For the Love of Travel
For the Love of Travel

Ipoh and Penang’s rich culture and history

Malaysia is by no means a ‘one stop’ country to visit. Visiting a single city in Malaysia would certainly be nice, but there is a lot you miss out on, writes Andrew Sepie.

Proximity is your friend here, and after some time in Kuala Lumpur, it is time to head to Penang. However, take your time, there is lots to experience on the way, including the coffee stops and fruit stalls. Halfway between Kuala Lumpur and Penang you will find the intriguing city of Ipoh, capital of Perak. Ipoh was originally a village, now the fourth largest city in Malaysia, and well-worth a good explore. After a fire destroyed Ipoh’s ‘Old Town’ in 1892, the lanes of shops were duly rebuilt and became notorious for opium dens, brothels, and casinos up until the end of World War Two. It has now been ‘respectfully repurposed’, which seems a curious way of phrasing the cleaning-up of a town! As such, the area is rich with history. Some stunning street art awaits you as you explore the sites, including a very famous White Coffee mural, which is hard to miss, as it takes up the entire side of the White Coffee cafe. You may as well grad a cup of Ipoh’s famous white coffee in the café while you’re there.

White coffee mural, Ipoh, Malaysia
White coffee mural, Ipoh, Malaysia. Photo: Andrew Sepie

Old Town, Ipoh

In the main area of Old Town, you will find three streets with a good story. A mining Tycoon Yeo Tet Shin gave a lane each to his three wives, and locals nicknamed these ‘The Wife Lane’, ‘The Concubine Lane’, and ‘The Second Concubine Lane’. The latter is now Market Lane, where you will find all manner of goodies (as the name suggests). You can also dine at Plan B, a restaurant with a gigantic tree growing through its modern steel and glass construction. Yes, an actual large tree, so be sure to ask the staff to regale you with the story behind this! There are some very delicious Vietnamese and Malay cuisines available, with vegetarian options. You could also opt for something from their range of western food, with a sizable burger called The Godfather; if you are there early in the day, go for the Surfer’s Brekkie or Wonder Waffles.

Street art in Ipoh, Malaysia.
Street art in Ipoh, Malaysia. Photo: Andrew Sepie

The road to Penang

Penang is a couple of hours out of Ipoh, a quintessential holiday destination, and one with more history and culture than you could shake a travel guide at. Set aside a few days to simply amble around Penang, you will be so glad you did. In fact, it is one of those places that, no matter how much you tried to plan, you will still find yourself wandering in awe at the plethora of sights that are rich in history and so diverse. You could spend a long time looking at the truly amazing street art, trying to decide whether it is ‘stunning’ or ‘haunting’, and you quickly realise that it is both.

Kapitan Keling Mosque, Penang
Kapitan Keling Mosque, Penang. Photo: Andrew Sepie

There is something unique to this art that speaks to a particular time and place, so be sure to take many pictures, because you will not be able to remember even half of it. Incidentally, ‘street art’ means far more than just wall-paintings, as numerous artists have built in other elements, such as bicycles and, in one famous example, an actual motorbike. Much of this you will find in the George Town World Heritage Site, along with so much more in the way of good eats, beautiful crafts, and touristy goodies that make superb gifts for those back home. For the photofiles amongst us, there is even an Asia Camera Museum, which (as it says on the box) is dedicated solely to photography with over 1,000 cameras and photographic accessories on display.

Ancestral temples of Penang

Magnificent Fu Lion statues guard various building entrances. If you keep your eyes open, you will see these Chinese Guardian Lions positioned according to feng shui: the male on the right with a ball under his right paw, and the female to the left with a cub under her left paw.

Ancestral temple in Penang. Photo: Andrew Sepie

Buildings that reflect Malaysia’s diversity feature everywhere, from the Han Jiang Ancestral Temple to the Kapitan Keling Mosque and its elegant domes, both dating back to the 1800s. If temples are your thing, then about 30 minutes’ drive out of main George Town you find Hock Hin Keong. This is the Snake Temple and probably the only one of its kind in the world. It was built in 1850 and dedicated to Chor Soo Kong, a Chinese healer and Buddhist monk who is now venerated as a deity. This 19th-century temple boasts fruit trees decked with pit vipers and snakes in the prayer hall. Yes, they are real; yes, it is safe (enough), but you will be advised to keep a relative distance from our slithery friends.

