36 Hours: Penang, Malaysia

Published: February 9, 2012
The New York Times

A fishing boat near Telok Pahang.
A fishing boat near Telok Pahang. More Photos »

PENANG is on a roll. Thanks to an influx of private and public investment and creative energy — precipitated in part by Unesco’s 2008 listing of Penang’s capital city, George Town, as a World Heritage site — the Malaysian island is padding out its list of attractions. To the region’s best street food add smart restaurants and bars. And a lively street culture anchored in religious festivals has now been joined by shows at the recently opened Performing Arts Center, and events like the Penang World Music Festival (March 30 to April 1; penangworldmusic.com), as well as the annual George Town Festival (June 15 to July 15; georgetownfestival.com), a month of exhibitions, performances and readings by local and international artists and writers. Your stay will very likely be more comfortable than it would have been a few years ago, with new boutique hotels opening in recently renovated pre-World War II shop houses and mansions.


3 p.m.

Get your bearings with a stellar view atop 2,750-foot Penang Hill. The easiest way up is by funicular. The slightly white-knuckle ride in new Swiss-made air-conditioned coaches takes five minutes or less. Up top, the air is fresh and cool, and the vistas unparalleled: to the south, George Town’s neat rows of clay tile roofs; to the north, undulating hills backed by a turquoise sea. If you’d rather walk down (two to three hours) than ride, a little-used jeep trail ends at the Penang Botanical Gardens at the foot of Penang Hill, a 30-minute taxi ride back to George Town.

5:30 p.m.

As the day’s heat begins to fade, runners, dog walkers and idlers converge on Padang Kota Lama, a grass pitch sandwiched between Penang’s stately town hall and 18th-century Fort Cornwallis. Poke around inside the fort (entrance, 1 Malaysian ringgit, or 33 cents, at 3 ringgit to the dollar), then cross the street to the esplanade overlooking the Strait of Malacca. Buy a bag of kacang rebus (boiled chickpeas seasoned with turmeric, 3 ringgit) from one of the parked white trucks and head to the unpretentious (and nameless) cafe at the esplanade’s terminus, where you can watch the sky turn orange over a beer.

8 p.m.

Among George Town’s recent flurry of openings in refurbished structures, China House (153-155 Beach Street and 183b Victoria Street; 60-4-263-7299) is the most stunning: over 10,000 square feet of food, drink, and retail and arts outlets in three interconnected shop houses in the city’s warehouse district. The décor leans to heritage chic, with exposed beams, weathered timber and cement floors, an eclectic mix of Chinois, mid-20th century and contemporary furnishings and splashy textiles. Start with dinner at the intimate BTB+Restaurant (dinner for two, 190 ringgit), where the menu runs to Western dishes with Asian and Middle Eastern influences, then climb the stairs to Galleries I and II to view works by Malaysian and international artists. The best place to wind up the evening is at the stylish Canteen+Bar (drinks for two, 80 ringgit), where arty types mingle with (upscale) backpackers and the after-work crowd around a sheet metal-clad bar; local musicians perform on weekends.


7:30 a.m.

Book ahead for a spot at Nazlina Spice Station (71 Stewart Lane; 60-12-453-8167; pickles-and-spices.com; 135 ringgit for a class), where the bubbly former electrical engineer Nazlina Hussin imparts the secrets of Malay dishes like chicken rendang and ikan masak lemak (fish cooked with spices and coconut milk). Hands-on classes start with a tour of a local market, where you’ll taste pickles made from local nutmeg fruit, and end with a communal meal. Or greet the morning with the old-timers at the dim sum institution Aik Hoe (6 Carnarvon Street; breakfast for two, 30 ringgit) and follow with a walking tour of the city’s architectural highlights led by a member of the Penang Heritage Trust (60-4-264-2631; pht.org.my; 180 ringgit for up to three people; book several days ahead). Finally, have lunch at the International Hotel (92 Transfer Road; 40 ringgit for two), where a Sumatran-run hawker stall in a Chinese-owned coffee shop serves a selection of Malay, Indonesian and Indian- and Chinese-influenced curries, vegetable dishes and sambals.

2 p.m.

Housed in a former school built in the late 1800s, the Penang State Museum (Lebuh Light; 60-4-261-3144; www.penangmuseum.gov.my; 1 ringgit) presents an engrossing overview of the island’s history, architecture and multi-ethnic population over two floors of exhibitions in Malay and English. Plenty of space is devoted to kitchen culture, local specialties and even the history of Penang’s kopitiam (coffee shops).

3:30 p.m.

