There is more to Penang than just food. This is an exploration of two siblings (my brother and I), travelling together for the first time (and without killing each other).
The Accommodation – St Giles Wembley
There are plenty of options to stay in Penang and you will be spoilt for choice. There are 5 star hotels, budget hotels, famous hotel chains, boutique/themed hotels, homestays and heritage hotels. Accessibility is an important factor for me when deciding where to stay especially if the transport system is not fully developed. After months of searching and indecision – Tanjung Bungah vs Gurney Drive vs Georgetown and type of hotel ie homestay vs heritage hotel vs themed hotel, finally decided on St Giles Wembley. It was recommended by one of my colleagues upon his return from Penang a month before I depart. Had booked two other hotels (with free cancellation within 72 hours of course) and once I received great feedback from him especially on the location, immediately booked St Giles and cancelled the other two. St Giles is located opposite Komtar and walking distance to 1st Avenue Mall, Prangin Mall and Komtar Walk. In fact, I found it to be centrally located as you can walk to Penang Times Square and to most areas including to two of the street art location. The bus terminal in Komtar within walking distance is really a huge plus for me.
The Streets and Exploration
Day 1 – 22 Sept (Tues): Batu Ferringhi and Tanjung Bungah
From my web research, there are great spots in Batu Ferringhi to catch the sunset and there is a local night market in Tanjung Bungah every Tuesday night. Being a sucker for sunsets (and sunrise for that matter) and everything local especially night markets, decided to kill two birds with one stone. Took Rapid Penang 101 (RM2.70) from Komtar bus terminal to Batu Ferringhi. The journey took about an hour and I love bus journeys as it is a great way to explore, see the area along the bus route, take note of landmarks and best of all see spots that are not on the maps. Was unsure where to alight but the bus driver announces ‘Batu Ferringhi’ when we reach the main Batu Ferringhi bus stop. It was about 4pm or so and we are so in need of caffeine. There are few shops and coffeehouses around the area where we alight but nothing caught our eyes. Decided to walk down the stretch to look for the beach and realized that we were walking along the Batu Ferringhi night market area. None of the shops were opened as it was still early. And most of the restaurants serve Middle Eastern or Mediterranean food. We stumbled upon Starbucks (located next to Holiday Inn) and decided to have our caffeine fix there (I know…so original). The Starbucks are huge and links directly to the beach. Sat on the outdoor upper deck and it was truly a nice place to just chill, watch sea sport activities like parasailing, jet ski, etc and spend some quiet time. Unfortunately, our peace was disrupted by two separate large groups of teenagers who have to shout while talking even when they sat next to each other. As sunset draws near (and couldn’t tolerate the noise any further), went down to the beach. Great to see families spending time together on the beach and even though the water is not as clear as others I had seen before, it still quite a nice clean beach. Was trying to enjoy the sunset but was disrupted by touters promoting horse riding and also stray dogs scavenging for food.
As soon as the sun sets, we walked to the night market. It is just another touristy night market with most shops selling almost similar items at touristy prices. There was only a shop that sells tongue-in-cheek and unique design T-shirts that caught my eyes and of course had to bought one.
Board 101 from the opposite bus stop from where we alighted to go to Tanjung Bungah (RM1.40). Again, unsure where to stop and had to keep a lookout throughout the journey as I read that there is a small road that leads to the night market. Fortunate for us, the bus driver stopped the bus at the Tanjung Bungah bus terminal as he need pump some gas. Following my gut feel after I saw tents, lights, and locals carrying plastic bags from a small road, we decided to alight. We bumped into the bus driver and he said that he was looking for us when he stopped the bus but couldn’t see us and thought that we had alighted. He couldn’t see us because we were standing behind few burly tourists.
The Tanjung Bungah night market was really a local night market and located next to the wet market. Satisfied from the food loot, we took 101 (RM2) back. And it was the same driver when we took the bus from Komtar. Little we know, 101 will not drive into the Komtar bus terminal and we are to alight at the bus stop opposite Komtar (common sense no longer working at 10+pm that night). We ended up at the Weld Quay Bus Terminal (aka Jetty Bus Terminal) and took the free CAT (Central Area Transit) since it stops at Komtar. Funny story – we actually saw our hotel as the bus turn towards the road opposite Komtar and both pointed ‘that is our hotel’, continue the ride and assumed that it will turn in to Komtar.