Snake temple in Penang. Photo, Andrew Sepie

Pinang Peranakan Mansion

In George Town, the glorious Pinang Peranakan Mansion depicts the lifestyle of a prominent and wealthy community of acculturated Chinese. This group established their own form of culture that was unique to this part of the world. Over 1,000 pieces of antiques and collectibles are on display. Some of these have been recreated, others are original, and you get an intricate insight into how this community’s opulent lifestyle developed over decades. Various bedrooms demonstrate different eras, including clothes, bed linen, and furniture. The permutation of technology becomes evident, with old televisions and radiograms for the later-period examples. You will notice an internal, open courtyard, with guttering inside the mansion. Why? This catches the rainwater and fortune that comes with it. Outside gutters take away water, and there is no chance to catch the fortunes.

Pinang Peranakan Mansion, Penang. Photo: Andrew Sepie

However, not all immigrant communities were so wealthy. You can visit the Chew Jetty in George Town, one of six wooden Clan Jetties in the area still inhabited by members of Penang’s Chinese immigrant community that once loaded and unloaded cargo. Most of these jetties were constructed in 1888 by Chinese family groups known as ‘clans’. Word is that, back in the day, you could be killed for entering if you did not have express permission or belong to the clan. The Chew Clan are still living on their well-preserved jetty, but this is now a tourist attraction and many of the clan have set up the lower part of their houses as shops. Chew Jetty is located off the Pengkalan Weld Road, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

nternal gutters to catch the fortune in Penang
Internal gutters to catch the fortune. Photo: Andrew Sepie

Eastern & Oriental (E&O) Hotel

Eastern & Oriental (E&O) Hotel in George Town is a unique experience. The history is thick on the ground and has been expertly assembled. You can stay there, and the E&O accommodation is breath-taking. Writers’ suites honour luminaries, such as Rudyard Kipling, or you can opt for the Penang Suite – these are nothing short of luxurious-plus. Or, just pop in for a bite to eat and marvel at this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Their description of ‘picture perfect’ may sound like a standard line, but this is very apt! From the second you enter through the classic revolving door, you feel like you are on a historical movie set where someone has painstaking seen to every single detail.

E&O - Pinang Suite living room
E&O – Pinang Suite living room. Photo: Supplied

E&O has all that you would expect from a luxurious hotel, a spa, fitness centre, pool, facilities for events, meetings, and conferences, but also ballrooms and a decor that transports you to another time. On Farquhar Street, intersecting with Penang Road, this is also where the oldest Java tree stands. It was planted before 1885 and only three other smaller trees of this kind exist in Penang. E&O take the dining experience seriously, which is very evident. Sarkies has the most sumptuous food, can be found in the annex, and is a popular buffet restaurant with Penang locals. You can also dine at the Poolside Terrace, Planters Lounge, Palm Court, Java Tree, or Farquhar’s Bar. As is always the case, if it finds favour with locals, you can trust that the food is good!

E&O – Pinang Suite living room. Photo: Supplied

The world famous Nasi Kadar of Penang

The cuisine in Malaysia is part of the experience, and for sublime street food, you need to go to Nasi Kandar Line Clear on Penang Road. In 2017, it was placed in the top 10 World Street Food Masters, by the World Streetfood Congress. Others in this magical top 10 list were from Mexico, Singapore, and the Philippines, so we are talking world class, here. This is probably the most authentic eatery you will ever visit. Nasi Kandar Line Clear have everything, in any combination, and you will get it quick-smart. In fact, they are named ‘line clear’ because they are so efficient that, on a busy day when people queue (and they so do), they can clear the line quickly. There are no airs and graces, it is not silver service, but it is good, honest, and delicious fare.

Hameed Nasi Kandar, Penang. Photo: Supplied

The Top of Komtar

If you feel like a little exhilaration, go to Penang’s tallest building, called Komtar, and you will find ‘The Top’. Now, this is a place of what you might call ‘escalating experiences’. You could start with the Jelly Bump, which is essentially some great family fun in wee bumper cars; yes, nice and sedate. However, at the other end of the spectrum, you can dangle from a wire, 65 stories above the ground. This is called The Gravityz and is not for the faint hearted, as they boast! In fact, there are several different ways to ‘hang out’ at such a height, which include the Confident Path, X Point, Z Wire, and G Rocky. These are as dare-devil as they sound, and this is possibly a once-in-a-lifetime experience – all you need to know is that they involve you on the outside of Penang’s tallest building, and it is a long way up! If you’re not quite that game, don’t worry, there is a whole raft of other activities. 18 different attractions await you, including the music carousel and rainbow walk (you’re still 65 stories up, but with reinforced glass and steel underneath you). The view is just incredible, as you gaze across the impressive, sweeping Penang skyline.

The Gravityz on the Top of Komtar building, Penang
The Gravityz on the Top of Komtar building, Penang. Photo: Supplied
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