The two-block stretch of Armenian Street, named after an immigrant community of businessmen that included the Sarkies brothers of Eastern & Oriental and Raffles hotels fame, is rich with history and consumer diversions. In addition to Sun Yat-sen’s Penang base (120 Armenian Street; 60-4-262-0123), where the architect of the Republican China plotted the downfall of the Qing dynasty, four Hokkien clan associations reside here. With its opulent temple and small but fine museum, Khoo Kongsi (18 Cannon Square; 60-4-261-4609; khookongsi.com.my; 10 ringgit) is most definitely worth a look. Gallery hop from Studio at Straits (86 Armenian Street; 60-4-262-7299; straitscollection.com.my), showing mostly Malaysian works, to Galerie Seni Mutiara (118 Armenian Street; 60-4-262-0167; galerisenimutiara.com), exhibiting international artists on the ground floor and, upstairs, a permanent collection of paintings by Malaysia’s early post-independence artists. Handblown glass is sold at Fuan Wong Gallery (88 Armenian Street; 60-4-262-9079). China Joe’s, below Studio at Straits, sells women’s wear and contemporary Asian housewares and furniture, while the “antiques” shop Chin Seng Leong (55 Armenian Street), a dusty hole in the wall, is for serious treasure hunters.

7 p.m.

When it moved, almost two years ago, from a glorified lean-to in a nearby alley to a spiffed-up shop house, Tek Sen (18-20 Carnarvon Street; 60-12-493-9424; 100 ringgit for two) tripled its seating capacity. That hasn’t diminished the family-owned restaurant’s charm, or its ability to turn out flawlessly executed dishes that have been drawing locals for over 45 years. The extensive menu includes Teochew and Malaysian dishes, each of them memorable. Highlights: stir-fried roast pork with chiles; whole pomfret steamed with ginger, tomatoes, pickled mustard and sour plums; and gulai tumis, stingray in tamarind-soured spicy gravy.

8:30 p.m.

That Little Wine Bar (54 Jalan Chow Thye; 60-4-226-8182; thatlittlewinebar.com), a snug social spot frequented by expats and Malaysian residents, pours vintages by the glass (20 to 28 ringgit) and by the bottle. A youngish crowd gravitates to Behind Fifty Love Lane (Muntri Street at Love Lane), a cafe and bar in a low-slung cubbyhole; the owners have been known to organize patrons into teams for games of charades.


8 a.m.

Pack a towel and hire a taxi (30 ringgit per hour) to Taman Negara Pulau Pinang (Telok Bahang; 60-4-881-3530; wildlife.gov.my/tnpp/biindex.htm; no charge), a 3,100-acre smidgen of beach-fringed jungle in the northwestern corner of the island, about 11 miles from George Town. After registering at the park office, hire a longtail boat for the short ride to Monkey Beach (40 ringgit, one way for two people), where you can swim and laze on the sand before tackling the moderately challenging 1.8-mile trail back. The hike, traversing a combination of paved and dirt trails and passing a few secluded coves, takes about 90 minutes.


It would be a mistake to leave Penang without sampling its most iconic dish: asam laksa, a sour, sweet and spicy fish-based rice noodle soup garnished with mint, cucumber and shreds of peppery torch ginger bud. On the way back to George Town, stop at Miami Beach (Jalan Batu Ferringghi) and make for the food court, where a female vendor named Ita serves an exceptional version, thick with bits of sardine (3 ringgit). Eaten accompanied by coconut water (2 ringgit) sipped through a straw, it’s a fitting end to an island interlude.


Modeled on European boutique hotels, Campbell House (106 Lebuh Campbell Street, Georgetown; 60-4-261-8290; campbellhousepenang.com) delivers warmth and top-notch service. Each of the 10 individually designed suites has an iPod docking station, minibar and espresso machine. Rates, starting at 400 ringgit ($134), include breakfast, in-room refreshments and Wi-Fi.

After an 18-month restoration, the Oasis Hotel, formerly a hostel, has re-emerged as a bijou boutique hotel named after its street address, 23 Love Lane (Georgetown; 60-4-262-1323). Housed in four 19th-century structures set around a walled garden, the hotel’s 10 rooms (including a duplex), from $150, are furnished with antiques and contemporary artworks by Malaysian and Southeast Asian artists from the owner’s private collection.

  1. #1 by yhsiew on Saturday, 11 February 2012 - 11:31 am

    Penang’s success under Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng is by no accident. Guan Eng has got the formula right – he laid a firm foundation for Penang by adopting the CAT principle which is Competency, Accountability and Transparency.

  2. #2 by monsterball on Saturday, 11 February 2012 - 12:20 pm

    Penang is back to be…the Pearl of the Orient.
    Clean city..beaches….plenty middle class hotels…clean hawkers food…..it paradise for tourists….and you wait for Yen Yen to claim the credit as Tourist Minister.
    Lim Guan Eng is a useless Street Fighter CM.

