Penang on a Budget (Part 1)

Old / Modern.

Satellite dish on a Penang shophouse

Penang Old and Modern

Prosperous / Budget.

Bustling, noisy, energetic, dirty / Quiet, peaceful, meditative, clean.

Late. Frustration / Early. Satisfied.

These are all adjectives I would use to describe my time in Penang recently. Penang is such a city of contrasts that sometimes it is hard to put your finger to what makes this city work so well. When I was here this time, I came looking with different eyes.

And what I saw gave me a new perspective on this city that I love.

A different visit

My father’s family is from Penang and I’ve been to Penang countless times, eaten really well there and visited with my family every time I was there. This time, however, the visit was different. Thanks to our friend Cyril at Sarawak Bloggers, I had been invited by Project Penang and the Ministry of Tourism Malaysia Penang Office to join 9 other regional bloggers on a trip out to Penang and experience it as budget travelers. Unfortunately, they couldn’t invite both me and Nate, and since I had some free time available, I got to go solo.

I actually knew this would be an interesting visit for me. You know how when you’re a local, you NEVER do the touristy thing and visit all the interesting sites in your own backyard? Well, that is how it is with me and Penang.

Goddess of Mercy Temple, Penang

Penang Goddess of Mercy Temple

Ask me about food and I can tell you about the ones we go to with our families (some also generally popular to all, but many which are more familiar to the locals) but ask me about interesting places to visit in Penang and you’ll find me stumped. I’d venture to say go out to Batu Feringghi for the beaches or to Gurney Drive to walk along the beach there and enjoy the food (but then again, these are things I’ve never really done myself in a long while!).

But ask me about Georgetown, the heart of Penang, and I have no clue at all about the many things you could see and do there. I mean, this is the city that has been placed on UNESCO’s world heritage sites, a place of great historical and cultural significance and yet, I know almost nothing about it.

Georgetown, Penang Historical Sites

Penang Historical Attractions

Sure, the buildings are beautiful and quaint. But I grew up in that surrounding, always taking them for granted and never really seeing the beauty in them. So this trip opened my eyes to the fact that Georgetown is an amazing city–vibrant, full of contrasts, colors and sounds.

Garlands in Little India, Penang

Garlands at Penang Little India

It gave me a new appreciation for my home away from home. If before, I would always recommend Penang for its foods, I would now say it has the added advantage of being a city full of beauty, not just in the old and beautifully preserved architecture, but also in the living heritage of arts, culture, and crafts that make Penang a unique stop for those who want a taste of the past mingled with the purpose and focus of the present and future.

Taste of living heritage in Penang

Penang Living Heritage

So how does Penang work? Why does it work? What is the secret to its success as a city?

Old / Modern

Penang has successfully brought itself into the future with many developments in the city and throughout the island. When I arrived and was driven to the hotel, I realized that Penang is a booming city. There are many new developments all over–new roads and highways, new buildings, shopping malls, houses. In fact, my uncle’s neighbourhood used to be very run down but lately (with the hike in housing prices), his neighbourhood is seeing a surge of new owners with money to spend and many houses have been renovated giving the area a newer feel with beautiful houses taking over dilapidated old houses.

At the same time, as we approached the city, I realized that many of the old shophouses still retained the facades and structures from a long time ago. Even though some had been given a facelift with new paint and restored fixtures, they still kept their quaint, traditional look.

Penang shophouse being refurbished

Refurbishing a Penang Shophouse

I used to take this for granted but during this trip, I was reminded that it took money and rules to ensure that the “look” that was Penang would not be lost to modernism. Another blogger from Singapore helped me to understand how precious this heritage was when he commented that so much of what we see in Penang used to exist in Singapore as well. They, along with Malacca, were part of the British "Straits Settlements" but so much of what they tried to preserve in Singapore has become so “white-washed” as to appear fake.

Penang has managed to retain the authenticity and ambience of the buildings by not cleaning it up too much. The paint is not too white, nor are the tiles cleaned up to extreme pristine-ness. There is definitely this feeling of old history as you walk the tiled sidewalks (when you find them!) along the storefronts in Georgetown.

Penang sidewalk scenes

Penang Sidewalk Scenes

Georgetown is a city made for strolling. Take your time as you walk down these streets. Appreciate the details you see. The buildings are just one thing, there is also the mingling of people (the clothes they wear, the things they do) and again you will see this contrast of old versus modern.

