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48 Hours In Penang

by Karin Chan 2 Aug 2016
48 Hours In Penang

Penang is a wonderland. Besides the renowned quality of its street food and well-preserved heritage buildings, the state also boasts a thriving arts scene and breathtaking natural landscapes alongside state-of-the-art infrastructure to rival any in the nation’s capital.

You could easily spend years here and not get bored, but if you’re pressed for time, our guides Nardya Wray of Campbell House and Pearly Kee of Pearly Homecooks have helped us create an itinerary to condense the best of the Pearl into a scant two days.

Day 1: Nardya’s Itinerary

Even though ‘tourist attractions’ often get a bad rap, I believe that they’ve earned that status for a reason: something there was worth seeing and talking about. Nardya’s itinerary hits all of her favourites on the tourist ‘must-do’ list – with a few hidden gems of her own thrown in.

8.30am – Explore the morning markets at Chowrasta and Kuala Kangsar

“I think all tourists should visit a market when they come here,” says Nardya, and the morning markets at the streets of Chowrasta and Kuala Kangsar are an exciting mix of sights, smells and sounds with fruit, vegetables, snacks, spices and more on sale, while there’s a bustling food area at the back with local fare. Recent refurbishments have made them cleaner and more organised.

10am – Visit the Yap Kongsi and Tua Pek Kong Temples, then the Khoo Kongsi

Armenian Street is where many of the old Chinese clan houses congregate, each grand constructions with breathtaking architecture and religious altars to honour their clan patron deities. The Khoo Kongsi in particular is known not only for its stunning facade but also traditional shows like mask-changing, stilt-walking and dragon dancing, usually held on the last weekend of the month.

11.30am – Check out street art on Armenian Street and local artists’ galleries

If you’re familiar with Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic’s street art, you’ll find three pieces on Armenian Street: ‘This Old Man’, ‘Despicable Me Minions’, and the famous ‘Little Children on a Bicycle’. Galleries by local artists can also be found here, including a glasswork gallery of lamps, bowls and sculptures by Wong Keng Fuan, as well as Howard Tan’s abstract photography gallery StudioHoward.

12.45pm – Head down to the Lee Jetty

As we head to Penang’s clan jetties, where Chinese immigrants used to make their homes, Nardya eschews the more famous Chew Jetty for the “cleaner, prettier and less commercial” Lee Jetty. She’s not wrong: the colourful decorations don’t detract from the rustic charm of the wood-plank homes on stilts, and the view of the fishing boats and the floating temple from the jetty’s end makes for a tranquil scene.

1.30pm – Lunchtime at Restoran Kapitan, Little India

Little India is exactly as Roberto, Nardya’s husband, describes: “It’s loud, it’s colourful, it’s full of the smell of incense and the sound of bhangra music, colourful material hanging from the shops and jewellery makers making jewellery on the streets.” Restoran Kapitan is Nardya’s go-to for excellent naan bread and tandoori chicken – both of which arrive piping hot and generously portioned.

2.15pm – Visit the Pinang Peranakan Mansion

With a startling mint-green exterior, you can’t miss this museum on Church Street. A stunning recreation of a rich Baba’s home – Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee – it boasts antique wooden furniture, inlaid gold decor, stained glass pieces and an ancestral temple out back, and the free guided tours add a new dimension towards understanding their significance.

4pm – Head up to Penang Hill and The Habitat

We head up to Penang Hill via a steeply inclined funicular tram to take sweeping panoramas of the Penang skyline at the viewing deck, admire colourful birds at the Bellevue Ginger Gardens and Aviary and relax on benches at the cliffside Panorama Terrace. Other attractions include a mosque, a Hindu temple and The Habitat, a new nature exhibit with treetop and canopy walks as well as nature trails.

