Posted by: Gypsygal Prime
Located at the northwest part of the Malaysian peninsula, Penang island was established as the first British settlement in Malaysia in 1791. Its capital, Georgetown, evolved into a colonial administrative center, with Captain Francis Light, who once worked in a European trading house, as its superintendent.
Penang was a part of what was then known as the Straits Settlement (which also included Singapore and Melaka), and was a major trading port for traders plying through the Straits of Melaka. Penang’s status as a key trading center in the 18th and 19th centuries have enticed migrants from all over the world to
settle and build communities here.
This is why the island is now such a cosmopolitan haven. I was in Georgetown – a UNESCO World Heritage City – a few weeks ago and I enjoyed walking around here, taking photos of Chinese shophouses or observing Indian-Muslim “Mamaks” preparing nasi kandar popular Penang rice-with-curry meal – in their makeshift stalls. I wake up in the mornings, listening to the muzim’s call to prayer for those of the Islamic faith. And while I’m not a Muslim, I often find myself praying and asking for
God/dess blessings for the day.
The city is the perfect place for artsy fartsy travelers like me who want to know about Southeast Asian history and just can’t get enough of the many temples, museums, shophouses and delicious cuisine that the city offers.
But more than that, I believe that if you who can get some time off during the Chinese New Year holiday, you should consider visiting Penang. My wonderful tour guide CK Lau told me that Chinese immigrants from the U.S. and Australia usually go to Penang to discover their roots.
The island, after all, is home to a big community of Peranakan Chinese – descendants of Southern Chinese traders (most of whom are from Fujian) who married local Malay women. Peranakans developed a unique culture which combined Malay, Chinese and colonial British influences, and their architecture, cuisine and traditions remain a big part of Penang.
I have listed some things that you can do if you can only spare a weekend in Penang:
1. Join the guided tour at the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion — Also known as the Blue House owing to its distinct indigo-blue outer wall, the mansion was built by the wealthy cantonese merchant Cheong Fatt Tze at the end of 19th century. It has 38 rooms, 5 granite-paved courtyards, 7 staircases, 220 vernacular timber louvre windows and was built based on feng shui principles.
You need to sign up for one of the guided tours conducted twice a day everyday. No visitors are allowed unless they’re part of the guided tour.This is because the mansion not only serves as a museum but also as a boutique hotel where a deluxe room costs $100/night (inclusive of a breakfast for 2)
Address: 14 Leith Street
Daily Tour Schedule: 11 am and 3 pm. The tour lasts for about an hour.
Entrance Fee: 10 Ringgit (about — U.S. dollars)
Facilities: toilet, souvenir shop, parking space
Note: Videography and photography are not allowed inside the mansion
2. Visit the Peranakan Mansion — The museum contains over 1,000 pieces of antiques and collectibles and offers visitors a glimpse of how a wealthy Peranakan family lived in the 19th century. I loved looking at the elaborately designed porcelain covered jars (kamcheng), beaded slippers (kasut manik), traditional wooden chairs inlaid with mother-of-pearl and wooden biscuit molders.
Entrance Fee: 10 ringgit
Address: 9 Church street
Schedule: Monday to Sunday including Public Holidays from 9:30 am to 5 pm. Guided tours are available all day. You can take
photos/videos inside the mansion
Facilities: Toilet, souvenir shop, parking space
3. Go to Khoo Kongsi — This is the most famous Hokkien clan house in Penang. Walk around this centuries-old family compound and immerse yourself in the rich history of Chinese immigrants in Penang. The compound is home two rows of 19th century terrace houses, he opera stage and a majestic temple.
Entrance Fee: 5 Ringgit
Address: 18 Canon Square, 10200 Penang, Malaysia.
Opening Hours: Daily, including Sundays and Public Holidays, 9 am to 5 pm
4. Temple tour –– Penang is home to some of the country’s oldest and interesting places of worship. If you just want to stay in the downtown area you can just go to Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling which runs parallel to Lebuh King and is at the center of Georgetown. Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling is popularly known as the “Street of Harmony” as this is home to major religious houses here including the Kwan Yin temple, the Sri Mariamman Hindu temple and the Kapitan Keling Indian Muslim Mosque.
You can also go to Air Itam and visit the Kek Lok Si (the Temple of Supreme Bliss) – one of the largest Buddhist temples in southeast Asia. Constructed in 1890, its main attraction is its seven-storey pagoda and the huge bronze statue of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy.
I was raised as a Catholic but this didn’t stop me from paying my respects to other deities. While in Kek Lok Si, I offered some incense and said my prayers to Kuan Yin.
5. Food tripping — Penang is the perfect place for foodies as you don’t really have to spend much eating all over the place, with hawkers selling meals at less than three U.S. dollars per serving.
Penang-born food blogger Bee Yin Low recommended some Penang food and hawker stalls to try. I heeded her advice and I had to say that she really knows her Penang food.
I especially enjoyed Assam Laksa – Penang’s famous noodle soup. This laksa is made of thick white rice noodles in tangy and sour fish broth, served with fresh mint leaves, onions, cucumber, lettuce, pineapple, red chili, and bunga kantan (torch ginger bud) and I had the opportunity to have for lunch the famous Assam Laksa at Air Itam (beside the Air Itam market)
And to satisfy my sweet tooth, I had Ice Kacang – shaved ice with red beans, sweet corns, grass jelly and sweet syrup at at the New World Park Hawker Center, which is just beside Tune Hotel, where I stayed.
Bee’s brother and my tour guide, CK, brought me to Cecil Street market where I had coffee and Nyonya Kuih for snack. These are little colorful Peranakan cakes, made of rice and/or cassava and flavored with pandan, brown sugar and coconut cream can be compared to Philippine kakanin. Love love love them.
My only complaint? – Penang food ruined my diet, and once back in Manila, I had to go to the gym pronto to lose some pounds.
6. Shop till you drop at Little India — I usually find myself in this enclave (which encompasses Lebuh Queen, Lebuh King, Lebuh Penang, Lebuh Chulia, Lebuh Pasar and Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling) not only to change money but to shop and bargain with storekeepers selling Indian saris, kurta and jewelry. After spending all my shopping money (which is quite modest, anyway) I walk along its streets listening to Hindi pop songs blasting through the speakers from some shops selling CDs/DVDs of Bollywood movies and records.
Gypsygal Prime’s Recommendations:
1. Online Penang Culture Resources: There are some online sites you can check if you want to know more about Penang culture. Penangite culinary instructor and food blogger Nazlina Hussin maintains a website http://www.penangheritagecity.com/ where you can learn anything and everything about Penang. One of my favorite food bloggers, Bee Yin Low of Rasa Malaysia fame has launched a new site dedicated entirely to Peranakan cuisine: http://nyonyafood.com/ where she shares not only recipes on how to make Peranakan delicacies like sambal okra and pineapple tarts but also notes on its culinary traditions.
2. Customized Tours: CK Lau provides private tours around Penang and his knowledge not only of Penang historic’s sites but the various hawker stalls that sell yummy and cheap food made my Penang tour enjoyable. You may contact him at [email protected] or via http://rasamalaysia.com/penang-private-tour-and-culinary-tour.
3. Accommodation: I stayed at Tune Hotel, which is truly value-for-money. It’s clean, safe, affordable and accessible. Credit cards are accepted and you can book rooms online. The rooms are a bit small, though and there’s no tv. But I really don’t care as I have wi-fi and aircon. Check http://www.tunehotels.com/