The islands of Langkawi and Penang are two destinations that should be included on any itinerary of Malaysia. While Langkawi is more of an island for beach and relaxation, George Town on Penang Island is a confluence of culture and flavours from all over Asia.
In my previous article I covered where to find the best gluten free food on Langkawi Island. In this post I will share my tips for eating well in George Town. However, first and foremost, is making the journey to Penang from Langkawi.
Langkawi to Penang
Heading south from Langkawi, the next stop on many travellers’ journey will be the island of Penang. If you have a bigger budget and want to make life easy for yourself you can get a direct ferry that costs around 60myr. However, there are only two a day and they fill up in advance. If you are like us and leave things to the last minute you might not get the chance to take the direct route so here is a cheaper, but longer alternative.
- Langawki to Kedah: Ferry. 23myr, 1.5 – 2 hours. There are plenty of these ferries
running each day so you should be able to book it when you arrive at the port.
- Kedah to Alor Satar: Taxi/ Bus. There is a bus route that costs 5myr, but we struggled to find the bust stop. Everything was pretty crazy as we got off the ferry so we just opted for a taxi, which was a 20myr fixed fare. Between two of us the 10myr each was worth not having to search for the bus or endure a longer ride with our bags. The taxi took only 20 minutes, but I imagine a bus would be longer.
- Alor Satar to Butterworth: 11myr, 2 hours. This is a very comfortable, air-conditioned bus route. Tickets are available at the get to the Alor Satar terminal. There are plenty of people around to help you find the right bus.
- Butterworth to Penang: Ferry shuttle. 1.20 myr, 15 minutes. This ferry takes you to Penang port, just on the edge of George Town. You pay with coins (which you can change at the pay point). It is a bit of a walk from the bus station to the ferry with a lot of stairs, but we also saw a sign for a shuttle bus. I’m not sure where this runs to and from but there are plenty of people around to guide you.
Penang’s main event: George Town
George Town boasts an amazing mix of architecture, food and culture inspired by the diverse population of Malay, India, Chinese, British, Burmese and Indonesian that settled there from the 18th Century. It is definitely worth a visit just to wander around and absorb the awesome atmosphere. There are some interesting sights such as old Chinese clan houses and mansions that you can cover on a self-guided walking tour. The tour in the Lonely Planet was quite good, but once you have visited a couple of clan houses you don’t need to keep paying to see more.
I also highly recommend the Penang Museum for a sound introduction into the island’s history. Prior to the arrival of the British East India company in 1786, the island of Penang had a small population of local Malay fisherman thought to number only around 1000. This was the first British presence in the Malay archipelago and from this point merchants from all over Asia came to capitalise on the established trade routes. As a result by the late 1800s Penang was home to communities from China, Indonesia, Myanmar, Japan and many more countries. Today this legacy is still obvious in the variety of architecture and food, particularly in George Town.
Apart from wandering around and admiring the varied architecture of George Town, it is a great place to have you taste buds stimulated by the huge array of cuisines on offer. George Town is still home to many different micro-communities such as Little India and Chinatown. It’s a great place to feel like your covering a range of cuisines and cultures with minimal effort. As we were in George Town during the Malaysian summer it was very hot so apart from a walking tour and some food there wasn’t much else we wanted to do.
Accommodation in George Town
ST Hostel: There tend to be a lot of dormitory style accommodation in Georgetown, but we were after a private room and definitely wanted an air conditioner to cope with the Malaysian heat. ST Hostel was a bit more on the expensive side (120myr for a private with shared bathroom), but it was worth it for us. It is run by a lovely couple who helped us with any queries that we had. The rooms and facilities are very clean and comfortable; great to spend time in hiding from the heat! There is free tea and coffee and a pleasant communal space to hang out in.
Like Langkawi, George Town is home to a hugely diverse range of cuisines. Options range from more expensive, fancy meals in a proper restaurant to street food from one of the many hawker markets – a must do!
Junk Café: This bar/café specialises in burgers and it does them very well. Thick patties, delicious sauces and tasty sweet potato chips to accompany them. The staff speak great English and are very friendly and attentive. They ensured that the burger pattie was gluten free and I enjoyed my filling burger without the bun.
China House: We had brunch here one morning and we could have been at any hipster café in the world. It is really nice with a good breakfast menu, but quite expensive. The coffee is reasonable, but I did expect a bit more from our breakfast meal for 45myr. There is a huge selection of very pretty looking cakes, but obviously that isn’t going to help you if you are gluten free. There is also a wine and cocktail bar at the back, which looked quite cool, so maybe this is a better evening location.
Coffee on the Table: This was a great place for breakfast. They are famous for their 3D coffee art, which I assume means fancy things created out of milk froth. I don’t tolerate much dairy so I just tried a black traditional Penang coffee, which is roasted in butter and sugar. Meals here are reasonably priced and very tasty. The roasted duck house salad was a great dish with eggs and a yummy sesame dressing for 20myr. You can also get a full cooked breakfast set (just ask for no toast if you’re gluten free) for 15.90myr.
Gem Restaurant: We had some tasty Indian food here at lunch. It is really close to ST Hostel and pretty good value for money. We were both very full from two dishes and poppadoms for 45myr.
Red Garden Cafe (hawker market): While in George Town you must experience eating at a hawker market, which is like a big open air food court with a huge array of (mostly Asian) cuisines. One of the many big food markets in Penang, we visited here after hearing about the famous roasted duck.
Set up like a big undercover food court, you order your food from your choice of stall and quote your table number, then the attendants bring it over and you pay. People selling drinks walk around the tables. It is a great atmosphere full bring lights and delicious smells. In the centre of the hall there are often performances such as live music and apparently even lady boys. Definitely try and go here at least once for the experience!
At the Red Garden hawker market I highly recommend Kimpo Famous Roasted, where you can get a 1/4 Peking duck for 13myr with sauce (not gluten free – so get this on the side), some cucumber and bean shoots. You can also get meals with crispy duck, rice and veg.
Wandering around George Town taking in the interesting mix of smells and the odd combination of buildings is definitely a highlight of Malaysia. In my next post I will give some brief tips on the Cameron Highlands, where we spent just one day soaking up the stunning scenery and fresh air.