For someone who was born in Penang, I must admit that I don’t really know much about the island-state. Fragmented memories of trips back to Penang as a child do come back occasionally whenever someone asks me about my birth place. The ferry rides from Butterworth to Penang Island, which was later replaced by driving into the island via the Penang Bridge, was as much as I could remember.
When Nigel asked if I was keen to re-visit Penang the Big Blue Holidays way, I thought, why not? How would it be any different from my other trips which mainly revolves around food? It is after all food paradise.
Day 1 – Kuala Lumpur to Penang on the ETS (Electric Train Service)
“So, what time should I fly into Penang?”.
“Well, you’re not quite flying there, you’re going to take the ETS.”
I’ve heard of many unenthusiastic comments about the KTM but Nigel assured me that the ETS is not how the old trains used to be, and what a pleasant surprise it was! Departing from KL Sentral, the ETS takes you to Butterworth in 4 hours with a couple of short stops in between. The train was clean, seats were comfy with power supply on board if you needed to work on your laptop. If you do get hungry along the way, you can make your way to the cafeteria on board for a quick bite. When I posted a photo of me on the train, friends asked where in Europe have I hopped to this time round (Yes, I’m known to be hopping on holidays unannounced!), “It’s the KTM ETS silly!”
Ferry from Butterworth to Penang, On the Ferry
Arriving into Butterworth, the ferry terminal is a short walk from the train station. I could barely remember the last time I took the ferry! Just like a kid walking into a candy store, I happily skipped onto the ferry together with cars and passengers, eager to get going!
Muntri Mews and Muntri Grove takes you back in time. The owner, who also designed the place, wanted to have his guests experience what it was like going back to the days living amongst the baba nyonya families. Nestled in the heart of the heritage area in Georgetown, it felt like I was taken back in time to the days when families stayed in communities, hanging out in shared spaces in the middle of the hustle and bustle of all the trading that was happening in Penang.
A Walk in the “Jungle”
Met Mark, our local Penang guide at the foot of Bukit Bendera, where we board the funicular rail up the hill, to “The Habitat” for a completely breathtaking rainforest experience. Just right at the gates where we check in, a (insert name of snake as I cannot remember) was coiled up on a tree to greet us. That freaked me out but reminded me how magical and untouched mother nature can be.
The stroll to the Curtis Crest Tree Top Walk took us about 3 km to get to but you won’t feel it as there are so many things to see with breath taking sights are every turn. Giant swings for the kids and those young at heart, peering through holes where spiders lived, there’s always something exciting around the corner. The park rangers/guide are more than helpful to point out vegetation that you don’t get to see every day.
We got up to the tree top walk just in time for sunset. While the clouds were somewhat blocking the sun, the view from the top was spectacular.
“I’m on top of the world!”. (OK, not when there are snakes around!)
Day 2 – Muntri Street
We were up and about rather early in the morning.
“We are going to experience Penang through the lens of a true blue Penangnite”
Taking a slow walk through Muntri Street, being one of the oldest streets in Georgetown, you will notice housing that dates back to the late 19th century. Upon closer inspection, every house is designed uniquely and attention given to the intricacies in each tile and door frame. Makes you wonder why no one builds houses like these anymore.
Nasi Kandar, Coffee shop uncle
First stop, Nasi Kandar.
“Who eats rice for breakfast?”
Setup in a very unassuming Chinese coffee shop (not a sight that you’d see every day) they have co-existed for as long as anyone can remember.
Food is prepared with so much passion and attention. Dish of the day: Mutton Masala! We eagerly gobbled down our food and as we were savoring our first breakfast, the coffee shop uncle was quietly counting his money at a corner table which we were told is his every day activity as he mans the cashier. We asked if we could take a photo of him and he gladly participated. Now, where is that shot of him holding up his money?
Chinese Temple, Mamak, Indian Temple, Mosque
“Ask, and it shall be given to you”.
With a full belly after a good meal of nasi kandar, we slowly made our way to the Tien Kong Than temple. The sight of faithful believers chanting prayers and making offerings never fails to remind me that there is a bigger God out there. All you have to do is ask, and blessings shall be bestowed upon you.
I’ve been on a lot of tours, to a point where I stopped going for tours, do my own research and venture out on my own because a lot of information can be easily found on the internet. Mark (our guide) on the other hand, was someone who was very passionate about Penang. While he was well versed with the history that comes along with each of the sites he showed us, there were stories behind that history that you can’t find on any book or website. The story behind the lady who makes the appam or how the business of one of the best roti canai in town was passed down from generations, those are stories you can’t get anywhere else. Oh, ask Mark where to get awesome samosas!
Look closely to the windows of the mosque (which is now part of the UNESCO Heritage site) and you will see the Jewish star - a reminder of how cultures can peacefully collide and a proud example of racial and religious harmony!
Murals, Trishaw and Khoo Kongsi
Georgetown is full of murals, thanks you Ernest Zacharevic, who gave old walls a new lease of life. If you’re adventurous and up for some Sherlock Holmes of murals, you can definitely go on a mural treasure hunt around the capital.
Our last stop to end the Georgetown tour was the Khoo Kongsi, a large Chinese clanhouse that marked the dominance of the Khoo clan back in the 1900s, its clan temple in at the centre of the clan compound standing proudly in the very heart of the city.
By the end of the walk, I felt that I have been re-acquainted with Penang all over again. My previous trips have always been a checklist of local foods to eat and maybe hunting down a mural or two. Having the impression that I’ve seen all of Penang did not motivate me to want to see more until we went on the walking tour with Mark. There’s life at every corner of Georgetown, be it the old houses on Muntri Street, the trishaw uncle who’s taking a nap on a hot afternoon or the uncle who has spent his lifetime perfecting the art of incense making. I also got to meet a bunch of Penangnites who have been contributing to the building up Penang - on a mission make the Pearl of the Orient an even bigger dot on the map.