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Penang Travel Guide

Today I'm taking you to lush Penang, just off the west coast of Malaysia. Penang is one of my favourite places in the world. It's where my grandfather was born, and childhood holidays spent here mean that this island lingers in some of my most treasured memories: riding a horse with my sister along a glittering beach, peering curiously into the cabinets at the Blue Mansion, watching red ants making their inexorable march across the threshold at my great-grandparents' house. Just after Christmas, I returned for the first time in 14 years and made some new memories. Here they are, with an accompanying travel guide that I hope might come in handy for anyone wishing to make a trip to this stunning island.

We stayed at Shangri-La Rasa Sayang Resort on Batu Ferringhi in the north part of the island. A short flight from Kuala Lumpur followed by a long taxi ride from the airport meant that we arrived at the hotel exhausted and very glad of the cool towels and glasses of icy nutmeg juice provided at reception. Rasa Sayang has the best of both worlds: there's a family area with several pools, table tennis and darts, but also a private pool section (strictly no children allowed) and spa for guests seeking peace and relaxation. It's not quite as fancy as some of the hotels we've stayed in in Malaysia (Four Seasons Langkawi, you'll always be my number one!) but we enjoyed a wonderful stay here. Buffet breakfasts were, of course, bountiful - with everything from roti canai to your choice of noodles, eggs whipped up on request, an abundance of exotic fruits and pastries and dim sum. But even better than the choice is the opportunity to eat breakfast in the shade of the gigantic gnarled raintrees. Rasa Sayang looks out on to Batu Ferringhi, a long stretch of golden sand where you can rent waterskis or just lounge in the sun, as I did, with my law books (woe) and complimentary rosewater ice lollies passed out by the hotel staff. Also on offer is an excellent gym, golf course and tennis courts and a cocktail bar with live music. 

Just watch out for the monitor lizards.

And the jellyfish. (Although I didn't see any while I was on the beach!)

Cendol, cendol, cendol! If you've read my Kuala Lumpur post you'll know that I'm obsessed with this stuff: shaved ice topped with syrupy gula melaka, pandan rice flour jelly, coconut milk and red beans. Oh man, it's the best. It's also wonderfully flexible: you can either sip it as a drink or have it as a pudding, or both. And in George Town, on opposing sides of the little alley of Jalan Penang, a micro-war rages daily between two stalls. Rather confusingly, they have extremely similar names - Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendul, with blue bowls, and Penang Road Famous Chendol, with orange bowls. Jeez. Let's just call them blue bowls versus orange bowls. The blue bowl stall had by far the bigger queue, so being the docile sheep I am I joined the queue. Fortunately, blue bowl cendol was delicious - and even more exciting is watching the uncle whisking the ice and toppings into the plastic bowls in a matter of seconds. Next time I'll have to do a fair test and try both bowls at once - in the name of research, of course.

Next up: Gurney Drive, also in George Town. This street food market on the seafront is an excellent spot for dinner. Forget the modern food markets you've been to in the past - Gurney Drive is the original and the best. It's noisy, sprawling and not refined in the slightest - be prepared to jostle for a plastic seat. I was a little overwhelmed by the hordes and infinite options, but eventually went for the classics. Smoky char kway teow on a banana leaf topped with plump king prawns with a refreshing glass of sugarcane juice on the side: heaven. A few other excellent dishes to grace the table were oyster omelettes, sweet silken tau foo fa and crisp rojak. You can't really go wrong here. 

While you're in George Town, I recommend a visit to the Eastern & Oriental Hotel. Founded in the 19th century by the same brothers who opened the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, this building is a prime example of colonial architecture and while it's definitely seen better days, it's worth visiting for afternoon tea in the beautiful old cafe or dinner on the terrace. It feels very old world, with languidly rotating ceiling fans, cannons on the waterfront and signs asking guests not to take durian up to their room (a rational request, in my opinion). Here, you'll be able to get a good drink and try a more refined take on Malaysian classics - I had the prettiest Hainanese chicken of my life - and although it's not the most authentic food it's tasty enough and more importantly, the surroundings are beautiful. 

Finally, if you're in Batu Ferringhi looking for dinner, I suggest you try the local night market - it's full of tat (Doraemon electric fans and fake watches puncturing my childhood memories of sweet shell bracelets and wooden toys!) but the street food court remains pretty solid. 

Take a walk around George Town. It's a colourful, fascinating place with a gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage old town, where vibrant street art dances across the facades of the old shop houses. Plus I'd recommend a wander through the streets of bustling Little India, where shops blast Bollywood music at top volume with speakers on the street.

Get to know Peranakan culture. The Peranakan or Straits Chinese, also known as Baba-Nyonya, are the descendants of the Chinese who first came to Malaysia in the 15th century. You can learn about them by visiting the Peranakan houses in George Town, the most famous of which is Cheong Fatt Tze's Mansion, also known as the Blue Mansion for its arresting indigo facade. It's definitely worth a visit (and you can also stay there). On this trip, however, we visited the newly restored Peranakan Mansion, which boasts a pale green exterior and lavishly gilded interior. This is a paradise for lovers of the ornate and sparkly: the mansion is filled with highly photogenic tiles, intricate embroidery and elaborately crafted Nyonya jewels, including gorgeous diamond skin necklaces and a special pair of blue earrings which owe their colour to the painstaking affixing of kingfisher feathers. This is a house in which you can let your imagination run riot: the mansion is decorated as though its wealthy occupants have just stepped out of the room, with bridal gowns laid out carefully on the beds and perfume bottles on the dressing tables, and you'll have to take off your shoes to explore the top levels, just as if you were a real guest of the house. In addition, a fascinating reconstruction of an old shop house and a temple to the ancestors annexed to the main house are well worth checking out. The Mansion is so beautiful and well preserved that you might even witness a Chinese couple having their engagement photos taken, as we did! Please go and thank me later. 

Chill out on the beach. Batu Ferringhi is my favourite and fortunately it was just on our doorstep, but it's also open to the public and is an easy taxi ride from George Town. I've also heard good things about Monkey Beach, Bakar Kapor and Gertak Sanggul, though I believe they're less accessible than Batu Ferringhi. Wherever you are on the island, make sure you take time to relax on the sand and drink in one of Penang's magnificent sunsets. 

Writing these Malaysia posts have made me feel a strange sense of displacement and homesickness. Not fernweh exactly (homesickness for a place you've never been) but more a longing for a place that is home to me, and yet not home. I know I will never tire of trips to this unique archipelago - and I hope that my posts provide some inspiration for people thinking of making trips there too. Terima kasih dan jumpa lagi! 

For more on Malaysia, check out my post on Kuala Lumpur.

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