Another day, another new country 😉 When we left Vietnam three weeks ago, we were venturing off the well-worn SE Asian backpacker route and heading to Malaysia. We expected significant differences to the experiences we had had so far on this trip, and we weren’t disappointed.
Rather than jump straight to the capital, Kuala Lumpur, we headed for the islands of Penang and Langkawi off the northwest coast, in the Andaman Sea.
Our first stop was George Town, the capital of the state of Penang. From the moment we stepped off the plane, we could tell Malaysia would have a completely different vibe to the rest of our trip. Even Penang is a little more developed and modern than the cities we had seen, motorbikes are much less common on the streets, it was notably multicultural, and alcohol is not as prominent (the majority of Malaysians are Muslims).
Foodie Capital of SE Asia
We’d heard that Penang, and especially the main city, George Town, is the foodie capital of SE Asia. Since we love to eat, we couldn’t wait to see if it lived up to the hype. The combination of cultures, from Indian to Chinese to Malay, provides a huge range of cuisines and a lot of cross influences on the food. The best way to explore the local food is by eating at street stalls, called hawker stalls in Malaysia. And we were lucky enough to be in George Town for the first ever Penang International Food Festival.
There are a huge range of dishes available, but our favourite was Char Kway Teow. When we wanted something a bit different, we headed into the Little India section of George Town for some fantastic Roti Canai.
Overall, we’d have to say we preferred the street food of Vietnam and Thailand over the “foodie heaven” of Penang. But we definitely never went hungry!
Besides food, George Town is famous for its street art. After the Old Town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, the city put a bit of money into promoting the town’s history. Whereas somewhere like Hoi An, Vietnam now looks like a caricature of its old self, George Town has retained it’s shabby-chic feel that really gives it a unique character.
On many streets, metal murals (for lack of a better word) explain the history of different streets or sections of the city.
Artwork, often a mixture of paintings interacting with stationery physical sculptures, are also spread throughout the alleyways of the city. Luckily, maps are available so we could search out the various pieces of art as we wandered around.
Outside the City
Many visitors skip George Town and head to the resorts and beaches of Batu Feringghi and/or take the cable car to the summit of Penang Hill. To get out of the city, we found the better option was to do some hiking in Penang National Park.
An easy and cheap one-hour local bus ride from the city, Penang National Park has a number of hiking trails. They’re not very well maintained, but not terrible either. The one we chose culminated in a steep climb to a lighthouse for some great views back along the coast. Since it was so humid (as in you get drenched just walking around, let alone hiking), we didn’t feel like doing the full hike back to the park entrance. Instead, we hopped on a boat for a quick 10 minute ride back to the pier before taking the bus back to the city.
We hadn’t had any beach time in almost two months, so that had to change. We took the three hour ferry from Penang to the island of Langkawi. Much smaller and less developed than Penang, Langkawi was a great place to kick back for a few days.
One of Langkawi’s claims to fame is the number of duty free stores, selling anything from food to alcohol to chocolate without the high taxes of the rest of Malaysia. We couldn’t resist the opportunity to pick up a bottle of NZ Sauvignon Blanc for our first glasses of wine in way too many weeks.
We rented a scooter through our guesthouse and racked up a lot of km’s exploring the island. The combination of beaches and mountains made for a lot of great photo opportunities.
The best views of the island are from the summit of Machinchang Mountain, accessible by cable car.
Considering the warm weather, the reasonable prices for food and drinks, and the amazing beaches, it’s amazing that Langkawi isn’t a more popular tourist destination. There is an airport on the island, but the fact there are few direct flights to/from outside of Malaysia seems to prevent this island from getting overrun with tourists. Their loss, our gain!
At the end of our time in Malaysia, we will spend a few days on the Perhentian Islands off the east coast. It will be interesting to see how they differ from Penang and Langkawi. But before we get there, we have a couple of weeks in Borneo.