Pearl of the Orient
I have many fond childhood memories of Penang, most are hazy but were freshly reinvigorated upon re-tasting the local cuisine. As such, it's no surprise that the city is proudly famous for being the local food capital of Malaysia. Surrounded by a paradise of UNESCO sites and mountainous scenery, Penang is a fascinating cultural and natural landscape to explore. We found ourselves captivated by both the food and street art within the city centre, and higher up, by the views from the hilly peaks of Penang Hill.
Stay: Opting for the convenience of accessibility to the city centre, we stayed at a The Edison in George Town, a boutique mansion located at the northeastern tip of the island.
George Town was heavily influenced by colonial architecture as it was one of the first British settlements in South East Asia and over the years has built an eclectic assortment of colonial and Asian design language.
The hotel paid true homage to the city's cultural heritage, by refurbishing the once derelict property to tastefully retain the historic character of the building whilst providing modern aesthetics and function. Vibrant jade accents decorate the mansion and a 24 hour lounge was a surprising addition that one wouldn't expect in a scheme of this size. Nevertheless, the service was impeccable and we felt a wonderfully quaint vibe throughout our stay here.
Do: Go up to Penang Hill, a group of peaks on the island which at its highest point, is 833m (2,733 ft) above sea level, providing wanderlust views of the city and the surrounding natural landscape. The peak is accessible via the Penang Hill Railway, which in a five to ten minute journey, pulls you up through the steepest tunnels in the world and over the peak's luscious deep green topography.
At the top, there is a brand new nature trail which provides a curated botanical experience, filled with local fauna, animals and insects, surrounded by towering trees within the 130-million year old untouched virgin rainforest.
The 1.6km trail strikes the right balance with its multiple canopies, rest areas, and easily accessible 360 degree viewing platforms that would make any novice hiker (aka, city folk, aka, us) feel at ease.
Given the all-year round summer heat, we didn't felt overwhelmed at any point and the excursion was carefully well thought out. At the end of journey, there was a of course, a well-deserved coffee break from a fully equipped cafe.
Eat: Whilst exploring the city centre in George Town, there are two must dine places: Tek Sen, a bustling Chinese eatery packed with locals, and Kebaya, an upscale fine-dining experience within the Seven Terraces hotel. Both of them offer a distinct ambiance and cater to different crowds, however, they both deliver a taste of gastronomically unforgettable local cuisine.
Tek Sen was our favourite of the whole trip in Malaysia, so good in fact that we went back for supper twice, as every dish delivered punches of umami with its unsuspecting appearances. The double roasted pork with chili padi can please even the most demanding of foodies and it's no wonder why the popular street eat packs up quickly - do make reservations ahead if you want to guarantee a spot.
Kebaya delivers a different sense of culinary delight. With attentive table service in a stylish Peranakan setting, it is a more refining experience delivered to a high standard. The kitchen brings to the table modern interpretations of Nyonya cuisine, with hints of Indo-Chinese influences, across a four course tasting menu.
An attention to detail permeated through the surrounding aesthetics and onto the food. There was certainly a sense of avant-garde flair that appealed to us, which made this little gem stand out in an otherwise crowded and deliciously competitive sea of eateries and street stalls.
Do: Wandering mindlessly throughout the different quarters of the city would be any photographers' delight. Filled within its myriad of alleyways and narrow roads, lies various intriguing street art that invokes a sense of a childish curiosity. Reminiscent of works by Banksy, they are fun pieces to find and has become an important part of the city's heritage. Along the way, repeat step 'eat' above with local street vendors.
Overall: Even though I came equipped with a good sense of what Penang was going to be like, the revisit surprisingly became more than appeasing my inner sense of nostalgia, it gave me first hand experience as a tourist in a place I took for granted. In a way, George Town represents an idyllic preservation of the city's past and serves as an important tourism hub.
However, most residents don't stay live in the within the town (I did not either previously), except for a few that live in their own shop-house. As such, I did miss out on a fair share of places simply because I did not see the city with open eyes and a sense of enthusiasm. As I sit here now, back in London, it has been a friendly reminder to rewrite my bucket list of forgotten places that had since been superseded by the daily chores of life.