48 hours in Malaysia's historic, food-loving Penang

GEORGETOWN, Malaysia Fri Aug 31, 2012 5:01am EDT

1 of 2. A worker prepares lanterns at a temple for the upcoming Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations in Malaysia's northern island of Penang Febuary 3, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Zainal Abd Halim

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GEORGETOWN, Malaysia (Reuters) - Just off Malaysia's west coast on the Straits of Melaka, Penang island is a key Southeast Asian crossroad that historically brought together traders, armies from across the world and created a huge repository of culinary delights.

Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help visitors get the most out of a weekend in what is called the Pearl of the Orient.

FRIDAY

4:00 p.m. - Drop your bags off at one of the stylish boutique hotels in Georgetown, Penang's historic commercial heart, where temples, 19th century shophouses and British colonial government buildings compete for space.

For a bit of grandeur, consider a night at the creepily atmospheric Blue House -- home of China's last mandarin and first capitalist Cheong Fatt Sze <www.cheongfattszemansion.com>. Looking for some modern living in quaint, art deco-type shophouses built by Chinese traders in 19th century? Try Muntri Mews www.muntrimewscom.

6:00 p.m. - Do as the British colonials did. Gather at the Eastern & Oriental hotel's Farquhar bar to escape the humid weather, sip a gin and tonic and soak up some history www.eohotels.com. Built in 1885, the hotel was the finest in the British Empire along with the Raffles in Singapore and The Strand in Yangon.

7:00 p.m. - With nightfall, Penang turns into a street food paradise. To take it all in one go, make your way to Lorong Baru off Jalan McAllister with its huge sprawl of food carts.

Indulge in the must-have Penang specialities -- char kuay teow (spicy ribbon noodles with crab meat and cockles), asam laksa (a spicy, fish broth with noodles) and popiah (spring rolls with turnip, egg, lettuce, sweet sauce).

9:00 p.m. - Get a little mellow. Swing by the 32 Mansion with its dripping chandeliers and marble entryways that was inspired by the villas in London's Regent park and now houses some upmarket food outlets.

After wandering about, venture outside to the island's only al fresco lounge, Beach Blanket Babylon, and enjoy your nightcap lulled by the sounds of the sea.

SATURDAY

9.00 a.m. - Go for a classic Hainanese coffeeshop breakfast at Toh Soon Cafe on Campbell Street: thick, black coffee and charcoal grilled toast with generous lashings of coconut jam.

Top that with two soft boiled eggs and you have the culinary result of migrants who left China's Hainan province in the 19th and 20th century to take up positions as cooks to colonial British army officials in Malaysia.

10.30 a.m. - Trot over to Lebuh Armenian and soak up Penang's budding arts scene. Private galleries dot the street of two-story shophouses with their intricate doorways and air wells that just as vibrant as the art installed within them.

Stay alert to the interactive, street murals in the area by Penang-based Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic where you can be part of the art and snap some quirky photographs.

12.00 noon - Lunch at Mama's Nyonya Restaurant on Lorong Abu Siti, specialising in the spice-rich cuisine of the Peranakan community - descendents of intermarriages between ethnic Chinese and Malays in the 15 century who adopted Malay language, dress style and customs.

The family-run restaurant dishes out old-time favourites such as curry kapitan (dry chicken curry), otah-otah (spicy prawn paste baked in banana leaves) and tau eu bak (braised pork belly in soya sauce).

2.00 p.m. - Visit the very haunted Penang War Museum in the fortress of Batu Maung. Built by the British in the 1930s, the fortress fell to a surprise attack by the Japanese in World War II and was turned into a prison of torture. It has a winding network of underground tunnels, ammunition bunkers, ventilation shafts and sleeping quarters to explore.

4.00 p.m. - Take in a bit of the Penang countryside in Balik Pulau with picturesque Malay kampung houses on stilts and lush orchards, which bear durians in June and July. Stop at a roadside stall and try the smelly, spiky fruit with its creamy, sweet interior.

6.00 p.m. - Look for Chew Jetty, a centuries-old waterfront settlement that is home to the Chew clan, whose forefathers came from China's Fujian province and are mostly fisherman. Wander around the wooden houses, temples and boats. Have a few beers on the stilted boardwalks and ease into the cool night.

10.00 p.m. - But it doesn't quite end there. There will be late night cravings and most locals soothe theirs with a visit to an Indian Muslim shop dishing out nasi kandar -- fragrant rice with richly spiced meat and vegetable curries.

One of the best nasi kandar joints is next to Kapitan Keling Mosque, built by 19th century Indian Muslim traders, some of whom brought this type of Southern Indian fare to Malaysia. The line starts at 9.45 p.m. and can go down the road, earning the stall its name, Nasi Kandar Beratur, or the Nasi Kandar Queue.

SUNDAY

9 a.m. - You have a decision to make. Hang out at Batu Ferringhi, or Foreigner's Rock, for some rays or water sports on a beach strip of big name hotels, seafood restaurants and cafes.

Or go past Batu Ferringhi to the Penang National Park, the smallest in Malaysia, where some challenging trails take visitors to the quiet and pristine Monkey Beach for a picnic.

2 p.m. - Check out Swatow Lane, which used to be home to strip tease joints and cabaret shows in the 1950s but now has a variety of restaurants and hawker stalls jostling for your attention. Cool off with ais kacang -- an indulgent concoction of ice shavings, rose syrup, condensed milk and sweet corn.

4 p.m. - Give your feet a rest in Coffee Lane (10-B King Street) where coffee is made to order from siphon brewers. Exotic varieties of beans are sold here along with light food fare in this quaint shop. Use your caffeine kick to walk to the nearby Weld Quay and watch ships enter the harbour from cozy waterfront benches. (Additional reporting by Niluksi Koswanage, editing by Elaine Lies)

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