Leaving Southern Thailand behind, the journey to Malaysia involved an overnight ferry, four different mini-vans, and the most unorganized customs/border service I experienced in Southeast Asia. And that’s saying a lot considering the tourist swindling operations at the Laos border.
In the customs office, the border officials requested our immunizations card, something the United States does not provide. After denying their request, we let them take our temperatures and they asked us if we had the Zika virus – of course we all replied that we did not. After sitting in the office for 45 minutes while they copied our information by hand into written book, we were ready to go. I don’t know if it was because we were Americans and it is a Muslim country or because America doesn’t provide immunization cards, but a couple from Europe was in and out of the same office in 15 minutes.
Arriving in George Town, Penang
Sitting with my face pressed against the left rear window of the minivan as we approached Penang, I couldn’t help but feel like I was driving over the Richmond or Bay Bridge in the San Francisco Bay Area. While the grey railings on the edge of bridge whizzed by, a second gigantic bridge, blue waters, and a beautiful city skyline were all in view.
In fact, the two main bridges are 8.4 miles and 15 miles – way longer than any of the three the bridges in the Bay Area. And on top of that, the population of Penang is nearly 2 million (twice that of San Francisco). Despite these facts, walking around downtown George Town did not feel like a big city. It was easy to stroll around on foot and enjoy the world renown cuisine and culture.
George Town’s Mix of Ethnicities and Religions
One of the coolest things about George Town is the mix of cultures and ethnicities. The island is around 50% Chinese, 40% Malay, and 10% Indian. This mix of culture is reflected in an obvious way through both the cuisine and the religious architecture. For instance, in an area of just a few blocks, I visited the Hindu temple (top left), mosque (top right), church (bottom left), and Buddhist temple (bottom right). I had never seen anything like that before. If possible, the food reflected the diverse mix of cultures even more so.
George Town as a Food Capital of Southeast Asia
Penang is commonly known as the food capital of Malaysia, but I think it is should be known as one of the food capitals of Southeast Asia. As the last country on my Southeast Asia tour, Malaysia was up for comparison against several other countries in the food arena. I had recently traveled to Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Luang Prabang, Phnom Penh, Chiang Mai, and Bangkok before arriving in George Town. Without a doubt, George Town ranked in my top three food cities.
In addition to the unique blend of Chinese, Malay, and Indian cuisines, George Town has an amazing street food culture. There are a few different street food night markets that are cheap and delicious. You can find everything from popiah to char koay teow (fried noodles). If you want to see pictures of the Malay food I tried, check out this post on food from George Town and Kuala Lumpur.
There are also plenty of affordable restaurants and a couple of food courts in George Town. I would highly recommend eating at the Chinese restaurant Gou Lou and visiting the Red Garden Cafe food court. Those were two of my favorite spots.
Armenian Street and Little India
Two other fantastic areas of George Town are Armenian Street and Little India. Armenian Street is a lively narrow alley full of street performers, pop-up shops, and building art. This is a great part of the city to kill a few hours walking around.
Just a few blocks away from Armenian Street, Little India has traditional Indian style markets and authentic Indian food. It is also located near a popular shopping area that is perfect for tourists.
Night Life in George Town, Penang
One of the few things George Town did not have going for it was a strong night life. There were plenty of pricey bars (due to the high taxes on alcohol) that had tourists and exactly one cheap place to buy booze. For some reason, this one place was able to sell alcohol that is not highly taxed and both locals and tourists flocked to it every night. It is more of a corner store than a bar and everyone sits at tables set up in the street outside of the shop. While this was a fine place to meet some people and make conversation, I wouldn’t expect to have any wild and crazy nights out drinking in George Town.
Amazing Hostel/Guesthouse in George Town
Luckily, we booked all of our nights in George Town at the WeLuv Travel Guesthouse. The staff at this hotel is truly amazing. They were all friendly and very helpful for finding the best food and local activities. All of the facilities were comfortable and clean and the wi-fi was really fast. If you are looking for a low-cost place to stay in George Town, you should 100% stay at WeLuv Travel.
If you have any of your own stories or tips for George Town, Penang, please comment and share below!
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