Fun and Funky Penang

Our third and last stop in Malaysia was Penang, an island on the northwest coast of the Malay Peninsula that for centuries was a trading post for Chinese, Indian, Arab, and European ships. Starting in the late 1700s, it was controlled by the British East India Company, which used it to oversee the company’s trade routes through the Straits of Malacca. Today, Penang is a highly urban, industrialized place, though the oldest sections of its capital have been preserved and designated a world heritage site by UNESCO.

Having stayed in guesthouses and hotels for months, we decided to do something different in Penang: We rented an apartment on AirBnB in the capital, George Town. That city is roughly the same age as Georgetown in Washington, DC, and also a picturesque tourist attraction, but with a very different style. It soon became apparent that our apartment was a perfect reflection of George Town in several ways:

It was refurbished and repurposed—the top floor of an old Chinese-style shophouse, with the drop ceiling removed and the big wooden roof beams exposed, and full of do-it-yourself touches like light fixtures made from bunches of bamboo poles, a solar water heater on the roof, a wooden washtub for a bathroom sink, and curtains made from old sari fabrics.

It was rough around the edges—old mismatched furniture, unfinished concrete walls with patches of peeled paint, and plastic sheeting over the louvered windows to keep out mosquitoes.

It was artistic and funky—instead of putting a conventional loft bed in that high-ceilinged space, the owners built a giant black metal “birdcage” structure with a platform halfway up for a bed and a TV lounge underneath complete with hammock (it’s a wonder Melissa ever left to explore the town). The apartment also featured a wooden swing hanging on long chains from the roof beams, where you could swing back and forth while reading your ipad.

The effect was quirky and eclectic and slightly shabby, just like George Town itself. And as in the town as a whole, there was a wide variety of good food available right in our neighborhood (off Jalan Penang). Crowded Chinese noodle shops sat next-door to Malay seafood restaurants making more different kinds of fish stews than we ever could have imagined. Ancient coffee houses full of round marble-topped tables were occupied throughout the day by old Chinese men, while around the corner, Indian restaurants turned out curries and roti canai (chewy, flaky fried bread with a variety of dipping sauces) by the thousands. 

On every corner, street carts sold everything from steamed Chinese buns to Indian samosas, pickled mango, peanut candy, and cendol, a snowcone of shaved ice covered with coconut milk, tamarind sauce, green gummy noodles, red beans, and corn–Melissa swears it’s delicious (at least without the beans and corn) and the lines snaking down the street next to the most popular stands certainly agree.

Penang is famous for its food, but it’s also becoming known for its street art. Six years ago, a sculpture studio in town created a series of cartoon-like illustrations and captions in wrought iron explaining the history of various streets in George Town. A few years later, as part of a festival, Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic was invited to paint a scenes on old plaster-covered walls around the city. Many of his paintings feature children playing or adults engaging in traditional Penang occupations, such as fishermen or street-food hawkers. His art makes clever use of windows and other features in the walls he paints, and some incorporate large objects (a motorcycle in one painting, a bicycle in another).

They became so popular with tourists that other pieces popped up here and there, including a series of cat-themed murals. Now, such street art is a major tourist attraction: The city publishes maps with the locations of the major pieces, and visitors do self-guided walking tours that are part pilgrimage, part scavenger hunt to find them all. The most famous images also appear on tee shirts, magnets, notebooks, and every other souvenir someone can think up. Our friend Robin, who visited us in Malaysia, had a great time wandering around the town taking pictures of as many murals as she could find. So, to our delight, did lots of Malaysian tourists (not just foreigners, for once!) who flooded into Penang for the weekend.

Along with the rise of street art, George Town has experienced a proliferation of “theme” cafes. One of the most successful has been China House, two old row houses that meet in the back, while facing parallel streets. They’ve been joined to form a long, thin, block-long space containing a cake bakery, coffee shop, bar, music venue, art gallery, bookstore, and several restaurants. China House has become so popular that competitors pop up seemingly weekly, each trying to distinguish itself with a particular theme.

China House, a very popular and quirky cafe, was one of our favorite eateries

There are art-themed cafes, where artists can display their work and visitors can doodle on the walls; the Mugshot Cafe, where, between sips of coffee or fruit smoothies, patrons can line up against a wall and get police-style mugshots taken; the Selfie Cafe, where you take a picture of yourself on your phone and get it printed on the foam of your latte; and our favorite, the Cat Cafe, where, after eating slices of cake, you can go into a big room full of couches and cat towers and four mellow resident felines, whom you can pet and play with. Despite all of those trendy new places, though, Melissa had some of the best coffee she’s ever tasted at the nondescript-looking 100-year-old Chinese coffeehouse around the corner from our apartment.

More ornate wooden screens

In addition to eating widely and well, stalking street art, and exploring cafes, we spent our time in Penang enjoying the old architecture, especially the many ornate 19th-century Chinese temples and clan houses (self-help organizations for extended families of immigrants that evolved into powerful organizations in town and competed to show it through ostentatious architecture).

A shrine built in the early 1800s by south Indian Muslims who came to Penang as traders

Penang is also home to several gaudy refurbished mansions that once belonged to prominent Chinese-Malay families, but its most characteristic type of traditional building is the shophouse. As its name implies, a shophouse is a two- or three-story building with a shop on the ground floor and living quarters above. It generally has a covered sidewalk in front with arched pillars, so a whole row of shophouses creates a covered walkway along the side of street that is a haven in the rain. (Did we mention that it rained a lot in Malaysia while we were there?) Some of Penang’s shophouses are in disrepair, but many are being restored, such as the one where our apartment is located. It was fun to walk around town and see the traditional buildings being transformed.

Some of Penang’s traditional old Chinese-style shophouses before renovation
And after renovation (the apartment we rented is on the third floor of the blue house)

And lest we feel too homesick over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, Penang entertained us with midnight fireworks on both Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Between those celebrations and the random strangers on the street wishing us “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year,” we felt almost festive.

Sadly, our carefree time in Penang came to an abrupt end when Robin got word that her father had died suddenly and entirely unexpectedly. It was an impossible shock to process at such a distance, and we were glad we could be there to help her with it—if only by getting her on the first plane back to her grieving family in the United States. Shaken up as well, we put our travel plans (which had involved heading north to Thailand) on hold for a few days to curl up in an apartment and a town that had come to feel comfortingly familiar.

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