Living and working in George Town

Updated: 17 Feb 2014

Australian born Robert Brennan discovers an amiable society to immerse himself into amid easy-going but eccentric personalities of Penang and he shares his experience of living and working on the island.

I first came to Penang for a few days on a holiday in January 2011. In that short visit, I was mesmerised by its quiet charm and seduced by the incredible food available around the island. The visit was all over too quickly. Then with a bit luck and fate I took a job in George Town the following year and lived here for a wonderful six months.

Sweating Buckets
The first thing I noticed about Penang is the heat and humidity. Sometimes in my hometown of Sydney it can get very hot, over 40 degrees, and it can be front page news, but that might be only a couple of days in the entire summer. In Penang, I never looked at what the temperature will be. I just know it will always be the same – hot at around 34 degrees and humidity of around 75 per cent. Being perpetually hot and sweaty with the shirt dampened by patches of sweat, seems normal.

Penang’s weather seeps into your body and holds on to you with no respite. You start to move like a Penangite which is just a bit slower and you never rush as this has the potential to increase the heat and the sweat. Simply accept the muggy embrace as you amble about, although there’s solace in the air conditioned malls, restaurants or at home. Once you accept the heat it’s time to fall in love with this place.

Eating in Penang
Part of the charm of Penang life is eating and when in Penang you should eat! eat! eat! Penangites love their food and are very proud of their food culture. And so they should be, with its delicious mix of Malay, Indian and Chinese flavours. It really is one of the best food cities in Asia – especially its ubiquitous street food that’s both inexpensive and delicious.

Unlike some cities where locals guard their favourite food places as if it’s a national secret, the Penangites are always trying to outdo each other in terms of where they think serves the best dishes. All you have to do to find out someone’s favourite place is to say something like 'I was told the Hokkien mee on Jalan Burmah is the best in Penang' and they'll be certain to outdo the suggestion with another and say 'Yes, that's good but the one on Lebuh Macallum is better'. Sometimes they might even take you there themselves just so you find it and don't miss out, which has happened to me numerous times.

Dining at a local kopitiam

Quirks to Smile About
Living here made me realise how important it is to always have tissues. Napkins aren’t available at street stalls or coffee shops (kopitiams). Otherwise, there’ll be a hawker walking about, conveniently, selling packets of tissues to wipe away the delicious soup dribbling down your chin.

An indication of where to eat from the myriad eateries available is a busy place. Take note that the people are flocking there for a reason: good food. Another thing I quickly learnt is how to eat like a local – a snack on the way to your lunch or dinner destination and always go for supper. Appetite expansion is crucial in this place where there’s always somewhere to eat at any time of the day.

Exploring the Island
On my days off from work here, I often wander the streets of George Town and taking in the understated charm of the shop houses, the mix of Hindu and Chinese temples along the same streets as Protestant churches and impressive mosques. Also, the famous clan houses such as Khoo Kongsi, the clan jetties on Weld Quay, the impressive mansions such as Cheong Fatt Tze or Peranakan and further afield to the under-appreciated Suffolk House.

Learning to beat the heat by starting reasonably early in the day may turn out to be a smart move but remember not to make it too early because George Town can be slow to wake.

One of the things I noticed and have come to love about Penang island is I don’t have to travel far to be transported to such contrasting areas and pace of life. For instance, at the north of the city is Batu Ferringhi that offers sandy beaches, resorts and fancy tourist restaurants and bars that mingle with street stalls and markets that come alive with tourists and locals in the evening.

Then, just a 10-minute drive away – at the tip of the island – is the Penang National Park, the smallest national park in the world and there are a number of stunning walks you can do within the park that vary in length and difficulty. Be warned though that once you begin walking or trekking, you’ll really experience Penang’s sticky humidity.

My advice is to bring a bottle of water with you and work out where you’re walking to before heading out. Near the entrance of the park is where boat hire stalls are. I’ve learnt to arrange for a boat collection to bring me back to where I started. Otherwise, you can always slug it out with a walk back.


Buss-ing Around the Island
You can travel to Batu Ferringhi and the national park by bus. Rapid Penang bus 101 leaves from Lebuh Chulia in George Town or the Weld Quay bus station and its final stop is the National Park after passing through Batu Ferringhi.

Another great trip is catching the 502 from the Komtar bus terminal to Balik Pulau. It takes you west through Air Itam where you can see the amazing Kek Lok Si temple (worth a visit) up on the hill and the bustling shopping and food strip of Air Itam.

Once you leave Air Itam, it climbs the range that separates George Town and Balik Pulau. When you reach the top there’s a great view over Balik Pulau to the coastline and sea. After an hour bus ride, you’ll be in Balik Pulau. There are no real tourist attractions as such but I love walking the street and enjoying life in a different part of the island. Plus there is good food here like the assam laksa at Kim Laksa at the Nan Guang Coffee Shop. To get here from the bus station, just walk down Jalan Tun Sardon to Jalan Balik Pulau, at the junction, you’ll see it next to the old Balik Pulau market.