  3. #3 by Bigjoe on Saturday, 11 February 2012 - 1:16 pm

    To those who still complaining about Pakatan administration in Penang or Selangor – Freedom cannot be measured simply with not getting what you want when you want. The truth is UMNO/BN may deliver a few things faster to you if you complain hard enough but they will still not get you what you want when you want for the most part.

    However, one thing a PR administration in Penang AND Selangor, PR has delivered a sense of freedom, a sense of independence from the yoke of hegemonistic UMNO-Perkasa/BN that is EVEN more valuable than anything they have delivered so far. So before anyone including Hindraf go complaining about Pakatan, remember that no lesson they can teach Pakatan, is worth losing that freedom AND put themselves further at risk of even MORE yoke of hegemonistic UMNO-Perkasa/BN..

  4. #4 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Saturday, 11 February 2012 - 2:37 pm

    I bet if umno takes over penang, georgetown will be renamed “Bandar Baru” something.

  5. #5 by jus legitimum on Saturday, 11 February 2012 - 3:08 pm

    Penang is vibrant and progressive.Thanks to the new state administration under Pakatan.

  6. #6 by monsterball on Saturday, 11 February 2012 - 4:05 pm

    I mean Yen Yen will claim LGE is useless Street Fighter CM…which is now a label MCA Chua has given to Lim Guan Eng.
    I can’t wait till next week…for their debate.
    LGE will clobber Chua Soi Lek in politics and in economical situation of Malaysia.

  7. #7 by boh-liao on Saturday, 11 February 2012 - 5:00 pm

    CSL may take a supporter with him 2 d debate n d supporter is none other than loctor loh si mah (now honorary loctor, u know, don’t play play with d stumpy Fat Lady Of M’sia)

  8. #8 by boh-liao on Saturday, 11 February 2012 - 6:56 pm

    Hopefully, ALL Penang residents will BENEFIT fr d WEALTH generated fr Penang’s international fame n increased FDI + tourists’ $$$$$$$
    LEAD d way n help Kedah n Kelantan 2 improve economically, YEAH

  9. #9 by rockdaboat on Saturday, 11 February 2012 - 8:41 pm

    Hey, Gerakan, instead of boasting your “past glory” in Penang by “Lu Chai Bo”, why not tell us your future plan for Penang and how you can do better than Pakatan.

    Then, may be, may be the people will consider voting for Gerakan. It’s no use bombarding us with “Lu Chai Bo”, it makes us want to throw up!!!

  10. #10 by yhsiew on Saturday, 11 February 2012 - 9:51 pm

    At the one end we have people trying to promote Malaysia and, at the other end there are people doing damage to the country’s image – what a shame!

    Malaysia’s image tarnished in BBC’s apology — A. Kadir Jasin

  11. #11 by sheriff singh on Saturday, 11 February 2012 - 11:11 pm

    36 hours? Only 36 hours? And she’s done? What a waste. It should have been a week or more. Wonder how much did she actually spend during the 36 hours. We must encourage these travellers to stay longer, see more, eat more, spend more, experience more.

    She didn’t even mention or try nasi kandar, char koey teow or mee udang (or that ‘special cake’ made by those unhappy fellows at Komtar).

  12. #12 by raven77 on Sunday, 12 February 2012 - 1:17 am

    Is there no “Lim Guan Eng” to save Malaysia’s richest state …Selangor….

    It is truly depressing to see the Selangor government tottering along in economy, playing hide and seek with the Sultan and using the Federal government forever as an excuse for being unable to stimulate economic development….

    If they win again at GE13, are we Selangorians supposed to say yahoo and suffer again for another 5 years..

    Penang has demonstrated that you need to think out of the box and come out with innovative and creative ideas aggressively to promote economic development…with finance comes power….that finance can used for a whole lot of purposes including infrastructure and educational development…..don’t forever depend on the Federal government…if it is going to be marginal wins for the next 20 years…Selangorians had it…..

  13. #13 by k1980 on Sunday, 12 February 2012 - 7:35 am

    If LGE is a useless Street Fighter, then Chua SL is a useless Street Medicine Seller (Penjual Ubat) which we can see selling bottled snake oil claimed to be capable of curing erectile dysfunction (true in the case of CSL)

  14. #14 by nkkhoo on Tuesday, 14 February 2012 - 10:50 pm

    Penang today is the accumulation of efforts for past 54 year, to say today’s Penang prosperity is the result of LGE is ridiculous.

    I haven’t see Lim Guan Eng proposing any new policies except inheriting all legacies from BN.

    What industrial master blue plan to transform Penang into a R&D silicon island?

    What tourism master blue plan from PR Penang?

    What transport master blur print from PR Penang?

    What I saw in last four years are piece meal and fire fighting solutions from LGE.

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