Penang’s Friendly Faces

Friendly Penang Faces

This budget trip was focused mainly on Georgetown and I realized that so much of the city could be seen on foot, SHOULD be seen that way as the colours, sights and sounds would be best appreciated on foot. In the coming posts, I will give you more details on some of the places I visited.

Cheers, Annie

My budget trip to Penang was sponsored by Project Penang, the Ministry of Tourism Malaysia Penang Office, and AirAsia. Though the itinerary was set for us, my reflections and opinions are entirely my own. Follow along as I explore Georgetown, Penang and see my “home away from home” with new eyes. Subscribe to our blog and get the latest updates sent free to your email Inbox or RSS reader!

Visit some of the other bloggers who joined us on this trip (written in Chinese): OMG~~, 寫攝人Celia的『C遊幗度』, :: 钪凯 ::

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20 Comments Post a Comment
  1. I’ve only been to Penang one time, but I loved everything about it (and especially the food). I took hundreds of photos there; the architecture, both new and old, was stunning. How lucky you are to get there so often.

    • Nate says:

      Lydia

      With Penang only a direct, 2-hour flight away from Kuching via AirAsia, we try to go at least once a year. This year we have been fortunate to go 3 times!

  2. sophia says:

    I’ve been to Penang a few times. Always a joy. I really hope I get the chance to visit one day again.

  3. Glow says:

    I know what you mean about not knowing where to bring them. I’m from Seremban but now based near penang. All I know are SOME eating places but when it came to tourist attractions, I was stumped! Perhap tourism Penang can give out pamplets with a day travel plan charted out so one who is lost can just follow in the most efficient way from point A to B to C?

  4. Annie – so great that you got to go to Penang, as a tourist. It’s only when you see the place as a tourist that you will find Penang to be such an amazing place. It has all the tourism assets to make it a very popular destination. Can’t wait to read all about it. :)

    • Nate says:

      Bee

      It’s funny that you almost have to play tourist in order to fully appreciate the place you live in. We will try to do our best to provide that outside-inside perspective. We wish for everyone to enjoy and fall in love with Penang ;-)

  5. It will be awesome if your family move to Penang one day…we will be future neighbors. Ahhh. :)

  6. Vincent Yu says:

    Hi Annie,
    such a great post and love it so much.

  7. Jessica Tan says:

    I would like to wish you a very blessed 2012 and believe your paths are dripped with abundance in health happiness and wealth! Thank you for being such real bloggers and I really enjoy reading all of your posts and have book marked so many things I will be trying out!

  8. Caroline says:

    I love how you contrast it! Totally impressed by the way u write it! :D:D Nice meeting u at there and…. I MISS U!!! :(

  9. Pearly says:

    Thank you for a well written page about Penang. Lovely photos Nate.

    Do come again and I share share Nyonya cooking with you.

    • Nate says:

      Pearly –

      thanks for your comment! The photos and text were done by Annie, all the way.

      If and when we do get back to Penang, we’d love to take a cooking class at Tropical Spice Garden.

      • Pearly says:

        You are most welcome. Funny, I did not get a reply thru the mail until I happen to browse some keywords.
        Do write, ya.

  10. Brenda says:

    read comments avidly, visiting Penang for first time in March,
    we always try and walk everywhere to see things you might miss otherwise and meet the locals,
    loved discovering Kuching this way last year

    • Nate says:

      Brenda,

      I’m sure you’ll have a lovely time. Be sure to check out the Project Penang and Visit Penang websites for more info about Georgetown.

      What was your favorite Kuching discovery?

  11. You guys are one of my favorite bloggers–you know that. That’s why I’d like to give you the Liebster Blog Award. I’ve linked to your site from my latest post. Please come to my site for the details.

    Thanks for being such an inspiration!

    Alaiyo

  12. What lovely photos. I might have been to Penang years and years ago, but this was during my childhood and I don’t remember it all very well. I’d love to go there again one day.

  13. I can’t wait! Just 2 more weeks.. Eeeeek!

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My Photo Annie is mistress of the kitchen while Nate is the master of the grill and smoker. We cook the homestyle Asian and Hawaiian foods of our younger days while also exploring the wider worlds of Western foods.

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