Penang, Malaysia: Chicken Soup For The Multicultural Soul
Greetings, friends! I’m so excited to share with you my most recent excursion: Penang (George Town), Malaysia! This small island state off the coast of West Malaysia near the border with Thailand is a hidden gem of a destination. That’s because it’s so wonderfully multicultural! Travelers who love the vibe of cities like New York or Hong Kong need to check out this island with a population of 1.8 million. If you’re like me and love different cultures, Penang is sure to be your next happy place.
In a time when so much of what’s going on in the world seems to revolve around division and conflict, it can be surprisingly therapeutic to spend a few days in a place like Penang. I didn’t expect that; in fact, I didn’t do enough research to know what to expect. Nonetheless, the multiculturalism in Penang was undoubtedly the focal point of the city. In this post, I’ll highlight some of the ways this city is unapologetically pluralistic while also explaining how you can make the most of a few days here.
Signs of Many Cultures (Both Literal and Otherwise)
The first thing I noticed about Penang was how many languages are spoken here. During my time here, I had the opportunity to practice bits and pieces of Mandarin, Cantonese, and Malay (which has significant linguistic similarities to Indonesian, a language I studied briefly back in 2014). English is also widely spoken. If you take a few Grab cars to get around the city, you’ll likely hear all four of those languages on the radio.
The majority of signs around Penang are written at least in Bahasa Melayu and Chinese, and many also include English and Tamil. If you’re a linguistics nerd like I am, you’ll feel right at home among all the different languages spoken in Penang!
Places of Worship
The other obvious sign of multiple cultures in Penang is the plethora of churches, mosques, and temples there. In many parts of the city, mosques with beautiful domes and minarets sit across the street from Buddhist temples. The variety in architecture is one of the city’s best assets (as I discuss more below), and many of the city’s most stunning buildings are dedications to the wide variety of faiths practiced on the island.
To learn more about the city’s incredible diversity of built structures, read on!
Penang's Varied Architecture
Perhaps the best way to experience Penang is on foot. That’s because the city is home to an amazing variety of building styles. Beautiful colonial mansions stand in front of towering condos and office buildings.
In fact, the center of George Town (the island’s biggest city) has such culturally significant architecture that it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. Much of this area reminds me a bit of Havana and Mérida, despite being almost on the other side of the world. Restrictions on construction and renovation mean that this neighborhood’s historic character will (hopefully) be preserved for generations to come.
In contrast to the preservation efforts within the boundaries of the World Heritage Site, many of the old buildings outside of the city’s old center appear to have been abandoned. They tend to be huge private estates surrounded by grassy lawns that must’ve housed the city’s most wealthy residents in centuries past. Some have been left to disintegrate, with roofs partially caved in and plants taking over. Others, such as the one pictured below, have been converted into a parking lot.
Some could definitely argue that these abandoned homes add character to the city. And while I guess it’s good that they haven’t just been bulldozed and paved over, it’s too bad that they may not last due to lack of upkeep. Take your photos now, because you never know how long these beautiful and ornate buildings outside the UNESCO site will continue to stand.
Another Testament To Penang's Multiculturalism: The Food
Penang is home to more than just interesting buildings; it also has an amazing culinary scene! If you’ve never had Malaysian food before, you’re in for a treat. Typical local food has an undeniable Chinese influence while also incorporating spices that will remind you of Indian fare.
Penang’s most famous local delicacy is called nasi kandar. It’s basically a rice dish served with multiple sauces and your choice of veggies, meat, and eggs. It’s especially good with chicken, squid, okra, and cabbage.
Over my two days here, I ate nasi kandar three times. That’s how good it is! You should start off at Deen Maju, which is considered the best place in the city to get it. When I went, there was a line out the door, but it’s worth the wait! It also moved fairly quickly.
Once you’ve had nasi kandar from Deen Maju, you’ll be craving it again. Restaurants serving it are everywhere, and many of them are open 24 hours a day. Perhaps that’s because in addition to being a wholesome lunch or dinner, it’s also the perfect food after a couple drinks (more on bars below). Be sure to try it from a couple of places at least! Comparing the flavors and styles from different restaurants is part of the fun!
Penang also has a ton of street food. I didn’t get to try as much as I would’ve liked because I was so busy eating as much nasi kandar as my stomach would allow! I’d love to explore more of street food offerings if (when) I go back again.
Beyond that, Penang is also home to typical international options. I ended up trying Il Bàcaro, an upscale Italian restaurant in the city’s historic district. Their bruschetta was amazing, and their black dough pizza was definitely interesting (and tasty too).
