GEORGE TOWN, Jan 10 — We wake to the muffled clatter of the streets below, where vendors and hawkers have been up for hours already. We are not tourists, we tell ourselves; there is no timed-to-the-minute schedule to adhere to. But it’d be a shame to spend the whole day in bed, as tempting as it is.
This is our weekend getaway in Penang’s heritage zone, in the heart of George Town. On the recommendation of friends, we are staying at Ren I Tang Heritage Inn. The original building dates back to 1885 and used to house a Chinese medicine hall (the name Ren I Tang is the phonetic Mandarin spelling of Yin Oi Tong, which means “The Hall of Benevolence”). Its history remains in every nook and cranny, from framed newspaper clippings to period furniture. There’s even a tiny museum devoted to Chinese medicine.
We pad carefully down the old wooden staircase; heavy luggages are raised up to the rooms with a pulley system using a large wicker basket. How quaint. We choose to have our breakfast al-fresco in the open-air inner courtyard. Besides the Western-style breakfast offered in-house, we get to order hawker fare from the ramshackle kopitiam under a large tree opposite the inn.
Whether it’s a plate of vegetarian char beehoon or some authentic Penang char kway teow full of wok hei, it’s a joy to dig in while surrounded by the greenery of the courtyard garden. Chatting with Ren I Tang manager and co-owner Karen Choo, we get plenty of ideas how to spend the weekend without walking further than 10 minutes from the inn.
After breakfast, it’s nice to get outside and greet the day by exploring the surrounding streets that make up Little India. The fragrant smell of spices, shops selling colourful saris and flower garlands, the latest Bollywood hit songs as a non-stop soundtrack... every step is a discovery.
We’re still feeling a tad peckish, so we leave Little India for Black Kettle, a bakery-cafe at the intersection of Lebuh Chulia and Beach Street. An abundance of breads (the German rye is exceptional) and pastries courtesy of a German master baker almost transforms the space into a gingerbread house. When the French Toast, laden with berries, mascarpone and honey, arrives, it feels like Christmas.
After so much grub — and it’s still morning! — we need a little pick-me-up. We turn left into Gat Lebuh Chulia, then right into Lebuh Victoria, where we find Spacebar Coffee at the entrance of Awesome Canteen Penang and Sekeping Victoria. Baristas Joachim Leong and Shean Tan hail from KL and have been dazzling Penangites with their brand of specialty coffee for the past six months.
We cool down with single origin iced lattes. Spacebar Coffee currently uses beans from Three Little Birds and The Roast Things; the local coffee community is a tightly knit one. A slice of their homemade Strawberry Summer Cake is just the touch sweetness needed to go with our cuppas.
Hungry again? We are. There’s no better lunch than at a kopitiam; even better if it’s only a street away rather than driving halfway across the island to one hounded by tourists in search of the perfect plate of char kway teow, served with a scowl. Peace & Joy Coffee Shop at the corner of Lebuh China and Queen Street offers the usual local favourites with smiles instead.
The lady selling chee cheong fun chats with us in Cantonese as she takes our order; her convivial nature may well impart an extra oomph to these Penang-style rolled rice noodles. Another favourite here is the curry mee, topped with the requisite cockles, cuttlefish, taupok and mint leaves. A spoonful of pungent chilli paste completes the dish, rendering it absolutely divine.
The island during the afternoon can be oppressively warm, the air heavy with languor. No more wandering then; back to the inn for a cold shower and a nap. There’s no hurry, after all: We’re on a holiday, are we not?
Later, refreshed from our slumber, we return to the courtyard. The wall of plants attract a breeze, we surmise, though this could be simply a happy fiction we embrace. Other guests, returning from their walkabouts or not having left the inn in the first place, join us in conversation. Mostly we just relax and enjoy not having to do anything at all.
Come evening, we can stroll to Junk Cafe at Lebuh Chulia for dinner. (Nothing is ever more than 10 minutes away by foot, provided one doesn’t have an itinerary. We don’t.)
This bohemian cafe (that wouldn’t be out of place in Amsterdam, with its hippie vibe) offers gourmet burgers in a space decked out with antique lanterns, musical instruments, retro paraphernalia... and yes, a wall of old clocks.
Junk Cafe owner Ong Shen Yung tells us they’ve run out of their popular crab roll and recommends the Tatziki Burger or Blood Cream Chicken Sandwich instead. We order both.
The former is a heady explosion of flavours — freshly-grilled beef patty, Greek yogurt, cucumber, mint, smoked paprika and aromatic charred bell peppers marinated in herb-infused olive oil — while the latter is an excellent choice for those who aren’t beef lovers; the chicken breast is tender and moist, and the cream sauce given a Mediterranean boost with a judicious use of sun dried cherry tomatoes.
Of course, we could well have been too lazy to head out again, even for dinner. And who can blame us? The charming inn is the perfect place to linger without the pressing need to be a tourist ticking “must do” items off a checklist.
We could grab a seat at the in-house Bistro Tang and relish the assam laksa. Made from a family recipe, this generous serving of noodles in a tangy, tamarind-based broth, rich with shredded ikan kembung (mackerel fish), cucumber, pineapple, mint, daun kesum and bunga kantan (torch ginger flower), topped off with hae ko (thick and sweet prawn paste), is a bowl made with love.
Sipping on ice-blended calamansi, we can’t resist climbing the courtyard’s fire escape to watch the sun set over the neighbouring rooftops. There will be more conversations and supper later, perhaps, at one of the banana leaf rice restaurants or late-night food courts. Then curling up in bed with a good book before sleep takes us.
And tomorrow? Tomorrow we get to repeat it all over again. Walk, eat, sleep, enjoy. The perfect weekend getaway.
Ren I Tang Heritage Inn & Bistro Tang
82A Lebuh Penang, George Town, Penang
Bistro Tang: Open daily (except Tue closed) 11:30am-11pm
Tel: 04-250 8383
105, Beach Street, George Town, Penang
Open daily 8:30am-12am
Tel: 04-251 9270
164, Lebuh Victoria, George Town, Penang
Open daily (except Tue closed) 10am-10pm
Peace & Joy Coffee Shop
87 & 89, Lebuh China, George Town, Penang
Open daily (except Thu closed) 7am-5pm
401, Lebuh Chulia, George Town, Malaysia
Open daily (except Wed closed) 12pm-10pm
Tel: 016-438 3205