Day 2 – 23 Sept (Wed): Hunt for the Mee Goreng, P Ramlee Museum, Penang Hill, Unplanned Walk and Gurney Drive
Original plan was to go to Penang Hill in the morning to avoid the crowd and before it gets too hot. But by the time I woke up it was raining heavily and was very cloudy thereafter. It was almost noon when we left the hotel with first order of business – hunt for food. First walked to Jalan Transfer for Prata (known as Roti Canai in Malaysia). This was recommended by a blogger. Next, walked to Lebuh Keng Kwee for the famous Teochew Chendol stall. Decided to share a bowl (RM2.50), as we just had breakfast and wanted to reserve space for other food that we may have stumbled upon. We walked around for quite a bit to search for the famous Mee Goreng stall. Based on the map, web research plus blogs, it seems that it is within walking distance from the chendol stall. But after a while gave up and walked back to Komtar bus terminal to take the bus to P Ramlee Museum.
Decided to pay a visit to the birthplace/museum of one of my favourite storyteller and songwriter. Took 206 (RM1.40) from Komtar to Jalan P Ramlee. A Chinese lady on the bus was kind enough to tell us where it is when she overhears our conversation.
Since the weather clears up, think it is best to go to Penang Hill that day instead of next day. Originally planned to take 206 back to Komtar to take 204 to Penang Hill. But as we waited, saw 204 that ends at Penang Hill stops at the opposite bus stop. It costs RM2 each from that Jalan Dato Kramat stop to Penang Hill and the journey took us about an hour after waiting for about 20 minutes. Were quite surprised that it was crowded with locals as it was eve of Eid Adha. Penang Hill is much more developed that I was there in the 90s. Regardless of the development, it is still rustic and has it charms. The view and breeze was great. Another great spot to chill and get some quiet time, provided you get a great spot away from noisy tourists or couples whispering sweet nothings. Entrance fee for tourist (adult) is RM30.
When we were on 204, we saw a huge Chinese temple and few residential areas along the way (which later I found out that is the Kek Lok Si temple and the area is Ayer Itam). Out of curiosity, we decided to walk and explore instead of taking 204 back to Georgetown. With no maps or any other form of guidance, had to depend solely on our memory of the bus route and what we had seen/landmarks while on the bus. Brings us ‘joy’ whenever we see 204 as that meant we are on the right track. For me, this unplanned exploration was one of the highlights of the trip. We stumbled upon a bread factory, a self-sufficient Malay kampong (village) that is preparing for Eid Adha celebration (brother can even point out that there is a cow at the back of the mosque forgetting that Eid Adha is the next day), small towns with shop houses, food courts and other residential areas. As we walked pass the residential areas and especially the kampong, it gave me a sense of simplicity, serenity and a sense of community living. Even though the kampong is not a ‘real’ kampong with wooden houses but in fact a block of flats, the atmosphere just brings back memories of block 2 Geylang area during Eid Fitri celebrations and that it feels homey. This walk reminds me to grasp, absorb the environment and enjoy every little things in life.
We walked till after sunset and once it gets too dark decided its time to get on the bus to head back to Georgetown as some parts of the roads are not that safe to be walking in the dark (actually not quite safe even with light) – no walking pavements and not much street lights. Had to look for the bus stop, as everything looked so different when it turns dark. We thought of asking for directions at one of the restaurants when noticed that there is a bus stop next to it and luckily we can board 204 (RM1.40) from there. Think we walked for about 2 hours and didn’t realize how far we had walked till we were on 204 as recognized other landmarks like the Masjid Negeri Pulau Pinang (the main mosque). Took 204 to jetty terminal with the intention to take 103 or another bus (which I can’t remember) to Gurney Drive for dinner, assuming that both buses are available at the terminal. Luckily we saw that 101 passes Gurney Drive the day before and from one of the maps, found out that number 11 goes to Gurney drive as well. There is a board indicating the estimated time of arrival and departure of the buses. And found out about 1.5 hours later that the information is not reliable at all!
Totally starving upon reaching Gurney close to 10pm, had to rush through our dinner as preferred to take 101 back. Gurney is just another tourist spot (similar to Lau Pa Sat in Singapore) which can give a miss. The only thing I enjoyed was the fragrant Nasi Lemak with freshly fried chicken (RM6.50). You can choose the chicken cut and all are at the same price. It was so good that we (more of me) had second helping of the fried chicken (RM2).
