Insider’s guide to: Penang, Malaysia

Thea Dunne 30 May 2014
Image Credit: Marcus Tan

Penang is unique. A strange, cultural melting pot on a tropical island in the Malacca Straits, it is as far a cry from Cambridge as you can imagine. While difficult to begin to describe the hometown experience, both expats and locals would agree that living there is all about the food.

One could begin by walking to the Pulau Tikus wet market, weaving through mopeds while ignoring the alarming sight of extended families teetering on a single bike. The skyscrapers of the coastal stretch of Gurney Drive, my home, rise just one block ahead. The market is known for its fish and tropical fruit, but particularly one stall famed in Penang for its nasi lemak, the Malaysian national dish of coconut rice. A parcel wrapped in a banana leaf costs 1 ringgit, a grand total of about 24 pence.

Hawker-stalls line every roadside on the island. An ex-British trading port, the multiplicity of cultural influences cannot be overstated. Street names and Chinese clan houses echo the names and nationalities of the migrant workers who settled there. As communities grew in the 19th century clan jetties were built out into the sea and remain important today. Georgetown’s arty Armenian Street, now stuffed with tiny artisanal traders and home-pressed coffee houses, refers to the migration of the Sarkies Brothers (hoteliers of Singapore’s Raffle’s). Food is a cultural explosion: South-Indian and Malay-Influenced Mamak cuisine vies with Malay influenced Chinese Nnonya, and the Hokkien Chinese cuisine particular to the island.

Before the day’s temperature climbs to 30°C, you might embark on climbing Penang Hill by the jungle path, cautiously avoiding eye contact with the surprisingly aggressive monkeys. The insect stings will be terrible, but as your calves grow peppered with them you cease to notice. On returning one can cool down with drinks by the yachts moored at Straits Quay.

Tailors are cheap and skilled, as are masseurs and manicurists. August tourists flood the beach bar where we would head after school in sixth form, opposite the night market where one can haggle for DVDs of dubious origins. Cinemas cost pennies for entry and have the air conditioning blasting the auditorium into an arctic winter – true of most of the modern climate control. Nothing is on time or quite works as you might expect.

It is a bubble, but comparable to Cambridge in that sense alone; a strange, tropical world unto itself.