Hey friends! It’s been another packed few days. After kicking off Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, I headed to Penang, an urban state and standalone island off of west Malaysia. Penang piqued my interest because it has both city and nature and is known as Malaysia’s “culinary capital.” The past 3 days have been filled with lots of good food and sightseeing around this bustling island.
Day 4: travel day + hiking in Penang National Park
I took a flight from KL in the morning and arrived in Penang around noon. My homestay host, Howie, picked me up from the airport. He was very hands-on and animated; from the first moment, he told me about the island and gave me recs. He also invited me on a group hike this afternoon with the other guests at Penang National Park. This was on my to-do list in Penang, so I figured this was the perfect opportunity. I ate a quick lunch, changed my clothes, and headed out with everyone.
Our group was diverse with guests from all around the world. Howie’s homestay, called Cocoa Mews, only had 4 rooms, but it was very social as everyone came out for this trip. We took the public bus for one hour to the park’s entrance.
Along the way, I got to see more of the island. It was surprisingly developed – full of resorts, skyscraper apartments, highways, and shopping malls. To be honest, the urban vibes didn’t look like they belonged with the scenery of the island. The best I can describe it was that Penang had a confused identity. Nevertheless, I kept an open mind and tried to soak in everything.
Howie led us on a 4 km hike in the jungle but still close to the coastline. The scenery was wet and lush and had views of the ocean too. It was well-paved and an easy trail, minus sprinkles of rain throughout the whole hike.
We made it to a beach area and relaxed there for a bit.
Part way through, the trail was blocked by a large barricade. 3 men were guarding the trail saying we could not pass and had to take a boat around the island. Howie said this was a local scam as the boat companies colluded with the national park to force people to take their boats…that’s southeast Asia for you. Howie tried to talk our way out of it, but the men were insistent. We decided to turn around from there. Howie was the most disappointed of all of us, but I didn’t care much as we still got a good hike out of it!
The blockage ended up being a blessing in disguise because right as we turned around, the rain came down in full force. Rainy season certainly keeps us on our toes! We took cover and waited for the rain to calm down. Afterward, we took a boat back to the trailhead as we were reluctant to hike in the rain.
I think given our circumstances, our group did a nice job navigating everything and even had fun with it! We headed back to the homestay on the bus. After cleaning up, I headed out for dinner on Love Lane, a popular backpacker spot for restaurants and bars. I thought the restaurants were a bit touristy and overpriced, but after hiking in the rain, I treated myself to a nice dinner. 🙂
Day 5: sightseeing and self-guided food tour in Georgetown
The next morning, I was ready to explore the area I stayed in called Georgetown. Georgetown is the main city of Penang and the key draw to visitors coming to the island. Its colonial architecture, robust history, and multi-cultural core (Malay/Chinese/Indian) have made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I started off the morning by walking around Georgetown and getting a feel for the city. I have to say, I fell in the love quickly. I loved the eclectic assortment of colonial and Asian architecture, chipped away like it was stuck in time.
The multi-ethnic food is a key draw to Penang, and a popular activity is taking a street food tour. I looked into this and decided it was sadly out of my budget, and so I decided to make my own food tour! I did some research and combined with Howie’s recs, I had a list of places to hit up over the next 2 days. This was the most effort I put into food on any trip, and I have to say, I’m really proud of how it all came together. I’m still dreaming of some of the dishes I ate in Penang. 🙂 Get ready for a lot of food photos.
Breakfast was chee cheong fun, which was steamed rice flour rolls served with a mixture of chili paste, shrimp paste, and sesame seeds…divine! I’m a sucker for sticky rice flour texture and ate every bite on the plate.
After breakfast, I checked out the famous street art of Georgetown. So cute! The art pieces were spread across town so it felt like a little treasure hunt to find all of them (with the help of Google maps 😉 ). I fell in love with these quirky pieces and had a blast taking photos.
A little Instagram versus reality for you. 😛 Most of the wall art had a small queue, but that worked in my favor as I kindly asked strangers to take my photo.
After my street art session, I headed to the clan jetties, traditional floating villages built by Chinese Hokkien immigrants back in the 19th century. While these villages maintained the rustic historical houses, the whole village was converted for tourists filled with clothing stores, ice cream shops, etc. I did a quick round and then moved on.
