Posts Tagged With: Penang

Another side of Penang

As evocative nicknames go, Penang’s claim to be the “Pearl of the Orient” takes some beating. But is it accurate? That name conjures up images of pristine beaches and wild untamed jungles. There’s a lot to love about Penang, mainly the outstanding food and a wealth of cultural attractions, but unspoilt it most certainly is not. The entire East side of the island has been massively overdeveloped. This has led to subsequent environmental problems, including landslides, traffic congestion and air pollution. Not what one would imagine the Pearl of the Orient to be like! The West side of the island is an entirely different proposition though. There, high rise condos are replaced by traditional fishing villages. Glitzy shopping malls are nowhere to seen. Instead, paddy fields and mangrove forests dominate the landscape. It’s like travelling back to a time when Penang’s claim to be the Pearl of the Orient was justified.DSCF6038

Prior to this January, I’d lived in Penang for a year and a half but hadn’t yet visited the less explored side of the island. This was until a colleague recommended a company called Explore Balik Pulau who conduct guided cycling tours around that area. As my brother, also a cycling enthusiast, was coming to visit, this seemed like the perfect opportunity. To get to Balik Pulau we first had to drive to Teluk Bahang at the northwest tip of the island and then turn inland. The road from there to Balik Pulau is high and winding and not for the faint of stomach! I felt rather queezy by the time we arrived. The Explore Balik Pulau office is located on the main road, between the village of Sungai Pinang and the town of Balik Pulau. We began our tour from there and first cycled to a traditional Malay stilt village. Our guide, Eddie Chew, explained that in days gone by that if one of the villagers had wanted to move house, they would do exactly that! They would uproot the house from where it stood and the entire community would lend a helping hand to move it.

003 (3)

From the stilt village we cycled along the banks of a small river, where beef cattle were grazing, until we reached a Chinese fishing village. There wasn’t a lot to see here apart from a charming little Taoist temple. However, the main point of interest was just how different life is from the other side of the island. It’s highly unlikely that the residents of Georgetown could leave their front doors wide open when they go out! The fishermen also seemed to use very basic boats and tools. This was subsistence living, not big industry fishing.

After a short time in the village we got back on the bikes and continued cycling. Penang can sometimes seem like quite a large island. Our next destination showed us that this certainly isn’t the case. Eddie led us to a point on the coast where we could see the northern tip of the island in one direction, and the southern tip in another. The sea seemed quite choppy so we didn’t stray too close to the edge. You wouldn’t want to get swept out to sea here. The closest landmass is Sumatra, two hundred kilometres away to the west.

For the next leg of the journey we cycled back inland to a mangrove forest, where we got off the bikes and took a short walk. Then it was onwards to the best part of the trip; the paddy fields. It was absolutely surreal to think that this was the same island as the concrete jungle to the East. Along the road we stopped for refreshment. A local Malay woman had set up stall under a tree in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. There she sold fresh coconut and sugar cane juice for 1 ringgit a cup. Not only was this ridiculously cheap but it was also wonderfully refreshing and sustained us for the final leg of the journey. As we left her stall, the sun was beginning to set over the paddy fields making for some spectacular views. Some local kids seemed beguiled by our presence. In Tanjung Bungah or Batu Ferringhi a white face wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. This was another reminder of just how different the west side of the island is.

It was a short ride from the paddy fields back to the office. In total we had cycled fourteen kilometres and seen a great variety of different places. What I enjoyed the most about the tour was the sense that this was a side of Penang that very few tourists, or even locals, actually see. To be honest, I hope it stays that way.


The tour was extremely cheap at just 30 RM per person. You can contact Explore Balik Pulau via their Facebook page or by calling them on +60 16 452 2100

Categories: Asia, Balik Pulau cycling, Malaysia, Penang | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Penang: Hawker heaven

As this is my very first blog I thought I should start with some background information. Janey (my girlfriend) and I moved to Penang, to take up EFL teaching positions, a little under two months ago. For those that don’t know Penang is an island located off the north-west coast of peninsular Malaysia. Despite it’s relatively small size the island has established itself as an essential destination on the itinerary of many a tourist to Malaysia. The reasons for this are many and varied. The capital Georgetown is a UNESCO world heritage site, mostly down to it’s incredible architecture. At Batu Ferringhi, one can enjoy the kind of beautiful beach that is more associated with neighbouring Thailand. However, for many people the real highlight of a visit to Penang is the food which is reputed to be amongst the very best in Asia. When we first told friends that we had been offered jobs in Penang, the initial response of anybody who had previously visited here was to wax lyrically about how amazing the food is. After spending the last eight weeks sampling as much of it as is physically possible I certainly wouldn’t disagree.


The principal reason for Penang’s gastronomic excellence lies in the incredible ethnic diversity of the island. Large Chinese and Indian communities have lived on the island since the days of British colonial rule, allowing their cuisines to supplement ethnic Malay favourites such as Nasi Goreng. The proximity to the Thai border also ensures that some truly spectacularly hot dishes can be consumed. My first encounter with a Thai noodle soup, named Laksa, left me feeling like I could see through time. Furthermore, when you consider that it’s also possible to find Japanese, Korean, Moroccan and even Bulgarian restaurants here, you get some idea of the culinary diversity of the place.Image

Despite the undoubted excellence of many of these restaurants, they are most definitely not the best place to eat in Penang. As with any Asian city the best flavours, and value for money, can be found by trying the street food. In Penang this is condensed into large hawker centres. These are basically big outdoor market places where it’s possible to try pretty much all of the aforementioned cuisines. Image

If these places existed in England, over-officious health and safety muppets would have them closed down within a day. But this is the Orient, and such concerns don’t exist over here. And thank heavens for that. Not only is the food of a superb quality it’s also ridiculously cheap. A standard dish at a hawker centre will usually set you back about 5 Malaysian ringgits. That’s about £1 or less than 2 USD!

It’s difficult to recommend any dish in particular, such is the choice. However, some perennial favourites are worthy of consideration. Claypot chicken rice does what it says on the tin. It’s chicken and rice cooked and served in a clay pot, topped off with egg and Chinese sausage. Definitely one to be consumed when you’ve worked up an appetite. Bee Hoon is a type of noodle dish which can be enjoyed with fish, seafood and  / or mixed vegetables. Some great steamed vegetable dishes exist for those of a vegetarian persuasion. Be careful to explicitly ask if they contain any meat or fish though.Image

As the title suggests, and as all those friends rightly stated, this truly is a food heaven. It’s going to be difficult to ever pay restaurant prices again!


Hawker centres are scattered across the island and are all pretty good. However,our personal favourite is the Viva local food haven in Tanjung Tokong. From Georgetown take the 101 bus and get off two stops after the big Tesco. Bon appetit!

Categories: Asia, Malaysia, Penang, Penang hawker food | Tags: , , , , | 7 Comments

Blog at