We decided to slow our travel speed in Malaysia and our first extended stay was in Penang. The main reason we wanted to stay longer per location is when it came time to leave previous stops, we simply weren’t ready. In this case, staying twice as long didn’t work any better. At the end of our four weeks, we still didn’t want to leave! We had so much fun wandering around Penang while soaking in the art and architecture. We liked our local neighborhood and loved our time in George Town.
Searching For Art
Most of our days didn’t have a lot of structure. We would leave the house with a simple goal to find something cool to look at. Sometimes we’d search for street art that we’d previously seen on a postcard but hadn’t stumbled upon in person yet. A lot of the time, we wouldn’t make it to our destination because we got distracted. There always seemed to be cool alleyway or row of colonial buildings tempting us off the path. Since we had so long to spend in Penang, we were more than happy to give into the temptation. It was like being in a real life choose your own adventure book. If you want to explore this graffiti-filled alley, pull out your camera and
turn to page 42 walk west.
One of the discoveries that we happened upon was Art Lane (map). It’s a covered alleyway about 10 feet wide that spans half a city block and then feeds into a narrow building that stretches the rest of the block. It’s mostly filled with works from upstart artists hoping to make a name for themselves and leaving their Instagram handle as a signature. This means that there are a lot of diverse pieces on the walls of Art Lane, ranging from inspiring quotes to amazingly detailed graffiti. The concentration and variety of the work makes it feel like a gallery exhibit focused on street art. All that was missing was low level house music and high end price tags.
Museums With Art
Sometimes we wanted to upgrade our art experience to something more formal, and that’s available too. I liked the Batik Museum enough to write a standalone post on it. It was some of the most unique art I’ve seen anywhere. We also visited the Peranakan Museum, which was very new to me as well. The Peranakans are an ethnic group and this museum showcases their traditions and style, as observed by the wealthiest of them. The museum consists of two parts. First is the mansion where all of the bedrooms, dining rooms, and sitting rooms are adorned with beautiful art, intricately crafted furniture, and plenty of ceramic and glass antiques. It’s like visiting a small European castle without the hilltop views.
The second section (which we both did a terrible job of taking pictures of) features jewelry and clothing worn by these rich Peranakan families for special occasions like holidays, weddings, and funerals. The clothing was finely detailed and many pieces had embroidered animals and jungle scenes. There were hundreds of pairs of shoes adorned with tiny beads stitched into colorful patterns. And of course there were pieces of fine jewelry designed to perfectly accent this fancy attire.
Monkeys And Hiking On Penang Hill
Away from the art scene of downtown is Penang Hill, a very popular attraction for both tourists and locals. One ten minute funicular ride offers sweeping views of George Town and surrounding areas. To get there, we took the local bus #204 for $.50 each from the main station at the Komtar building to the base of the hill. It takes under an hour and it’s the last stop on the line, so it’s impossible to miss. Once there, we bought funicular tickets for a ride up the side of the mountain. In hindsight though, we committed an obvious error. We only bought one way tickets. The original plan was to ride to the top of the hill, take in some of the views, and then hike a few miles to the botanical garden. In preparation, I studied the hiking trails and even downloaded a specific hiking app to guide us.
At the top of Penang Hill, I was only expecting a couple of lookout platforms and crowded viewpoints. While those delivered upon my expectations, there were lots of other places to walk around and take in the expansive cityscape. There were also plenty of paths and roads to walk along to spot jungle plants, birds, and monkeys. While there, we saw our first Dusky Leaf Monkeys which have white patches around their eyes that make them look really cute. We also saw Macaque monkeys that we had seen previously in Thailand and Cambodia. Both kinds were hanging out in troops of about 10 and we spotted a few different troops at various points of our visit.
We walked around, watched monkeys, and gazed upon tropical flora for a few hours. We enjoyed ourselves at the top of Penang Hill much more than I thought we would and for much longer. By that point, it felt like it was getting too late to take the longer hike to the Botanical Gardens while also having time to enjoy them. As such, we scrapped that idea and just decided to hike down the way we came up. Big mistake!
Even though the path down was only a couple of miles long, it drops nearly 2500 feet in those two miles. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, just imagine climbing down a steep staircase for that whole length. In fact, somewhere around half of the hike is on a literal concrete staircase. While going downhill may be easier on the lungs than going up, it’s murder on the quads and knees after a while. While we did make it down, we were SO SORE for the next couple of days. Even taking a single step down from the curb onto the street caused us to wince in pain. We couldn’t even think about a flight of stairs. So while Penang Hill is definitely worth a visit, I’d highly recommend taking the tram both up and down.
