Penang, Malaysia is becoming increasingly recognized for its tourism potential. In 2008, Penang’s capital city George Town was added to the UNESCO Cultural World Heritage list. Anthony Bourdain has covered Penang in his television series No Reservations. Backpackers have known about Penang and George Town for years, as it is a gateway to Thailand. Penang now has a facelift and a cultural revival that makes it one of the most appealing destinations in Southeast Asia.
Penang is an island, but it is not necessarily a beach destination. Tourists coming to Penang visit for culture in all its expressions including food, history, and the arts. However, large portions of the island are densely forested and offer potential for hiking. There are some beaches, albeit small ones, and local fishing village character along much of Penang’s coast. Writing for the “36 Hours” column in The New York Times, Eckhardt (2012) mentions the possibility of a day in nature spent in the Taman Negara Pulau Pinang (Penang National Park), which includes hiking and beach time. However, the proposed tour will be focused on food, not beaches. The beaches are there for sleeping off a heavy lunch, and the hiking is there for working off the excess calories after gorging on delicacies like char kwey teow.
Malaysia’s multicultural citizens make Penang a vibrant destination for visitors interested in food and culture. A large portion of Penang’s community is Straits Chinese, or Nyonya. The architecture and much of the food in Penang is indelibly shaped by the influence of Chinese Malaysians. Smaller communities of Malay, Indian Malaysians, and expatriates from around the world comprise the unique cultural ambiance of the island. Visitors will be pleased to eat their way through Penang, which is why the proposed tourism project focused on food and eating.
A foodie paradise, Penang needs to be cut into chunks and eaten over the course of several days. Therefore, tours will start at two days and be offered for one week increments for food enthusiasts. Nighttime is the best time for eating in Penang and George Town, because locals congregate at the many different night markets offering a wide variety of foods at food stalls. The number of local night markets is astounding, but New Lane is a must. Visitors staying for more than just a few days can return again and again and still find new things to eat including assam laksa. Alternate nights, visitors can sample food in restaurants, which offers a completely different menu and dining experience from the street food. Nyonya food, for example, is available in restaurants but not in hawker stalls.
A two-day tour will focus on the delights of Georgetown, including Kimberly Street for char kwey teow, a decadent Chinese-Malaysian dish made with wide, flat rice noodles. Although completely not vegetarian, char kwey teow is a treat for anyone interested in the local foods. Indeed, vegetarians will have a difficult time getting to know the delights of the local cuisine. There is one side-trip that visitors can take that is 100% vegetarian, though: the trip to the Durian Forest. Durian, affectionately dubbed the “king of fruits” is a large, spikey fruit that grows only in Southeast Asia with the majority from Malaysia. A quick drive from George Town on the main road through the island brings one to the “durian forest,” which has no official designation. Locals stop at the stalls dotted along the road, each stall offering to sell the fruits to go or to eat the fruit on the premises. Durian is a controversial fruit that is inextricably tied up with Malaysian identity. Few Malaysians have anything bad to say about the fruit, but many foreigners do, causing many Malaysians to laugh when talking about the fruit. Its potent smell is off-putting to some, and seductive to others. No food tourist can leave Penang without at least sampling the fruit and either reacting with pleasure or pain.
Eckhardt, R. (2012). 36 Hours: Penang. Retrieved online: http://travel.nytimes.com/2012/02/12/travel/36-hours-penang-malaysia.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Tourism Penang. Website: http://www.tourismpenang.net.my/
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