Malaysia: Penang

After a week of flashpacking courtesy of my parents, it was sadly time to part ways with Mum and Dad. We had a final breakfast feast, packed up and clambered into the van down to the port. We were headed to Langkawi, our first stopover point in Malaysia. Our boat was only 20 minutes late, which for Thailand is pretty much early! Will and I hopped in a longtail, and 5 minutes out of the Libong inlet, there was a speedboat waiting for us to do a mid-sea change. Interesting. First a few people got off onto our longtail before we got on, keeping an eye on the bags in an attempt to make sure they didn’t fall off with a bigger wave! Annoyingly, as we boarded, the ferry guys told us we’d already missed our connection to Langkawi – it transpired Tigerline ferries had sold us an impossible ticket in that our first and second boats left around the same time, so we were never going to be able to do the route in one day. Grr. If you’re going from any Thai island that isn’t Lipe down to Malaysia in one day, make sure you get an early first boat to catch the last connection to Malaysia, allowing time for the immigration process out of Thailand.

We bumped along about 2.5 hours to Koh Lipe, the last island and border control point out of Thailand. This is where we would need to spend the night before getting a boat to Langkawi the next day. We had an hour or so of sorting out admin; changing our ferry ticket, moving the flight we had booked out of Langkawi the following day, moving accommodation bookings, and finding somewhere to stay that night. Finally sorted, we were in need of a beer, so we headed down to the beach for a sunset Singha. We then headed to a little restaurant-bar called Elephant, where we had the most incredible pizzas for dinner – and some good live music. A very cultured last dinner in Thailand!

The following day we had a few hours to kill until our 4pm ferry, so we grabbed some breakfast, biscuits and beers and headed down to the beach for a last morning of basking before sight-seeing and trekking our way round Malaysia. We popped on some music and had a dip in the sea, Will working on his ‘sick tan’, and enjoyed a last cold Leo beer on the lovely soft sand. There are worse places we could have been stranded, I suppose!

Some last Thai beers on the beach

After lunch we retrieved our bags, got our passports stamped and checked in for the ferry, wishing ourselves luck on getting to Langkawi as planned on our second attempt. We were ferried from the shore to the big boat by longtail, mastering another on-sea boat transfer, and settled in for the 1.5hr journey. We arrived without further incident, though as we stepped off the boat onto the pier at Langkawi, the heavens opened. A wet welcome to Malaysia! We queued up at customs for another stamp in our passport and headed out to get a taxi to our guesthouse, where we ate dinner, watched the Jungle Book and went to bed. Rock ‘n roll.

We were in Langkawi for all of about 16 hours, as the next morning we flew to Penang – our first proper stop in Malaysia. We don’t have long in Malaysia for various reasons, and Langkawi seemed a fairly similar island vibe to where we’d just come from in Thailand, so we decided to move straight on. It was possibly the shortest flight I’ve ever been on, taking only about 30 minutes – between the seatbelt signs going off after take-off and coming on again for landing, I think I only had time to listen to 2 songs!

We landed smoothly, grabbed our bags and headed out to find the bus to Penang’s main city, George Town. The public bus takes a while but it’s frequent, easy and very cheap, so definitely worth getting over a cab if you’re not in a rush. Get the 401E from the airport to Komtar/Weld Quay. The name George Town itself gives away that this was a British colonial hub, and it’s the cultural mish-mash that still exists here today which makes it a popular destination. The historic centre of the city was made a UNESCO heritage site in 2008. It’s quite an eclectic place of colourful, ramshackle buildings and walls of street art round every corner. We arrived too late in the day for most of the key attractions to be open, so we walked instead down to the old Hin Bus Depot, which is an old bus station now used as a hub for street art and also hosts little pop-up stalls. We could have been in Shoreditch! This is definitely worth a visit if you’re in Penang over a weekend, when the market is on. Will spied a skate ramp and took the board for a spin, then we explored the pieces of art on the neglected walls and bought some cool postcards from a little shop in there.

Getting into the street art at the Hin Bus Depot
More art at the Hin Bus Depot

Next, we wandered back towards the historic centre, weaving through little streets spotting some of the art pieces, and making our way down to the seafront. When George Town was a major port, Chinese workers built what became known as clan jetties along the docks where they lived in houses on stilts. The most intact one left today is called the Chew Jetty, so we picked our way along through the stalls and the rickety wooden planks down to the end, where there was a view over the harbour towards the mainland.

Wandering through the stalls on the Chew Jetty

From the jetty, we walked back through the centre, past some more art, to the hostel where we chatted to people from our room for a bit before going out for dinner. Our hostel was in a good area, round the corner from Love Lane which is quite a trendy food and drink hub for backpackers. We ended up going to a Mexican restaurant-bar called Holy Guacamole, drawn in by the live music and vibrant atmosphere – and the promise of cheese. We had a couple of beers, watched some Winter Olympics, and chomped our way through some nachos, burritos and quesadillas before half-running back to the hostel in the torrential rain. That night there was one hell of a thunderstorm right above us, so I’m glad we got back when we did!

