The next stop on my whirlwind adventure of Southeast Asia was none other than Malaysia. Saying that this country was hotly contested on my list to visit is again selling everything on my list short. I left Koh Tao on an overnight sleeper boat (NEVER AGAIN) and found myself basking in Malaysia’s humid morning light. I walked through its land border crossing, passport in hand, grinning ear to ear. Overly anxious to get the next adventure started.
Up first: George Town, Penang Island. Leading up to my arrival to Penang Island all the hype seem to center around two things: street art and insanely good food! The next few days saw me chasing down Penang’s famous art murals all the while finding a spicy bowl of laksa to quell the hunger pangs. By the end, I’ve amassed thousands of steps taken in humid air thick enough to cut, plenty of miles walked up and down side streets like a maniac, and no jetty unturned.
All the while it rained cats and dogs with short spurts of dry overcast so you can run from one spot to another without getting drenched.
Interactive Street Art Murals
With any new city in my travels, I always like to spend a solid day just walking everywhere. Making it a mission to find its famous mural became a fun game for me and about a couple dozen others like you. You’ll be definitely earning all the Hokkien Mee you can stuff your face with afterward.
Heed my advice and get started EARLY in the day. The heat gets more and more unbearable the closer to the equator you get. Its humid weather will surely leave an impression on you and your shirt with profuse sweat. Another upside to not chugging down large amounts of water is that you’ll be able to beat the crowds!
To find some of the more popular, interactive murals you can start at Yap Kongsi and walk any of the streets. But always head towards the jetty, any jetty, there are many. You’ll find more than a dozen and a half murals beckoning for your best poses and add in some funny style! From the kids on the bicycle to the two on the swing it was a fun way for me to explore the neighborhoods. Get weird with it and have fun even if you feel like a fool!
If you are in doubt that you’re going the right way just follow the crowds, somehow you’ll always end up back at the big cat mural in the center of it all.
Being adventurous really not your thing and getting lost in a foreign city doesn’t sound like fun? Don’t worry for I have your back. Follow this map and you can find a lot of the murals I am talking about.
NOTE: A few of these murals are actually at someone’s home, don’t forget to be respectful.
Keep An Eye Open
During a walk with my hostel mate down a very unassuming street towards the next mural on our list when she spotted an odd door. Alright, to be fair everything about our mural adventure has been odd, we’re posing with bicycles, basketball hoop, and cages all day long. Thankfully her eyes were keener than mine and before you knew it we were doubling back to a closer inspection.
The door was old, the paint on it chipped, revealing the old wood underneath. It was ajar enough to slightly produce that welcoming feeling, but not enough to feel completely warranted. The fearless and quite inquisitive one, her, threw it completely open to reveal a hidden art museum!
Think of speakeasies, but just for art! You can guess not too many people were in there and better yet it was opened to the public, free entry if you can find it! Exposed structural beams, sectioned exhibits, you can get a sense that this place was very well curated. Every inch of the space, a long corridor between two streets, were covered in vibrant colors, murals on every cracked wall, contemporary pieces hung from the ceiling, sculptures took up space every so often.
We took our time admiring the pieces on display; the cat in jungle mural, the girl adorning her hijab to the funny t-rex “I can.” I just thought how fantastic it was to have a space like this dedicated to artists without any pretense of ticket fares tucked away in such an unbeknownst locale. The things you find when you walk a city is amazing.
Speaking of hidden things down alleys or behind unbeknownst doors definitely check out every alley! Of course, be safe while doing so, but you never know what you’ll find! Down an alley by one of the murals, I ran into an arts and crafts market. Tables were filled with hand made objects from artisans and a clothing store that specialized in traditional attire and fabrics.
After much haggling, a few phone calls, coming and goings I grabbed a shirt at the listed price. Why because of its attention to detail in the patterns and holding true to its roots in Malay culture. Plus it looks dope!
Penang’s Hawker Stalls
Penang’s streets are famous for more than just their art hands down they’re also known for their hawker stalls. You can find anything and everything from mild to wild to burning your taste buds clear off. Hokkien, Hakka, and Teochew-speaking Chinese communities, Indian Tamils, Malays, and the British have major influences in the Penang’s street food scene. Truly a clash of all cultures and your belly will be the victor.
These hawker stalls are some of the best no-nonsense, let’s get down to the food type of joints you’ll ever visit. With this in mind, I made it a point to check out as many stalls as my feet would carry me through the humid island weather. The best plan of attack is to coordinate your street art with street food so you can have a good balance of activities and filling your belly. Because your belly will be bursting before this is all over!
You know how everyone has a favorite place to go get their specific favorite dish? Don’t underestimate the locals’ tenacity to sourcing out the best laksa the island has to offer. Everyone, including their grandmother, has their go-to joint for laksa. They know their stuff here.
Here’s a list of dishes you need to try:
- Laksa (of course!)
- Roti Canai
- Penang Char Koay Teow
- Curry Mee
- Hokkien Mee
- Nasi Lemak
- Fish Head Bee Hoon
- Oyster Omelette
- Wantan Mee
Putting together that shortlist really had me salivating at the mouth again. I went to Malaysia during Ramadan of all times, what can you do, sometimes it be like that. A lot of places were closed during the day time hours and only opened for evening service once the fasting period was over. This only made me extra ravenous when it did come time to eat and not one single flavor disappointed.
I know the phrase of a melting pot has been beat to death over the decades of travel writing, but it honestly fits here. Not many places in the world left where cultures are just left unto themselves and their food that eventually spill and cross over. One street will be all Chinese influenced, another Indian, yet another Anglo European, but they work and they work deliciously well together. Damn, I miss it.
Throw away your preconceptions of the island and just have a good time finding good art and eating damn good food. Someone take me back, please.