Head to Pulau Penang. Penang is both an island and a province stretching along Malaysia’s northwestern coast, but it’s the island—Pulau Penang—that draws nearly four million tourists each year. From the mainland, crossing the channel is a 10-mile journey over aquamarine water with ample time to admire the approaching cityscape of beachside high-rises set below mountains of uninhabited jungle. It’s only eight miles wide and 16 miles long, but as I tell guests who visit the durian farm where I’ve lived and worked as a tour guide and durian sommelier for the past five summers, Penang is like Mary Poppins’ magic bag: more fits in its small dimensions than seems possible.
Start with art. Many people visit Penang to wander the narrow lanes of its attractive colonial-era capital—and UNESCO World Heritage site—George Town, armed with their cameras. One of the best ways to explore the town is to follow the mural trail: in the area around the old British fort, there are over 50 murals and sculptures on the walls of its 19th-century buildings, many of which were once Chinese storefronts. (My favorite mural is a dainty ballerina painted over an entryway on Love Lane.) There are several routes and maps to help you navigate the artwork, but make sure you go before 9 a.m. to beat the heat and the crowds.
Interacting with George Town art. Photo by: Phalinn Ooi.
Don’t confuse “Malay” and “Malaysian.” Malays are the country’s largest ethnic group, but not all Malaysians are Malay. Malays, who have Austronesian heritage, speak the Bahasa Melayu language and are generally Muslim (the Malaysian constitution states that ethnic Malays must be Muslim or they are not legally Malays). They comprise about 60 percent of Malaysia’s population, but most Penangites trace their ancestry elsewhere. The island was mostly uninhabited until the British started using Penang as a shipping port, attracting laborers and traders from around the globe, and by 1802, around 14 languages were spoken in George Town. By 1829, Chinese-origin groups became the ethnic majority and remained so until 2010, when Malays became the largest ethnic group.
Check the calendar. With four major religions represented—Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity—there is a high chance that public holidays and festivals will affect your travel experience. The best time to catch a festival (and the worst time to get anything administrative done) is the fall, when Penang celebrates Diwali, the Chinese Nine Emperor Gods Festival, and this year, Muharram, the Islamic New Year. Avoid traveling the week of Hari Raya (currently in July) when most of the Malay population visits family, clogging roads and filling hotel rooms. Make sure to check a Malaysian calendar before planning your trip.
Stay online. Mostly. In 2009, Penang launched Penang Free Wi-Fi, with 1550 hotspots dotting George Town and the populated east coast. In theory, you can register for an account to get a free (if slow) connection. The catch is that no one I know has actually made it work, so get a prepaid data plan instead. They’re cheap, and cell reception island-wide is phenomenal. Pick up a SIM card at the airport or any cell phone kiosk. Top-ups can be purchased at a 7-Eleven or other convenience stores.
Hanging out in George Town. Photo by: Lindsay Gasik
Eat with purpose. Penang is known as a regional food paradise, with a rich cuisine shaped by the island’s many cultures, including Hokkien, Hakka, and Teochew-speaking Chinese communities, Indian Tamils, Malays, and the British. Malaysians from elsewhere drive hours to visit one of Penang’s famous holes-in-the-wall or hawker carts for fragrant spicy noodle soup (laksa) or a superlative steamed bun. Penangites have turned an obsession with discovering the best flavors into a sport. To get in on the game, visit as many hawker stalls in a day as you can. You can also take a food tour, a cooking class, or retrace a local food blogger’s must-eat list (try Ken Hunts Food). Don’t forget to upload photos of your meals to a local Facebook food group. The group Jalan-jalan Cari Makan Di Pulau Penang has over 86,000 members.
Get to know mee. The Penang street food staple is the noodle. The word for noodle, mee, is one of the few crossover words used by almost all Penang languages, and Penang’s noodle game can be overwhelming. There are rice noodles and wheat noodles, egg noodles and clear vermicelli, flat noodles, round noodles, and noodles so fat they look like churros (char hor fun). The must-haves are slippery round noodles in a fragrant, sweet and sour coconut sauce (laksa), flat noodles tossed over very high heat with shrimp paste and sausage (char koay teow), egg noodles and rice noodles stir fried together in dark soy sauce (hokkien mee), and noodles in curried coconut soup (curry mee). (By the way, the best curry mee is at Sister’s, behind the Air Itam Market.)