At 35 USD (including two glasses of wine), this was the most expensive meal I had in Penang. On the other end of the spectrum, nasi kandar typically goes for under 2 USD per plate, so there’s something delicious to enjoy no matter what your budget is.
How to See the City from Above
Another reason to love Penang is its amazing skyline. Its modern skyscrapers, green hills, and ocean views are reminiscent of Hong Kong, but the historic buildings’ distinctive red rooftops give Penang’s urban landscape a unique flare. There are two main ways to see the city from above, and you should try to check out both if you can.
Option 1: From one of the city’s many skyscrapers
Penang is home to many skyscrapers with rooftop bars and observation decks. The most obvious one is the city’s tallest building, the Komtar Tower. At 68 floors tall, it’s much taller than the other apartment and office buildings nearby and impossible to miss. Both its design as well as the interior look quite dated, but it’s nevertheless the best place to get a 360-degree view of the city.
Tickets to the observation deck on the 65th floor sell for about 10 USD, or you can pay an additional 7 USD to visit the “Skywalk,” an anxiety-inducing U-shaped walkway with a glass floor that’s built overhanging the side of the building on its open-air rooftop bar level (on the 68th floor).
If you really want to get a photo on the Skywalk, then go ahead and buy the ticket. However, I recommend you skip this entirely and ask staff on the lower levels if you can go up to the The Coco Cabana Bar & Bistro for a drink. There may be a minimum purchase amount, but I’m almost sure it’s cheaper than the entrance ticket. You’ll also get the exact same view.
The bottom three or four floors of Komtar are a maze of shopping stalls, arcades, restaurants, and an aquarium that honestly look really tired and worn out. You’ll likely spend at least five to ten minutes trying to figure out how to finally reach the elevator that will bring you up to the observation deck. They likely designed it to be purposefully confusing in hopes that you spend some money as you try to figure out how to make it up to the top.
That was my biggest complaint about the experience, but I’d say the view from the rooftop bar was worth the hassle. Especially at sunset, watching the city slowly light up was such a treat!
If you’re looking for a more straightforward and less touristy alternative, I enjoyed the DSRT Sky Room at the The Wembley Hotel. It doesn’t have a 360-degree view, but it’s still a nice place to see most of the surrounding city. And while many hotel bars can feel cold and impersonal, the staff here were friendly and the decor was endearing and cozy.
Option 2: From Penang Hill
If a rooftop bar isn’t exactly your style, the other option for a great view of the city is Penang Hill. It’s not exactly centrally located, but the views are worth the 20 to 30-minute Grab car ride over. Once you arrive to the base of the hill, you can either hike up or take the funicular. I recommend the latter as it’s not very expensive (30 MR, or approx. 7 USD), plus it’s much quicker.
As you can see, Penang Hill offers a much more expansive view than the Komtar Tower. However, it’s a bit harder to see details of the city from up there. The benefit though is that you’ll get to see the rolling hills of forests beyond the city. If you have time to check out Penang Hill and the Komtar Tower, I recommend doing both!
Last but not least, I’ll speak briefly about where you can find a cocktail in Penang! Although Malaysia’s state religion is Islam, drinking didn’t appear to be restricted at all here. However, drinks were generally not cheap; expect at least about 7 USD per cocktail or glass of wine.
The city’s most famous bar street is called Love Lane. It’s definitely touristy, but there are a bunch of options here as well as ample late-night food.
Another bar I liked was the HiddenTiki. The location on Google Maps is accurate, but it’s still pretty hidden and figuring out how to get in is a mini adventure. The ambiance was cool and relaxed, but the drinks were even more expensive than in other places. However, it’s still worth a visit if you want to check out a cool bar that isn’t on Love Lane.
I can say one thing about Penang that I can’t say about all the places I’ve visited: I was really happy during my short stay there. Maybe it was just the locals’ friendly attitudes or the delicious food, but Penang felt like a genuinely joyful place. I honestly think it’s because of all the cultures that coexist there.
I’m obviously no expert in local Malaysian race relations, politics, or history. Colonialism has definitely played a role in the history of Penang, and I’m not under any impression that Penang is perfect. However, it did feel like a place where people of diverse backgrounds with a variety of ideas came together. And it felt like a sneak peak of what cities of the future could be like: numerous languages, religions, and cultures coexisting together while still retaining their own unique qualities.
Have you ever been to Penang? Did you get the same sense about it that I did? Let me know in the comments below! Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for my next post featuring Kuala Lumpur!