Discover Instagram moments in Penang's George Town and Balik Pulau
PENANG - Penang was a routine destination for Singaporeans pre-pandemic.
Revisiting the island now that borders are open, I am sad to find that some old haunts have closed. Ho Ping Cafe, long renowned for its loh bak (minced meat rolls) and char kway teow, is no more.
But some familiar favourites have survived. ChinaHouse in Beach Street is heaving with customers who come for the Australian bistro-style menu at Kopi C cafe and its amazing array of cakes. Its Library section, with book-stuffed shelves, is packed with families.
Despite pandemic challenges, some beautiful new shops have opened in George Town. Like Singapore's heritage districts, the area has attracted stylish businesses coasting on the heritage vibe.
I also take the opportunity to explore the west side of Penang, and am rewarded with delightful new experiences and foodie finds. Balik Pulau is more rural and laid-back, home to durian plantations, paddy fields and fishing villages.
It is less touristy, as public transport to the area takes a long time. But it is well worth the effort to hire a car for a day to explore its rustic charms.
Here are my top picks for a chic city jaunt through George Town and an artsy pastoral escape in Balik Pulau.
1. Hin Bus Depot
Where: 31A Jalan Gurdwara, 10300 George Town
Info: Hin Bus Depot's website
This eight-year-old arts and crafts destination is bustling on a Saturday afternoon as its flea market concept now spans the weekend. A Sabah-Sarawak fair is on and I sample wild boar fried with curry leaves and manok pansoh, old hens chopped up and cooked in bamboo with tapioca leaves. The promoter says proudly this is Dayak beer food.
A DJ spins in a corner of the open-air area where people are lounging on deck chairs and children play games. A mobile coffee bar serves caffeinated beverages from a vintage Volkswagen bus nearby.
An exhibition of Dayak people documenting their honey gathering and hornbill tracking activity attracts earnest attention from a handful of youthful visitors. Hang out, chill and shop for stuff from local crafters.
2. Mano Plus Select Store
Where: 37A & B Lebuh Pantai, 10300 George Town
Info: Mano Plus Select Store's website
This airy two-storey design store carries global brands like Freitag, but it also showcases home-grown brands so it is a great place to discover new buys.
Alwis & Xavier's solid colognes (RM65 or S$20) and deodorant sticks (RM58) made with natural ingredients are an instant win with their sophisticated scents.
Music fans should check out the small but intriguing selection of vinyls and CDs. I snag a couple of gems by singers Saloma and Anneke Gronloh, remastered for digital and vinyl.
There is also the inevitable cafe, which is serving fragrant Japanese curry the day I drop by. On weekends, there is a pop-up barber in the back of the shop.
Where: 66 Lebuh Campbell, 10100 George Town
Open: 9am to 6pm daily
This shop, so new it is not even pinned on Google Maps when I stumble on it, offers a beautiful range of stationery and a rack of Muji-esque clothes.
There are locally designed travellers' watercolour notebooks bound in batik-inspired prints and cute retro bus-ticket print washi tape.
The Japanese aesthetic is carried through to the bright cafe tucked in the rear that serves a mean iced hojicha. By lunchtime, it is filled with young people noshing on burgers and all-day breakfasts.
The bright airwell, with its mirrored wall and curvy bench, is the perfect spot for a commemorative selfie.
4. Pinang Peranakan Mansion
Where: 29 Church Street, 10200 Penang
Open: 9.30am to 5pm daily
Info: Pinang Peranakan Mansion's website
The Blue Mansion hogs most of the press, but if you want to overdose on Baba bling, the more old-fashioned Pinang Peranakan Mansion is the place to go. Every room is an exercise in maximalism, whether it is gilded mirrors and doors or cupboards stuffed full of ceramics and glassware.
There are Instagram corners galore. Grab a seat at the head of the dining table to discover how the patriarch could see the main entrance to the house as well as the other rooms, thanks to judicious placement of mirrors on the wall.
