Rise early with a visit to the famous Chowrasta Bazaar. It’s a one-stop place for fresh produce, also a place to buy local delicacies such as pickled nutmeg and prawn paste (an essential ingredient in the rojak dish), biscuits, kitchy souvenirs, inexpensive clothing, second-hand books and of course, a plethora of food to choose from for breakfast. Go up the stairs to the second floor and spot a bookstore with second hand books piled all the way to the ceiling. The books here start from RM2 with everything from paperback novels to old Archie comics.
Tip: It can get rather crowded and humid so dress in comfortable clothes and shoes, also bring along your sense of humour.
Don’t rush when you’re passing through Armenian Street which is around the corner from Masjid Kapitan Keling. Opt to stay in one of the charming boutique hotels housed in heritage buildings such as Muntri Mews (high end), China Tiger (mid range) or Yeng Keng Hotel (mid range) because anywhere you turn within five-street radius, there is always something to discover. Don’t be shy to poke your head into a second-hand or antique store. Chances are, an engaging conversation with the proprietor will enlighten you to the history of the building he’s in, if not the area itself.
Look out for: Also, notice walls on the side of old houses or buildings to spot a mural or five within the heritage area. Some are from the artist Ernest Zacharevic. At the beginning of Armenian Street, there’s the Thieves Market, Yap Temple’s further down in the middle, and towards the end, the uncle who plays lovely melodies on his antique string instrument in a little souvenir shop. And do stop for a drink or two at the refurbished Edelweiss café.
As a relief from the afternoon heat, step into the beef noodle stall in a Chinese coffee shop at the corner of Lebuh Pantai and Lebuh Chulia, right where the little cross-junction and traffic lights are. The pretty, rosy-cheeked proprietor serves up a delicious bowl of steaming hot broth covering flat rice noodles and a variety of beef cuts for RM7. The stall closes by 4pm. By around 6pm, this place transforms into a simple Chinese restaurant.
Tip: There’s also a stall serving Chinese-style oyster omelette during the day.
It's hard to miss Khoo Kongsi. The temple and magnificent clan house sit imperiously on Lebuh Cannon and is of mainly Southern Fujian architectural splendour with Western influence evident in its louvered windows and wrought-iron fencing. The place is also known all over the world for its extensive lineage tracing back to over 650 years ago. Its interior is peppered with authentic Chinese vase, antique furniture, ornaments and classic calligraphy. Remember to look up when you enter and admire the elaborate timberwork on the roof truss. The place closes by 5pm.
In Little India, there’s plenty of little shops selling interesting prayer or temple paraphernalia and grocery stores that have sandalwood soaps ranging from RM2-RM5 each which make for lightweight, charming souvenirs.
For a break in Little India, have a taste of the myriad of Indian fare on offer. You’ll be spoiled for choice since there’s an eatery tempting you with appetising scents every few steps. Order a cooling lassi or a lovely cup of milky tea to go along with a typical Indian sweet such as jalebi, gulab jamun, burfi, laddu or the more savoury vadai.
There’s nothing like a good retail therapy after a long walk around town. On Magazine Road, there’s 1st Avenue Mall that offers familiar clothing brands as well as pop-up stalls selling souvenirs and crafts. Next to it is KOMTAR, the tallest building in George Town. The influx of new shopping malls around the area has caused the thinning shopping crowd in this 65-storey cylindrical tower. There is a stretch of duty free shops on the 57th floor, and hop on their high-speed elevator for George Town’s panoramic view from the observation deck.
Jalan Nagore with its variety of Malay, Indian and Chinese food is also known as Medan Little Shanghai. This is the street mostly frequented by foodies and also regulars of the famed Golden BBQ Steamboat. Here’s where you can dine alfresco with a view of the heritage houses illuminated by pools of streetlights.
