Thursday, 15 September 2016

Penang-a hidden treasure in Malaysia

An impromptu 48-hour trip over a long weekend turned out to be one of the most fun holidays we have had as a family.  Credit goes to the pace of the place, where we stayed, all that we did (and probably didn’t do). Our dinner table conversation a few days back was a quick family vote on where we could head for an upcoming long weekend break. Some of the favoured ones were Kohsamui, Langkawi, Kuala Lumpur, Medan, Yogyakarta and Penang. The bent was towards Penang and Yogyakarta. Flights and accommodation made our decision a bit easier. So it was Penang!

For the kids, it was all about getting away. For us, we had heard enough about the place from friends- food, culture, the vibe- we had only heard good things. Our trip to Hoi An (Vietnam) last year was memorable and made us realise- small towns, slow pace of life, happy faces are some of the ingredients that makes our holiday enjoyable. Tickets were booked and our search for accommodation took a little longer.

We had two choices- Battu Ferranghi- beach town in Penang (that houses all your famous hotels- Shangri-La, Hard Rock Hotel, etc) or Georgetown- the quainter side of Pe
A typical lane in Georgetown
nang. When you go with young kids, the former should have been our obvious choice. But we decided to take a different turn and look for options in Georgetown. This meant, we were looking for heritage homes (maybe no pool for the kids), no restaurants in the property, no kids club. With few days in hand, we had only a handful of options to choose from. A dear colleague recommended we browse- (a great site for boutique properties in Georgetown).

For those unaware, Georgetown has a long and illustrious history under its belt, is Penang’s capital city and is one of the most interesting and colourful cities in Malaysia. Named after King George III, walking down the streets of Georgetown is like walking through the paths of history. As acknowledgment of its well-preserved cultural and historical heritage, the city was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO on the 7th of July 2008.

So here is a list of all that we did in our 48-hour stay in Penang.
Where to stay
Clove Hall Residence
If you are looking to experience Penang in it’s true sense, choose a heritage/boutique property. You see tonnes of them as you drive along Jalan Burma or the various roads in Georgetown.  We chose Clove Hall Residence, 11, Clove Hall Road (as in the picture) for our stay. Anything I say about this home will not be sufficient. From the owners (Jim and Jo), to the staff, to the ambience, to the décor, to the quaintness, it’s a perfect combination of all elements. The owners of this property will make you feel like a ‘family guest’. From the perfect breakfast laid out in one of the many cosy corners of the garden area, to the freshly brewed coffee you can have day long, the staff will ensure that you are well taken care of.  If you are looking for some privacy, some quiet family time, this home is
a perfect choice. The kids loved the open space, the pool, and the lawns.  I was informed later by the owners that this property was mentioned in reasonable detail in the book titled, “1000 places to see before you die” by Patricia Schultz, 2015, Workman Publishing, New York. 2nd Edition.

Things to do
Day 1
The things you do in Penang can vary depending on what you wish to experience. If you are a foodie, you can spend your whole day just eating the variety of food the place has to offer. If you like sightseeing, there is enough for you to see. We wanted to do a bit of both. We were not keen to stand in long queues, drive long distances etc. A lot of the typical, touristy places went off our list. We stuck to places that were close by and appealed to all (in the family). 

Our adventure started with a lunch at ‘The Little Nyonya Cuisine’- a restaurant popular for its namesake cuisine in Gurney Plaza. The choices on the menu were too many- but everyone finally settled for their favourite. The seafood/fish in this restaurant is a must try. The biggest surprise element for us was a ‘Hindi’ speaking waiter at this restaurant. 

The next hop was Chew Jetty.  Having built on stilts on the shores for the Chew Clan community more than a century and is still now, the Chew Jetty has withstood the test of time and a strong testament of living heritage for Penang and the world to mesmerize.
Chew Jetty
Started merely as a wooden passageway and slowly created into a cluster of houses perched above the sea shores by stilts above the never ending shifting tides, this communal site is locked in a time zone by itself, disregarding the urban development that is taking place around it. A walk down this lane was an eye opener for the kids. 

The biggest attraction of Georgetown is Old Town/ Armenian Street. Lying within the core zone of the Georgetown World Heritage Site, the street is surrounded by Chinese Temples and Clan Houses, as well as the nearby mosques of Acheen Street and Kapitan Keling. The street itself is full of charming shop houses, artists galleries, cafe's and some of the best of Penang's street art can be found around this area. The area is famous for the many murals painted on the walls of the street. A walking lane, it has several pit stops you can make while strolling. The street comes alive with live music and lot of shops on the street. Make sure you hire a rickshaw from one of the many shops and ride it all along the street.
One of the many murals in Old Town

We ended our fun evening with dinner at Chinahouse, a place highly recommended by a friend. Don’t be surprised by the long walk you need to take once inside the restaurant, to find your spot.  With a unique concept, Chinahouse has several restaurants in the same premise. You can choose your table based on the choice of food and ambience you would like. We went for the noisy ‘Canteen’ area. Even before we ordered our main course, our desserts were ordered. This place is known for its cakes. The spread is to die for. So make sure you go slowly on that main course.

Day 2
We decided to venture towards Battu Ferranghi (to see the part of Penang that we chose not to stay at) - 20 minute drive from Georgetown. As you drive down the area, you can see all the beach resorts in a line. This is also where the world’s largest butterfly park is located. Again strongly recommended by friends, this was on our list. We were surprised. Entopia is a tropical sanctuary for the planet’s little denizens from those that fly freely in the sky to the ones that creep stealthily beneath the ground. With plenty to discover from outdoor adventures to cavernous mysteries and a multi-storey Indoor Discovery Centre, there was something for everyone here.

Our lunch stop was a hill-top Thai restaurant in the Tropical Spice Garden (in Battu Ferranghi) called-Tree Monkey. With a bit of a steep climb (by foot), the restaurant offers magnificent views of the ocean and is perfectly set on a tree top. 

There are a few things about Penang that will stay with you for life- the pace of life, the mix of old and new, the choice of food, friendly and helpful people, the white and blue Chinese crockery, white coffee (Penang is famous for), traditional biscuits- Tambun.
The famous white-blue Chinese crockery

With just a few hours left for us to head to the airport, I decide to head to ‘Hong Giap’, one of the oldest antique and crockery stores in Penang. Located on Penang Road, the owner prides in showing me the picture of the store taken 60-years ago (as in the picture). Of course, I made sure I brought back some of the old Chinese white-blue crockery for my home.

As we headed to the airport, each one of us had built our stories from this holiday. If the butterfly park was the highlight for the 4-year old, the murals and the umpteen photographs he clicked were the high points for my husband. The 9-year old thrived riding the rickshaw by herself (and will never forget bumping into her class teacher on a street in Penang) and for me it was the perfect blend of being big yet small, being modern, yet historical. A place where as you walk along, you can see time has stood still. 

Photo courtesy: Aditya Gupta