For art, history, food and culture, there’s no better place in Malaysia than Penang, says Megan Tatum, as she soaks up the island’s heady charms
The unmistakeable scent of durian hits me first. A stall owner is hacking through the thick, spiky shell of the fruit with a machete, handing out plates piled with its soft pungent flesh to locals who perch nearby.
Further on, mouthfuls of colourful dim sum are stacked in Chinese steamer baskets and sold at six for 5 ringgit (93p). There are soft bao buns filled with sweet lotus paste and, of course, noodles. Every kind of noodle you can imagine. Yellow egg noodles in Singaporean stir fries, delicate rice vermicelli and coffee-coloured flat noodles with a rich smokiness that I slurp from a plate of char kway teow.
Vibrant, friendly and brimming with an intoxicating blend of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine, the famous Gurney Drive hawker market I’m strolling round – couched beside the gleaming Gurney Plaza shopping mall – sums up the island of Penang in a nutshell.
Sitting just off the west coast of Malaysia, and connected to the mainland via a bridge that stretches 8.4 miles, Penang is a tropical island with depth. It’s perfect for clients looking to mix a few lazy days by the beach with art, culture and some of the best food in south-east Asia, ideally sandwiched between a visit to the capital, Kuala Lumpur, and a trip inland to the Cameron Highlands, or up north to Langkawi’s beaches.
And there are few better times to visit than now, as the tourist board is pushing the destination ahead of a landmark Visit Malaysia campaign set for 2020, with the country aiming to bring in 30 million international tourists next year.
“Our history as a trading port makes us a melting pot,” Yeoh Soon Hin, the island’s state executive councillor for tourism tells me, inspiring a packed calendar of festivals from Malays, Chinese, Indians, Sikhs, Eurasians and more. “Locals are proud of their culture and tourists return charmed.”
Nowhere is that combination of cultures and cuisines more apparent than in the island’s bustling capital of George Town, where most visitors begin their stay. Designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008, an amble through its intimate historic quarter takes me from the European colonial district to the colourful silks and souvenirs for sale in the markets of Little India and on to the vibrant lanterns looped between buildings as I meander through Chinatown.
High-end coffee shops serving matcha lattes for £3.30 sit inches from street carts spooning out bowls of cendol – a refreshing mix of green rice flour jelly, with coconut milk and palm sugar syrup. Turn the corner and fairy lights lace the veranda of one of the city’s emerging European-style wine bars. This is as far from a clash of cultures as you can get. It’s an effortless blend.
Arriving at the waterfront, I head to the clan jetties, where Chinese villages are propped on wooden stilts and where many locals still live and work. Water bubbles up suddenly through small gaps in the walkway, the solid planks creaking beneath me. A smiling shop owner spots my concern and assures me that in 20 years on the jetty, never once has her small store flooded, despite the ebb and flow of waves lapping only inches below. It’s a fascinating spot for clients to visit, with stunning views out across the sea at the end of the walkways.
For the best photo opportunities on the island, advise clients to start early or late to avoid the crowds, with George Town’s famous street art drawing long queues from 10am. It’s more than worth a look though.
There’s the towering Little Girl in Blue looking down at me from Muntri Street, Brother and Sister on a Swing drawn on the back alley wall of a paper printing factory in Gat Lebuh Chulia and Boy on a Motorcycle watching pedestrians pass from a shophouse on Ah Quee Street, among many more.
George Town itself might be enough to occupy your clients for days, but make sure they spend time outside the city too, advises Marco Ferrarese, who has lived on the island for 10 years, over a coffee. “Don’t stop at Chulia Street and explore outside George Town,” he says. “It’s a very easy touristic trap, but there’s so much more to be discovered and experienced here. Penang has many layers, and it takes time and courage to unveil most of them, but it’s always an incredibly rewarding travel experience.”
One easy way is to spend a few hours away from the city’s clamour at Penang Hill, a spot 800 metres above sea level, reached by either a long jungle hike or a trip on the funicular railway. I opt for the latter, hurtling up the steep tracks to the upper station and stepping out into temperatures pleasantly cooler than the humid 32°C below.
Feeding change into a rickety telescope reward me with panoramic views of the island, before I head up the steps to David Brown’s eponymous British restaurant to enjoy the view with strawberry jam-filled scone in hand. Then it’s a quick drive up winding mountain roads to Habitat, a rainforest experience where I stroll along a manmade nature trail through the jungle, play on giant wooden swings and clamber up the circular Sky Walk for an even more spectacular view.
For a more extended break, advise clients to spend a few days based at Batu Ferringhi. Despite being just 30 minutes from the city, my taxi weaving around scooters and bikes on beautiful coastal roads, this part of the island couldn’t feel more different. A beach resort of sorts, lined with high-end hotels and market stalls selling swimming trunks and sunglasses for a few ringgit, Batu has a relaxed, holiday feel that will appeal to clients ready for some downtime.
I spend the days lazing by the pool at the Shangri-La, the hotel backing onto the white sandy beach and the bar serving cocktails with a perfect view of the pink-hued sunset.
For my last night, it’s a 10-minute wander down the road to the Long Beach Cafe, another of Penang’s famous street food centres, to finish right where I started – sharing steaming bowls of noodles, sweet and sour fish curry, and cheesy roti in the midst of the heady mix of cultures that make this island so unique.
Book it: If Only... has seven nights’ B&B at the Shangri-La Golden Sands Resort, departing 1 September 2019 from £1,109pp, based on two sharing. The package includes flights and private transfers. ifonly.net
Flights: There a variety of indirect routes from London. The most common stopovers include Doha, Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur with Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific. Fares start from about £600.
Language: Hokkien, Malay and Mandarin are all spoken, along with English.
Weather: Penang has a tropical climate, with temperatures and humidity remaining similar year-round. Mid-March to mid- November are slightly cooler.
Visas: Not required for British nationals, who will be given a three-month tourist visa upon arrival.
Smarter: Tell clients to avoid local red and yellow taxis and, instead, download and sign up to the Grab app before departure. The equivalent of Uber (in fact, the US-based company sold its south-east Asia operations to its rivals as part of a deal), Grab taxis are plentiful, cheap and efficient. And there’s no haggling required.
Better: For a unique stay, book clients in for a night or two at The Blue Mansion. A popular tourist attraction by day, this beautiful indigo blue heritage building is also a boutique hotel, with spacious rooms, a stunning inner courtyard and excellent service.
Fairer: Clients can help to conserve the jungle that covers much of the island by staying on marked trails on hikes and not disturbing local wildlife. Feeding curious monkeys is also strongly discouraged.