The big thing about Penang is street food. Wherever you go, anytime of day and night, you see millions of both locals and tourists eating. Each “centre” has lots of different stalls, each selling a particular dish – each different. You go and choose as many as you like and they bring them to your table, randomly. So many different flavours and tastes and smells and origins.
And that’s precisely how Penang itself is. One big melting pot of – everything!
Both Nigel and I had imagined beautifully preserved chintzy houses. WRONG. Yes they are there but they are interwoven with ones that are crumbling into decay, others that have been modernised so much they would not look out of place in the Meat Packing District of New York or Bethnal Green in London. Then there are the big faceless skyscrapers, built with no consideration to anything round them – in contrast to the more modern ones which are really beautiful and as in KL incorporate green walls and rooftop gardens. Add to this hotchpotch the old colonial mansions, the clan jetties and every type of place to worship and you may begin to get a picture of this very crazy place.
Everything feels unfamiliar here, a treat we rarely find in our world these days. Even the uber cool (yes, there honestly are such places here) venues which would not be out of place in any major capital city somehow don’t feel Western – and I can’t really explain why.
The buildings that are Penang personified are the shop houses. The streets of George Town are littered with them and, depending on where you are, they can be literally falling apart, or done up to the nines or just restored enough so they look fab.
The natives here are equally varied, Chinese, Indian, Malay, Eurasian – every combination imaginable all seem to live in harmony – as is exemplified on “Harmony Street” where Buddhist temples sit next to Hindu ones and Mosques and Churches are their neighbours.
It’s hot and it’s humid so there is only so much walking you can do in a day and Penang is way, way bigger than we imagined so, in between trying to cram in as much as possible, we have also just lounged around on terraces or poolside with cocktails.
Highlights? I loved the Peranakan Green Mansion.
Well, when I say I loved it, I mean I loved the experience although I certainly did not like the collection of stuff it was filled with. I have decided the old Malay style is not Maroulla style. Like the food and like the city it is a complete mish mash of everything. Places are literally overflowing with things (which, yes is very much like my home) but there seems to be little finesse or style here.
That brings me on to our hotel. After recounting our Great Escape from the E&O on our last blog here, so many of you contacted us to ask if we were ok…… I think we need to be clear here. The E&O is far from one of those countries and places Trump has recently described as shit holes! It’s a five star hotel and the views are mind-blowing and the suites were elegant and spacious and had freestanding baths on marble tiled floors etc etc.
BUT the clientele were more Butlins than five star with behaviour that matched. Just not us.
So, where we are now. Seven Terraces This is small. Its a conversion of a row of the shop houses so very typical of the area. And it’s overflowing with Peranakan stuff – some real but some repro. It’s decor does not sit comfortably with me but staying here is a joy. The staff are staggeringly friendly and helpful and you really do feel you are in someone’s home as a guest. The rooms are quirky. We started off in one apartment then got moved to the star attraction – huge day beds, terraces, rain showers, freestanding baths………
Just being here is a highlight.
I also adored one particular bar, The Golden Shower (yep, truly!)
A speakeasy that looks like it’s the sort of bathroom showroom Trump might visit is its front – then a graffiti black room – then this expanse of ultra chic calm pink. The barmen look like Calvin Klein models.
And the cocktails were utterly divine.
Food-wise, we tried the street food but decided we are all too old, too urban and too boring for it! We preferred Kebaya in our hotel but my favourites were China House for tea, a ramshackle warehouse that oozed cool with art and cake and quiche and an Italian called Jaloux with whitewashed walls and minimal art and pasta better than found in Italia. We also stumbled upon a very real cafe called Gala Cafe which was just adorable – we had a few drinks there and sat on the pavement and it felt very true Penang – dinner there tonight.
Also definitely worth a visit is the old cemetery where Francis Light is buried – although whilst we were there we saw something which broke my heart. On one of the tombs were someone’s bed made from cardboard boxes and their possessions in a plastic carrier bag. The E&O loomed over and the contrast between homelessness and 5 star hotels with people cramming canapés and cocktails into their mouths was stark.
The cemetery is next to the Blue Mansion. a stunningly restored house worth a look at although the tour was not worth it in my opinion.
The Bay View Hotel is about as tacky as they come but the bar at the top has 360 degree views of the sea and the city which are to die for.
So, is it a city you love or hate? Just like everything else here, it’s both – and a lot more.
I really sometimes wonder about myself. I think it’s something to do with History and Geography ‘O’ Level. I was never very good at them. All those facts. Just scraped through History – but failed Geography, largely because I looked in horror at the pile of exercise books on the eve of the exam and decided to chuck them away. I haven’t thrown away my Lonely Planet or Eyewitness guides – they’re great – full of really handy facts and tips. But, truth to tell, even in those books my heart beats in a kind of Method acting or Marcel Proust response when I embark upon reading the fact-y bits. I do read them, but my inner Geography revision self mentally chucks those paragraphs away.
So for some reason the preconceived image I had of Penang was totally off the wall.
Knowing it was a UNESCO World Heritage Site (mind you – what isn’t these days), my mind’s eye saw another Luang Prabang, Hoi An, Fort Cochin or Galle Fort – quaintly saved and preserved – through a looking glass into an exquisite experience of the past. I thought – for some dumb reason – that all the modern schmuck was on the mainland and the ferry or bridge would whisk us off to an island of exquisiteness. All I have to say is “Derr…”
Yes, there is quaint. Yes, there are the converted shop houses. Yes, there is the Blue Mansion – which has become a sort of icon for Penang’s UNESCO-ness…
… But the UNESCO thing is like a giant Band Aid.
The truth of the matter is – my learning curve – that Penang is an urban conglomeration with a population of 1,750,000 – and most of it and them are on the island. Thank heavens the intervention took place when it did in 2008 – otherwise it might have been too late. There are unspeakably ugly high-rise buildings that seem to want to elbow the old, low-lying, characterful terraces away. The famous Blue Mansion itself is squooshed amongst 60s ugliness.
That’s always cunningly Photoshop-ed out in the guide books and postcards. In fact, when we went on our drive to the coast the other day to me the edges of the city felt like a city in Mid-West America – towering hotels and office buildings and just surviving at their feet a handful of colonial-style houses turned into beauty salons or cafés.
But I am so glad we came and so glad we spent 7 nights here.
That would be my personal tip to anyone considering a visit here – stay a week.
It gradually grows on you. And there is quaint and exquisite and whatever you might call it. Love Lane, Muntri Street etc. – adorable. Hats off to Christopher Ong, for example – a native of Penang and now returned and personally doing so much to restore and re-beautify some of the city’s past glories. The Seven Terraces where we ended up staying (thank God!) is just one of a number of hotels he has magicked out of decayed buildings – Georgetown Heritage + Hotels. And clearly many other people are making similar efforts. There’s still a way to go.
But it’s early days.
If my initial reaction was that of the surprised, shocked, failed Geography ‘O’ Level student – the preconception jarring cacophonously with reality – my feeling at the end of the week is one of affection and warmth. We had a whole week, in which to pootle round and explore and discover and relax and take it all in – and it was worth it and I totally understand why people who have been to Penang rave about it and encourage others to put it on their bucket list. I’m one of those people now.