Making the most of my monsoon visa run in Penang, Malaysia
January 1, 1970
by Colette Du Bois
November to March is monsoon season in Malaysia. It rains, and it rains hard! Not that this need be a problem – rain is more pleasant when it is warm! However, if you are visiting George Town, Penang on the ever popular visa run from Thailand, or if this is a stop over before moving on to somewhere like Singapore or Bali, you may feel inclined to while away your 2 or 3 days on the net in your room. On the other hand, sort your basic comforts and arm yourself with a bright umbrella and you could make so much more of this fascinating district with its quirky street art, Georgian architecture and marvelously multicultural heritage.
Incidentally, if you are doing a visa run or are on your way to Thailand, this is an excellent time to organise the two month tourist visa at the Thai consulate, because the Thai government is currently offering the visa for free to boost tourism. In my opinion, Penang is a great place to do this, either at the consulate or through one of the many roadside travel agencies that will do the legwork for you once you get here – and with little planning, you’ll be singing in the rain and who knows, may even end up staying a little longer…
My advice is to sort your surroundings first! I’m a little older than the average backpacker; and while ridiculously young at heart, a clean, relaxing environment can really make or break the trip. I want to be near enough the action to enjoy, but finds a room quiet enough to relax in. I want clean, airy accommodation with a comfortable bed – and at 5.41 degrees off the equator air-conditioning is essential. If like me, you are traveling on a limited budget, it really helps if you know what to expect in your price range, not only so as to adjust your expectations, but to make the most of what you get. For instance, some people might be happy without natural light, but I like a room with windows – and be warned, with buildings well over 100 years old in the heritage area – not all rooms have them. Look for rooms that say ‘with view’ (translate – windows) , or stipulate on your booking that windows are a must. Secondly, expect to eat breakfast, or a second breakfast out! Most of the budget guesthouses and backpackers advertise ‘breakfast included’, but don’t expect a British style fry up! White toast, a hydrogenated oil spread that vaguely resembles margarine and a big tub of cheap jam is far more likely; alongside some weakly made tea or coffee, with creamer if you can bear it. Consider yourself in luck if you get some fruit alongside this, watermelon being a popular option. Thirdly, view the travel website photos with caution, your room might not look like the first room shown to you in the photos – we stayed in one place where the photos must have been from a good decade before! All of that said it is possible to find comfort at a low price. Here are my two favourites:
Old Penang Guesthouse
The big advantage of Old Penang is that it is on Love Lane itself, where all the action is. Love Lane, according to a local sign ‘probably referred to illicit affairs with mistresses’ may have housed brothels in days gone by.’ Today it’s one of the the liveliest streets in town, with cheerful bars, guesthouses, restaurants and the famous Wheeler’s coffee shop. We made sure we didn’t have the front room and hence managed a reasonably good night’s sleep, in room full of heritage character, overlooking the inner courtyard. Another thing we liked is that it served real milk with the tea and coffee at breakfast! Our air-conditioned twin room cost us 85 ringgit between us per night.
A bit further away, but still within 10 minutes walk of the central heritage district is Hutton Lodge. I liked the friendly, accommodating staff and clean rooms, with lots of natural light and great water pressure in the shared showers. I loved the outside courtyard area for breakfast and relaxing and it was a bonus to be served noodles for breakfast some days, to break the monotony of the white toast! The wifi also worked well and our air-conditioned twin room once again totaled 85 ringgit per night.
Food, drink and wifi!
Now that you are comfortable, make sure you get some good, healthy food! If you are keen to stay cheap – there are an abundance of street stalls and roadside kopi-tiam (Malaysian coffee and food houses) that won’t break your budget. On the first night, my friend opted for sort of fondue stall, where he chose his ingredients then cooked them on skewers in boiling water (adding accompaniments) At the end, they count up your colour-coded skewers to give you your price – very clever! I later learned this was called Lok Lok – which translates to ‘dip dip’ (presumably due to the sauces you get to try with each skewer). We also ate a traditional kopi-tiam . We chose one on Chulia street near Love Lane and spent just 5 ringgit on a filling meal. How did we manage that? Easy! No meat, just vegetables, rice and gravy, quite suitable for us as not-so-strict vegetarians. Chicken will set you back 4 ringgit so you could still get a meal for 10! You will also have to try Teh Tariq – the famous Malaysian pulled tea with condensed milk. I ‘m not usually fond of sweet tea, but this is an exception. When I ordered this as a take away I was surprised to get my 2 take away teas in plastic bags complete with straw. It didn’t make it any less delicious!
