Reaching the end of our third day, we didn’t look our finest by our last evening in Penang’s George Town. After a self-inflicted onslaught of culinary consumption over the preceding days, topped off by yet another spectacular bout of feasting, we fairly staggered into the lobby of the perfectly presented Campbell House.
The guy on reception barely batted an eyelid. ‘Of course, it means you did it right.’ he said. ‘People come to Penang, you just have to eat constantly.’
And eat constantly we have, but at the same time I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface of Penang and George Town, a place stuffed to the rafters with great food, sights and endless treats to keep the curious visitor entertained.
Our trip to Penang marked a small special occasion: it’s the first international long weekend we’ve done since the start of 2020.
We’ve done longer trips to the UK in that time, but previously one of the things we loved most about living in Bangkok was the ability to travel easily within southeast Asia.
Since the pandemic, we’ve travelled almost exclusively in Thailand, and that has been wonderful in many ways, but I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to come somewhere with new sights, sounds and tastes to enjoy.
As of May 2022 Thailand, Laos and Malaysia have dropped their quarantine requirements, making short trips as simple as a pre-departure form. Cambodia has been open for a little while now too.
With these new options, we took the opportunity of a long weekend to visit the beautiful island of Penang in neighbouring Malaysia.
I don’t think we could have chosen better than Penang, as it turns out. Both of my regular readers (hi mum) will know of our penchant for good food, and Penang’s major urban centre of George Town is nothing short of a goldmine of edible delights.
We had no intention of over-indulging in Penang, but it’s nigh on impossible to resist the variety and quality of food on offer in George Town.
But Penang and George Town have so much more than just good eateries and cafes. A melting pot of cultures, endless pretty streets and alleys to explore, some thick slices of natural beauty and outstanding accommodation mean that Penang has something to please everyone.
We visited for three full days and could happily have stayed much, much longer.
Here’s a rundown of our time in Penang and George Town. What you’re about to read will probably do no justice to the place, so you could save a bit of time by just booking a trip and coming to enjoy Penang and this beautiful part of Malaysia yourself.
Getting to Penang from Bangkok
Penang is an easy 1hr20 flight directly from Bangkok, with Thai Smile and AirAsia both currently flying a couple of times per week.
Having travelled to Kuala Lumpur a few times before, I was pleasantly surprised by how short the journey was. Our flight wasn’t particularly busy, and after filling in the MySejahtera pre-departure form and app for Malaysia a few days earlier, it took less than 5 minutes from getting off the plane to having a freshly stamped passport.
Penang is a fairly large island and it’s around a 30 minute drive from the airport to George Town which is the heart of the action.
Our taxi driver, Daniel, greeted us with a friendly barrage of questions – people in Malaysia have been coming back to Penang for a little while, but visitors from overseas are lesser-spotted at the moment.
Transfers can be pre-booked with your hotel, or else taxis are readily available at the airport or the ubiquitous Grab app will get you from A to B quickly too. Soon enough, we found ourselves in the heart of George Town at a hotel I would highly recommend: Campbell House.
Campbell House Hotel Penang
This isn’t a website where I normally spend much time recommending hotels, but Campbell House deserves its own mention.
Nicely-appointed Penang hotels in and around George Town are plentiful from what we could see, but at Campbell House everything is absolutely on point. There are fairly few rooms, and they are absolutely beautiful. Ours was all dark woods and high ceilings including a rather delightful four poster bed.
The building itself is equally beautifully done, we assumed it was original but the owners Nardya and Roberto have built the whole thing up from a shell since taking over in 2008.
We were also on the receiving end of the best hotel breakfast I’ve had in Asia, there’s a lovely terrace for hotel guests at the top where you can enjoy a drink, and the in house Italian restaurant is excellent and wildly popular, but the thing that really sets Campbell House apart is the hospitality especially from the owners.
Nardya and Roberto really do go above and beyond – greeting us by name, giving really detailed recommendations, always asking about our day, filling in the blanks on local history and stopping to chat at all hours. There were also little surprise cakes and puddings waiting for us every day, and with a 6am departure in our last day they made us some sandwiches, fruit and yoghurt to take with us to the airport.
The damage? Just over £50 a night for us, including breakfast. What are you waiting for?
Gushing recommendation over – let’s go and explore George Town, starting with the star attraction: the food.
