Chilling out in Penang

The past year has taken me to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, The Andaman Islands, Bali, New Zealand, French Polynesia and Japan. Some of this has been for work (one year I’ll run a retreat in Bali and actually have time to add on a holiday after), others have been slow boat trips, some a bit of both.

Yes I am a little behind in the travel blogging malarky!

When my elderly father needed some winter sun but wasn’t really up to travelling all the way across the world, a compromise was hatched. A week in one place. A luxury hotel in Penang. Time to actually enjoy the pool. Great local food, But most of all, plenty of time to relax.

 

The E & O

There is so much love on the internet for this grand dame. My father first stayed here in 1951 and was keen to see it again. Though the old wing still stands (soon to close for refurbishments), we stayed in the five year old ‘Victory Annex’ sympathetically built in the same architectural style.

Apart from a few visits to the 1960’s in ground pool and some casual dinners on the terrace at Sarkies Corner, most of our time was spent in the new wing.

Highlights of my stay:

  • Choosing the local breakfast options: char keow teow, murtabak, roti and curry, nasi lemak or soup with noodles. Sure, there are pancakes, omelettes and all the usual Western fare as well but in Asia I eat local favourites when possible. It’s always the best!
  • Chilling out by the pool: the infinity pool on the 6thfloor of the Victory Annex is stunning. Though some days, if there was the slightest breeze, the poolside area became strangely gusty and the water temperature was too chilly. Not to worry, the old pool next door stays deliciously warm.
  • Happy hour in the Planters lounge: despite suggestions to the contrary on a well-known travel site earlier in the year, free drinks and nibbles are still served to hotel guests between 5 – 6 pm each day. While the drink range is limited, the staff were generous with refills. The food also got replenished a number of times.
  • The bathroom: travelling with my sister we really appreciated such a spacious bathroom, especially twin vanity units to spread our toiletries out. The beautiful deep bath was delightful.
  • Coffee at sunrise: one room facility I made the most of was the espresso machine.  I could start the day with a coffee made just the way I like it (double shot espresso), while watching the sun come up from our balcony.

We also enjoyed checking out the small arcade of shops on the ground floor, including getting some shirts made at the tailor (sure there are cheaper tailors in Penang, but proximity made fittings and adjustments so much easier).

 

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Georgetown food

Penang is famous for its food. The assam laksas and cendol in particular. After sampling the culinary delights of Malacca a few years ago I couldn’t wait to eat authentic Nonya food again.

We ate at a number of “coffee houses”. These are often chaotic, mini food courts with different vendors selling a single specialty. You choose your main dish(es), sometimes paying on ordering but often just when it’s delivered to your table. Another trader will offer you a drink (being a Muslim country, these are mostly non-alcoholic) and if you’re lucky there might be a cendol stall as well. Getting a table, or grabbing a stool, can sometimes be challenging but turnover is fast. Servings tend to be small, so you can graze to your heart’s content.

 

 

The best laksa was at this place

 

These are rushed and not particularly comfortable affairs (my elderly father found the noise and stools a bit challenging) but a flavoursome experience of local life.

A couple more comfortable options we experienced were Mews and Jawi house. Both are air conditioned, with generous serves and great service. We ate prawn fritters at both (note these were classed as entrees but we struggled to share between three), which turned out to be a delicious local treat. Jawi House has an interesting heritage in a traditional house, with the food reflecting the rich cultural history of the area. This includes a Persian style lemuni rice, like nothing I’ve ever tasted before (AU$3.50 serve). After eating so much seafood on our trip, I enjoyed the medley of three vegetarian curries, including seasonal okra (Au$4). The menu and prices are aimed at tourists but they’re happy to serve a spicy sambal on the side if you want a little heat.

Due to one of us not feeling their best we only got a local meal, on average, once a day. They were all good but not as stunning as I remember from Malacca. So I’ll buck the trend and say that despite the food being good in Penang, for a foodie foray I’d still pick a long weekend in Malacca as the winner.

 

Penang Art

Georgetown has a thriving street art culture, but don’t expect to see anything edgy or overtly political. Much of it has been curated for tourism, no doubt with Instagram in mind.

Heading out on foot, during the cooler part of morning (or early evening) is best. Though you can grab a trishaw if necessary. The earlier you go, the greater your chance of getting shots of your favourites without others blocking your view.

 

 

Beyond Georgetown

Disappointingly we couldn’t manage a day trip to the national park, which was my number one out of town pick. But we did make it to a number of the other tourism-worthy sites. There were a few hits and misses but always good to see more of the island.