This is basic, no fuss grub keep you going for a dollar or two. Of course, some days you’ll want more than that. You might want near decent coffee for example, and to compare the price to the cheap food above, a good cappuccino or latte might set you back 10 – 12 ringgit. The advantage of decent coffee is that you can meet other travelers in the ambient coffee shops, avoid the rain and use the wifi to your hearts content. For sit down food – if you like meat or fish, you don’t have to wander very far at all and you could try the famous fishy Penang Assam Laska. If you are a vegetarian however, I recommend walking around the Little India area , which is only 10 minutes walk from Love Lane.
The Mugshot cafe
Although we loved the more famous Wheeler’s coffee shop for their divine breakfasts and cakes, our favourite for coffee was from The Mugshot. Round the corner from Love Lane at 302 Chulia Street the delightfully chilled cafe, not only serves excellent coffee but incredibly tasty yogurt parfaits, with yogurt made on the premises. The wifi and the bagels are great too, and the big old building is naturally cool with its corridors and courtyard – so no need for air conditioning. Mugshot has character!
Woodlands Vegetarian Restaurant
Woodlands isn’t much to look at, and you probably won’t get the ambiance of the hipster coffee bars, but they did genuinely serve me the best potato samosas I have ever tasted. They have an excellent variety of dishes, although I did find the menu a tad confusing and I couldn’t find my regular favourite – a simple lentil dhal. That said I remember loving the flavours of my chickpea and tomato dish and saag paneer with rice and having a lovely satisfying meal.
Time for a walk…
When the rain stops, it’s time for a little wander around the streets to see what you have been missing. There are also of course great cheap days out further afield such as an excursion to Penang Hill, Monkey Beach or the Botanical Gardens, but all of those where for bright days with better weather!
Umbrella in hand, I ventured right out of The Mugshot on Chulia , where my friend was still firmly glued to his laptop screen and turned right up Love Lane. When I had handed in my British passport at one of the guesthouses,the man had smiled and said ‘We wouldn’t have all this if it wasn’t for you.’ Of course, I wasn’t responsible for any of this personally, and I’m really only half British, but looking up at the buildings it was interesting to think that this had been one of the first British settlements in South East Asia, Georgetown being established by the British for trade back in 1786. ….And with the sailors no doubt came their ‘adulterous ways’. The first bit of amazing wire street art on the corner of Love Lane reminded me of this, depicting a rather plump man climbing out his mistresses window. I found that these zany wire sketches of the area’s history continued turning onto Lorong Stewart, where the final wirework depicted a stall selling temple garlands and incense for the Goddess of Mercy Temple across the road. The temple was busy on my way past and I enjoyed smelling the mixed scents of incense and the nearby food stalls.
From there I crossed the main road to Little India. Suddenly, it was all different! Bright sarees, sparkly jewels and bindis galore! Suddenly I was on pedestrianised roads – not that that stops the traffic.. Aah yes, definitely like India! I took photos of the flowers in the temple shops, bought a few packs of bindis and headed towards the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, by which time the clouds had cleared and the weather was now bright enough for an excellent photograph of this colourful spectacle of naked bosomed deities.
Sticking to the religious theme I headed back up towards my starting point via Jalan Buckingham to view the stately Kapitan Keling Mosque. What a different feel! This large, elegant mosque was clearly also very much in use, with billboard style advertisements of the next visiting Imam.
Walking back this way puts you parallel to Chuila, and the area has a more Chinese and Malaysian feel with many Chinese restaurants and Malaysian Kopis. A left down Lebuh Carnarvon took me back to my starting point. When I returned to The Mugshot, there was my friend still (unsurprisingly) on his computer, but in the meanwhile I had managed to fall that little bit more in love with Georgetown and make the most the day, even with the rain.
So what is there to fall in love with in Georgetown?
What I loved about Georgetown, Penang was the quirkiness! Don’t expect this colourful, multicultural area to be like any other Malaysian city. Don’t expect pavements (…yes, why is that?) , but do expect a bit of South East Asian chaos, with a surprise waiting around every corner. Memorable surprises, like when I turned down an alley by chance in Little India to find a giant chicken graffiti or walking past a shop labled ‘Luxuly Life Trading’ (yes, that was the spelling) that sells only condoms. Expect to feel curious about all sorts of silly things, like why take away tea comes plastic bags and why so much fake lawn is being used as wallpaper and on building facades…
If quirky inspires you, then there is one attraction not to miss in Georgetown, it is the Odeon Trick Art Cafe and Restaurant and Visitor Gallery. This site of the former Odeon cinema houses an interactive gallery of days gone by, some of which can be experienced in the restaurant. What I loved was the painted mural of the area in the 1920’s, combined with moving images of little walking people going about their business – I could have stared at it for hours. If you buy a ticket to the visitor gallery you can also enjoy the quirky art of Korean comic artist Kim Jung Gi, with a display called Kimagination, where you can sit yourself in the middle of many of his outlandish cartoons combined with sculptures and get your picture taken.
All that’s left to say is, I would definitely visit Georgetown Penang again, not only on a visa run but as a destination worth visiting in its own right!