The southwest monsoon typically dumps close to 400 millimetres of water on Penang during the month of October — it’s the wettest time of the year to visit the island. If you find yourself here during October, therefore, it probably pays to have a wet-weather plan up your sleeve, just in case, so here are a few ideas to get you started.
The Peranakan Mansion museum (29 Lebuh Gereja, T: (04) 264 2929), offers a fascinating insight into the decadent lives of Penang’s 19th- and early 20th-century Chinese families, who made their fortunes in the tin and rubber trades and lavished their riches on fine houses, antiques and other luxuries. The museum also reveals more about the fascinating hybrid culture of the Peranakan, which was unique to the Malay peninsula. Tickets are 10 ringgit (free for children) and it’s open daily, 09:30 to 17:00.
Check out too the famous Blue Mansion (14 Leith Street, T: (04) 262 5289), former home to the ‘Rockefeller of the East’ and Asia’s most influential businessman at the turn of the 20th century, Cheong Fatt Tze. Although divested of furniture by a greedy descendant, the building itself has been lovingly restored to its former glory and showcases traditional fung shui principles in its architecture, as well as some spectacularly ornate ceramic decorations. The daily tours (11:00, 13:30 and 15:00) reveal many of the mansion’s secrets and you will learn about the life of the man and his many wives. Tours cost 12 ringgit per person.
Many travellers come to Penang to eat, so why not hole up for a few hours in one of Georgetown’s covered hawker centres and eat your way through the island’s famous dishes? During the day, between 09:00 and 15:00, head to either Sri Weld Food Court on Lebuh Pantai, or New World Park, off Jalan Burma, to try Penang classics such as char kway teow and asam laksa, as well as other tasty treats including mee rebus, nasi lemak, won ton mee, cendol and ice kacang. From about 18:00, Red Garden on Leith Street is the best and most central of Georgetown’s evening hawker centres.
Or try rustling up your own food during a cooking class. Penangites sure know their way around a kitchen, and the wonderful Pearly at Penang Home Cooking School imparts her culinary know-how during a half-day session, which includes a visit to the wet market followed by a step-by-step, hands-on cooking demonstration back in her own kitchen. You will learn all about Penang’s unique nyonya cuisine and you get to eat everything once you’re done. Classes cost 50 ringgit per person, and you must book at least one day in advance (T: 016 437 4380).
Many of Georgetown’s best clan houses are clustered in one area, around Lebuh Armenian. This is not a 100-per-cent-waterproof activity since it will require some walking, but at least everything is quite close together. To avoid the rain as much as possible, you can hop between the shops and boutiques on Lebuh Armenian and if the rain really is too much, duck into China House just around the corner (153 Lebuh Pantai; T: 04 263 7299) for coffee, tea and Penang’s best selection of cakes.
Penultimately, visiting a shopping mall may not exactly be your idea of the perfect holiday activity, but as the number one Malaysian pastime, a rainy afternoon might provide the perfect opportunity to check out what all the fuss is about. The key thing about Penang’s malls is that — as you might expect — everything is under one roof, so there is absolutely no dampness involved.
The island has plenty to choose from: the perennial favourite, Gurney Plaza, a short taxi ride out of the centre; Queensbay, the big daddy of Penang’s malls, which offers the widest number of outlets but is a bit of a trek, down near the airport; small-but-chic First Avenue and the adjacent Prangin Mall, the decidedly shabbier older sister, right in Georgetown; and the new kid, Gurney Paragon, which has opened in the last few months and incorporates an old heritage building.
The one thing that you may find less expensive than elsewhere is tablet computers, and Malaysia is reputedly one of the cheapest places outside the US to pick up an iPad. Check out Switch stores in Gurney Plaza, Queensbay and Gurney Paragon.
Finally: Combine your trip to one of the malls with a visit to the cinema. Gurney Plaza and Queensbay both have multiplex Golden Screen Cinemas, offering regular screenings of the latest Hollywood films in both 2D and 3D throughout the day. Meanwhile, TGV at First Avenue – more convenient if you are staying in Georgetown – has all of the above as well as a special beanbag cinema, which is a definite novelty. Be warned, however, that the Malaysian predilection for air conditioning reduces most cinema halls to near-Arctic conditions and it is advisable to wear trousers and long sleeves. Tickets for regular 2D movies cost 7 to 10 ringgit, depending on day and time (evenings and weekends are more expensive), and add an extra 5 ringgit for 3D movies.