We only spent a very short 3 days and 2 nights in Penang recently, so here’s what we ended up prioritising. There was lots to do at the hotel, so we only spent one day in Georgetown, but we had loads of fun!
We took a walk down from Hotel Jen (where our hotel shuttle dropped us off), to the Armenian Street area. I loved walking down the streets of Georgetown. Rows and rows of shophouses, winding as far as the eye can see.
I stopped in my tracks when I saw these old tiles (top right of photo below), slightly hypnotised by the 3D design. We paused and I took a number of shots. In this one, the concrete edges into the tiled space unceremoniously. Ugly modernity impinging on what is old and beautiful? Probably over-interpreting again.
Georgetown has the most interesting walls. The one above seemed to have been the remains of a shophouse, unevenly sliced off, exposing red brick and black patches. Untidy perhaps, but charming in its own way.
Having read and heard so much about my friends’ ‘street art spotting’ jaunts in Georgetown, I was raring to go. I wasn’t planning on being ambitious and ticking them all off – I thought encountering what I could, within the same vicinity, would suffice.
I obtained this map from the airport, and found it quite useful. It doesn’t label all the small streets, but if you use this in tandem with another map, you’ll be set. Or, pay RM 50 an hour for a trishaw uncle to bring you to most of the locations.
B was with us since she could not enter the Kids’ Club, and she was such a trooper that day! We walked so much but she didn’t complain, and took toilet breaks at convenient times so we were super proud of her. But since she was with us, we decided to rent an umbrella cart (RM 30 for an hour, from a stall along Gat Lebuh Armenian) to cycle towards the various wall murals.
And it was such fun! The hubs and I haven’t done something so crazy in a long time! It was crazy because we went down one way streets the wrong way (SORRY!) and even went on the main road (alongside public buses in four-lane streets). We didn’t think that was ‘legal’, and confessed to the rental uncle when we returned. He waved it all off, and assured us that it was Totally Fine to travel any way down any street in this vehicle. Malaysia Boleh! *love*
We even langgar a motorbike right in front of us as we jammed brakes at a junction! We apologised profusely as the biker and his pillion rider (both middle-aged uncles) turned back to look at us. After ascertaining that we were foolish tourists, they magnanimously turned around without a word of reproach.
Even B said “This is the best time ever!”, mainly because she had her own little (non-functional) steering wheel, and didn’t need to pedal – her folks did all the leg work. And what a workout it turned out to be! Still the hubs and I agreed that this was the most memorable part of our entire trip.
The most famous murals are by Lithuanian-born artist Ernest Zacharevic, whose work was commissioned in 2012 by the Penang Municipal Council.
The boy reaching towards the hole in the wall is one of his famous works, and an entire cafe has sprung up next to it.
The mural of the girl holding a love letter pastry mold over a charcoal stove looks very new, but I could not find any information on whose work it was. After the entire visit, I decided that it was my favourite – the quaintness of the mold with the charcoal stove, and how they merged so naturally with the painting.
I guess these drawings have attracted such a following because they are so evocative. The expression of the boy’s face here, though faded, still conveys so much joy. The thrill of speed during a forbidden excursion? Upon closer inspection, his sister’s legs don’t seem long enough to pedal the bicycle. But that’s the beauty of art isn’t it? Freedom from the shackles of reality, to relish the seemingly impossible.
This dilapidated red door, and the even more dilapidated wall around it, makes for a striking backdrop to this piece.
There was a Bruce Lee mural near this one (so said the maps), but even after cycling up and down the same street a few times, and looking into the alleyways, we couldn’t spot it. Elusive!
We risked life and limb (Oh no, we have to turn into the main road? Let’s get off the main road? Argh we are blocking this car! Pedal harder! Turn left, turn left now!!) to get to this mural. But it was Worth It! *cue manical laughter*
Created by Malaysian artist Louis Gan, this is one of our favourites, and seems to have been recently restored – the colours on the siblings are quite vibrant. We all took pictures here, but the one of little B seems the most apt. She’s about the same size as the other little girl!
There’s a recent mural of a lion dance ‘head’ next to an ice-ball dessert stall that we all but walked past. That’s the fun thing about mural-spotting I suppose. Part treasure-hunt, part surprises that we stumble upon.
There are many murals featuring felines, and these are part of the 101 Lost Kitten Project, to encourage kindness to animals, including stray cats.
We also came across numerous welded iron sculptures, that provide colloquial glimpses into the history of the streets they are on. They are very interesting, hardy and weather-resistant, and can also be easily put in place or removed with no damage to the walls that are their backdrop.
But somehow I feel they are harder to connect with, as compared to the paintings. Perhaps it’s the older art form, the alluringly life-like expressions, and the juxtaposition of paint with everyday physical objects of the painted murals that draw us to them.
For being such a cheery travel companion, and not complaining once as we walked and cycled for hours, B was rewarded with an ice lolly of her choice, and this cute butterfly was her pick.
Food glorious food
Singaporeans and Malaysians love their food, and take a lot of pride in their respective local dishes. But this trip has proved to me that Malaysia (ok Penang at least) beats Singapore hands down when it comes to cheap and yummy street food.
Almost every Char Kuay Teow stall has “got standard”, and even the nondescript prawn mee soup stall at Long Beach Kafe near our hotel had the best prawn soup I’ve tasted in years. At just RM 4. Amazing value.
As we walked down Lebuh Carnavon, we found “Pitt Street Koay Teow Thng” at #183, which is actually famous for its fishballs made of eel meat. And those eel-balls were very unique and delicious. RM 4.50 for a bowl of 10! Unbelievable.
Right next door to it at #181 is “Tiger Char Kuay Teow” – it was fantastic, with juicy fresh prawns, and the sweetest ‘hahm’ cockles ever (at RM 5.50 only). We also ordered some “Loh Bak” from “LOBAK KING” in the same coffee shop, and whilst it tasted great, it was a bit too oily for our liking.
We tried this the Famous Teochew Chendul on Jalan Penang once when our cruise ship docked at Penang two years ago, and weren’t very impressed, but this time around, we enjoyed it a bit more. B certainly lapped up the ‘sweet soup’ in no time at all. We decided to pay the 50 sen ‘tax’ per bowl, to the coffeeshop behind the stall, levied even if you order food from them, so that we could enjoy our Chendul in comfort, instead of standing on the streets like most of the customers.
What is a holiday without buying some local produce for family and friends? We didn’t go out of our way to get famous snacks, and just purchased these from the shops we happened to pass by.
Thus ends our lengthy post on our whirlwind sight-seeing in Penang! I must add that we went shopping at Gurney Plaza for a few hours the next day, and I was super pleased to find some Shiseido make-up at
50-60% 40-45% off, as compared to Singapore prices.
One of things I enjoyed most about visiting Penang was how it felt like I was visiting a relative. I don’t have blood relatives in Penang, but Malaysia and Singapore are Abang-Adek after all; our history, culture, language, food, are all so intertwined.
Chatting with the taxi drivers for about 30 minutes to an hour each time brought across that feeling the most. One of them, who was 73 years old, spoke about how he went to hear LKY when he came to Penang to campaign way back around 1962. It was so interesting to hear his views on politics in Malaysia and Singapore. Being in Penang reminded me of the 7 Letters film anthology, which brought across our inextricable links so well. We may be so different, but underneath it all, we are so much the same.
Farewell Penang, we do hope to come your way again some time next year!