Being Mobile in George Town
For short trips about Penang I ride a bike which is a good way to beat a bit of the heat, traffic and parking issues. Unlike the surrounding areas, George Town itself is flat and cycling helps with catching the breeze to cool down. There are plenty of bike hire places in George Town for this. As for trips further afield, I prefer a bus or taxi. Rapid Penang has good air-conditioned buses that travel about much of Penang island and over to Butterworth on the mainland.

Most taxis in Penang don’t have meters so it’s a good idea to know how much it should cost to get to your destination. I learnt to ask a local on taxi rates according to distance to refer to when negotiating with a taxi driver. For instance, a 15km ride from town to Tanjung Bungah is around RM25 and to Queensbay Mall can be around RM40. Always agree on a price before you hop in a taxi and be clear about dropping someone off on the way to avoid surprise additions to the agreed cost.

The thing I got used to when driving around Penang is the Jalan Sehala or one way streets. Learning the hard way through a little confusion and trying to navigate my way around, admittedly, has caused me to lose my bearings. Funnily enough, Penang drivers are patient despite their fearless driving style and more often than not, will give in to a lost lamb. Besides, I always get to my destination eventually and going with the (often) slow flow certainly helps.

Rapid Penang

What Works in Penang
Here, as a manager of a restaurant, has given me an insight into the work habits of Penangites. Is it different to working in Sydney? Although the working environment is not dissimilar, there are a few charming quirks or oddities that I’ve observed. But nothing too dramatic.

Dining customers can be the same everywhere - easy going, demanding, quiet, loud, happy and sometimes disappointed. Diners in Penang, however, don’t mind having cake to start the meal with. Penangites would order their meals from the a la carte menu and then choose a slice or two of the cake from the cake counter and eat it whilst waiting for their meals to arrive. This odd habit is amusing because like most Australians, I’m definitely a dessert at the end of the meal kind of guy!

Malaysians generally don’t drink alcohol due to either religious beliefs or cultural habit and most who can drink, don’t. Therefore, it’s not uncommon to serve a double chocolate milkshake with a beef rib where I’d have recommended a nice glass of shiraz instead.

I’ve long since accepted that whatever alcohol we serve in a month here in Penang, equals to what’s served in a night back home. On the other hand, there are some serious drinkers who love their beer, wine and more importantly their whisky. They really do know their whisky whether it’s an aged Scottish whisky or a Japanese single malt, buying them by the bottle in a bar to share with friends is the norm and the price you pay includes a bucket of ice and tepid water.

Employees too are similar all over the world but there are a few more smokers in Malaysia and there are more smoke-breaks between work hours. One of the biggest surprises for me is receiving résumés for staff that state all personal information such as age, marital status, race, religion, number of dependants and information about their parents. Whereas in Australia, this sort of details are deemed irrelevant to the job and an employer can be taken to the anti-discrimination board for enquiring.

When it comes to communication, language is rarely a problem here. At work, everyone speaks English and the majority of the customers do too. Accents, however, can cause majorly funny misunderstandings. My Australia drawl can be indecipherable or sometimes a Penangite can say something I absolutely can’t understand, such as ‘can I have a sky juice?’ and I remember having no idea what sky juice is. For the record, it’s actually water!

Today, I’ve learnt to slip the odd ‘lah’ at the end of a sentence for emphasis and to use ‘can’ for yes and ‘cannot’ for no. So, a conversation can sound like;

Customer: ‘Table for ten, can?’
Me: ‘Cannot, sorry.’
Customer: ‘Why?’
Me:‘We are fully booked lah’.

And with that economical use of words, the message is clear and everyone understands each other. It is truly the case of less is more in Penang.

Beef noodles at Lam Ah coffee shop

1. Koay teow fish ball soup at Pitt Street Koay Teow Th’ng.
2. Beef koay teow at Lam Ah coffee shop.
3. Masala thosai at Sri Ananda Bahwan.
4. Belacan chicken at Kimberley Street Belacan Fried Chicken.
5. Chicken rice, assam laksa and deep-fried lor bak (available in most food courts at lunch and dinner time)
6. Cakes at ChinaHouse.
7. Tandoori chicken at Restoran Kapitan.
8. The Lunch Time Buffet at Evergreen Vegetarian Restaurant.
9. Chinese food at Tek Sen Restaurant.
10. Nasi lemak for breakfast at Sri Weld Food Court.

While there is really good espresso and some serious baristas who are proud of their coffee making skills here in Penang, you should really try the local Hainan coffee. Local coffee, or kopi, generally is rich in flavour, strong and has a delicious chicory taste. One of my favourite local kopi style is the kopi peng which is black kopi poured over ice with a dash of sweetened condensed milk. They’re so refreshing on a hot Penang day and they’re dosed with a good shot of caffeine to get me moving. Two of my favourite places kopitiams are:

1. Toh Soon Kopitam
Tip: Enjoy the coffee with a half boiled egg, soy sauce along with kaya (coconut jam) on toast.
2. Pitt Street Koay Teow Th’ng
Tip: Famous for their koay teow fish ball soup but try the kopi with one of their house baked coconut tarts.

This is one of the features from the latest Time Out Penang annual guide 2013/14. You can purchase the guide here. For Robert Brennan's Penang top five, see feature.

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