Laksa and lux­ury

Pe­nang’s com­pact her­itage quar­ter hums with his­tory

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - SU­SAN KUROSAWA

LO­CAL KNOWL­EDGE

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.

HOT PROP­ER­TIES

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.

COF­FEE FIXES

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

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