Penang. It is a small island off the northwest coast of the Malay Peninsula, long referred to as “The Pearl of the Orient”, and known as the Gastronomic Capital of Asia. As a lover of food travel, I’ve had Penang on my radar screen since I saw it on an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations many years ago.
The main city on Penang, George Town, is basically a living museum, as well as a UNESCO heritage site. The buildings, history, and street art are awe-inspiring. As are the tropical breezes coming down many of the streets. George Town also has one of the most impressive collections of street art that I have seen in Asia, especially with how they have been drawn to seamlessly blend in with the surrounding city. Here are a few of my favorites:
Food wise, Penang is well known for its “hawker courts”; open-air covered food courts where dozens upon dozens of food stalls are permanently parked. You go to your desired stall, tell them what you want, and they bring it to your seat. So simple, so easy, and so cheap. Most of them have full and complete meals for $1-$1.50. And it is all so amazing. Malaysian food is the complete crossroads of all Asian cuisine, and it is foodie heaven. The Malay take on pad thai was amazing (char kway teow), as well as the fish head curry, cendol, tai lok mee, and the famous curry mee soup from Sisters Curry Mee. If you love to eat, and having 8-10 small meals per day appeals to you, then Penang will be your culinary heaven. Behold:
Shark fin soup:
Char kway teow:
Cendol, a sweet dessert noodle “soup”:
Tai lok mee, the single best dish I had on my 7 week trip:
And the world famous Curry Mee:
On the other side of the food spectrum, under the guise of “when in Rome”, and somewhat to my own dismay, I also decided that to try durian, the smell notwithstanding. And even though it smells far worse than it tastes, it was…not good. Not good at all. What was far worse, however, was the aftertaste, and worse yet is the lingering taste in your mouth for hours after. And what was even worse than that was the almost nightmare-inducing texture. It was almost like a custard, but one that had a pseudo-gelatinous covering, and was both sticky and somewhat stringy on the inside. And there’s a massive pit in the middle each piece, where the “filling” just kinda sticks onto in little strings, where you’re pulling the little stringy parts off the pit with your teeth. Locals see it as a delicacy to have on special occasions. As for me, I think I am glad I tried it, but won’t be in any hurry to have it again.
One last interesting note about Malaysia is the weather. After high 90s temps and 120+ heat indices in Cambodia and parts of Vietnam, Malaysia was a breath of fresh air. Temps in the upper 80s, heat indices 97-102, and constant light breezes. What would be miserable in the States seemed pleasant after Cambodia. Additionally, as you’re so close to the equator, there’s almost no variation; no cool spells or heat waves. Its just the same every single day. The sun is another issue there; with being almost on the equator you can feel your skin almost start to burn within 2 minutes. Yes, 2 minutes! Thank goodness for sunscreen.
And to top it all off, Penang is a tropical island. And sunsets like these, from Penang’s Batu Ferringhi beach, certainly don’t hurt its cause as a top tourist and traveler destination.
Penang was high on my list for a long time, and it most definitely did not disappoint.
Michael Prodanovich is a contributor to Point Me to the Plane, and author of The Ultimate Guide to Free Travel
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