Advice from an expat expert
Cremorne, on Sydney’s north coast, was Narelle McMurtrie’s last stop before moving to Malaysia 36 years ago. She divides her time between the islands of Langkawi, where she runs the BonTon resort (bontonresort.com) and animal sanctuary and shelter (langkawilassie.org.my), and Penang, where she established the cafe-gallery-bar complex ChinaHouse (chinahouse .com.my) and lived the past 12 years.
I never tire of Penang’s exciting street scenes. The architecture of typical Chinese shophouses, with their windows, doors and colors make it a photographer’s dream. And the use of each building! I live in one of these shophouses, my neighbor is a recycler, another sells plastic buckets from his shophouse and the one with two doors opens his back door late at night for a little secret bar…
Electric biking and scooters have become the thing to do in the old heritage section of George Town where I live. George Town is a nocturnal city; when I come back from ChinaHouse after closing at 1am, people are still on the streets enjoying the food stalls, riding their bikes and of course taking pictures of the street art. For an experience out of George Town, it has to be The Habitat on Penang Hill, a beautifully presented UNESCO-recognized rainforest experience with huge sums spent on scientific research, thehabitat.my
Penang is well known for its local street food, and whatever you recommend, someone has better one too! But now we also have young chefs opening very good semi-finished restaurants. Au Jardin, Gen, and Juju Lounge all have menus made with local ingredients that change at least once a month, so dining here is always a surprise (restaurant-aujardin.com, genpenang.com). For a catch-up evening with friends over a glass of wine, a cheese platter and daily specials, I go to Two Frenchies (twofrenchiesrestaurant.com); it’s always consistent and with good service. We also have some of the best croissants outside of Paris. Try La Vie En Rose Patisserie (instagram.com/lavieenrose.patisserie).
I sneak into the small archipelago for an after-work mojito made with the local bootleg liquor called Toddy. They also serve homemade tuak, another locally fermented alcoholic beverage. These two local specialties are essential and have become very trendy in recent years, with the appearance of many small craft businesses. One of the best bars in Penang, and well recognized with international awards, is Backdoor Bodega (backdoorbodega.com), with a changing menu of well-designed cocktails using local ingredients. Mine is a George Town Gimlet; a gin-based sour with bunga kantan, lemongrass, galangal, daun kesum and a hint of belachan. Basically, a strong gin with flavors of laksa. Delicious.
Avoid sitting on the beach for a long weekend and thinking that a trip to George Town will be easy…it will be a traffic jam all the way. Look for a city hotel if you want to explore George Town’s heritage areas, and this area is best done on foot, so bring good walking shoes.
Drink plenty of water while exploring. Penang’s tap water is perfect, so there’s no need to buy expensive bottled mineral water. And carry an umbrella – not only for the rain, but also for the scorching midday sun.