Where to begin?
I moved to Penang or Pulau Pinang (Penang Island) in 2006 having never visited before that time. In 2006, it is safe to say that it would not have been #2 on such a list as this, but Penang slowing grows on you, creeping step by step into your chest like a crawling ivy that wants to choke you and not let go. I don’t think I realized how much I really love Penang until I started putting together this list and there was no where else to put it except #2. Before I talk about the “why”, let me express a few o my misgivings about Penang which took a while to overcome.
First off, when I arrived I compared everything here to Vietnam, where I had previously lived for ten years. Penang and Vietnam are nothing alike. Eventually I stopped comparing and just started to understand Penang for what it is rather than what it isn’t.
We were coming to a tropical island and were hoping to have beautifully clear blue water in which to enjoy. Unfortunately, Penang’s rapid development has trashed the once beautiful beaches, making the water full of jellyfish, murky, and unsuitable for swimming. What a shame, I thought.
Lastly, we lived in a nice community with a modest bungalow, but we found it hard to get to know neighbors. Everyone seemed more distant and unfriendly, again, when compared to my experiences in Vietnam.
But I’ve come to realize that none of these misgivings can come close to knocking this island down any pegs of my top 10 list, because Penang is AWESOME!
So let’s settle in and talk about the “why”.
IT’S AMAZINGLY BEAUTIFUL – EVEN WITH UNSWIMABLE WATER.
I work, literally, right next to the beach. I hear the waves in my classroom, and on those days that the sun is sitting high and hot in the sky, the water turns a variety of aqua blue which is simply magnificent. The winding road along the island’s northern shore is gorgeous as it snakes around winding hills and breathtaking ocean views. Plus, there are MANY ways to enjoy the water in Penang, even if swimming isn’t one of them.
- Take a boat ride from the state park in Telok Bahang to Turtle Beach to see the turtle hatchery.
- Sit at one of Batu Ferringhi’s many beautiful resorts with a cold drink and watch the sunset over the Andaman Sea.
- Hit one of the many water sports centers and go parasailing, take a ride in a banana boat, or rent a jet ski.
GEORGETOWN is a WORLD HERITAGE SITE
Georgetown, the main city on Penang Island, has a treasure trove of interesting and amazing places to explore both in and around the city. The old section of the city are strewn about with places of heritage. Some of the highlights include the Peranankan Mansion, a traditional home of a wealthy Straits Chinese family, Khoo Khongsi the amazing clan house of a rich Chinese family. The Georgetown streets are quaint, crowded, full of life, art, character and fun.
Branching outside of Penang, one must visit, what is claimed to be, the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia – Kek Lok Si. The sprawling complex is impressive and serves as a great overlook of the city.
Speaking of overlooks, every visit to Penang must include a ride on the funicular railway up Penang Hill. The view is spectacular, looking down on Georgetown and the waterway that separates it from Butterworth, the city on the mainland.
One of the endearing charms of Penang is the wonderful diversity that exists side by side. Within walking distance of my house, I could visit a Mahayana Buddhist temple, an Islamic mosque, a Hindu temple, and a Christian church. That’s par for the course in Penang.
Penang is Malaysia’s only state that has a population that is majority Chinese (mainly Hokkien), but Penang has a large minority of both Indian and Malay.
The mix is charming and interesting … which leads to the best reason of all to visit Penang …
Just a few months ago, CNN travel called Penang as having the best street food in Asia. Even more recently, Lonely Planet named Penang as the top culinary spot in the world for 2014.
Well, they are just acknowledging what others have known for a long time. Penang has AMAZING food. Every day I eat here I lament the fact that someday I will have to leave.
Did you know that there is a certain restaurant in Georgetown that sends flyers to Hong Kong every time they purchase one of several types of HUGE fishes which become available. Then many people from Hong Kong will fly in specifically to eat the special dishes that they make.
The food here is special, for many reasons, many because of its scope, fushion nature, and simply awesome flavors.
Here are some of my favorite:
Nasi Kandar – a type of Muslim Indian shop which sells a variety of ready made curries and rotis (breads). I always eat way too much.
Food stalls – Malaysians LOVE there local outdoor food stalls for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (plus late night snack) They are always open, always cheap, always delicious. Here are few of the wonderful varieties:
- Thai Padprik Chicken/Tom Yam/many other stir fries
- Char Keoy Teoh – Penang’s FAMOUS noodle dish with seafood
- Chicken Rice
- Curry Mee (curry noodles)
- Beef rendang
- Charcoal Grilled Satay
- Economy Rice shops – a plethora of ready made dishes, vegetables, curries, fried fish
- Nasi Lemak – the Malaysian staple – coconut rice with a boiled egg, spicy sambal, anchovies, and peanuts
- This list could go ON AND ON …
I used to like Indian food in America until I came to Penang. From banana leaf southern vegetarian to northern tandoori and masala curries, Indian food is EVERYWHERE in Penang and it is fabulous. You must drink the Teh Ais to go with it, a sweet milk infused iced tea – wonderful!
Perhaps, the top of the list on many people’s top Penang food is a fusion food called Nonya. It derives from the Straits Chinese, the group of Chinese who immigrated and assimilated into Malaysian life in many ways. Nonya food is a result of taking Chinese cooking methods and traditions and applying them to the spices and diverse traditions of the Malay peninsula. The result is a cuisine that is bold on unique flavors. There are so many wonder dishes – Curry Kapitain, Pork Rendang, Popiah (spring roll), eggplant and shrimp, spicy shrimp sambal, a variety of fish curries, tofu with peanut sauce, and the list goes on.
Penang food has to be experienced. I’m lucky to be able to experience it on a daily basis.
All in all, these many characteristics has made Penang my home. As a writer, it has also been my muse. I’ve spent MANY hours sipping cold drinks by the ocean, plugging away at my computer, writing one of my plays or novels. The cool breeze off the gentle teal ocean has provided me with so much inspiration that I wish I could write all day long every day.
In the meantime, I will enjoy my tropical island paradise. I hope you’ll come visit sometime to discover why Penang is so high on my list of favorite Asian places. Here are a few photos:
Parasailing in the evening sky.
A view from Penang Hill
The ocean right outside my classroom.
Penang at dusk.
Roti Canai – Indian break for dipping in curry sauce. AMAZING!
Street art in Georgetown.
Khoo Kangsi – Clan House
A recap of my top 10:
10. Malacca, Malaysia
9. Chiang Mai, Thailand
7. Hong Kong
6. southern Vietnam
5. Sabah, West Malaysia
4. Beijing, China
3. Siem Reap, Cambodia
2. Penang, Malaysia