Next was lunch! I took Howie’s recommendation and headed to Joo Hooi Cafe, a local spot with several hawker options. The place was packed with locals, so I knew I was in the right place. 🙂
I had laksa (a famous Malaysian noodle soup with a tangy fish-based broth) and popiah (jicama spring rolls). Another solid find! Both hit the spot.
One of the hawker stands here was known as having the best cendol in town, so I had to try it for dessert. 🙂 Cendol is an iced dessert that contains pandan rice flour jelly, coconut milk, palm sugar, and red bean. This was one of my favorite things I’ve eaten yet. I have the world’s biggest sweet tooth and devoured this refreshing dessert!
After a full morning, I headed back to my homestay for some rest. A few cats lived here which was heaven for me.
Later in the afternoon, I took a walk to the other side of town to try something new…durian! In all my travels in Asia, I still hadn’t eaten durian yet. I saw dedicated stalls in Malaysia for durian and thought this was the perfect place to finally try some. 😉
Durian is a fruit and famous for its overwhelming odor…kind of like sweet onions and raw sewage. Across southeast Asia you often find signs at hotels/public transport saying “no durian allowed.” It’s one of those foods where once you smell it, you know right away it’s durian. 😉
This stall provided plastic gloves so your hands didn’t smell like durian after. 😉 Overall, it wasn’t too bad! It tasted as strong as it smelled, as my nostrils cleared up right away from its aroma. It was surprisingly rich and creamy and less sweet than I imagined. I’m glad I tried it, but one piece was enough for me!
After was dinner. I found a hawker center and ordered char koay teow, another famous stir-fried noodle dish in Malaysia. It was very similar to pad see ew which I love.
After a full day on my feet, I had a relaxing even at the homestay. I was very happy with today’s meals and couldn’t wait for another day.
Day 6: Kek Sok Li Temple + more hawker eats
The next morning, I had breakfast at Toh Soon Cafe, a popular breakfast spot for locals known for serving different types of bread. I had charcoal black sesame toast with homemade kaya spread, soft-boiled eggs, and a strong dose of coffee. This was my go-to breakfast in Singapore and I loved every bite!
After getting my fix of Georgetown yesterday, I decided to venture out and see more of Penang island. I took the public bus to another part of the island, seeing new views along the way. I always feel so accomplished taking public transportation in a foreign country – like I’m a local champ. 😉
I headed to the Kek Lok Si Temple, a Buddhist temple and pilgrimage site for Buddhists in SE Asia due to its massive bronze statue of the Goddess of Mercy. Of all the temples I visited this year, I thought this one was quite impressive. The temple campus was large and required a long trek up a hill. I was drenched in sweat when I got there which made it feel like an accomplishment.
There were beautiful views of Penang below.
After the temple, I headed back to Georgetown on the bus. I met a nice Malaysian couple who recommended a spot for lunch. So I scratched one of the stops on my food tour and took their suggestion, OO White Coffee Cafe. It was full of locals and I had to wait in line for a short time – a good sign. 🙂 I ordered the oyster omelet with tapioca flour batter, which was recommended by the couple – SO GOOD. This was my favorite savory item I ate in Penang.
The afternoon was spent chilling at the homestay and working on the blog. I got out for another walk in Georgetown along the ocean promenade.
I enjoyed the cendol and durian so much yesterday that I decided to get both for a dessert snack. Together, it was a lot, but still refreshing. I am determined to acquire a taste for durian. 😉
The evening was a chill one. I chatted with Howie back at the homestay, and one of the long-term guests cooked laksa for dinner for everyone. I’m really glad I stayed at Cocoa Mews – the small but social vibe was just what I was looking for. Howie, who was age ~65+, was such a positive person, and I could tell he was passionate about bringing everyone together. When I asked him why he opened the homestay, he said “I love mankind, and I believe backpackers are important to making the world better. Bringing everyone together and sharing stories, experiences, and opinions…that’s what I wanted to dedicate my life to.” That was one of the most beautiful things I heard on my whole trip. ❤
After an action-packed week in Malaysia’s big cities, I feel complete. I got a culture overload, ate my heart out, and met some memorable people. Next up, I’m heading to a beach island off of Malaysia for some sun and relaxation. I’m excited to go from the bustling city to beach life.