Penang is a vibrant State with its capital, George Town, having the rare distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a true melting pot of cultures with its blend of Eastern and Western influences. Retaining many of the values adopted during its era of British rule, Penang bears a charm that is unique to itself.
As a multicultural destination and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is difficult to define Penang in just one word. As such, knowing the local culture beforehand will help you understand Penang better.
Language & Culture
Most signs are written in Bahasa Malaysia and English, with some in Chinese as well. Although English is widely spoken in many areas, it would be helpful to know basic Malay as well as the Malay names for roads and main destinations.
The Baba-Nyonya or Peranakan Chinese are early immigrants from China. They openly adopted local beliefs and practices, resulting in a unique culture that is solely their own. Peranakan culture in Malaysia can be found in Penang and Malacca but the Penang Peranakans differ from their Malaccan counterparts in some ways.
Although both sides use a mixture of Hokkien and Malay languages, the Penang Peranakans speak mainly Hokkien with some borrowed Malay words whereas in Malacca, the Peranakans have adopted a Malay patois, with some Hokkien words included in.
The Peranakan style of cooking fuses Chinese and Malay elements. In Penang, there is an added Thai influence in the Peranakan cuisine, bringing in a sweet and sour edge and differentiating them from the Malaccans.
From rituals, cuisine, dressing to language, the Peranakan Chinese have created a fusion of cultures that stands as a true hallmark of Penang’s rich multi-cultural diversity.
‘Ramadan’ is a major Muslim event that occurs during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Muslims fast daily from dawn to sunset and refrain from drinking water during this time. Out of respect for those fasting, try not to waste large amounts of food or behave imprudently in front of Muslims during Ramadan.
Penang’s vibrant festivals are a colourful reflection of the state’s multiculturalism. Traditional festivals such as Thaipusam, Hungry Ghost Festival, Nine Emperor Gods Festival, Ramadan, Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Chingay Parade and Chinese New Year have retained an authenticity that is unmatched in Asia.
Home-grown arts festivals are increasingly popular with global travellers such as the month-long George Town Festival and the continuous ’10 Days 3 Festivals’ comprising George Town Literary Festival, In-between Arts Festival and Penang Island Jazz Festival.
Others to watch out for throughout the year is the Last Friday, Saturday and Sunday or LFSS programme that happens each month in George Town. Here’s when cultural shows, music performances and interesting walkabout tours happen and most of them are free! Other annual events such as the Catholic St Anne’s Feast Day, the Penang International Food Festival, Penang Anime Matsuri, Penang Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, Japanese Bon Odori Festival, George Town Heritage Celebration, Penang International Bridge Marathon and Thai Songkran Water Festival are not to be missed in Penang.
Food & Beverages
Assam Laksa | Char Kuey Teow | Nyonya Kuih & Dishes | Ais Tingkap | Teochew Chendol | Nasi Kandar | Curry Mee | Nasi Lemak | Mee Goreng | Penang Rojak | Chee Cheong Fun | Lok Lok | Hokkien Mee | Nasi Melayu | Pasembur | Koay Chiap | Tau Sar Pneah | Vegetarian Food
In Penang, your only culinary worry would be not having enough time to feast on all the city has to offer. Not only are Asia’s major races all represented in Penang’s cuisine, they are fused together in the forms that are truly unique to Penang like Nyonya and Jawi Peranakan cooking. Nyonya cuisine is a blend of Malay, Chinese and Thai influences that is well known especially around the region. The criminally overlooked gem is Jawi Peranakan food, a product of the Indian-Muslim, Straits-born community which combines Tamil, Pakistani, Persian and Malay cooking styles.
Enjoy meals along the streets at hawker stalls, duck into quaint cafes or dress up for a fine dining outing. Each experience is a great meal waiting to be savoured as Malaysia’s food capital takes great pride in its title, regardless of where you decide to dine.
For veggie lovers
Recent years has seen a real rise in healthy eating. Penang naturally is at the forefront of this. Vegetarians definitely do not miss out on anything as there are plenty of Chinese and Indian eateries that cater to them. Some outlets even prepare vegetarian versions of famous local street dishes such as Laksa, Char Koay Teow, Nasi Lemak, Curry Mee and Lor Bak. Organic and vegan restaurants are not a rare sight on the island as well, serving up hearty meals that are packed with flavour as well as goodness.
Things to note for pedestrians
Walking around George Town is common and one of the best ways to tour this UNESCO heritage city, accessing quirky small lanes. Traffic lights for pedestrians are available at most main streets. Pedestrians are advised to obey the pedestrian crossing lights for safety reasons