Where to eat in George Town Penang
Honestly, everywhere. Penang food is incredible. We didn’t even get close to eating through all the recommendations we had for George Town. We didn’t eat Roti Canai at Transfer Road. We didn’t gobble Char Kway Teow at Siam Road. We missed out on endless delights from oyster omelettes to mee sotong, but still ate to the brim.
The highlights are many and varied, reflecting the eclectic mix of historical influences in this part of the world. There are many fine ways to enjoy a second breakfast from the aforementioned Roti Canai to some fabulous looking dim sum restaurants liberally dotted about.
Toh Soon cafe
We loved the in-alley dining of Toh Soon cafe, a good introduction to the omnipresent but fast-moving queues that mark out the crème de la crème of Georgetown Penang eateries. Follow the queues and you’ll not go far wrong.
Grilled toasts and especially good polo/pineapple buns came doused in sweet Kaya and condensed milk, with good teh tarik and sweet black coffee. A shade under 12 ringgit for the pair of us, just over £2.
For lunch, we loved Rasa Rasa down by the waterfront jettys for wonderful Nasi Lemak and sambal chicken heavy on spice and with chunks of nicely-cooked okra. A little hint of pandan in the rice was a nice touch. It closes by around 2pm and the popular curries run out before then.
Jawi House Cafe Gallery
The slightly artsy, old school Jawi House Cafe Gallery on the edge of Little India showcases some top Peranakan and Malay food. We shared an incredible briyani, a deep beef rendang and a surprisingly refreshing Malayan salad featuring dragonfruit, mango, and a sweet sour pomegranate sauce.
I also enjoyed our fellow diners at Jawi, a group of ladies who were either best friends or mortal enemies, possibly both, engaged in full and frank discussion over who was doing what for an upcoming social event.
While our lunches didn’t hold back on the calories, dinners were equally full throttle.
We very much liked the Nyonya food at Baba Phang, although in all honesty we had no idea what we were ordering. Out came crispy tofu-skinned lor bak five-spiced pork, sticky soy sauce pork belly tau yew bak, crispy prawn fritters of cucuk udang, a herbaceous nasi ulam and a stink bean and prawn sambal petai.
All of which I can confidently describe having looked them up after eating, and none of which held back on flavour, many of them hitting our tongues for the first time.
A real highlight for me was nasi kandar, a kind of Malay-Indian cousin of Thailand’s khao gaeng restaurants.
There are a lot of nasi kandar restaurants in Penang and George Town, and a bonus for us was that the oldest and possibly most popular was right on our hotel doorstep.
Hameediyah nasi kandar
Hameediyah nasi kandar has been dishing up delights since 1907 and has a huge following locally. From opening in mid-afternoon to late at night, whenever we walked past there was a substantial queue, always well out the door and down the street.
Hameediyah is the kind of place that gets me figuratively hot and bothered about food. For the half hour we were queuing, punters emerged from the restaurant with piled plates of curry, rice, sides and breads.
Somewhat confusingly, you order and get your food at Hameediyah, then go and eat it about 3 doors down at their Hameediyah tandoori house. This could be a clever marketing ploy to get passers by salivating as the food heads down the street.
At the shop front is an older guy turning out Murtabah, a stuffed pancake of curried meats and eggs encased in a chewy roti.
This kind of thing, for me, is the quintessence of brilliant street food. He starts by beating a frightening quantity of eggs and mystery bits in something akin to a tankard.
An unpromising omelette dribbles onto the hot grill, and then the alchemy starts. With a practised hand, he shapes the egg mix into 6 or 7 rounds with one hand, pulling balls of dough from a cooler with the other. I should point out, he was also on the phone.
Through some wizardry he wrapped the omelettes in the roti dough to turn out a pile of steaming, gloriously charred stuffed breads, one of which we were happy to snag.
There is something unique about street food, southeast Asian street food in particular. You get situations where one person may well make the same dish, or a limited number of dishes, 100 times a day for 30 or 40 years. If it takes 10,000 hours to become world class at something, street food chefs are well off the scale.
It’s not inconceivable that our roti chef could have turned out over a million perfect pieces in his time. You’re looking at the Mozart of Murtabah, a master of their craft that would be considered an artisan I’m any other field. But with street food, you and I can sample their masterpieces for pennies. It’s a unique and exciting thing.
Anyway, we digress.
Getting to the chatoci main counter at Hameediyah, we frantically pointed at big bowls of biryani rice, curries of all stripes, vegetables and anything that looked good (all of it). The server flipped out a bit of all of the sauces to make a mega-gravy. Well done him.
