Penang is every bit as fantastic as it seems

You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced the people, the weather and the food

The bustling island of Penang, Malaysia is often overlooked for more exciting holiday destinations like Krabi, Thailand or Bali, Indonesia.

What people fail to realize until they spend some time in this melting pot is that the unparalleled variety of food, predictable weather, and warm people make this the place that should be number one on everyone’s bucket list of places to visit.

Having spent the first nineteen years of my life there, there are a number of things that make Penang so unique.

Hawker food

In all of Malaysia, Penang is the one place that has the most eclectic food choices. Streets are lined with Malaysian hawkers selling scrumptious meals for the day. Penangites will promptly name Tanjung Bunga as one of the areas with the best Nasi Kandars, selling everything from curries to roasted meat and manners of rice dishes. This is the neighborhood my high school was located in, and it never disappointed.

From the spicy curries and chicken rice to the sizzling burgers, we had all choices covered. During the month of Ramadan, the hawkers in Little India really bring out their best and the variety is endless. My favorite was Murtabak, and my mouth still gets watery when I think about it. Some things (and dishes), you just never get over.

Fine dining like no other

Malaysian malls also host upscale restaurants and eateries, for those who might want different cuisine, and it is not uncommon to spot a Chili’s yards away from a Nasi Kandar. This mixture of Western and Eastern goes a long way in making both locals and expats feel at home.

There were always so many options, from Middle Eastern and Italian to German and to little cafes selling only dessert. Honestly, life in Penang is every epicurean’s delight.


Asian markets and their irrresistable temptations

Like many Asian cities, Penang has a “wet market” and “dry market” system. While groceries could be easily bought in a supermarket, vendors also opened their version of a farmer’s market with fresh produce, seafood, and poultry for the day.

Among the delicacies were dragonfruit, rambutan, and when in season, mangoes. Some of my most visceral childhood memories involve going to the market with my mother and picking out exotic fruits to serve after dinner.

More than the fruit, it’s the warm smiles of the cheery vendors that my heart misses.


One of many Middle Eastern meals found in Batu Ferringhi


Mango season–one of the many culinary delights of the island

Warm weather guaranteed all year long (well… mostly)

One of the most unique things about Penang is its temperamental weather. Scorching, sunny days will be unexpectedly interrupted by an unending drizzle.

Even after nineteen years of living there, I never got used to how thoroughly unpredictable the weather was. As a tropical island, the only seasons we ever had were “rainy” and “dry”. And as much as I miss my hometown, I don’t miss the frizz my hair had to combat on a daily basis.


People parasailing and enjoying the warm weather

Taking in some culture

Penang’s year-long hot weather ┬ámakes it a great choice for those who want to lounge around on a beach all day, munching on scrumptious spring rolls. ┬áThe Batu Ferringhi area is great for seaside activities, with parasailing and jet skiing being among the main ones.

I always liked exploring Georgetown because it was a great way to get in touch with the island’s colonial history and take some artsy Instagram shots featuring the many murals and graffitied walls. Penang’s rich cultural history also means that there’s a plethora of religious sites and festivals tourists can get involved in, if they’re there at the right time.


Vibrant Chinese New Year decorations in a mall

Shopping, shopping, shopping

The Batu Ferringhi area of Penang is perfect introduction to “night market” shopping–rows of never-ending stalls selling handmade artifacts, inexpensive clothes, and all manners of replicas. The key here, of course, is to know how to emerge as the champion in the ruthless fight called haggling. Haggling is serious business to Malaysians, and anyone who underestimates its power will be in for a rude shock.

It’s also the most high pressure environment in which to learn the basics of negotiation, and as a young child and later teenager accompanying friends and relatives on this brave expedition, I’ve learnt a few skills and mind games that will help me should I ever enter the world of business. If nothing else, the night market is a great way of getting away with screaming deals.

At the end of the day, despite the sometimes unbearable humidity and its drivers’ penchant for ignoring traffic rules, this little island will always have a part of me. The mental image of friends sitting around a hawker stall table, laughing raucously and guzzling down iced milo and chicken rice is one I will always cherish, no matter where life takes me.


Stunning sunsets are one of the many perks of living on this island

This is what it’s like to grow up in a literal heaven on Earth. And it’s every bit as fantastic as it seems.

UC Davis