Penang is a fecund, tropical hothouse of a city; a living museum where oddball Peranakan heritage and the trappings of modern Asia coalesce in a melange of colours, sights and smells. George Town is Penang’s tourist mecca, and its quaint streets are characterised by richly gilded doorways, wildly patterned floor tiles and the famous five-foot ways that bridge every old shopfront with the outside world, providing pedestrians with a precious few metres of shelter from the tropical sun (and tropical downpours). Flaking faces of school boys and fishermen watch over the creaking carts of street food vendors, rendered mural-size on the sides of buildings. Ancient Chinese medicine shops and herb dispensaries sit alongside mobile phone vendors, a motif of absolute contrast that gets repeated again and again throughout Penang. Life here happens amidst a cacophony of different languages, competing cultures and daily rituals, and somehow, George Town manages to blend it all into one harmonious cityscape. It’s a wonderful thing.
When we weren’t walking aimlessly through Penang’s UNESCO area, captivated by the streets we found ourselves treading, our time in the city revolved around eating street food, drinking coffee, shopping for textiles, and visiting museums. Here are seven of my must-see spots in George Town.
Getting my hands on some beautiful ikat and batik textiles was one of my first priorities when I arrived in George Town. Unfortunately for me, I found the city’s most popular tourist-geared shop (Sam’s Batik) disappointing, and I struggled to find any handmade or fairly traded items to take home. Bon Ton stocks a colourful range of Indian kantha blankets and block prints alongside Malaysian antiques and curios, and it’s my pick of the bunch when it comes to souvenir shopping.
Sun Yat-sen Museum
Sun Yat-sen Museum is my favourite of George Town’s heritage houses. The one-time home of modern China’s founding father and a launchpad for the revolution, the clandestine chit-chat of dissidents and rebels leaks out of the cracks in the blue plaster walls. The staff here are delightful and will answer your questions as you sip on a complimentary green tea. Make sure you visit the kitchen out back.
Artist Howard Tan’s images of Penang are iconic, and his studio/shop on Lebuh Armenian contains a great range of prints, postcards and art books dedicated to the documenter of George Town. Earth pots made in Butterworth by Fuan Wong, Josh Lee’s quirky fragrances bottled in over-sized Yakult tubs, Alex Tan’s pottery from KL, and handmade jute and batik bags also fill the shelves.
Another beautifully restored colonial-era building, China House hosts a collection of modern dining, drinking and shopping spaces within its courtyard-clad walls. Canteen at China House is fantastic for breakfast and offers a mean selection of house-baked cakes. There is also a branch of Bon Ton and a breezy exhibition space located upstairs. If you’re looking for a traditional ikat souvenir, this is the only place I found naturally dyed scarves that are handmade in Malaysia.
The colour and chaos of Lebuh Armenian (Armenian Street) has to be experienced to be believed. This humble stretch of road embodies everything that’s special about George Town, particularly the colonial architecture. A stroll down Lebuh Armenian can take you all the way from the heart of George Town to the popular clan jetties – and on the way, you’ll spot some of Penang’s most famous street art, including the much-photographed ‘Little Children on a Bicycle’. Make sure you stop in at the Penang Batik Art Museum.
Malaysia is the unofficial home of kopi luwak (or civet coffee), that curious brew that lists ‘deification by a jungle cat’ as part of its preparation method, and Kopi Loewak is one of the places in George Town where you can try it. This cafe boasts a pleasant terrace with frontage onto Armenian Street, making it a good place to people watch.
Ren I Tang
Southeast Asia’s original Chinese medical hall, the Ren I Tang of today is a standing tribute to the painstaking efforts many people have gone to to preserve the best parts of Penang. The three-storey 19th-century building contains a cafe called Bistro Tang, a small gift store, and a 17-room inn (that I wished I had stayed in). ‘Straits eclectic’ is the term used by management to describe Ren I Tang’s style, and the interior features both original fittings and furniture, and new items crafted from recovered timber.
Did I forget to mention Penang’s edible offerings? There are far too many to mention here, but for a good overview of the city’s food scene, I strongly recommend taking a guided trip with Food Tour Penang. Have you visited George Town? What are your top picks for Penang’s pride and joy?