The WWII museum, an open-air site of what was reportedly a concentration camp (not everyone agrees about the details of this colourful history). I’d give it a miss, unless you’re particularly bored or have a fascination for gruesome details.

Penang Botanical gardens. Super manicured and a disappointment compared to similar ones (probably the best thing about Kandy, Sri Lanka was their garden). Entry is free, but there’s a cheap and easy golf cart to tour the grounds, which suited our elderly traveller.

Entopia – a surprisingly enjoyable experience for all ages. Beautiful, modern butterfly “farm” and reptile displays. Worth a visit.

Penang Hill. Take the new cable car to the top and have a wander. The views of the island are worth seeing. We discovered a short buggy tour and explored the hill a little further. Ours was worth every ringget, with a cheerful and informative driver. If energetic, walk down the thousands of so steps to the Botanical gardens.

Tip: If possible go to Penang Hill midweek, when the queue for the cable car is considerably shorter. We’ve been told that waiting times Friday – Sunday and public holidays can stretch to well over an hour. This is likely why you can buy a more expensive ticket to jump the regular queue. We only had a 15 minute wait mid-week but if choosing the non-fast track option, you’ll likely stand in a cramped compartment.

 

Getting around

For short distances, Grab (the local ride sharing scheme) is the most economical way to get around. Unlike Uber (which has been banned in the area) you don’t need to register a credit card, as you pay each driver the quoted fare in cash. The 25 minute trip to the airport came in at less than AU$8, about a third of the price of a taxi. However, if going further afield you’ll need a local sim and I’m not sure how easy it is to get a homeward trip from other parts of the island. If you’d like to hire a driver for half a day, the going rate for a blue (more luxurious) taxis that the E&O favours is around MR50/hour. Otherwise, taxis are metered but we found the cheaper, red taxi drivers more likely to want to haggle despite the regulatory signs inside the cab saying such a practice is illegal.

I hate to play the comparison game again, but unlike Malacca’s brightly decorated and well-loved trishaws, the Georgetown ones were incredibly shabby, expensive and powered by elderly men, many of whom looked like they were on their last legs. The hotel quoted RM45 – 50 a ride, likely a standard rate aimed at a 30 min sightseeing trip. For our threesome, that’d mean two tri-shaws costing around AU$35  for a 10 minute ride back to the hotel. Our ten minute Grab ride (arranged by the lovely manager of Jawi House) cost a tenth of this.

 

The best three hours

At the end of the week our time was up. Living in a different country to the rest of my family, my homeward flight left a few hours later. With three hours post check out, in the hottest part of the day, what to do?

The E&O generously offers card access to the 6thfloor (pool, gym, spa, poolside terrace and Planters Lounge) if they can’t accommodate a later check out time. There’s a basic shower in the pool bathroom with no amenities but there’s a better one with soap and shampoo in the small gym.

I chose a quick walk into Georgetown for a final laksa and cendol at one of the busiest Jelan Penang coffee houses (the locals often refer to it as “Ais Kechang” corner). Being a Saturday lunchtime the corner premises was totally rammed but I snared a seat at the coffee house next door, that fortunately shared the cendol stall. Eating in, I managed to dodge the 30 person long queue waiting patiently outside for their favourite icy treat!

In the morning, I’d scoped out the in-house spa menu. The hotel offers a 10% discount to guests and there are also some generous multi treatment packages. A one hour aromatherapy massage was closer to Sydney prices than the ones on the street of Georgetown. But a treatment was the perfect use of some leftover currency, so I splurged on spending my final hour or so before departure in the cool luxurious environment of Panpuri Spa.

My only regret is I didn’t do so earlier! Not only was Panpuri a beautiful space, having had a previous massage career, I was impressed by the professionality of the staff following all the correct protocols around history taking and draping. What’s more the treatment was spot on, beginning with a kaffir lime, herbal footbath. The massage was up there with one of the best and was incredibly relaxing. What’s more the in-room shower was kitted up with everything I needed to head to the airport clean and refreshed. The private chill out space to relax after was equally delightful.

 

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Malaysia is not every Antipodean traveller’s preferred Asian destination. Those seeking cheap beer and endless beaches tend to choose Bali or Thailand. But for a restful week in a beautiful hotel, with good in-house and local food on offer, Penang hit the spot.

 

No need for disclaimers as this holiday and reviews are independent (but if the E&O Group would like me to further explore any of their hotels, let me know!)

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