To groove the night away, be it to the cool sounds of jazz or feet-tapping pop hits and everything else in between, there are quite a few live music spots around George Town on weekends. One is the newly refurbished Macalister Mansion (fondly called MM) on Macalister Road will give you an excuse to dress up to suit its glitzy ambience added on by a live band in its Bagan Bar which is open till midnight daily. On Gurney Drive, there are live bands in G-Spot in G Hotel throughout the week except Sunday, playing until around 1am and 3am on weekends. For a more rustic feel, the Canteen at ChinaHouse has live bands on weekends with jazz on Friday nights and is open till midnight. Or try Beach Blanket Babylon on Penang Road which is skirted by the sand and sea for a quiet, relaxing drink.
Start your second day with a relaxing stroll along Lebuh Pantai and you will be in Penang’s European commercial area, where the refurbished Whiteaway building is. Head towards Sri Weld food court; choose to have either a RM1.50 nasi lemak wrapped in banana leaf, wantan mee or curry mee for breakfast. Otherwise, there is a stall offering Western breakfast of toast, eggs and sausages.
Just a stone’s throw away from the food court is Esplanade and Fort Cornwallis on Jalan Tun Syed Sheh Barakbah that is parallel to Lebuh Light. Every first Saturday, sit for the ‘Esplanade in Action’ series for their cultural showcase and ethnic performances. Or if you’re an ardent fan of war history, Fort Cornwallis is a hop across the Esplanade field and fits the largest standing fort in the country. The star-shaped fort was built by Captain Francis Light in 1786.
A short walk on Lebuh Light from the fort is Penang City Hall and is one of the island’s popular landmarks. Located in the UNESCO Heritage site, the building currently houses Penang Island Municipal Council. Built in 1903 in the Edwardian Baroque style, it is a national monument. Within its vicinity is the high court and Convent Light Street School.
Wandering away from the City Hall on Lebuh Light, turn right into Lebuh King and you’ll find the inconspicuous entrance of a restaurant and museum called The Sire. Having been the home of a very prominent businessman, Yeap Chor Ee or also known as the Grand Old Man of Penang, in the early 1900s, the upstairs has now been turned into a museum that illustrates his life through his antiques, photos and the like by his grandchildren. Opt to have lunch downstairs in the prettily done up restaurant that serves Western fare.
The Pinang Peranakan Mansion on Church Street with its eclectic architecture of Chinese carved-wood panels, English floor tiles and Scottish iron-works, also offers a glimpse of the Peranakan (Straits Chinese) customs and traditions. The 19th century building itself depicts a typical home of a very wealthy Baba and his opulent lifestyle more than a century ago. To the very curious, call in advance for their free guided tours and they’ll be glad to take you around.
Penang’s art scene is beginning to wake up from a deep slumber and there’s a vibrancy about it that can only stem from enthusiasm. Private galleries are ubiquitous in George Town’s heritage area and they add to the cultural feel the town already has in bucket loads. Galleries such as Alyssa Galeri on Penang Road open daily and exhibit contemporary paintings, photographs, sculptures and installations.
At the Tan Jetty, walk right in and when you’ve almost reached to the end, on the right-hand side, there’s a house with three to four tables surrounded by plastic chairs. This is a little restaurant serving delicious, authentic Thai food. The menu has photos of the dishes. After ordering, sit back and enjoy the sun setting over the horizon, casting a fuchsia-gold light over Butterworth in the distant.
George Town’s heritage area is easy to navigate on foot or bicycle. There are free George Town maps in most cafés in the heritage areas or the tourist counter on Lebuh Pantai on the ground floor of the Whiteaway building. For a more touristy experience, the trishaws are a terrific way of seeing the historic areas without breaking a sweat. The Rapid busses that zoom through the precariously small streets of this area are fully air-conditioned and have a well-organised route (www.rapidpg.com.my).
Getting to Penang
Most airlines fly into Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). From there, take a short 50-minute flight to Penang (www.fireflyz.com.my, www.malaysiaairlines.com or www.airasia.com). By car, it’s a four-hour drive from KL with RM43 of toll charge plus RM7 for the Penang Bridge. By bus, there are services from Bandar Utama, Puduraya and KL train station, and fares range between RM40 and RM50 one way. Aeroline busses (www.aeroline.com.my) departs Corus Hotel on Jalan Ampang to Penang.