Discerning Penang

15 Feb 2017
4 min read
How to enjoy Penang to the fullest – from its spicy flavours, complex food ordering system at a hawker centre, culture, habits, weather, right up to its inhabitants’ driving tactics – here’s an insider’s guide by Su Aziz.

Penang is one of Malaysia’s 13 states and is divided in two parts – a large, long piece of land on the north part of the peninsula and an island. This vibrant and thriving tourist destination is a body of contradictions but in a charming way. Staying true to its origins as a busy, flourishing trading port in the 18th century, Penang today is still a port but has blossomed into a 21st century metropolis with a convenient infrastructure. Its 1.6 million inhabitants (at last count) stay trueto old school traditions with a high amount of multiculturalism and multiple religious beliefs, which mingleeffortlessly with modern lifestyles. The best way to paint a picture of Penang is perhaps through this quick guide. So, let’s begin:

Managing Penang’s riot of flavours

Firstly, know what your tolerance level for spiciness is. Flavours are authentic in Penang and you’ll do well knowing that Indian curries are generally spicy, sambal can be hair-raising spicy while stir-fried Chinese food such as char koay teow are safe for delicate taste buds. Rule of thumb is, the fair-coloured dishes are mild and the warm-hued ones are wonderfully explosive in flavour. When in doubt, stick to the fair-coloured dishes because you can add and increase spiciness with sliced chilli steeping in light soy sauce or sambal served on the side. When in need of places to eat recommendations from locals, be ready for an exhaustive debate fuelled by passion equivalent to the English when discussing the EPL, if not more. Just remember, there was a good reason why CNNGo listed Penang as one of Asia’s 10 greatest food cities.

Understanding Penang’s multi-culturalism

Be ready for a seemingly complicated and intricate tapestry of many cultures. At first they may seem to overlap but there is really an age-old, admirable but invisible way that they exist parallel with each other. This harmonious existence between the different cultures stemmed from high tolerance of their ancestors centuries ago and continues till today. Penang has a lot to thank for this melting pot of cultures. Mainly, this mix has resulted in global admiration of Penang food, architecture and its receptive, amiable people – just don’t bring up the subject of what you think of the street food in Ipoh, Malacca or Kuala Lumpur are better. Trust us, you don’t want to find out. Bear in mind,The Guardian listed Penang as number eight in its top 40 holiday hotspots not a year ago.

Manoeuvering Penang roads

Penang’s capital city consists of a complex artery of narrow lanes and congested roads. This is because it’s an old city. Well, it’s a little over 200 years old. Rather aged for Malaysian standards! Back then in the 18th century, George Town’s roads were mainly for bicycles and trishaws. Luckily, its charm hasn’t faded in time and it has been listed as a UNESCO heritage site since 2008. So, as you can imagine, parking is limited within the heritage area and to decrease congestion, there’s a reasonably well thought out public transportation available to virtually every (main) corners of the island and mainland. Where the buses or trishaws don’t go, a good pair of legs or a two-wheeled vehicle can take you there. Cycling’s still a favourite form of transportation for many and it has become a popular sport in Penang too.

Communication made easy

In true fact, everybody is multilingual here or at the very least bilingual. English is widely spoken and the national language is Bahasa Malaysia. Since Penang predominantly consists of Chinese, the local Chinese dialect is Hokkien. It may sound gruff at first but there’s also a lot of warmth to it. Knowing a few phrases will certainly help you in ordering the local dishes at a hawker centre in Penang. If all else fails, basic sign language works too – point and smile!

How much is this?ji lei kui lui

Bill, pleasesui siao

Thank youkam siah

Is this spicy?ji lei luak bo

Deliciousho chiak

How are you? ho boh

I am fineho

May I?chia mui

I’m hungrypa tor iao

I don’t want thiswa mai




They ilang

Sorry (or something like it!) – dui bu chu

Appreciating Penang’s weather

It’s the tropics and as you’d imagine, the temperature can hike up a bit what with global warming and all that. Keeping cool in Penang is actually child’s play. Besides the fact that all of the stores and restaurants are air conditioned, desserts such as cendol and ais kacang – both consisting of shaved ice – are ubiquitous in little stalls dotting the place. These two will come in a bowl piled sky high with fine shaved ice, syrup, a splash of milk, nuts and jelly. It’s truly ho chiak! Whereas during cool, rainy days, Penang has plenty of soupy dishes to stave off the chill such as koay teow th’ng, Hokkien noodles and delicately spicy white curry noodles. If all else fails, a tipple or two in one of many bars around Penang or a dip in the sea help too – during warm days, that is.

Truly, trust Yahoo! Travel When they listed Penang as the eighth out of 10 islands to explore before you die. We wholeheartedly concur!

For more on what to see, do and eat, simply log on tomypenang.gov.myand there are also Suggested Itineraries to help you plan your break in Penang.