Laksa and luxury
Penang’s compact heritage quarter hums with history
The core of George Town, the former British trading post on the island of Penang off Malaysia’s northwest coast, was awarded UNESCO World Heritage listing in 2008. Thus cherished and preserved, this delightful settlement has the feel of a living museum, fizzing with pride and purpose. Knowledgeable guide Clement Liang of Penang Heritage Trust takes me “behind the scenes” to street stalls where we sit on plastic stools less than a metre from flaming pots. With tin spoons we scoop up peanut-flavoured noodles, densely flavoured dishes made with salty black shrimp paste and the white-peppered wonder that is an oyster omelette. Within the UNESCO “cultural enclave” we explore ornamented temples, mosques, mausoleums, clan-houses, little museums and traders’ mansions; we dip into dimly lit shops dealing in “Chinese prayer paraphernalia” and “medicated teas”. More: pht.org.my.
Next day’s guide, May (or Marshall May as I come to call her, such is her sharp-elbowed ability to sort out queues), hurries me off to sample assam laksa, made with fish broth, tamarind paste, loads of chilli and lemongrass, and topped with shredded mackerel. Her recommendation is local legend Pasar Air Itam Laksa, established in 1955, and we lap up the salty-and-sour vermicelli-filled broth at this busy and cheap kerbside eatery and end up (happily) showered with brownish stains on our shirts. More: penanglaksa.com.
COCKTAILS WITH CLASS
Gravity Bar atop G Hotel Kelawai (see Best Beds) on Level 24 offers broad wraparound views of hills, the swooping Penang Bridge and textured rooftops. Jazzy cocktails, such as deconstructed rainbow margaritas (five sugar-rimmed shots in lurid colours), are served from a circular bar that glows in pinks and greens, and there are stools or lounge seating by a green-tiled infinity-edge saltwater pool. For something a little more sedate, try a tipple of empire (a G&T or a gimlet) at the Eastern & Oriental’s Farquhar’s Bar, named for a former lieutenant-governor, and still a haven of leather armchairs and dark wood panelling. More: ghotel.com.my; eohotels.com.
Hotelier Christopher Ong, who has transformed a series of dilapidated buildings to “Peranakan posh” boutique properties, has published a series of concertina leaflets and a DYI touring map that detail his local foodie faves, from hawker specialities such as pork porridge to top night markets and coolest shops. Pick up free copies from his delightful Mews Cafe on Muntri Street, a thoroughfare that’s home to one of George Town’s bestpreserved rows of 19th-century Straits Chinese architecture. Blissfully air-conditioned Mews Cafe is the spot, too, for those with spice-weary palates (splendid fish and chips) and nestled behind is Ong’s chic little nine-room Muntri Mews. More: muntrimews.com.
OVER THE HILL
Take the funicular (6.30am-10.30pm) for the 1.99km journey up Penang Hill (“Peak of the Pearl” announce the brochures) to forested slopes where the colonial Brits retreated from the heat and humidity of the plains. At more than 800m, it’s high enough for wel- coming breezes, there are nature trails, an aviary and restaurants, and so many century-old bungalows that the makers of the telly hit Indian Summers (series two is due soon) were able to shelve plans to film at Raj-era hill-stations such as Shimla and relocate here. During my visit, production staff are bustling around Bellevue Hotel, where I recommend a turn of its elevated gardens; borders of English flowers compete with tropical heliconias and there are deep views over city and port and across to the once-grand Crag Hotel, later a school, which had been derelict since scenes from the Catherine Deneuve 1992 movie Indochine were filmed there. But, no more, as in Indian Summers, this hotel with a distinctive highpitched roof, built by the Sarkies Brothers of Raffles fame in 1905, has been thoroughly reconditioned and serves as the Brits’ social club. In 1885, these Armenian hoteliers had also opened the Eastern & Oriental on the seafront (see Cocktails with Class), which still rates as one of the world’s great heritage hotels. More: penanghill.gov.my; bellevuehotel.my.
China House, spread over three linked heritage bbuildings, serves fab coffee and a remarkable cake buffet piled with tortes, sugary slices and creamy wonders. This Australian-owned cafe, with a rear courtyard shaded by mango trees and gallery cum shop above, has oodles of atmosphere, a snug bar and a day-long breakfast menu, although my companions and I get no further than that kilojoule-laden morning tea spread with flavours that include passionfruit and lime or pear and ginger, while the tiramisu cake, says Clement Liang, is “the talk of Penang”. The China House crew also run Beach Street Bakery (pies, cakes, pastries) while along Love Street, with its “reggae ryokans” and hostels, check out Wheeler’s Cafe for espressos and delicious matcha lattes swirled with frothy leaf designs. More: chinahouse.com.my; facebook.com/wheelers67.
STREET ART TRAIL
The most enjoyable way to enjoy George Town on a structured trail is to track down its street art; the project began in 2009 as a competition to attract artists and many of the wrought-iron caricatures and painted walls, including Kids on Bicycle, Indian Boatman and Old Motorcycle, have become famous for their inventiveness and sense of interaction. Real objects such as vehicles, windows and swings are incorporated into these playful murals. Grab a Marking George Town street art brochure (and other maps and guides, including the fascinating Penang Peranakan leaflet, with details of cooking classes and dining) from the Tourist Information Centre (ground floor, Whiteaways Arcade, Lebuh Pantai). More: mypenang.gov.my.
WALK AND TALK
A ramble around Penang proper reveals a surfeit of colonial-era buildings, all shutters and gently crumbling colonnades, that appear ideal for empathetic conversion to hotels and galleries. Similarly, in George Town proper, there are ripe-for-renovation shophouses that sit shoulder-to-shoulder along narrow streets. Pre-
Colonial buildings in George Town, Penang, top; rooftop infinity pool and bar at G Hotel Kelawai, top right; the Penang Hill funicular, above right; mural on the street art trail, middle right; Kebaya restaurant at Seven Terraces, middle left; and hearty serve at Pasar Air Itam Laksa, left