“I feel just like I’m in China.”
It’s a sentiment I’ve heard often since I arrived in Penang a couple of weeks ago, both from travelers like me who’ve only dreamt of going and from students who’ve studied in China for years. One of my hostel friends here has lived in Shanghai for the past five years. Walking around Georgetown on our way to dinner the other night, she spoke in Chinese at seemingly every other hawker cart we checked out. China feels, indeed!
It should come as no surprise. Along with Melaka, Georgetown was awarded a UNESCO Heritage Site listing in 2008 for its multicultural Malay, Chinese, Indian and European heritage. Deemed the Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca — how’s that for a fairytale name? — Georgetown and Melaka were both major trading centers in colonial Southeast Asia, melting pots where migrants from across Asia mingled to produce the unique cultural and architectural landscape they are famous for. Today, China’s influence on Penang is unmissable.
Exploring Penang over the past few weeks has shown me just how profound Penang’s Chinese heritage truly is. Many of Penang’s most famous attractions represent the legacies of the Chinese who migrated here; so, too, do many of its lesser-known treasures. These are some of my favorite experiences in Penang so far, five ways to dig into Georgetown’s UNESCO-celebrated cultural heritage.
1. Start your day with a traditional kopitiam breakfast.
More than almost anywhere else I’ve traveled, Penang is a total foodie destination. Its diverse heritage crops up in rows of street food stalls, in spicy-sweet bowls of asam laksa and crowded hawker centers. In traditional kopitiams (translation: coffee shops), Chinese and British colonial influences collide. When the Brits brought coffee, the Hainanese Chinese working in their households adopted the drink but with their own twist, straining the kopi (coffee) through cloth socks and adding sugar. In their take on a classic toast-and-eggs breakfast, thick slices of bread were toasted over charcoal while eggs were soft-boiled and served with soy sauce and pepper. Decadent kaya, a thick jam made with eggs, coconut cream and pandan, gives this traditional brekkie a sweet edge.
Historically, kopitiams were the center of daily life for Hainanese migrants throughout Malaysia and Singapore. Today, they remain popular meeting places for simple, traditional breakfasts. If you’re after atmosphere, Toh Soon Cafe is your best bet. A tiny shop occupying a narrow alley, this cafe is the most popular of Penang’s traditional kopitiams with tourists. During peak breakfast hours, you can count on there being a queue outside. The coffee, I thought, was unremarkable, but my eggs and toast were pretty satisfying. More than anything else, it was the bustling, old-school vibe of Toh Soon that I really enjoyed.
While I loved the traditional feel of Toh Soon Cafe, I had a feeling I could find some better kopi. After an impulsive Google search one morning, I ended up at Nam Kie, a kopitiam that’s been operating out of a seriously unassuming old building on Kimberley Street for 80+ years. If you’re looking for the most delicious version of a classic kopitiam breakfast, this is where you want to be. The coffee was delicious, the eggs as runny as they come and the homemade kaya the best I’ve ever had. If eggs and toast is too boring for you, they serve up traditional Hainanese fried noodles here as well.
Notes for Visiting: Toh Soon Cafe (184 Campbell Street) is open 8am-6pm everyday but Sunday (when it’s closed). Get there before 8 or after 10:30-ish if you don’t want to wait. Nam Kie (116 Kimberley Street) is also open during the day. Order kopi for traditional hot coffee made with sweetened condensed milk, kopi-o for black coffee with sugar and kopi-o kosong for coffee without milk or sugar. If you’d prefer it iced, add “peng” to the end of any of those. For tea, the same applies with “teh.”
2. Explore Georgetown’s historic Chinese clan jetties.
Georgetown’s clan jetties date back to some of the earliest Chinese migrants to arrive in the city. The jetties are organized into distinct communities, each bearing a Chinese surname representing the families who settled there and whose descendents continue to live in the rows of homes built along the jetties today, many generations later.
I explored the jetties early one morning, beating both the heat and the opening of the souvenier shops (which I’ve heard tourists complain about around Chew Jetty in particular). At first, I felt weird wandering down the jetties with my camera in hand — yes, they’re an important part of Georgetown’s UNESCO listing and travelers are encouraged to visit, but they’re also people’s homes. I felt almost intrusive walking around as people woke up and started their days, watering the plants on their front porches and lighting incense in the spirit houses posted by their front doors. My unease wore off quickly when I realized that almost every person I passed greeted me with a smile and “good morning” — clearly, they were used to this. I spent several hours that morning strolling around the jetties and taking photos, stopping at a hawker court for a breakfast of steaming hokkien mee with fluffy veggie bao on the side. It was peaceful and beautiful, my most perfect morning in Penang so far.
Notes for Visiting: The jetties are located by the ferry terminal off of Pengkalan Weld. They are at their prettiest in the morning and early evening.