Nature and Wildlife at the Botanical Gardens
We did make it to the Botanical Gardens on a different day. We were also going to take the bus to get there, but we just missed it and it only runs about once an hour. Instead of waiting around, we splurged on a Grab ride that cost about $4. There’s $3 I’ll never get back! I’m kidding, of course. Although we did decide to walk the 4 miles home.
The entrance to the gardens is free, although I kind of wish there was an admission charge. There were a few different areas that needed a little polish. Some of the paths were overgrown and it could’ve used more labels. We did see some cool trees, ferns, and bromeliads, but for my money, the best thing we saw were the monkeys. Yep, even more monkeys. And this time, there were dozens of them. I bet we saw close to a hundred overall, combined between the dusky leaf and macaque types. One macaque troop had to have 30 members including multiple babies. We saw other groups with ten or more in multiple places. And unlike in Phuket where they had a dedicated monkey feeding area, we saw multiple signs warning against feeding them backed by penalty of a large fine.
Due to these sensible restrictions, the monkeys at the botanical gardens were all well behaved. Even in large packs, they seemed to mostly ignore the humans near them and go about their business. Shortly after leaving the gardens on our walk home, we found another troop hanging out in an apartment complex parking lot near the road. A few of them were fighting each other. The vibe was noticeably different. These monkeys were aggressive, not unlike the ones that stole the water bottle directly from the tourist in Phuket. Shortly after that, a man showed up with a big bag of fruit rinds and scraps and started throwing them around. I’m sure it was no coincidence.
Where We Stayed
The apartment we stayed at is on the 16th floor of a high-rise building in a local neighborhood. It faces a park where young men play soccer and cricket every weekend and older people walk around the outside for exercise each evening. Due to multiple buildings of similar size in the area, there are lots of amenities around. Within a block or two were multiple convenience stores, laundries, hawker food stalls, and there was even a weekly market on Monday nights.
We liked what was happening inside of our apartment as well. Our rental had windows on both the north and south sides that allowed for a very refreshing cross breeze. It was nice enough that we only ran the air conditioning at night to sleep and opted for nature’s cooling when awake. Being 16 stories up and having that nice ocean breeze made it feel at least 10 degrees (F) cooler than at ground level. We had two bedrooms and a nice living space with a lot of natural light. This was a nice change after the basement feel of both of our Cambodian apartments. The kitchen certainly lacked any counter space, but a dining room table and a couple of stools made up for that.
Our stay here coincided with the 9 Emperor Gods Festival, which is a Taoist celebration that takes place over 9 days and features parades, fireworks, and if the followers are fanatical enough, self mutilation. The parade staging area was at a temple two blocks over that we could see from our living room windows. The parade route traveled down the boulevard right in front of our apartment. Every other night during the festival, we were treated to a parade with floats, marching bands, and plenty of revelers following along. They would chant, bang on symbols, and burn giant sticks of incense.
On the last night of the 9 day celebration, we even got to witness a few brave men that had jammed a long thin metal rod through their cheeks, piercing both. They then danced around in the middle of the street in a display of fortitude while the metal rod that was sticking a foot or more out of each side of their face flexed up and down in their newly formed cheek holes. It was certainly an interesting experience.
What We Spent
By staying long enough to qualify for a monthly discount through Airbnb, our Penang apartment was the cheapest of any stop yet. As such, we spent a little more freely in other areas. In particular, we bought a lot of clothes. I found a couple of shirts that I liked. Katie fell in love with the batik clothing that was everywhere and got herself a skirt and pants. And after nearly two months since Katie’s Birkenstocks were mutilated by the neighborhood dogs, she finally found a suitable replacement.
The beer in this Muslim-majority country is heavily taxed, so we drank less of it. The lack of demand for alcohol also makes the selection pretty poor. So even when I’m willing to pay exorbitant prices (which is most of the time), the product I’m paying for seems less worth it. While most items were slightly more expensive than Thailand or Cambodia, the cheap rent more than made up for it. All totaled, we spent $1479 in Penang. When adding in our prorated bills like cell phones and insurance, that brings our total spending to $1615 for our 28 days, or $57.68 per day.
We both feel that Penang has been our favorite stop so far. I could claim that it was due to expert planning that we decided to stay here for four weeks instead of two, but it was mostly good luck. I spent the last 3.5 years of my working career in the travel industry and I barely saw any travel packages that included Malaysia. Somehow Penang is still flying under the radar even when it’s filled with charming art, classical architecture, and cheap pricing. It’s a lovely place and we’ll definitely return someday.