Penang Holidays For Culture Lovers: 3 Places To Visit
Heritage gems in the Northern Malaysian island
Museums are considered a travel staple, but did you know that some doctors recommend visits to cultural institutions as an antidote to stress? Participating in museum culture can have a positive effect on people’s lives, says a coordinator involved in a “museum prescription” programme.
If experiencing art, culture, and heritage is your thing, you need to make Penang Island a must-visit destination on your itinerary. Located off the North-West coast of Peninsular Malaysia, the state is famed for its capital George Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
For those planning Penang holidays, be sure to get your fill of street food and adventure. At the same time, don’t miss out on the cultural experiences at unique places in Penang, which can help lift your spirits too.
Here are three museum recommendations – some of the best places to see in Penang - from the team at PARKROYAL Penang Resort, along with travel and food tips to make your trip a more joyful one!
Fancy a spot of daydreaming as you roam through the restored home of one of Penang’s wealthiest men from the late 19th century?
Step into the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, and you’ll enter the former abode of Chung Keng Quee, a prominent figure in Penang’s history. Chung certainly led life to the fullest—he was not just a successful merchant, but a secret society leader and the Kapitan Cina of Perak (Captain of the Chinese, as appointed by the British administration during the colonial era), before he eventually retired in Penang.
Notably, Chung was not of Peranakan (Straits-born Chinese) descent. Despite hailing from a Hakka family in the Guangdong province of China, he chose to design his mansion in the “Straits Eclectic” style (a fancy term for east-meets-west) favoured by the Peranakans during his time. This fusion of cultural elements can be seen in the Chinese-style open courtyard and Chinese carved-wood panels, alongside English floor tiles, full-length French windows, and Scottish ironworks.
Apart from admiring the architecture, you can also feast your eyes on the display items. There are over 1,000 collectibles housed at the mansion, ranging from silverware and decorative ornaments to dresses and other remnants of the past.
Travel Tip: You may find the Pinang Peranakan Mansion reminiscent of another popular attraction in Penang—the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, otherwise known as the “Blue Mansion.” You’re absolutely right, and both residences are worth viewing to soak in the culture of Penang. If you have time for only one visit, we suggest that you pick the Pinang Peranakan Museum. That’s because you can walk freely through the rooms here, unlike the “Blue Mansion” where you are required to follow a guide.
Foodie Finds: Meal options are aplenty in Penang’s Little India, a four-minute walk away. Try the Thali-NR Sweets Cafe for a delicious Indian vegetarian meal and an equally satisfying dessert. Alternatively, you can head to the Sri Weld Food Court, which is just three minutes away; this is a popular breakfast and lunch spot for those who work in the area. To visit a highly rated Penang Chinese restaurant, take a 10-minute walk to the Tek Sen Restaurant. You might have to wait for a table, but you won’t regret it.
Get directions to the Pinang Peranakan Museum
Listen to the Sweet Nostalgic Sounds of Penang
Penang House of Music
Address: KOMTAR, L4-02, Jalan Penang, 10000 George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Telephone number: +60 4 370 6675
Opening hours: 11:00am to 8:00pm daily
There’s nothing like music to soothe the soul—especially if they bring back halcyon memories of bygone years. When in Penang, take the opportunity to discover its rich musical heritage by visiting the Penang House of Music.
Located in the KOMTAR complex in George Town, the Penang House of Music celebrates Penang’s many generations of musical talent, with a particular focus on the music that was produced between 1940 and 1970.
The 1940s and 50s were tumultuous times. Marred by upheavals such as the Japanese Occupation, British military rule, and the Malayan Emergency (which was also known as the Anti-British National Liberation War), Penangites endured hardships then. Despite the turmoil, Penang’s music scene flourished during that period.
You may have heard of P. Ramlee, one of the biggest entertainment icons in Malaysia and Singapore. Born in Penang, Ramlee broke into the music scene during the 1940s when he came in third in a Penang Radio singing competition. Emerging as runner-up and winner in subsequent competitions, he was eventually talent-scouted for the film industry before he took the region by storm.
The 1960s was also marked by the influence of rock ‘n’ roll. Then, kugiran (“fast guitar”) bands enthralled crowds and led to the pop yeh yeh phenomenon, where bands were mobbed by devoted fans, much like the Beatles.
“We wanted to acknowledge the contributions of these icons, and show that Penang, or Malaysian musicians, are just as good as their contemporaries elsewhere in the world,” says Penang House of Music director Paul Augustin.
At the Penang House of Music, you can learn about local musical genres such as bangsawan (Malay opera) and boria (a form of Malay theatre of Indian origin), and how latter-day musicians drew from these traditions for their own work. To heighten your experience, the museum provides interactive features such as listening posts, a virtual reality room, and a cinema room where old films are screened.
