How to hang in Penang

Penang. Penang, Penang, Penang. Sometimes when you say a word too many times it loses all meaning, other times it just becomes a word that get stuck in your head. Penang is one of those words that does both. What is a Penang? How do you cure a case of penang? What the penang is happening? It’s really penanging hot in here! Penang you too! It is a noun, a verb, an adjective, it is everything – yet what is a Penang?

Ok, that was just filling the void by randomly pounding the keyboard – and no, no substances were involved in concocting that thought train. Just, where exactly does the word Penang come from? Even more curious is that if you are from Penang you are considered a Penangite. Like say what?

Apparently, the word Penang comes from the reference to Pulau Pinang, which means The Island of the Areca Nut Palm. Ok, so does that mean if you are from there you are essentially a person of the nut? Hmmm, so many inappropriate references here.

More seriously though is that Penang is a highly educated, business and technology centre, with an ethnically diverse population, making it a highly sought after place to work and live for people all over the world. Makes sense that is a desirable place to work, as it is warm year round, safe, easy to get to, and is a modern city wrapped in an ancient shroud, with history coming out of every corner.

Travellers, especially the worldschooler community, are constantly raving about Penang, and seemingly everyone has spent 1 – 6 months here exploring all it has to offer.

Our adventures in Penang were compressed to about 2 weeks as it was really an in-between place for us. We had just left Singapore, without a plan, and we needed to figure out where to go next, so Penang suited everything we wanted in a stopover, except it was not as inexpensive a place as we first thought. It was by no means on par with the high costs of Singapore, but not the same as Sri Lanka, where we had been used to relatively inexpensive, well, everything!

Our foray into the world of Penang began with our first low-cost airline of our trip! Somehow we had found flights using major airlines to get us this far – all for almost the same cost as using the cheap-o-air versions. Our short hop from Singapore to Penang was at the back of an mostly empty aircraft on an average weekday evening. Moving further forward in the skybus would cost something (even though it was empty forward of row 15 or so) so we remained seated in our cramped, straight backed, seats for the 1 hour flight – no big deal. In fact I think it took us longer to get from the airport in Penang to our Airbnb than it did to get to Penang from Singapore by plane.

Our Penanging began with a drive by tour of the night life of Penang. No crazy lights or party people wandering the streets, but certainly no lack of inhabitants out in the steamy night air, enveloped in their enjoyment of some local culinary concoction, available at every corner. Nothing in Penang was ever to far from food – no activity, historical sight, or residence was ever more than a few steps from some sort of traditional dish.

The smells of Penang were both curious and alluring as they languished on the breeze, of which there was little the first couple days – but the smells of spices and curries were flung far and wide throughout the city and beyond. We had tried our best to stick to home cooking, as our Airbnb came with the use of an outdoor, but functional kitchen; however, the smells and sights of the local and imported cuisine brought us out of our cave and into the belly of the city – in search for delicious and nutritious (to an extent) nourishment (Ok, so I just misspelled that word (nourishment) on the first try (forgot the U), and the spelling suggestions were: nourishment or Irishmen, like really? … nutritious Irishmen.. who programmed this thing, Hannibal Lecter?).

Despite our lack of nutritious Irishmen to tickle our palate, the trip through the cuisine of Penang was filled with the promise of spice and diversity – both of which lived up to the hype. Indian, Chinese, Szechuan, Malay, Japanese, Korean, Western were a few of the food types available – along with mixes of the above and other labels that we didn’t understand or recognize. Anyway, we didn’t lack for choice in Penang.

One choice we did make, that turned out to be both delicious and worth the journey, was a vegan buffet place in the heart of the city (Georgetown). A variety of fantastic vegan dishes awaited us, with an extremely reasonable price tag attached to it – it was flavourful, filling, and nutritious – what more do you need?

Ok, so we didn’t just eat in Penang – we Penanged it up! We got out and explored! We ventured out on to a couple of the clan jetties in Georgetown. The rickety wooden jetties, home to Chinese family that settled in Penang, have been around for more than 100 years and extend out into the ocean from the city and seem to be barely holding on in places. We also wandered around Georgetown sweating and taking in the famous integrated artworks on a couple of occasions as well as visiting a little batik spot/museum, where we learned about how they make batiks.

