Penang, Malaysia

Marion Hume | June 18th, 2011


Photos by Simon Bracken

We do love a stopover, and better than that, we love a “two-location-in-one” stopover, so you can do most of your exploring on foot. Off we go to Penang.

Check in first to the snazzy Rasa Sayang (get them to send their driver to the airport). Then, once relaxed after a few days by the sea, catch a cab to an old Chinese shophouse in the middle of bustling Georgetown, rented from The Straits Collection.

Penang, the large island off the west coast of Malaysia, is “Asia-made-Easy” for those times when actually, you are knackered and you don’t really want an adventure. What I love about Penang, is there isn’t a whole list of “cultural can’t miss” attractions, so there’s time for another foot massage and then it’s time to talk about dinner, which could be Chinese, Indian, Peranakan or Malay. Penang is majority Chinese, but you are reminded that this is Muslim Malaysia because there’s no bacon with your eggs at breakfast. (Honestly, I am not so sad I noticed. Someone told me thatl)

Situated on the northern shoreline facing the Andaman Sea, the Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang, has been the island’s premier hotels for decades; indeed I first experienced it as an 18 year old backpacker, because my friend Geeta’s parents were staying there, and while we slept in some flea-bitten dive, we’d saunter in to hang out at the pool. I finally admit this to the General Manager only when I am (legitimately) lodging in the priciest suite.

The Rasa Sayang has been much updated, but it is as lovely as I remember it, which is saying something because I am a hell of a lot more picky these days than I was when I was a teenager. What to do there? Nothing. Stroll between the Spice Market Cafe which serves a mind-blowingly comprehensive buffet for breakfast and dinner. (There’s fine dining too, but I was never in the mood for it). Have a foot massage out in the 30-acre garden above the beach. Admire the ancient and beautiful “rain” trees.

Once relaxed, it is time for Georgetown (about half an hour in traffic and, in Penang there is always traffic. Sleepy, it is not). The Straits Collection is a group of old houses in the centre of town, focused around a bar where you can eat and drink if you choose. (The owner is Australian and the food focuses on fresh flavours and great coffee). There are two inner city locations; Armenian Street, where there are 4 old shop houses, dating back to about 1850 to rent and 5 adjoining Chinese houses, dating from the 1920s, on Stewart Lane. Old Georgetown is UNESCO heritage listed but it is no museum. Be prepared to fall asleep to the sounds and smells of one of Asia’s most characterful little cities.

WHERE TO EAT IN PENANG

The choice, the choice - here’s a favourite two.

Ocean Green, right by the sea, is the place far-flung citizens of Malaysia come to eat as soon as they touch down on their home isle of Penang. The best chilli crab, the best seafood in South East Asia. So they say. Having eaten a lunch that started at noon, finished at 5pm here, I could not disagree. Not a place to dress for. It’s a shabby sensation.

Ocean Green Restaurant and Seafood, c/o Paramount Hotel, 48F Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, 100050 Georgetown, Penang. + 604 227 4530; www.paramounthotel.com.my

Perut Rumah specializes in Nyonya cuisine, the unique fusion of the Peranakan people, who are part Chinese, part Malay. The setting is a beautiful colonial home. Let your waitress guide you (unless you are Peranakan)

Perut Rumah, no 17 Jalan Kelawei, 10250 Georgetown, Penang. + 604 227 9917; perutrumah@gmail.com

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