“We are privileged to have the active support of hundreds of people, including musicians, their families, friends, not just from Penang, but elsewhere in the country, and also around the world,” says Augustin. “They have contributed most of the recordings, photographs, mementos, oral histories, and artefacts here. This project is a testimony to their fantastic inspiration and collaboration.”
Travel Tip: Currently, the Penang House of Music has racked up an impressive 4.8 Google rating, which makes it a must-see attraction for arts and culture in Penang. However, some visitors have found it challenging to navigate KOMTAR. Note that you can only access the Penang House of Music from Level 3. Proceed to the entrance of the ICT Digital Mall at Level 3, which is located opposite the KFC restaurant. There, you should spot the vinyl stickers on the floor that will lead you up to the museum at Level 4. If not, just look for the escalator.
While at KOMTAR, you can also visit the Asia Comic Cultural Museum, which is located on Level 2. If you’re travelling with kids, The Top at KOMTAR is touristy but promises entertainment for all with its theme park-inspired attractions, such as Ocean Explorer, Dino Gym, and Magic Mirror Maze. You can also get a bird’s eye view of Penang on the open-air Rainbow Skywalk (249 metres above ground) or at the Observatory Deck three floors below.
Foodie Finds: Head to Level 5 of KOMTAR, where you will find restaurants galore. For authentic, home-cooked Malay food, visit the Umi Melayu Restaurant, but note that locals would consider this establishment pricey. If you prefer the Penang street food experience, take a short walk to the highly recommended chee cheong fun (rice noodle rolls) push-cart outside the Seow Fong Lye cafe on Macalister Lane.
Get directions to KOMTAR
No museum trek in Penang would be complete without a museum that pays tribute to food. And few are as charming as the whimsically named Penang Wonderfood Museum.
Offering a proud showcase of the ethnic dishes that make up Malaysia’s diverse food culture, the Penang Wonderfood Museum is as quirky as it gets. Before you dismiss the museum as a tawdry tourist trap, know that it boasts food replicas that were thoughtfully handcrafted by the owner Sean Lau and his team.
Graphic designer Lau learned the art of replica food making two decades ago, and he runs a company that supplies realistic-looking food models to restaurants and hotels all over Malaysia. It was over one of these projects that his vision for a food museum was conceived and eventually brought to fruition.
“Food is art, food is also life, so I want people to come here to see the art of food and also to learn the lessons of life from food,” says Lau.
One of his tactics to turn food into art is to play around with their dimensions. For instance, he created a broccoli forest to ignite children’s imaginations. “It [is] a wonderland that they can imagine playing in. It has become something more than food,” he says.
He also hopes that through his larger-than-life sculptures and photo props, adults will develop a new appreciation for local foods.
“[B]y enlarging these street food to giant sizes, they will realise things like, wow, our assam laksa [noodle dish]... or our char koay teow [fried ricecake strips] is so beautiful,” he says. “It starts to change how people look at things.”
At the Penang Wonderfood Museum, you’ll also learn about the food traditions of the Malays, Indians, Chinese, and Peranakans, and encounter what the typical Malaysian loves to tuck into. Some of the daily comfort foods on display include nasi lemak (Malay fragrant rice dish), nasi campur (mixed rice dish), and roti canai (an Indian-influenced flatbread meal).
Lau has tried to infuse other lessons into his food art, with reminders to appreciate life in all its colourful glory, complete with strong messages against animal cruelty and food waste. There’s less kitsch here than one would imagine, and a lot more soul.
Travel Tip: Look out for a useful food map near the end of the museum tour. Be sure to snap a picture of the map so that you’ll have yet another reference for famous places to sample beloved Penang dishes such as char siew (barbecued pork) rice, duck rice, nasi kandar (rice and curry), seafood, and more.
Foodie Finds: For your coffee break, drop in on one of the cafes along Lebuh Pantai, where the Penang Wonderfood Museum is located. These include Coffee On The Table and The Book Sandwich Cafe. If you’re in the mood to splash out and dine in style while in George Town, check out our recommendations here.
Get directions to the Penang Wonderfood Museum
Welcome to Penang! While in Penang, pamper yourself with an idyllic retreat at PARKROYAL Penang Resort. Marvel at the breathtaking sea views from the comfort of your room, and enjoy a rejuvenating stay.
From now till 31 December 2019, you can book our Sweet Dreams package to enjoy a 25% discount on our Best Available Rates. You’ll also be entitled to breakfast for two served in your room, a complimentary basket of sweets and cookies upon arrival, food and beverage discounts, and more. Get in touch with our friendly staff today!
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