3. Get a dose of Chinese history at Penang’s Sun Yat Sen Museum.
As it turns out, China didn’t just influence Penang. Georgetown also played a small but important role in China’s own history, serving as a temporary home for Dr. Sun Yat Sen, known as the father of modern China. An old townhouse at 120 Armenian Street served as the Southeast Asian headquarters for his underground resistance movement, and it was here that the Huanghuagang (or Second Guangzhao) Uprising was planned.
I’ll be honest: the museum doesn’t really offer more than an introduction to Dr. Sun Yat Sen, focusing mostly on the specifics of his campaign in Penang. (In fact, the museum’s website covers most of the history on display.) I mostly walked away with the sense that he was here, and that his work in Penang was important. The real draw of this museum is the building itself, a heritage townhouse over 140 years old. Having grown up in one of those HGTV-obsessed families, I absolutely loved getting to check out the interior of this beautifully restored home. We also got the chance to get to know Kenny, who must be the friendliest museum staff in the whole world. Besides sharing his passion for Georgetown’s history with us, he also had us pose for photos he snapped on our iPhones. For me, sitting around the courtyard talking to Kenny over a cup of tea was the best part of our visit here.
Notes for Visiting: The Sun Yat Sen Museum (120 Armenian Street) is open 9:30-5:30 daily. Admission is RM5 (just over $1 USD) and includes complimentary tea — the perfect opportunity to sit and enjoy the atmosphere in this beautiful old building!
4. Get a taste of the good life at the Perenakan Museum.
The Perenakan Museum is one of Georgetown’s most popular attractions, and for good reason — this mansion is absolutely stunning! Built at the end of the 19th century, this former home home has been restored to all of its former glory as a typical Perankan house. Known also as Babas, Nyonyas and Straits Chinese, the Peranakans are a community of Chinese who settled in the British colonial centers of Singapore, Penang and Malacca, adopting both local Malay culture and the British colonial lifestyle. Today, the mansion houses an incredible collection of old antiques, from opulent furniture set with mother-of-pearl inlay to rooms full of porcelain and glass epergnes. In additional to the three floors of the mansion itself, the museum is home to a gorgeous ancestral temple and the Straits Chinese Jewelery Museum.
I spent a solid two hours wandering around the old mansion. The central courtyard made a pretty spectacular first impression, but for me the greatest beauty was in the details: the old vintage clothes hanging in the old wardrobes, the sparkling mirrors, the colorful vases and — most of all — the old family portraits lining the walls. Each and every detail evoked what daily life must have been like for the wealthy living in turn-of-the-century Penang, offering a tangible glimpse into history.
Notes for Visiting: The Penang Perankan Museum (29 Church Street) is open daily 9:30-5:30 and costs about RM 22 (just over $5 USD) to visit. It’s located in the Little India neighborhood, full of amazing places to eat if you want to plan your visit around lunch.
5. Visit Penang’s most famous temple, Kek Lok Si.
In Southeast Asia, I’ve learned to be selective about the temples I visit. It’s not that I don’t love exploring them — I do! — but that I fear getting “templed out” the way so many of my friends have backpacking around the region. When I visit a temple, I want to relish every bit of it — I hate the idea of feeling jaded in such special places.
Trust me when I say that Kek Lok Si is a temple worth visiting. This Chinese Buddhist temple is easily Penang’s most famous, situated on a hillside with an amazing view of the island below. I visited late in the day, and I’m happy I did — the concrete maze of souvenier shops and construction leading up to the temple had quieted down and the late afternoon light set the whole temple aglow. Kek Lok Si has two main draws. The first is the towering Kuan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) statue, which stands nearly 40 meters high overlooking Penang and requires a ride on the funicular to visit. The other is the temple’s famous cream and gold pagoda, which incorporates Chinese, Thai and Burmese styles. I wasn’t able to see the inside of the pagoda — I’m not sure if it was closed because of the time or because of preparations for the upcoming Chinese New Year — but even from below, it’s spectacular. What really impressed me, though, were the temple’s bright colors and lush gardens. Of all the temples I’ve visited, I think that this was one of the most beautiful.
Notes for Visiting: To visit Kek Lok Si, you’ll need to hire a scooter, tak a taxi or catch one of the public buses — routes 203 and 204 will take you to Air Itam (where the temple is located) from Georgetown. There isn’t a cost to visit the temple, but the funicular ride to see the Kuan Yin statue was RM3 (about $.75) and I’ve read that the pagoda also costs RM2 (about $.50). You might also consider having lunch around the big market where the bus drops you off.
This post is sponsored by the amazing Georgetown hostel House of Journey. While I’m doing some work in exchange for accomodation here (an opportunity available to all guests at House of Journey), all opinions are strictly my own — I loved it so much when I arrived that I decided to stick around for a few weeks! If you’re looking for a hostel in Georgetown, I highly recommend House of Journey. You can make a booking through Hostelworld..