So, while I’m still catching up on my ridiculously delayed 2016 travel recaps, I just can’t wait to start sharing my big trip (thus far) of 2017. So I’ll be jumping back and forth a bit again. Apologies for any confusion, my friends!
Penang, Malaysia. Not only is it one of Southeast Asia’s most historically interesting, artistically relevant and food obsessed cities, it’s also one of the most commonly visited by expats in Southern Thailand for various visa services. Which makes it just about crazy that it took me until this year to finally take a proper trip there. It was, in true form, for all the cliché reasons — to tag along on Ian’s trip to process his Thai work permit, to eat, and to check out the capital’s infamous street art scene.
The last time I was in Malaysia in 2009 I was so broke I stayed in hostels that legitimately could have been used as the sets for horror movies and was so painfully picky of an eater that I very likely could have starved… and so I was looking forward to this being a very different kind of trip.
As soon as we landed in Georgetown I felt obscenely grateful for three small luxuries. One, a direct flight from Bangkok. Two, the most affordable Uber rates I’ve encountered anywhere in the world. Three, the fact that we’d booked a modern Airbnb with an absolute luxury of space after a chaotic four day festival. I’d looked at a few centrally-located hotels that made my heart skip a beat, but in the end we couldn’t resist using a chunk of my Airbnb credit instead. (Want $30 off your first booking? Click here!)
Penang is a food mecca and so we didn’t have many plans to use the kitchen; that said, we did an obscene amount of laundry — festival dust happens — and watched an entire HBO miniseries from the couch, so I’d say we absolutely made the right move renting an apartment over staying in a hotel.
We’d been a bit concerned about not staying right in the hub of Georgetown, but in the end we were only about a twelve minute Uber, and the rates were insanely cheap. I should probably apologize in advance for how often I’m going to rave about the price of Uber in Penang, but let’s just get onboard with that now to make life easier for all of us. Literally, for four days of Ubering around the city, including trips to and from the airport, I paid less than $20USD.
I kind of winced at renting a two bedroom for just two people, but at $84 per night we couldn’t complain. While the shared gym and pool weren’t quite as luxurious as we’d hoped and the bathrooms were a bit of a disappointment, the rest of our unit was beautiful and you simply can’t beat ocean views.
We were so happy camped out in our high rise that we actually barely left for the first two nights, just ducking out briefly to drop off Ian’s work permit paperwork and to dine on deliciously cheap Indian food. It felt so good to just catch up on a bit of work and unwind alone together after a big hectic week of festivaling with friends.
On our third day in Penang, we finally felt prepared to, as we say, “do tourism.” We kicked off our morning heading straight into Georgetown for breakfast at Mugshot Cafe.
Valentine’s Day had been about a week prior and my gift to Ian was researching the Penang eateries I thought he’d love the most and presenting him with homemade coupons for a meal at each. Normally Ian gets me the best gifts ever and I give him the equivalent of a kid’s fingerpainting halfheartedly presented to mom after day care — and Ian usually reacts with the same level of undeserved gratitude — so I kind of knocked this one out of the park and I’m not mad about it.
We literally drooled over our order of bagel sandwiches, homemade mango and walnut yogurt, and coffee for Ian and grape smoothies for me. Can you say died and went to hipster breakfast heaven?
After, we wandered over to Ian’s visa processing agent to see if his paperwork had been approved, which was really just an elaborate ruse to kill time until we could eat more. Georgetown was one of the most photogenic cities I’ve ever seen — in four days we didn’t really do enough to justify more than a one-post word count, but I had so many photos I loved I couldn’t force myself to cut down to much less than a hundred.
While this 113sq mile island has much more to it than it’s capital, tourism is certainly centered around the UNESCO World Heritage Site capital, Georgetown. We had big plans to go hiking in Penang National Park and go to the beach and other hilariously ambitious ideas that got sidetracked as soon as we experienced the joy of sitting on our Airbnb couch, but just wandering the streets of Georgetown turned out to be more than enough to entertain us for a large majority of our four-day stay.
Pretty dang soon it was time for lunch at ChinaHouse, one of Penang’s trendiest galleries-turned-eateries with multiple venues in one building.
Penang is literally filled to the brim with insanely tempting baked goods — a serious departure from almost anywhere in Malaysia’s neighbor to the north, Thailand. As a certified sugar addict I couldn’t resist the chance to gorge myself on baked goods that didn’t taste like cardboard, and rather than fight the dessert-loving seven-year-old inside of me, I just went full childhood fantasy and ordered cake for lunch. How do you say “why not?” in Bahasa Malaysia?
ChinaHouse lets you order half slices, which meant I got to try two — passionfruit coconut butter and pear ginger. Both were out of this world. (Ian ordered normal lunch food like an adult, in case you were wondering if there was anyone chaperoning.)
After lunch, we hopped in an Uber to explore two of Penang’s most well-loved tourist sites, Kek Lok Si temples and Penang Hill. First up was Kek Lok Si, the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia and a cornerstone of the Chinese Buddhist community in Penang.
Our driver dropped us at the very top of the multi-level temple, and we strolled around before taking a cable car down to Ban Po Thar Ten Thousand Buddhas Pagoda, which Lonely Planet Penang described at “Burmese at the top, Chinese at the bottom and Thai in between,” an apt metaphor for the multi-cultural melting pot that is Penang.
After eight years of traveling through Southeast Asia, I consider myself pretty tough to impress when it comes to temples. This one, however, was a jaw-dropper. It really doesn’t matter where you’ve been or what you think you’ve seen — you need to come to Kek Lok Si.
We were lucky enough to have our visit coincide with a service, so our silent wanderings around the grounds of the temple were soundtracked by a chorus of hundreds of Buddhists singing, chanting, and ringing bells. Combined with the fact that we had the place more or less to ourselves right before closing, it was magical. Best of all? Admission and cable car combined for both of us cost $2.25.
While it was hard to imagine that the views could get much better than the ones from Kek Lok Si, we were in the area anyway, and so we took a quick Uber over to Penang Hill. Used as a retreat from the heat during the British colonial period, today the hill is still a top destination for escaping the sticky humidity at sea level — it’s almost always a full ten degrees cooler at the summit. We paid about $10US for one standard adult ticket and one student ticket (looking like I’m still 18 is annoying when getting carded in bars, but fabulous when offered student discounts.)
There in the refreshing air nearly 2,700 feet above George Town, we found amazing views across the island and over to the mainland — we even spotted the high-rise apartment our Airbnb was in, teeny tiny in the distance! Also at the summit was a fancy British restaurant, some gardens and displays and your standard kitschy tourist trappings, but the real attraction here aside from the views is the funicular ride itself! It was so fast and steep it almost felt like a thrill ride at an amusement park. It was a brief but brilliant way to end our day Penang.
Stay tuned for Part II!