up a few and quickly devoured them before catching our flight
Other Things To Consider
With limited time in Georgetown, here are a few things we didn’t get around to doing or learned about after the fact, that are definitely on our list for when we return.
Food Tour. Unfortunately I didn’t find out about this until later but there are some really great guided food tours that you can go on in Georgetown for all different prices and duration. We’re generally not the biggest fans of tours, however, I feel like a food tour would actually be a great way to discover some of Georgetown’s best kept secrets.
Restaurants. This one is a bit of a no-brainer but there are so many great restaurants and neat spots where you can grab handcrafted cocktails. This time around, A and I focused on the mall food courts and hawker centers for all of our meals, but if we came back, we would definitely want to try some of the actual restaurants.
Durian. Penang is famous for its Durian, an exotic and spiky fruit, which has an infamous smell so strong that there are signs in most public spaces saying “No Durian”. The fruit is certainly an acquired taste. Whether you love it or never had it before, it may be worth trying in Penang. You can go to an all you can eat buffet or even visit a Durian farm. I was excited for A to try it for the first time but we just never got around to it.
Street Art Map. Something that Georgetown is well known for is its unique street art. There are over a hundred murals that are spread throughout the city’s maze of streets. There were a few specific ones that I really wanted to see but we couldn’t seem to find. Literally within our last few hours in Penang, I learned that there are a lot of maps available online that shows the exact locations of each mural. I personally thought that this particular Google map is a great tool. It has actual images of all the different murals and exactly where you can locate them within the city. This is a good option if you’re going to be WiFi connected. However, there are a lot of offline options as well.
Rickshaw Tour. For roughly $10-15 per hour (depending on the strength and willingness of your negotiation skills) and up to two people on a rickshaw, you can get a tour around Georgetown’s heritage zone. Evoking a true sense of Old Asia, this is an experience unique to Penang and you likely won’t find a rickshaw as a mode of transportation anywhere else in Malaysia. You can ask for the standard tour or request specific sights that you’d like to see. A fun way to find some hidden gems or give your legs a little break.