Stopping to enjoy some flavoured iceballs to help cool us down was one of our favourite snacks in Georgetown. Of course doing anything in Penang in the middle of the day was hard, as the heat in Penang was constant and oppressive at times, yet still not as intense as Singapore (a 3 shirt-a-day town). Most days I am sure the humidity was probably running at 75% or more – so no dry days to be had there!

While gluttony wasn’t goal for our tour of Penang, we did indulge a few times when the lure was too strong. Delicious Indian curries danced across our tongues along with a few of our favourites from home (waffles!). Four other activities in Penang that made the favourites list, beyond eating, were the 3D Trick Art museum, the Penang Hill railway, a hike though the national park, and the outdoor splash pools!

The 3D Trick Art Museum was one of those places were you could pose in front of a number of scenes, painted to look 3-dimensional when photographed. You could be chased by a dinosaur, hang form a ceiling, or even ride in a rickshaw. The ‘museum’ was a bit over-priced for what it was and much shorter than expected – but it was one of the highlights of Penang for our kids, so probably worth it – but the cheese factor was high when walking through the museum. You can even find exampled of the 3D art in the Penang airport.

Up on the north end of Penang was the National Park, Taman Negara Pulau Penang. The national park was a great hike but a sweaty one! We recommend heading out early in the day, bringing tons of water, and if possible, take the boat ride back around. Also if you kids are a bit on the ‘are we there yet?’ side, keep an eye out for the wildlife, as there are lots of monkeys to keep you busy (and busy keeping your lunch safe). If you take the boat back after the hike to the turtle centre, you can stop in at the swimming beach (Monkey Beach), as the beach (Kerachut Beach) near the turtles isn’t ideal for swimming. During your hike you can even grab a couple of geocaches – like we did!

Another one of our outings was to the the Penang Hill Railway. The railway is a bit expensive, but cool way to see the city. As with many things around these parts, if you are a tourist, expect to pay double the rate of the local. I understand why, but had to learn to always look at the higher price first and expect to pay that. The ride up and the view of the island and surrounding area is great. The area at the top is full of vendors and guides, as well as an impressive compliment of oversized arachnids inhabiting the areas near the start of the trails. Our eldest daughter, and her lack of enthusiasm for the 8-legged insect eaters, definitely had s difficult walk along some of the trails because of the spiders lurking in the trees. Luckily for all of us, they were a relatively harmless species that was more interested in 6 legged prey than us. We only ended up spending a couple of hours there, around sunset, but probably could have stayed longer and done a bit more hiking; so plan wisely and expect to need a few hours to see and do it all up there.

Now, the other thing that made Penang a great stop over for us, was our hosts in the Airbnb. Yan and his family were tremendously friendly and welcoming. We felt that it was more a temporary home than a guesthouse. Our girls met his kids (also girls) who were the same age and they had a blast for the time we were there. They danced, played, watched youtube (As kids do) and had a great time! Other things making the house a great place was the location. It was right next to the beach and easy to get rides into town (get the Grab app), was clean, well stocked with clean drinking water and other necessities, and perfectly set up for families. We booked 8 days and stayed 13 in the end – as we didn’t see the need to move! That and some visa issues! On our last night we joined our host at a private party with his family and his friends from China and Penang; one was even an international movie star! All of them were super nice people and it was great to hang out to eat and drink with them. We even tried some very good Chinese alcohol to go with the hot pot dinner! Partying in Penang with new friends was a great way to end our stay!

So despite our best efforts to make Vietnam our next port of adventure – their inefficient visa system wasn’t up to the task (too slow – and note to people doing the same as us, don’t trust their ‘times’ for approval, expect twice as long as they say, and expect no reply to any inquiries) – so our pre-planned route took a hard right and headed south, below the equator, to the nation of islands known as Indonesia; Bali to be more specific. This is where our Penanging stopped and our search for the best nasi goreng turned up a notch! A dish found throughout Malaysia, Indonesia, and even the Maldives!

Next up… Indonesia, but who knows which blog will actually be finished next!

M (Secondary director of information and geography of the M4 travels)