Fortune-seekers from China, Europe and India have been drawn to this Malaysian island for more than two centuries, and along with local Malays they have created an eclectic mix that can feel both seductively familiar and exotic at the same time.
The colonial capital they’ve left behind oozes a hauntingly rustic charm, with colourful street art as much a draw as the historical architecture and one of South-East Asia’s tastiest street food scenes.
Wander the old town
There are plenty of tourist-friendly stretches of sand if that’s what you’re looking for. The most popular are along the resort strip of Batu Ferringhi on the island’s northern coast.
Where Penang really shines, though, is in the scrappy but alluring lanes of the provincial capital George Town. Its historical centre is listed along with Melaka, another enchanting Malaysian city further down the coast, on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Although founded by the British as a trading hub, Penang has strong Chinese influences, the legacy of waves of migrants who settled here for work generations ago.
Craftsmen still tinker away in Chinese-signposted shophouses nestled up against busy dragon-topped temples swaddled in incense, and gather for rounds of mahjong as the sun sets.
“Penang people … are very slow and very relaxed. We are living on a small island so we are happy with the situation,” explains local artist Ch’ng Kiah Kiean, who grew up in the shadow of a traditional Chinese clan meeting hall known as a kongsi.
“We still keep a simple lifestyle in George Town.”
A handful of restored heritage buildings such as the Penang Peranakan Mansion and the grand Khoo Kongsi clan house offer glimpses into how Chinese immigrants both shaped and were influenced by their adopted home.
Soak up street art
Less than a decade ago, it was George Town’s tumbledown architecture and umbrella-topped cycle rickshaws that first caught visitors’ eyes.
Turn a corner these days and you’re more likely than not to be wowed by some selfie-inspiring street art slowly fading away in the tropical sun.
On this multi-ethnic island, it is perhaps no surprise that some of the most popular were produced by an outsider, Lithuanian Ernest Zacharevic, who was inspired enough by George Town to put down roots.
“It was very fresh for me – to see all these walls and textures and inspirations that I get there,” he said.
“There’s just something charming about it. It’s a place which is hard to forget.”
Other pieces to look out for are the more than four dozen cartoonish steel-rod sculptures by Malaysian artists detailing local history, including one memorialising Penang-born shoemaker Jimmy Choo, and a mural of a larger-than-life Indian boatman by Russian artist Julia Volchkova.
Feeling inspired? Rozana Mohamed runs classes teaching the traditional art of batik painting from her studio on Lebuh Aceh . Sessions start from as little as 35 ringgit ($A10) for one hour, materials included.
Eat on the street
Even by the standards of South-East Asia – a region that spawned pad Thai and Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches – the street food of Penang stands out. Part of what makes it so good is the mishmash of cultures that have left their mark on this island.
Start the day with Indian roti canai, a flaky flatbread served with curry. Or try a true Malaysian favourite, nasi lemak – a mound of coconut-infused rice plus peanuts, crispy anchovies, sweet chili sauce and a hard-boiled egg, served with or without meat. It’s an odd combination – often wrapped in a grab-and-go banana leaf parcel – that works amazingly well.
Wash it down like the locals do with a strong iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk.
From there it’s on to a parade of Chinese-inspired stir-fried noodle dishes. Char kway teow, made with flat rice noodles, sausage, shrimp, cockles and eggs, is a must-try staple that’s easy to find.
Mee goreng, another fried noodle dish, is sweeter and can have a subtle Indian curry kick, while the famous laksa noodle soup is all about the sour and spice.
None of the dishes costs much more than 6 ringgit ($A2). One you’ll struggle to find? The similarly named Penang curry, which is more associated with neighboring Thailand.
Getting there: Malaysia Airlines offers flights from Australia to Penang via Kuala Lumpur. Penang International Airport is 18km south of George Town. There are also regular bus and train services from the mainland to Penang island.
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