It was a risk waiting for the bus as we had no idea what time the last bus departs from Teluk Bahang terminal. Seeing that there were still buses travelling on the opposite road, we decided to gave it a chance to wait…and we wait and we waited till about close to midnight (after an hour of waiting) that I said to my brother “if the bus is not here by midnight, we’ll take a cab”. The next thing I know, 101 appears (RM1.40). Smarter and with a semi full tummy (part of it had been digested while waiting), we didn’t end up at the jetty terminal like the previous night.
Day 3 – 24 Sept (Thu): Chowrasta Market, Street Art, Clan Jetties, Penang Times Square, Cakes and More Cakes…
Walked back to the Teochew Chendol Stall to have another round of the chendol together with the Assam Laksa (RM5). The combination was a match made in heaven. The Assam Laksa was just nice – not so sour nor spicy and the texture of the noodles were different than those I had before. I believed it was handmade.
Chowrasta market was just down the road which was a disappointment as it was undergoing renovation. Most shops were closed as expected as it was public holiday for Eid Adha.
Took the CAT from bus stop no. 12 – Chowrasta to bus stop no. 14 – Lebuh Carnarvon which is a walking distance to Lebuh Armenian where majority of the street art is. Exploring Lebuh Armenian is the other highlight of the trip. The mission for the day is to find all the 18 street arts – majority are located around Lebuh Armenian area but there are 4-5 that are located elsewhere (not too far off though). I loved exploring this area even though it is a tourist spot. There are so much history, loved the mix of colonial and Peranakan architecture, street stalls and of course cafes (there are loads of it!).
The Pangkalan Weld (also known as the Clan Jetties) are also walking distance from Lebuh Armenian area. Interestingly if you want to locate all the street art like we did, you may end up walking towards the Clan Jetties.
Day 4 – 25 Sept (Fri): Komtar, Komtar Walk and Home Sweet Home
As our flight was in late afternoon, we decided to walked to Komtar after checking out from our room. There was nothing much there except for souvenirs and some food joints. Had our last meal at Georgetown White Coffee and head to Maxim’s to takeaway some of the old school cakes back home.
The Transport System
The transport system in Penang is not that fully developed but it is still accessible if you are adventurous enough to avoid taxi and take local bus. Rapid Penang is one of the leading bus operators in Penang and it also operates the free Hop On Central Area Transit (CAT).
It is fun to explore on the local bus because (1) there will be quite a bit of guessing game as most times you will not be sure as to where you will need to alight hence no idea where you may end up. Only the main terminals like Komtar or the Weld Quay Terminal have boards listing the bus routes. However, it only states the name of the main road (for example Jalan P Ramlee) and there could be a lot of stops along that stretch. (2) get a chance to interact with the bus driver as you will need to let him/her know where your destination is, for him/her to be able to advise you the fare and if you ask him/her nicely, he/she will be able to advise you or call out your destination upon arrival (3) a guessing game if you are waiting for the bus at the right bus stop as there are some stops with no board indicating the number or the route (4) get to see areas that may not be listed on the map and where locals go to.
We only took the Rapid Penang buses on first two days of the trip. On the third day took the free CAT throughout.
Rapid Penang: http://www.rapidpg.com.my/
We saw a lot of taxi but decide to explore on the local bus. We only took taxi from the airport to the hotel (RM44.50) and from the hotel to the airport with advanced booking at the concierge (RM53). Rapid Penang 102 goes to the airport but we would not want to take the risk as unsure how the traffic will be on a Friday.
The best way to explore. However, as I had mentioned above, there are areas that are not so safe to walk especially at night as it is not well lit or no proper walking pavements.
The Food & Shopping
Everyone that I know who went to Penang said the food was awesome. Personally, I find most of the food was just great or just ‘ok’ or it is similar to what we can get in Singapore. Perhaps the places that I went to are not famous for the food. Yes, it is cheaper than in Singapore (the exchange rate then was SGD100=MYR300) but cheap does not mean good. Also perhaps, this trip is about exploring Penang, not a food hunt and food was on the last of our list – if we found it, we’ll try it. If not, ate because we need to eat.
We did not shop much and there are quite a bit of interesting souvenirs but as usual it is a tourist trap. My brother and I are not shoppers and again, we prefer to spend the money on the experience of exploring rather than lugging things just because it is cheap unless of course we can’t find it back home.
Just look at the skies and those clouds. These were taken on various days and times.
There is really more to Penang than just food. The exploration and experience travelling for the first time with my brother was priceless. The Penang I experienced and the one others had shared with me about their Penang trip greatly differs. Will I go back there again? I will but not anytime soon…I think.