Seven nights eating our way through Malaysia's great foodie cities, with a couple of days on the beach.
Penang – 2 nights
We arrived in Penang via Kuala Lumpur around mid-morning. On this occasion connection times made it convenient to travel with Malaysia Airlines, so we travelled through Kuala Lumpur International Airport to connect with the one hour flight from KL to Penang.
Our hotel, PP Island, was a quick cab ride from the airport. The hotel was astonishingly inexpensive – when we visited it was less than A$40 and a quick check of the website at the time of writing indicated it is still a very good deal.
The rooms were modern and with private bathroom – nothing wrong with them at all. And while it is located some distance from Chinatown and the Colonial District, where most travelers prefer to stay, the sights are easily accessible. PP Island is however a fairly non-descript business hotel and with a great choice of hotels in gentrified heritage buildings, on return we would probably stay elsewhere.
By lucky coincidence, our hotel was surrounded by great food, and we never had to venture far for Penang specialties. This is probably the same wherever you stay though – Penang consistently rates as one of the great foodie destinations in the world, owing to the varied cultural influences of Penang’s many communities.
On our doorstep we tried incredible char kway teow (fried flat rice noodles), roti canai (crispy fried flatbread – like a paratha) with chicken curry, satay, laksa and many more. We also discovered a couple of great hawker centres nearby – a family friendly favourite of ours was the New World Park Food Court, which also has a couple of restaurants as well as hawker staples.
Our local shopping malls were the Komtar and Prangin Malls - where we headed for a look. Not the most fabulous offerings – apparently we should have headed for Gurney Plaza or Queensbay Mall.
After our failed shopping mission, we took a rickshaw ride around the main heritage sights in the area, including a ride to Penang’s Little India, and a few lovely temples.
The following day our hotel organised a driver for half a day, and he turned out to be a great guide. We first headed to the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia – Kek Lok Si, with its enormous statue of Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy. There is plenty to see here, with prayer halls and statues spread over a couple of different levels, connected by cable car.
Another highlight was a visit to Penang’s Tropical Fruit Farm. A quick and entertaining tour is a fun precursor to the main event – a juice and ‘buffet’ of tropical fruits, some of which we had never tried before.
Back in Georgetown we decided to take ourselves on a walking tour of the colonial part of the city after purchasing our ferry tickets for Langkawi. We spent some time in the very impressive Peranakan Mansion, but it was so hot that it was time for less walking, more relaxing.
To be fair, not many people stay just one night in Langkawi, and our style of travel isn’t so much the kick-back-and-relax-in-a-resort approach that Langkawi does extremely well. But the stars weren’t really aligned for us on this visit.
Some of the island’s key attractions were closed when we visited, so that left us with the admittedly attractive option of hanging out by the pool, on the beach at Pantai Cenang and enjoying some pampering at the spa over the road. And that is precisely what we did.
We arrived by ferry from Penang – the 2.5 hour journey operates twice daily and is a great way to combine both islands.
Our hotel was the lovely Villa Molek which would have been perfect for a week long stay. Our spacious villa was fully equipped for self-catering, with its own kitchen, separate bedroom and living room. The restaurant on-site was also lovely.
While the hotel was only a short walk from the main strip and beach at Pantai Cenang, it was so hot when we visited that what probably took fifteen minutes felt like hours.
When we did reach this lovely stretch of beach, there was plenty going on, and it was nice to sit down with a cold drink and watch folks doing all manner of water sports and such.
In the evening we went to a restaurant along the beach and enjoyed a spa treatment – both of which were perfectly adequate.
If we returned to Langkawi, there are many things I would do better. Langkawi is a beautiful place to chill out, so I think I would go with the aim of doing very little rather than my normal mindset of ‘Must. See. Everything’. And I would add a few days to do just that.
Also, lovely as our accommodation was, I think next time I would have to stay somewhere with direct access to a good beach.
We flew to KL from Langkawi – the flight takes just one hour – quicker than the following bus ride from the airport to our hotel, which took well over an hour.
Kuala Lumpur is a city that we have returned to many times. It is great value, relatively easy to get around as taxis are inexpensive, and the food is excellent.
We most often stay, as we did on this visit, at the Royale Chulan. A very central, modern hotel with Malay influenced décor, vast breakfast offerings, a lovely pool and very good spa facilities.
The hotel is close to Bukit Bintang – a hub of restaurants and shopping malls, including the large Pavilion shopping mall and uber-swank Starhill Gallery.
We have also tried the Traders Hotel, which is a very popular hotel close to the Petronas Towers, Convention Centre and Suria KLCC mall. Traders also has a magnificent breakfast spread, and a rooftop pool and bar.
On this visit we tried to visit the main attractions. A couple of these are conveniently located in the vast green Lake Gardens or Taman Tasak Perdana. On the edge of the gardens is the National Museum, but the real highlights are inside, where we visited the excellent Bird Park with its colourful walk-in aviaries and the Islamic Arts Museum. Opposite the National Mosque, the Museum is a striking building which meticulously brings together exhibits from all over the Muslim world.
