The saddest part about traveling around Georgetown is that the body just can’t handle the amount of food and coffee that this city generously provides. The good news is that there is plenty to see and do while your stomach digests your latest Laksa. My favourite activity was just walking around, but this post for those of you who are more goal oriented.
The city has two immaculately preserved Chinese mansions (above) that would leave any antique aficionado awestruck. I’d recommend visiting the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (aka Blue Mansion) first since it’s only accessible by guided tour, then spending a good chunk of time in the more elaborate but less informative Pinang Peranakan mansion.
A handful of mini-museums are available for those looking for a brief respite from the heat. My favourite was the Made In Penang 3D Art Museum due to its ingenious concept of explaining Penang history and customs while providing a playground of interactive photo-ops. It’s a good idea to have at least one friend tag along or else you’ll be stuck constantly asking strangers to take your picture like I had to. It’s worth popping into the free Coffee and Chocolate museum if you’re in the area since it explains the history and benefits of two of my favourite vices and free samples sweeten the deal. Camera buffs can visit the Georgetown Camera Museum to see the vast collection of antique cameras, but for most people it’s probably not worth the entrance fee.
Georgetown’s religious history is also worth exploring, especially along Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling where you can take in an Anglican church, Chinese temple, Hindu temple, and Muslim mosque within three blocks. Another example of how Georgetown’s cultural medley makes it such a unique place.
When I sketched out my Malaysia plans, my goal was to arrive in Penang for Chinese New Year. Little did I know that it would mean the city would be packed and that the festivities would last for several days. Unfortunately the public holidays meant that many of the places I wanted to visit were closed, but at the same time I saw a Penang that was steeped in tradition and cultural exuberance that was well worth all the shuttered shops.
Constant travel is exhausting. Some people recharge by laying on a beach, others go to a spa, I seek out a good macchiato and chocolaty dessert to be enjoyed in a relaxing environment with good wifi. Here I find time to write e-mails, edit photos, write in my journal, or play catch-up with the blog.
About one month into my travels, exhausted from checking as many tourist boxes as possible during my brief stops, I realized that discovering a city’s best cafes to rest in was just as important to me as finding museums and monuments.
When I looked up cafes to visit in Penang, my heart sunk. I would need weeks to visit all the amazing cafes that this city had to offer. My caffeine intake doubled, but so did my productivity. I would hide in one of several charming cafes during the stifling mid-day hours to spend quality time with Aperture and WordPress. It’s actually thanks to Penang that I got my photo mosaics working.
Georgetown boasts an impressive lineup of cafes so you’re sure to find one that suits you the best, but the top three spots in my heart go to Mugshot Cafe for its good coffee and wood-fired bagels, The Alley for its superior espresso and salted caramel cronut, and China House for its mouthwatering cake selection and sprawling ambition.
Although its galleries are pleasant, Georgetown’s more contemporary art can be found on the sides of its heritage buildings. The city recently caught on to the “street art” scene and has a vast collection of interesting pieces scattered throughout the old town. Some are hidden (don’t worry, there’s a map with all their locations) but others can’t be missed due to the piece’s scale or the lineup of tourists snapping photos.
Georgetown’s most famous art-vandal is Ernest Zacharevic. Legend has it that the Lithuanian artist/backpacker ended up in Georgetown, fell for Penang’s charms (I don’t blame him) and stuck around for longer than anticipated. In 2012, the city commissioned him to install some “official” pieces that you can find scattered around the city. Luckily, I was privy to an extra dose of ZACH since I ended up in town in time to see art is rubbish is art, a showcase of his work located inside a decrepit old bus station that his patrons rented out for him to use as a street art playground.
If you’re in Georgetown, I highly recommend carving out some time to seek out his pieces.
Traveling around the world is akin to speed dating a room full of UNESCO beauty queens. You’re not allowed to stay in one place too long if you plan on meeting every wonder and city in the room. You hear the ding in the back of your mind and book onwards transit. However, sometimes you get to a table (Georgetown in this case), the bell rings, people around you move on, but you break the rules.
I had initially slotted 4 nights in my calendar for Penang. I left on day 12.
Upon first meeting the city, I immediately realized she was my type. We shared an appreciation for great food, the arts, cozy cafes, vintage design, and social diversity. But the real attraction grew when I realized that Georgetown is completely comfortable with herself. Unlike other beautiful cities chosen by UNESCO, she hasn’t been whitewashed with new coats of makeup, isn’t ashamed of her open sewers, hasn’t showed signs of pushing away her old residents in droves to make room for fancier suitors, and displays a contagious pride in every neighborhood she has.
I took more pictures of Georgetown than anywhere else on my trip. Every time you turn the corner you see a new masterpiece. Hopefully this gallery can convey a brief glimpse into why you should go for a long walk and get to know this charming beauty.
As I scrolled through the long list of hostels that Georgetown has on offer, one stuck out at me: Tofu Cafe Beds & Bikes. First of all, I love all four things in their name, but the real clincher was the promise of a homemade street food map. Then the confirmation e-mail hit my inbox saying that guests who stay three nights get a free bike rental. Beautiful.
I was greeted at Tofu by two amazing hosts, Joyce and Lucas (the only hostel owners I have befriended on Facebook), who immediately made it their mission to make sure I ate and saw the best Georgetown has to offer. The homemade map was by no means an empty promise made for their hostelworld description, rather a labour of love that is on its fifth revision. I used it so much that it was nearly disintegrated by the end. I’m happy to say I got through the majority of the list and none of them were duds.
The map was tool number one, but Lucas’s red vintage postman’s bike was up there as a close second. Georgetown is completely flat and perfect for cruising. The city is easily walkable, but getting around by bike makes every corner of town accessible within minutes, not to mention the momentum when riding creates a much-needed breeze in the oppressive mid-day heat.
Though these two things alone made staying at Tofu worth it, the thing that made it a truly special stay were its owners. I have never met people as proud of their city and keen on making you feel the same way. They expertly set me up with other solo travellers, set us on our way, and were genuinely curious about what we thought about their suggestions and our own discoveries. One night, they even drove three of us out to one of their favourite restaurants and walked us through a local night market. I have no doubt that I would have enjoyed Georgetown had I stayed elsewhere, but I blame them for how I fell head over heels for this city.
I had high hopes for my next destination, Georgetown. The island of Penang is known as the food capital of Malaysia, and I might go as far to say it’s the best eating I’ve experienced in South East Asia. It’s a place where you encounter hawkers (street food vendors) who’ve been slinging the same dish for over 40 years. I fell into the habit of eating about five times a day here and would have gladly upped that number had my body allowed it.
Booking the minibus to Penang, Malaysia from my hostel in Krabi was painless and it turned out the ride and border crossing was just as smooth. The 10 hour bus ride was a long haul, but I knew I was in the right place as soon as I stepped off the bus. On the 10 minute walk to my hostel I passed several open-air kitchens, food courts, and cafes, all tucked within beautiful old buildings. I could spend hours describing the joyful days bouncing from one stall to the next, sampling the city’s variety of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and European foods, but I’ll just let the photos do the talking.