My partner’s birthday is in the month of july, so we celebrated it by visiting Penang. In the recent decade I didn’t intentionally visit Malaysia much because I’ve been there countless times when I was younger since it was so near. It was quite common to take a bus ride across the causeway, and riding a bus over ten hours to visit the beautiful Terengganu islands did not make my younger self bat an eyelid. But I am much older now, and am skeptical of my ability to tolerate a bus ride for more than an hour, much less ten.
I last visited Penang in 2016, just shortly before we became a couple. Back then I was only there for a couple of days, and I wasn’t into heritage buildings or street photography or making art – a very different person then. I was curious to see how I would interact with the same city I’ve been to quite a few times.
It turns out we liked it quite a lot, and I thought like I had documented my Hanoi trip I’ll do the same for Penang.
(The links of the places usually lead to their google maps listing.)
Due to economic and cultural variables there are spaces that just wouldn’t exist in Singapore, so I was glad to experience some of them in Penang.
p.66 & mano plus select store
I had come across two of these cute stationery/misc stores on youtube. They are both expansive, have attached cafes and are housed in heritage buildings – worth a visit even if there is no intention to buy anything.
COEX @Kilang Besi
We stumbled into this space because we intended to visit Hin Bus Depot which is another creative exhibition space. It is actually a space housing an architecture firm as well as several small cute shops. I thought we were quite lucky because they were supposed to be closed but a random stranger beckoned us to go in, and we were treated to this temporary exhibit of shop signs:
the nook books and coffee
I love cafes and books, so obviously I had to visit a cafe named The Nook Books And Coffee, which had an actual nook. They sell second hand books, you could also sit down, grab a coffee or cake and chill near the books. It is actually a pretty big space, with five different seating areas.
slow coffee person coffee bar
We chanced upon this cafe but didn’t visit it because it was closed, but I couldn’t resist being attracted to its slow theme. They are also only open four days of the week, something that is rather unthinkable in Singapore.
I can’t justify any worded description of China house. I bookmarked it because on youtube it showed that they have tables supplied with crayons and paper for people to doodle upon. But it has way more than that – multiple shophouses connected into 14 spaces that includes a bar, art gallery, shop. It also has a ton of cakes – 30 apparently, according to their website. We enjoyed seeing the very elaborate doodles people have left behind, hosted in their gallery above their cafe.
popular at gurney plaza
I know it is weird to call a chain stationery store a “creative space”, but to my delight and surprise they still sell music CDs and even *gasp* vinyl records nonchalantly. What does it say when you can find music records at a mass-market stationery book store like this?
beautiful old architecture
To be honest, there was so many beautiful heritage buildings that we grew pretty numb to them at the end of the trip. But most of the time we kept jabbing each other saying, “omg look at that building!”. The interiors are beautiful as well.
Why are old things so beautiful?
I just love hand-painted signs. They are everywhere in Penang and very rare in Singapore, because who wouldn’t want a shiny new modern looking sign?
a portmanteau of the Malay word for coffee (as borrowed and altered from the Portuguese) and the Hokkien dialect word for shop (店; POJ: tiàm).– tripadvisor
They are everywhere in Singapore and Malaysia, except it is difficult these days to find them in their original condition in Singapore. Again, I find these old spaces so beautiful:
Like Hanoi, Penang has numerous cafes with their own character and artistry. It is not difficult to find good coffee in Penang, and one of the most highly rated ones seem to be Ome by Spacebar coffee – which we really appreciated because it seems to be the only coffee place that serves decaf. We also enjoyed the single origin hot chocolate from Constant Gardener Coffee, and everyone seems to want to go Norm Micro Roastery.
sketching while cafe hopping
This is the first time I’d brought art materials on a trip with me with the intention to do on-site sketching, so it was nice that I really got to do it. I mean, I carry aspirations with me on every trip and most of the time I don’t fulfil them.
Food I loved
I love dim sum so much I visited 3 of their popular dim sum restaurants:
They all have their strengths but I love the char siew bun from Tai Tong, and which has the most variety. Yong Pin has the most modern decor, and has the best Portuguese egg tart according to my partner. Fu Er Dai is in this cool huge outdoor space with a ton of parking. They all open at 6.30am (yay for early birds like me, especially if you want to avoid the crowd which starts around 8.30am), and require you to bravely stand at a counter and start pointing at the dim sum you want even if you have no idea what they actually are. They are okay to explain if you want to ask them, except they probably only converse in mandarin and and the predominant chinese dialects like Cantonese and Hokkien.
90% of the time they are delicious, so one can hardly go wrong by simply pointing. They have different counters for items served in baskets, baked/fried items, and steamed items which includes buns and chee cheong fun. I also saw people eating roast pork and noodles, and still have no idea how and where to order them (probably just ask, but we had no space for anything else).
Roti Canai is actually called roti prata in Singapore – it is an indian flatbread. In penang they serve a version of it with the curry slathered on top – some people don’t like this and prefer them to be separate – and I had this version called Roti Canai Tsunami served at a place called Naina’s roti bakar where they also add cheese and half-boiled eggs. This was the best thing I’ve eaten on this trip, but I’m partial to saucy things with eggs and cheese.
We didn’t intend to eat roti bakar, which is malay for grilled bread. But we stumbled onto Hutton Lane Roti Bakar and saw people eating this delicious looking thing, which is toast with garlic, cheese and eggs.
oo white coffee
Penang is also famous for their white coffee, but most of the white coffee served in the places we went to seemed to be instant coffee? We could only find brewed local coffee at OO white coffee, which had a multi-dimensional flavour.
I love sandwiches but I seldom eat them because they are usually too high carb for me. But we ran out of ideas for dinner one day (also because we eat “dinner” at 3pm where many restaurants are closed for their mid-day break) so I decided to ignore my dietary restriction and enjoy these sandwiches.
Western food in Singapore and Malaysia is actually fusion food that was created by the Hainanese immigrants working for the British in the early 1900s. I didn’t know that, and was confused I couldn’t find “chicken chop” when I visited western countries (haha).
I loved the western food I had tried in Penang because they seem to incorporate more local spices in their marinades and sauces, and the variations seem to be a lot wider.
Another thing I noticed about in Penang is that they have more “home-style” restaurants, where sometimes it feels like entering someone’s residential space than an actual restaurant. Again, this seems to be less economically viable in Singapore. Singapore has private home dining, which is more like chefs cooking food for paying customers in their actual residences.
Lor bak seems to be wu xiang in Singapore, but in Penang they have other items that come with the actual meat rolls. The one we had had a pork chop and taiwanese sausages. I didn’t know how to order, so I asked the stall owner and he simply replied he’ll make a small serving of a mix platter for me.
I am sure there’s a lot more to Penang but these are my personal memorable experiences. Also I hope no one minds the occassional comparison between Singapore and Malaysia as this is highly contextual to me. I can only write from my personal perspectives and limited experiences.
I think the effort to write these posts will be worth it when I reminisce in the future, especially if I lose the courage to travel. If any of you have visited Penang before, do comment about your own personal favourites.