If there’s one thing I want Manila to become, it’s a walkable city. Traffic wouldn’t be so annoying if there were actual sidewalks that we could resort to whenever C5 fails us. It’s such a problem here that even efficient transportation systems and carefully planned city layouts of other countries become actual tourist attractions for us. (Trust me, it’s a thing.) And when a city also has wonderful architecture, good food and stunning street art, it’s a certified tourist destination that’s more than just Instagram-worthy; it’s also pocket-friendly.
Georgetown, Penang is one of those cities. It’s located at the northwest part of Malaysia and it’s definitely hours away from the bustling city of Kuala Lumpur. It’s much more laid-back and you won’t feel the time catching up with you. It’s a good destination for people who need to recharge and replenish their creative juices.
Green pastures: The Habitat at Penang Hill is the perfect escape from the city grind.
Wander wall: Iconic street art at Georgetown
If you want to get to Penang without the hassle of stranded buses and immigration mayhem (it definitely happens), flying is the way to go. AirAsia offers flights to Kuala Lumpur daily. From there, you can easily take a connecting flight from Kuala Lumpur International Airport to Penang. There’s almost always a long layover in between, but that won’t hurt your schedule or add to travel stress levels much, because their airport has a good selection of shopping and dining options. (Indian cuisine before a flight? So wrong, yet so right.) Once you arrive at Penang International Airport, you can take a bus or a cab to Georgetown.
Even looking out from a bus, the charm of Georgetown is undeniable. They weren’t lying when they said that the city looks like a postcard. With all the different-colored buildings, the majestic temples at street corners and street art, Georgetown is better experienced with an open sense of wander and a good pair of shoes.
Hawker’s eye: Char kway teow and oyster pancakes are favorites at the hawker center.
Just like any walking trips, a strategically located home base is essential. During this trip, we stayed at Sunway Georgetown. Out of the many luxurious hotels Sunway has across Malaysia, this is definitely one of the crowd favorites. The rooms are spacious, the beds are comfortable, the staff is friendly and, most importantly, it’s right beside a hawker center. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Walking around Georgetown, it’s evident that the British colonizers heavily influenced the architecture. And they are entirely grateful for that — at least according to our tour guide. In 2008, the city was listed as one of Malaysia’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites together with Malacca City. It’s easy to understand why. Even standing at an intersection, you can see Chinese temples, Indian boutiques, mosques and churches in every direction. And they seem to co-exist well. If that’s not a good representation of beauty, then I don’t know what is.
Monkey business: American Ninja Warrior wannabes can check out the obstacle courses at Escape Adventureplay.
Up Close And Personal
For some people, touring a country only means trying the food and buying souvenirs. But Georgetown gives tourists an opportunity to get to know its culture by literally opening the doors to some of their homes.
The Pinang Peranakan Mansion is a favorite among those who are interested in the lives of the rich and the famous. The Peranakans — also known as the Babas and Nyonyas — are descendants of Chinese immigrants during the 15th and 17th centuries. Their lifestyle was lavish, to say the least. The mansion exhibits their typical home setup: fancy furniture, marble statues, emerald tables and even their wedding chambers. Beside the main mansion is a special exhibit dedicated to their intricately crafted clothing and jewelry collection.
A few blocks away from the Pinang Peranakan Masion is Khoo Kongsi, a Chinese clan house that looks more like it came straight out of Mulan. The area is huge with its main building and a theater stage right across from it. When visiting Khoo Kongsi, take a moment to look closely and study the incredibly detailed stone carvings and paintings. It’s definitely worth more than an Instagram picture.
For something more current, check out the Clan Jetties along Weld Quay. The water villages became home to Chinese Hokkien immigrants who share the same surname in the 19th century. Among the famous ones is the Chew Jetty. Although there are still some families residing in the area, it looks more like a souvenir shop than an actual village. After seeing so many shops selling big bowls of ramen and durian ice cream, we’re definitely not complaining.
Temple run: The Kek Lok Si Temple is known to be the biggest Buddhist temple in Malaysia,
Going Offline And Climbing Uphill
If afternoon strolls aren’t your thing, check out Escape Adventureplay at Teluk Bahang just an hour outside Georgetown. It has obstacle courses, bungee jump stations, balance beams and trapeze training, plus more. This is perfect for American Ninja Warrior wannabes or adrenaline junkies.
Right beside Escape is Entopia. It recently reopened and now it’s packed with more activities and a better guided tour to boot. It’s a haven for creepy critters and beautiful butterflies. What’s great about Entopia is you get to learn about insects you used to run away from (e.g. me and millipedes) and understand that they have feelings too. Nobody likes to be rejected, after all.
For a more immersive experience of nature, The Habitat at the top of Penang Hill is a good place to take a breather. It can be accessed via the Penang Hill Railway. The Habitat’s nature trail is 1.6 kilometers long and it boasts a scenic view of the city. There are several species of plants and birds that can be seen if you pay enough attention. What I love most about the place is the gigantic swings where you can just reflect and chill.
Ready, jetset, go: The Chew Jetty is one of the most-visited water villages in Penang.
Hawker Is Where The Heart Is
A trip to Penang wouldn’t be complete without hitting hawker centers. It’s like your regular nightly food market but with cheaper options and better food. Our hotel in Georgetown was right beside the New Lane Hawker center — better known as “that place Anthony Bourdain visited.” As per our guide’s recommendation, I tried char kway teow, oyster pancakes and the essential teh tarik, and, surprisingly, my bill didn’t even exceed P350. It’s understandable how some people go back to Penang just for the food; I definitely would.
To be completely honest, walking down the streets of Georgetown gave me a glimmer of hope that maybe someday, people from different cultures and religions can get along. Penang gives you that strange positive energy. It radiates from the people who are friendly enough to say “hi” to you in the middle of the street, from the men and women on their way to their respective temples, and even from the vendors in the hawker centers who are trying to finish their job as quickly as possible.
Maybe this is the reason why people go to Penang: to experience a present that we all aspire to have.
Check out AirAsia’s website for a complete list of flights to Malaysia: http://airasia.com.