The next morning, Will unfortunately wasn’t feeling too hot so we spent the morning chilling at the hostel. Luckily we had a really nice hostel, Ryokan (the really good included breakfast being a highlight), so it wasn’t too bad a place to while away some time. He decided he was going to lay low for the day, so I went out to explore some more of George Town solo. I headed first to the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, the rather grand restored heritage house of Kapitan Cina Chung Keng Kwee. The Peranakans, also known as the Straits Chinese, were a unique Chinese community who settled along the British Straits settlements of Penang, Melacca and Singapore – they adopted Malay ways and the British colonial lifestyle. The mansion is a very colourful and ornate building, restored to show the rich style of the house inside as well as out with its glass collections, fancy dining room set-ups and huge family portraits hanging on the walls. There’s also a beautiful family temple attached to the house, and the Penang authorities have since added an old Chinese jewellery museum to the building. It was quite busy when I was there but it was an interesting visit, learning more about the Chinese element of George Town’s mixed up cultural heritage. If you’re only keen to visit a couple of key buildings in George Town though, I’d recommend some of the others I mention below as Pinang Peranakan was 21.20RM and not the best of the lot.

One of the dining tables at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion

From oriental to colonial, my next visit was Fort Cornwallis, just around the corner by the sea. This was the first British fort built in Penang in 1786, when Captain Francis Light landed to ‘take possession’ of Penang as a trading post for the East India Company – it held an important strategic position on the Strait of Melacca. It was originally a timber stockade, but was rebuilt in brick in 1793, and upgraded again in 1803. For 100 years, the fort (named after the Governor-General of Bengal, Charles Marquis Cornwallis) housed the East India Company and British troops but it never saw a battle – even when the Japanese took control of Penang during WWII. I wandered around the canons, bridges and powder stores; whilst the fort itself isn’t much to look at, I enjoyed soaking up my history fix!

One of the canons at Fort Cornwallis

From the fort I sauntered sweatily back to the hostel to check on Will, before going to get some lunch from a local café on Love Lane. I spent the afternoon doing a little research on our next destinations in Malaysia, force-feeding Will water, and watching Netflix. We left the hostel for some snacks and supplies and settled in for an evening of watching films and an early night – this time, unencumbered by a noisy storm!

Will was luckily feeling a bit better the next morning, so we ate some breakfast and headed out to visit a couple of George Town’s biggest attractions. We started off at the ‘Blue Mansion’. This is another heritage jewel of Penang; an opulent house built in the 1890s by Cheong Fatt Tze, a very influential Chinese businessman. Of his many homes around Asia, Penang was his favourite, and he spent a lot of money bringing in materials from all over the world (including floor tiles from Stoke-on-Trent and wrought iron work from Glasgow, no less) to showcase his wealth. Cheong died in 1916 and the house fell somewhat into disrepair over the following decades thanks to the change in currency through WWII occupation, and then independence, rendering the money left in his will for maintenance worthless. In 1990, after the death of his youngest son, the house was auctioned off – luckily to a local architect who wanted to fully restore it, rather than a developer who wanted to flatten it. It took 6 years to restore the house to its original grandeur, using no new materials bar installing electricity and indoor plumbing. It’s also now an upmarket restaurant and hotel, so you have to visit on a 17RM scheduled tour rather than wandering around yourself – they run daily at 11am, 2pm and 3:30pm. We had a busy tour, probably around 40 people, but the guide was really good and we both really enjoyed it – if you visit only one of the heritage houses in George Town, make it this one.

Outside the Cheong Fatt Tze ‘Blue Mansion’

After the Blue Mansion, we went back to the hostel to cool off a little before heading back out to Khoo Kongsi, another key architectural draw of George Town. It’s an old Chinese clanhouse, base of the powerful, influential and wealthy Khoo traders who came to the Straits from Hokkien province. It’s been maintained very authentically and is striking and opulent, containing a small but interesting museum about the clan family tree and the history of the temple too. It was also very quiet when we visited (perhaps surprising, over Chinese New Year when everything else had been chaos as a result), which added to the temple’s atmosphere.

Outside Khoo Kongsi

From Khoo Kongsi, we walked back through the little streets where they were setting up some music stages for the Chinese New Year celebrations, back to the hostel as Will was feeling a bit rough again. I went out to get some lunch from a place over the road, and bought a few postcards having not written any for a while. I scribbled those whilst having a coffee and went back to the hostel to cool down a bit – it might take a while to get used to the killer heat and humidity combo in Malaysia! We had a relaxed afternoon, and then headed out to a hawker centre (traditional food market) called Red Garden for dinner. This was one recommended by our hostel for good local food and it was very reasonably priced. Other good hawker spots include Lorong Baru, Pulau Tikas and Gurney Drive – but the latter two are a cab ride out of town, and check the opening hours for the day you want to go! I went for the traditional Penang prawn noodles (called ‘Mee’), which were quite tasty but not as mindblowingly delicious as I’d hoped. Nothing to write home about, but at least I’d had some of the local grub before we left!

I feel we maxed out our time in the historic centre of George Town, but didn’t really have time to discover the rest of Penang. Speaking to others in the hostel, if you have more time the cable car up Penang Hill, scootering or bussing to Kek Lok Si temple, or basking on the beaches along the north coast also sounded appealing. Buses from George Town are pretty good, though can be a bit confusing, so maybe ask your hostel for a hand…

Until next time,

Number of strangers I’ve spoken to today: 6, including an Aussie couple who instantly warned us about the monster snorer in the bunk under mine when we entered the room. ‘Goodnight, and good luck’, were the words we were left with on our first night…
Interaction was: ominous, and hugely accurate. The snoring was bed-shakingly loud.

One Woman and her Backpack x

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