Penang | Speakeasy Life & Xmas Dumplings

One of the hardest things about being on the other side of the world for a year is missing friends and family, especially around the holidays. And while Southeast Asia isn’t particularly known for Christmas festivities, we’d heard through the grapevine that the big cities in Malaysia at least try to do something – even if their holiday cheer is mostly mall-centric. Thus, we set our sights on the foodie mecca of Penang. Thankfully my old man was still willing to brave the long trans-pacific haul to celebrate with us, making the present unwrapping on Christmas morning with Andy exponentially more special. We’d previously been to Penang together back in the 90’s and were eager to eat our way around the island yet again. Gurney Plaza and Straits Quay did pretty decent Christmas themed setups, but the artificial snowfall inside Queensbay Mall was definitely the most fun of the bunch.

Andy had been obsessed with ziplines ever since his first experience flying across a valley in Java, so arranging for him to cruise through the forest canopy on Penang Hill made for the perfect Christmas present (with the added bonus of not having to pack another toy in our already overstuffed suitcases). He was alarmingly unafraid yet again, even during the abseiling finale that involved a straight drop of over 100 feet! Sensing mommy’s nervousness along the way, he told her not to be afraid and that he’s there with her- what a class act. Exploring the suspension bridge trails and temples around the cloudy summit all day made for a welcome break from the tropical heat down below.

Wondering around the back alleys of Historic Georgetown was a treat as well, with the charm of Chinese lanterns and graffiti murals everywhere. But while it may seem at times like a place that was built solely for tourism and photography, it’s still very much a functioning city. We even found a fun barbershop for Andy along the way near Little India! To fully absorb all that Georgetown had to offer, we decided to rent some bikes – and picked the most ridiculous looking one they had (a 3 seater with a tasseled canopy). The absurdity of our bike made sure that cars could see us in the ill-defined city bike lanes – in addition to giving everyone a few laughs.

My dad managed to find his top foodie item while we were out biking (a local dessert called sago gula melaka), but that was just one of a dozen or so incredible culinary experiences we had in Penang. New World Food Park‘s hawker stalls alone gave us several mouth watering meals, including soup dumplings, grilled eggplant, and curry mee. New Lane‘s hawkers didn’t disappoint either, serving up the best Char Kway Teow in town. One night we went back there with the intent to try the best of the best, joining an impossibly long queue of locals. The line was so long that we’d forgotten why we were in it by the time we got to the front (beers probably contributed to such), and hurriedly asked a confused Malaysian teenager what to order! My only regret is not ordering 3 plates just for myself- it was that good. And with the heavy ethnic Chinese population, amazing dim sum was never far away. Zim Sum got our business more than once!

When it came to seeking out durian (the region’s infamously pungent “king of fruits”) Tara and Andy weren’t quite as excited as the rest of us. But even though they’ve become outrageously expensive, I’d gladly buy a Musang King freshly plucked from a tree again right now. Apparently I’m not alone, as statues have sprung up all around the city to commemorate this controversial fruit. Everyone had a blast at the Georgetown Food Museum and its oversized wacky exhibits too.

With so much good food on offer in Penang that we certainly wouldn’t be able to find in the USA, we had to at least make an effort to learn how to make some of it. Pearly Kee’s cooking school was everything we’d hoped for and then some! I was able to pick out 3 Nyona dishes from her extensive recipe collection for the class, and am probably going to be eating tamarind egg for breakfast at least once a week now. So good! Pearly even took me and my folks to a local market to source ingredients for the day so we’d have some hope of recreating things back home. Her friend in the market also let us try century old egg too, far less disgusting than we’d anticipated.

Penang also has plenty of natural attractions to balance out the hustle and bustle of city life. No more than an hour away from the urban core of Georgetown, Penang National Park felt a world away. Boat trips out to remote beaches were shockingly affordable to charter and led us to a great afternoon on the beach. We spent a few hours with some friendly backpackers drinking cold cans of Tiger while watching monkeys fight over coconuts near the ocean. The makeshift bar that they set up had streamers of 2024 wishes that all of their guests had written, we added a non-PC one that we at least thought was hilarious. And randomly near another beach shack, some local guy had a baby otter. We still have no idea how he wound up with it, but Andy sure liked holding it!

A nice bonus of having the grandparents around was that we finally felt truly comfortable having “date night”- something we’d been reluctant to do in Indonesia with language barriers and all of the usual parental concerns. And there are few more interesting places to get out on the town for cocktails than Penang. Speakeasy bars are all the rage there at the moment, with dozens of places requiring patrons to figure out both where the bar actually is and how the hell to get in. Oftentimes we’d be a tad nervous that we were breaking into something! One place called Archipelago had a fake door full of locks that had to be rattled to get the doorman’s attention, Manchu Bar had a dimly lit hallway curtain to move out of the way, 12 Senses had a lever to pull (and several broken ones nearby from failed entries), and our favorite (Backdoor Bodega) masqueraded as a tourist pin shop! All of them had incredibly creative and delicious cocktails, including a soy sauce based one at Backdoor Bodega and a curry one next door at Good Friends Club. We had so much fun that we went out to try a few more prior to a fantastic fireworks display at Komtar Tower on New Year’s Eve. So thankful to have started out 2024 with 3 generations of family abroad, feeling pretty dang lucky these days.

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