Old / Modern.
Satellite dish on a Penang shophouse
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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!