With two heaving plates, one of those sensational murtabah, some poppadoms and a comedically large tray, we coughed up about 45 ringgit or £9 including drinks. Insane value.
Tottering down the road with our haul and more than one exhortations to enjoy our food from those still in the queue, we settled in at a table with a friendly pair of guys (everyone in Malaysia is friendly, it seems) visiting from KL.
Now, cutlery is available, but we didn’t notice this until pretty late on given that literally everyone else was diving in with their (right) hands. Bring wet wipes.
Hameediyah was probably my highlight – you might be able to tell.
Kebaya Dining Room
At the opposite end of the fancy scale, we finished our food odyssey in Penang at the vaunted Peranakan Kebaya Dining Room.
Set inside one of Penang’s abundance of beautiful buildings, the restaurant is stunningly decorated.
With an evening 2 or 3 course set menu, we loved the Chicken Kapitan’s creamy, charred goodness, while the otak-otak puffs for starters were absolutely brilliant.
For a fancier evening – Kebaya has memorable food in a memorable setting. It would be perfect for a bigger group to share through the menu, but it’s great for two as well.
These were some of our food highlights in Penang, but honestly there’s so much we didn’t see. I made a small map of places we visited, recommendations we didn’t manage to get to, and cafes/sights here.
Sights of Penang
You could conceivably base a trip to Penang entirely around food, but that would do a disservice to the rich history and many sights of George Town and the island of Penang. Plus you need to walk off those calories. You can spend hours or even days just wandering around exploring, still to refuel when something smells good.
Down every street is seemingly something interesting, from the bustle of Little India to the seafront jettys to the old British Fort Cornwallis. There is endless street art reminiscent of Songkhla just across the Thai border. Many of the buildings reminded us of another Thai favour, the pretty Phuket Town on a much grander scale. Old but well-kept buildings alongside more crumbling facades and revamped shophouses having a new lease on life.
Penang has a really interesting history, but it’s not a museum preserved in aspic. This is a vibrant town with a lot going on.
For coffee lovers, there are great cafes like the chilled out, quirky Postcard Cafe. You can write and send actual postcards here, like in the past. I sent a picture of a cat – why send it for free and instantly online when you could pay money for it to arrive in 3 weeks?
It also seems Penang is going through a patisserie boom. We loved Petit Four just off Lebuh Armenian.
George Town is compact enough that everything is in walking distance, but you can also get Grab, taxis and rickshaws around to escape the heat.
Probably the best single sight in George Town is the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. 20 ringgit entry to this gigantic, century old building previously owned by a Chinese mafia boss is money well spent. The tour is extremely informative about the history of the mansion but also the island, from warring Chinese factions to the arrival of the British and the origins of the Chinese-Malay Peranakan people and culture.
The mansion is also just stuffed full of beautiful things, even down to the original ironwork shipped in from Glasgow in the 1800s.
The floating villages or jettys are also well worth a little wander around. At time of writing, only Chow Jetty is open, but it’s a cool place to stroll around over the water.
Out of George Town, the most famous attraction in Penang is the Penang Hill site, with its vertiginous funicular railway hoisting passengers some 600 metres up to the top, home to a mosque, some colonial buildings – Brits reading this may remember the show Indian Summers – it was filmed up here.
More impressive is great swathe of rainforest with the chance to explore it via The Habitat.
The funicular and Penang Hill get busy, especially at weekends. A normal ticket for the train is 30 ringgit, but consider upgrading to the 80 ringgit fast track ticket if coming at the weekend. It’s a steep price hike but will likely save you at least an hour in queues.
Alternatively, for the brave and fit, hike up the hill for free via the path.
The railway is steep and fast, maybe don’t look down if heights aren’t your thing.
The Habitat is a further 60 ringgit a head but offers a pleasant trip through the rainforest and whole island views of Penang and the mainland, linked by two snaking bridges. The views are probably worth the price of admission.
A day out at Penang Hill will set you back a few quid, but it’s a nice piece of natural beauty and a good way to spend at least a morning. Or you can just cram in more food.
As you can probably tell, we really loved Penang. It’s some of the best eating we’ve done anywhere in a picture postcard setting, with friendly people and lots of local history and culture to experience, all at very good value.
As a short haul trip from Bangkok, Penang is really a no-brainer, but even if you’re coming from further afield it’s more than worth a few days. Your waistline may not thank you, but your soul and tummy most certainly will.