8pm – Get dinner at Tek Sen Restaurant

For dinner at Tek Sen Restaurant on Lebuh Carnavon, call ahead to book and show up on time. This half-century-old Chinese restaurant is a firm local favourite and is consistently packed. They’ll take your order before seating you – our recommendations are the popular double cooked roast pork belly, steamed egg with salted duck egg and century egg and the stir-fried prawns with tamarind sauce.

Day 2: Pearly's Itinerary

Having already hit up many of the tourist hotspots, it’s now time to venture off the beaten track and see Penang through a local’s eyes – in this case, Pearly’s – to gain a real insider’s perspective on the island.

7am – Visit the Penang Botanical Gardens

Set at the foot of majestic mountains some way out from George Town, the beautiful 133-year-old Penang Botanical Gardens serve as an exercise hub for locals. Huffing joggers and cheeky monkeys pass us as we admire the 'cannonball trees' flanking the roads – so named for their distinctive round fruits. Pearly loves going for walks here and occasionally even joins in with the exercises!

8.30am – Hit the Pulau Tikus Wet Market for peanut pancakes and string hoppers

This wet market is one of Pearly’s favourites and is where she brings her cooking classes to teach them about the benefits of traditional ingredients like ginger and turmeric. Her must-taste recommendations here are the fluffy yet crunchy apam balik or peanut pancake and Uncle Joe’s fresh putu mayam, a snack of pandan-scented rice vermicelli, grated coconut and palm sugar.

9.30am – Visit the Colonial Penang Museum

A collection of giant tree roots and white columns surrounds this ornate bungalow, where over 1,000 rare artefacts are on show here from the Ma family’s private collection as symbols of the extravagant lifestyles of the rich during colonial rule. We rubbed a wooden black tiger’s head for luck, admired colourful stained glass art and read a handwritten document by Captain Francis Light on a guided tour.

12pm – Lunchtime at Air Itam

Located at the centre of Penang Island, Air Itam – where Pearly used to live – is a good stop for lunch before heading on to Kek Lok Si. Her recommendation is the Air Itam wet market food court, where she swears by the sour-spicy Penang assam laksa made by a blind and deaf man, as well as the egg tarts from the nearby Sin Ka Oon Cake House and Bakery, an established local confectionery.

1.30pm – Drive up the hill to the Kek Lok Si Temple

The iconic Kek Lok Si Temple (Temple of Supreme Bliss) is nearly synonymous with Penang, and up close, the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia is even more impressive. The seven-storey Pagoda of Rama VI with 10,000 Buddha statues and the 30m tall bronze statue of Kuan Yin, Goddess of Mercy, tower over us as we wander the grounds, offer prayers and admire the view of Penang.

2.30pm – Go street art hunting in Balik Pulau

A trip out to the western side of Penang will see the landscape turn more rural with serene paddy fields, durian and nutmeg farms, and fishing villages. Recently, huge street murals painted on pre-war buildings by Ernest Zacharevic and Russian artist Julia Volchkova drew attention to the area, with Pearly’s favourite being Ernest’s ‘reverse graffiti’ mural of a local silversmith, painted only with water.

4pm – Tea time at Toh Soon Cafe

If you’re craving a cup of good coffee, it’s said that the best is found at Toh Soon Cafe, Pearly’s favourite breakfast stop. Rich and smooth, the homemade Hainan coffee takes centre stage here but its co-stars of soft boiled egg and charcoal oven-toasted kaya toast receive equally rave reviews. If the often hour-long wait for breakfast is too daunting, it’s good for afternoon tea too! It’s closed on Sundays.

7pm – Dinner at Kimberley Street

Kimberley Street is just one of the many popular food streets that make up Penang, and there’s no shortage of delicious hawker stall fare to try here to end your trip on a high note. The koay chap stall (“absolutely delicious rice soup topped with pork or duck meat, its blood, duck intestines, Chinese parsley, soy-braised tofu and soy-braised hard boiled egg”, according to Pearly) is worth a try for the adventurous – it might sound intimidating, but don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!

For the full article, pick up a copy of the August 2016 issue of Expatriate Lifestyle – out in stores now!

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