Penang: George Town Wanderings

We spent a month in Penang and had many opportunities to bus or Grab into town and wander (our home was in Miami Green, about 10km from the center of George Town). This post provides a little taste of our month of exploration.

For specific activities that I thought warranted their own post, see the following:

Street art

There are two popular collections of street art in Penang (PDF brochure). The first, created in 2012, is a series of murals painted by a young Lithuanian artist, Ernest Zacharevic. Though these 8 images are fading and eroding, they are frequently photographed and sometimes blocked by tourists posing with the characters and 3D objects that are integrated into the images.

The second collection, also begun in 2012 but ongoing, called Marking George Town, is a series of 52 (with about 24 installed so far) iron caricature sculptures that provide a humourous look at the history of each area in which they are installed.

In addition to these two collections, street art seems to pop up everywhere, indoors and out. The China House, a local cafe/bakery/bar, even provides an art space (Art Lane) a few doors down from their busy location where muralists find a supportive environment for their work.

Clan jetties

The Clan Jetties comprise 6 remaining historical piers along the waterfront in George Town. These were originally built and occupied by harbour workers. They eventually became separated by clan or family groupings. The Chew Jetty, by all accounts, offers the most interest to visitors. We walked down the jetty, through little shops selling souvenirs, ice cream, and sweets to the end of the jetty, which offers interesting views of Penang and boats anchored in the harbour.

Temples, mosques, and churches

I have written about some temples in separate posts (Thaipusam, Kek Lok Si), but there are beautiful temples, mosques, and churches everywhere.

Across the street (Lorong Burma) from each other are two Buddhist temples. We visited a reclining Buddha at the Thai Wat Chaiyamang and a giant standing statue across the street at the 200-year-old Dhammikarama Burmese Temple.

CAT bus

The CAT shuttle bus is a free downtown bus line. After reading a blog post describing the line and its stops, we were inspired to plan a day trip based on CAT. We hopped a bus from our place into Komtar, the main bus depot in town, where, according to the post, we would find stop #9 for CAT.

City buses drop people off outside of the bus depot before going in. We hopped off and then tried to figure out where the CAT bus would pick us up. We watched two CAT buses go by on the other side of the 4-lane one-way street. We couldn’t see if it stopped anywhere, but thought we would cross the road to continue our search. While waiting for a crossing light, another CAT bus came past us, but on our side of the street. I was at the rear of the bus so hopped on and headed to the front. I could see the driver and a similarly uniformed woman shaking their heads to others who were trying to get on. After a short conversation, I found out that the CAT buses pick up inside the bus terminal, not on the street.

We looked at the map and realized that where we wanted to go was less than a kilometre away so we decided to walk and pick up the route later on.

We had similar experiences a couple more times. Though we found the correctly marked CAT bus stop #14, a CAT bus drove right past us and another waiting couple. We checked our plans and decided to walk, and then we saw another CAT bus pick people up at stop #15 as we walked by across the street.

We never did board a CAT bus, but we still had a lot of fun and discovered places we had not yet been to like:

  • Chowrastra Market–At late morning, the wet market (produce, meat, fish, seafood) vendors in the building were shutting down, but the street vendors were still active (though they would also soon pack up).
Street vendors outside of Chowastra Market
  • A baking supply store–And we have since found several of these. Oh to have an oven! They have all sorts of well-priced baking ingredients, packaged sets of ingredients if you want to just quick-mix cakes, cookies, or muffins, and inexpensive decorative baking papers and bags.
  • Yin’s Sourdough Bakery & Cafe–A recommendation from a favourite bakeries blog post. We stopped for coffee (great cappuccino) and a scone (a little dry and flat for my liking) and bought three half-loaves of what proved to be excellent grainy sourdough breads.
  • Town Hall and City Hall (yes, there are both, at least in name) majestically overlooking Esplanade Park and onto Fort Cornwalis.

Malls

Gurney Paragon and Gurney Plaza, both named for the area of Penang where they are located are two large, modern malls, almost side by side. Each includes large department stores, grocery stores, food courts, restaurants, and–most importantly–air conditioning. If you need some cooling off time, the malls are a great refuge. An even larger mall, the much-recommended Queens Bay, is a little south of George Town, but we never did get there.

New bookstore at the top of Gurney Paragon

Food

After a month of living in no-kitchen accommodation (and really enjoying the plentiful food options in Thailand), we looked forward to buying groceries and eating at home some of the time. Grocery stores are large, modern, and plentiful (Tesco, Jaya, Cold Storage), and there are wet markets (produce markets) throughout Penang.

On the other hand, street food (Indian, Chinese, Malay) is everywhere (search for food courts, hawker centers, or cafes to find it), very good, and inexpensive. And restaurants of all types are plentiful.

Besides indulging in curries, noodles, and rice dishes, we can recommend:

  • The China House – Particularly for cakes and coffee, but the items we had from their regular menu were also delicious. Western food and prices. The China House is also a live music venue, games room, wine bar and art gallery–something for everyone.
  • Holy Guacamole – Only open for a year, this is a happening place on Love Lane. The burritos and enchiladas were very good and well priced at 10RM ($3.33), and the happy hour margaritas (I can recommend the passion fruit one) were delicious, though I’m not sure how much alcohol they contained.

Chinese New Year

As mentioned in Penang: Kek Lok Si, we were lucky to be in Penang for the first (and busiest) week of the two-week-long Chinese New Year (CNY) celebration. On the fifth day of CNY, George Town hosted a street festival that covered several city blocks. Stages and decorations were set up throughout the area, and food kiosks filled several streets.

A common sight
Drumming practice
This little boy tried to sleep through his performance

On the same weekend, the Penang Hot Air Balloon Fiesta was held. We had decided to visit in the evening to catch the night-time Balloon Glow event. So we dashed away from the CNY celebrations in George Town with a Grab and arrived at the balloon site at about 7:45, in plenty of time. There were only 4 balloons in the air doing tethered rides. About 30 minutes later, the remaining balloons had been brought to the ground, packed up, and trucked off the site. We don’t know why the Balloon Glow event, which was clearly marked on the posted schedule for the day, didn’t happen, but it could have had something to do with the lightning that was flashing overhead.

The only glowing balloons we saw at the festival

The many food tents kept busy, despite the threatening rain, as people waited on the grass for the promised fireworks display.

We headed off before the night’s finale, happy to be able to catch a Grab (despite the double fare) and get home on such a busy night (our last in Penang).

We had a really wonderful time in Penang. We met so many generous and fun-to-be-with expats and travelers (you know who you are!) and the locals were always really friendly and helpful, too. We are off to explore new places, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Penang draws us back again (which is saying something, since we rarely make repeat visits).

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