For a change of pace we headed to Chinatown and the Central Market. This airconditioned complex is great for one-stop handicraft/souvenir shopping. Most of the handicrafts are located on the ground floor, including the fabulous Tenmoku Pottery where we have bought many a gift and home decoration. There are also a number of cafes and a fish foot spa – look out some of them really bite. On the second floor is batik heaven, where I always pick up a kaftan or three for a steal.
One of our favourite restaurants in KL is nearby the Central Market in Chinatown on Petaling Street. Old China Cafe serves up Malaysian favourites in an old-school pre-war shophouse.
It is possible reach giddy heights over KL for a view of the city from either of two iconic buildings - the Menara Tower or Petronas Twin Towers. On this visit we headed to Petronas - the world’s tallest twin towers – to try our luck in securing one of the limited tickets issued per day to take a lift to the skybridge that connects the two buildings. When we visited this required queuing early morning…but these days tickets are available for purchase on the website. A lift whisked us up 170m above ground level for the vertigo-inducing couple of minutes we spent on the bridge.
Another great excursion on this visit was to the very photogenic Thean Hou Temple. While not the oldest temple you will ever see, it is certainly an attractive place for spiritual contemplation. Located in Robson Heights, out of the main city centre, afterwards we jumped in a cab to take us to the nearby Mid-Valley Mall – absolute shopping heaven.
We enjoyed some great meals on this trip – mostly just stop-offs along the way to grab a bowl of laksa, roti canai or other local food. My favourite hawker food in KL is Sisters Popiah at the Imbi market – delicious fresh spring rolls - washed down with iced coffee from another of the stalls. Sisters is now a franchise with other outlets around the traps, but we discovered them doing a brisk trade amid the hot, busy stalls at Imbi.
We also tried Hakka Restaurant, down the road from our hotel – a popular spot for Chinese food where you can dine alfresco on a very extensive menu of Hakka specialties.
A couple of times we have enjoyed the lovely afternoon tea at the Mandarin Oriental. If you get tired of shopping at neighbouring Suria KLCC mall, there are worse ways to spend an hour or two than conversing with a witty friend over a pot of tea and the treats on offer at the Lounge on the Park.
For sheer dining wow factor, it is worth checking out the restaurants on the Lower Ground Floor of the Starhill Gallery. We enjoyed our middle eastern meal at Tarbush - but whatever you eat will be secondary to the completely over-the-top design of all the restaurants in the ‘Feast Village’
Melaka is a great side trip from KL and it is possible to do a day trip. However if your visit coincides with a Friday or Saturday, try to stay in one of the city’s lovely boutique heritage hotels overnight, so that you can take a stroll down Jonker Street at its fun night market.
We took the bus to Melaka from KL, but it is also possible to arrange a taxi (try to settle on the fare) to take you and the drive takes about 2 hours.
There are many boutique places, as well as high end hotels popping up in Melaka. We stayed at the Courtyard @ Heeren Boutique Hotel. Beautifully decorated, the hotel is right in the middle of the action and just a short stroll from Jonker Street and some great food. The owner was particularly kind and took us to a great spot where we had chicken curry noodles for breakfast – and wondered why we don’t eat chicken curry noodles for breakfast every day.
Similar to Penang, Melaka has been influenced by many different cultures – the Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese and British have all left a legacy on this historically strategic port. This is particularly evident around the ‘Heritage Area’ – worth visiting for people watching as much as the museums in the area. Around Queen Victoria’s Fountain in the main heritage square we have seen wedding parties, tourists behaving badly, the congregation of the city’s wildly decorated trishaws and general pandemonium.
Also around the square is the much photographed earthy-pink clocktower and Christ Church, as well as the Stadthuys - built by the Dutch in the 1600s you can wander through what is now a museum in this building. Behind the Stadthuys a path leads up a hill to the ruins of St Paul’s Church are also an oft-photographed reminder of the city’s Portuguese past.
All this sightseeing works up an appetite, and we worked our way through plenty of great eats in Melaka. The city is a great place to try authentic Nyonya cuisine – Nancy’s Kitchen is an institution and we enjoyed the popiah, top hats and chicken curry as well as lovely takeaway sweets filled with a syrup of the city’s eponymous dark, complex sugar – gula Melaka.
We were also told we must try the Chendol in Melaka – an icy confection with syrups, jelly and beans – which we did at the popular Jonker 88, and it was indeed a refreshing concoction.
There are cafes and restaurants seemingly everywhere in Melaka, so when the heat gets to you, as it inevitably will, drinks are only a few metres away.
In the afternoon, we took a lazy boat ride on the Melaka River, which is well worth doing, mostly for a viewing of the character-filled, art-covered buildings on its banks.
As we visited on a Friday night, our evening was spent at the lively Jonker Street night market. Although we picked up most of our shopping from the better offerings in the actual shops on Jonker Street, the night market was fun to see and had a great atmosphere.
Early morning is a great time to get some snaps around this lovely city – the temples, churches and houses are at their best and the locals are doing their thing while the tourists are still sleeping. We took our time to savour the last of our trip before our taxi arrived to take us back to KLIA.