Psst. You, yeah, you. Come in close, listen up, because do we have a secret for you. Malaysia is the new Indonesia. It’s the new Thailand. Hell, it blows them both out of the water in the ridiculously tasty food, sexy architecture and picturesque beaches stakes.
Now Malaysia is big, so let’s zoom in a little to northern Peninsular Malaysia, to Penang’s capital Georgetown and the neighbouring island paradise of Langkawi. Georgetown’s where it’s at for your old-world Asia hit – for trishaws pedaling past Chinese shophouses and colonial bungalows while incense spirals through the air. The old’s juxtaposed with the new, there’s a gritty, ramshackle vibe that’ll pull you in tight, and the food? Well, Penang didn’t get its reputation as food capital of the world for nothin’ honey. When your pants start getting too tight, head to Langkawi. It’s sunny all year round on this 104-island archipelago where you’ll find pristine deserted beaches, lush mangrove forests, and more monkeys than you can shake a banana at.
So what the hell are you waiting for? Grab your sarong (and maybe a stretchy-waist pant for the food situation), and get your best smug smile ready for when you return home and tell your friends: “hey suckers, I’ve found the new Bali.”
The call to prayer will pull you out of bed earlier than a four-year-old with ADD during your stay in UNESCO World Heritage-listed Georgetown. But that’s no bad thing, because you have a shizload of things to see, do and – most importantly – devour here.
A wander down the Street of Harmony is the best way to get a taste of the town’s four main cultural influences – European, Chinese, Indian and Malaysian. Bamboo fan in hand, start at the beautiful white St George’s Anglican Church, a testament to Georgetown’s colonial roots with its memorial to the town’s 1786 founder, the poncey-sounding Captain Francis Light.
Keep walking, keep sweating, keep fanning, until you reach the Goddess of Mercy Chinese Buddhist temple. You’ll smell it before you see it, since the entire courtyard is filled with gargantuan smoking incense sticks. Outside, dragons are carved onto the stone pillars and roof ridges, but head inside to see locals praying, lighting candles, reading oracle sticks (like the paddle-pop stick version of tarot cards) and putting curses on their enemies using paper figurines.
Past the Chinese quarter you’ll find Little India with its Bollywood music, sari-clad women, stalls selling samosas and spices, and the Sri Maha Mariamman Kovil temple covered in colourful Hindu god statues. Your last Street of Harmony stop will be the grand 19th-century Kapitan Keling Mosque, the place where colonial architecture, traditional Moorish arches, minarets and domes came together to make an architectural love child.
From here, wander down Armenian Street (where the Armenian community used to live, see what they did there?), lined with narrow Chinese shophouses. You’ll actually find these lovely old shophouses, and Chinese mansions, all around Georgetown, many of which have been snapped up by savvy investors and spun into snazzy hotels. Don’t miss the vibrant Blue Mansion, built in the late 1800s for the prominent trader and politician Cheong Fatt Tze, that’s now a museum and boutique hotel with highly ‘grammable open-air courtyards, tropical plants and colourful antique floor tiles.
SIPPIN’ AND SUPPIN’
By now you’ll be ready to stuff yourself silly and you’re in luck, because in Penang eating is a national sport. They may not look pretty, but the hawker stalls have the most delectable dishes. Bags a rickety wooden table and sexy plastic stool, then peruse stalls that each have their specialty, including asam laksa, char kway teow and nasi lemak (coconut rice wrapped in pandan leaf, with a scoop of sambal sauce). Whatever you choose, it’s guaranteed to be tastier than a Big Mac at 3am, and should be washed down with a tall glass of kopi beng (iced coffee) or a sugary iced tea. For desert, try Ming Xiang Tai pastry shop for an egg tart and chrysanthemum and goji berry tea – or, if you want your breath to smell like old socks, some famously stinky durian fruit from one of the carts dotted around town.
You can work it all off by perusing Penang’s famous street art on foot, which the government commissioned artists to create in 2008 in an attempt to make Georgetown hip. There are 52 cute steel rod caricatures that tell Georgetown’s story (there’s even one dedicated to the place where Jimmy Choo, born in Penang, started his apprenticeship) as well as standard colourful murals, mostly of cats. Make sure you get a dorky selfie at the famous “Little Children on a Bicycle” mural, that includes an actual bicycle nailed to the wall.
Farewell this vibrant city by taking the funicular up to Penang Hill lookout for panoramic city views, while sculling a Tiger Beer at the bar. Then it’ll be time to pack your bags and leg it to Langkawi, so you can flaunt that little paunch you’ve been cultivating.
So you’ve taken the half-hour flight to Langkawi. You’ve tripped balls over how idyllic the sweeps of crystalline coast you passed on the cab ride in were. But for real WTF factor, get thee to the Langkawi Sky Bridge. From 708 metres above the ground (come on, don’t be a wuss), this cable bridge will get you 360-degree views of the outlying forest-encrusted Malaysian and Thai islands, and the 550 million-year-old limestone karst mountains rising all around you.
Finally, the moment you’ve been waiting for: plunging your sweat-soaked body into the Andaman Sea. Check out the creepily-named Sandy Skulls beach, an arc of sugary sand and turquoise water that’s all but deserted. If you’re into water sports, bustling Pantai Cenang beach could be your jam, where you can take your pick of surfing, stand-up paddle boarding, jet skiing and more. For a more chilled option, take the short but steep hike to Seven Wells Waterfall, a series of seven connected pools fed by waterfalls on Mount Mat Cincang.
Leaving Langkawi without taking a tour of its mangrove forests would be like leaving Vegas without a hangover – you kinda can’t do it. As your small boat putters along the glassy waters of Langkawi’s Kilim River, your guide will tell you how these freaky trees filter salt from the water using their conjoined roots, and how they give birth to live young, aka the freshly sewn mangrove spears you’ll see sticking out from the mud. But don’t stare at the spears for too long, or you might miss the mischievous macaque monkeys throwing themselves into the water and paddling up to your boat for a feed.
Putter a little further and you’ll find dozens of rusty red brahminy kite eagles swooping to snatch food from the water’s surface. A little further still, your guide might point out poisonous vipers curled in the mangrove branches, bizarre mud skippers (literally fish out of water) flip-flopping in the mud, or maybe take you to a bat-filled limestone cave.
Whatever wildlife you see, one thing can be guaranteed. As you lay back on your boat’s bow, the Malaysian sun turning your skin a deeper shade of tandoori, that smug smile will inch across your face as you mentally tick off all the brag-worthy moments of you Malaysia trip.