5. Gerakbudaya Bookstore
Where: 226 Beach Street, Georgetown, 10300 George Town
Open: 11am to 8pm daily
Just across the street from ChinaHouse at the Hikayat arts space is this lovely book-lined oasis where you can browse a beautifully edited collection of South-east Asian books and writers.
There are piles of back issues of the Mekong Review and I snag a copy with an essay by Singapore-born writer Boey Kim Cheng and Malaysian writer Eddin Khoo's interview with Marina Mahathir, daughter of Malaysia's former leader Mahathir Mohamad.
1. Container art
Where: Kampung Terang, 11000 Balik Pulau
Three containers placed vertically side by side loom unexpectedly amid paddy fields for a perfect Instagram moment. The Joy Of Harvest painted on the 12m-high containers pays tribute to the farming community in the area.
Besides this attention-grabbing installation, there are other street art murals spread out along the main street of the town.
Look out for the Roti Man mural, which celebrates local hawker Munyadi Letchumanan and is painted by local artist Abdul Rashid Abdul Raman. Mr Letchumanan is a local celebrity, having raised three children who went on to become professionals, including a lawyer and an engineer.
2. Kim Laksa
Where: Nan Guang Coffeeshop, 67 Main Road, 11000 Balik Pulau
At the corner of the town's main carpark is this stall which attracts long queues for its assam laksa and laksa siam. Those who find assam laksa too tart will like laksa siam, which tempers the former's acidity with coconut milk. A small bowl costs RM5.50 and a big one is RM6.50.
You will also need to order a drink, standard practice at Malaysian kopitiams.
Just make sure you show up early to grab a table. Even as late as 2pm, there are so many customers that patrons are eating while standing around outside the coffee shop.
And if the uncle peddling muah chee out of the back of his motorbike comes around, grab a portion (RM3 for a small box). Every bite-size piece of soft chewy rice cake is generously coated with crushed peanuts and sugar.
3. Ah Huat Pek
Where: Kampung Jalan Baru, 11000 Balik Pulau
Open: 8am to 3pm, closed on Wednesdays
This stall gained an avid local following during the pandemic with its deep-fried hor fun. Instead of wok-frying the flat rice noodles, it deep-fries it into light crisp pockets.
A traditional eggy gravy with fresh prawns and thinly sliced pork belly is then poured over the noodles for a savoury, crunchy treat.
4. Perniagaan Bedak Sejuk Lean Seng
Where: No 160 Mukim-D, Kuala Jalan Baru, 11000 Balik Pulau
Just two minutes from the deep-fried hor fun stall, meet the Malaysian answer to SK-II. Like the famed Japanese beauty product made from sake lees, bedak sejuk is made with rice, fermented for a month, then processed into tiny pellets.
The Lean Seng brand has been around for more than 40 years and it still makes it the old-fashioned way, relying on the sun rather than oven-drying the pellets.
A 170g bottle costs RM6.50. To use, shake out a couple of pellets, add some water and use the paste as a face mask to relieve everything from acne to sunburn.
5. 2 Acres Cafe
Where: Lot 313 Jalan Teluk Bahang, Kampung Sungai Pinang, 11000 Balik Pulau
Newly opened in June, this snug little cafe in a durian plantation offers picnic tables where you can sit and enjoy your fresh durian with a hillside view.
The friendly staff will recommend durian types and open the fruit for you. I try two small fruit, one called Bao and the other Kuching Tidur. The former is pale and sweet while the latter is yellow and bittersweet. Their light clear flavours remind me of durians I ate as a child.
Note, however, that durians are not allowed in the air-conditioned part of the cafe.
6. Kraftangan Pulau Pinang
Where: Sungai Rusa, 11000 Balik Pulau
This sprawling compound is part of a Malaysian government initiative to encourage arts and crafts. It houses studios for artists, ceramicists and batik makers.
Artist Koh Teng Huat gives me an impromptu tour of his studio and gallery space, and says it is better to visit on weekdays when most of the artists are working in their studios and happy to give visitors tours. Koh specialises in palette knife painting and visitors can purchase his works, which range from large canvases to tidy portable A4-size pieces.
The writer's trip was hosted by the Shangri-La Rasa Sayang, Penang.