I arrived in Penang (that’s Pulau Pinang to locals) by plane. I was there on a long weekend from Kuala Lumpur, specifically to see for myself the Penang street art that had recently exploded in popularity. 

By the time I write this, Penang street art has acquired national, and then global fame. In the coming years, it would inspire artists to continually add to it, and the images of those artwork are now all over the internet. 

So that’s not what this article will be about. Not exactly. This article is meant as an account of a long weekend trip to Penang, including a Malaysian’s snapshot of what the sentiments were like in Malaysia about murals and graffiti art, before and just after Penang street art became famous. 

I try out flashpacking digs in Penang

I debated making it a road trip. But as I only had a long weekend, I did not want to waste time on the road. Besides, everything I wanted to see was mostly in Georgetown, in the UNESCO Heritage Area. Georgetown has notoriously hard-to-navigate streets for someone not local to it, and the Penang Bridge traffic is infamous. It is far more convenient to visit Penang car-less.

This was the year when I had vowed to travel every single long weekend in the year. I would by default be travelling solo. By this time it was clear that if I did not travel alone, I would not be going at all.

It was the time for doing things differently (even if only a tiny bit different, in hindsight). So I opted for unconventional digs, for me. Not quite backpacking – more like glampacking. Or was this flashpacking? 

I chose to stay at Muntri Mews, a charming boutique hotel that was once a carriage house, right in the middle of the Heritage Area.

It is very cool. They did a very effective and tasteful job of lifting Penang nostalgia and Peranakan culture, into present-day comfort.

Boutique hotel Penang | Carriage house hotel | Penang UNESCO Heritage Area | Muntri Mews | Malaysia | Pulau Pinang glampacking
Glampacking in a former carriage house

British Penang Origin Story: An Irreverent Summary

Readers of my Malacca guide would recall that here on this blog, I’ll give you the side of Malaysian history that the tourist brochures usually skip over. As someone who had a phase of reading of real history books written by actual historians of the land, both English and Malaysians (and secondhand Portuguese), I retain a stronger sense of academic historical narrative that you’d normally find among travel bloggers. 

I think real history is often way more amusing that the sanitised versions they tell tourists for fear of distracting people from spending tourism money. So you can rely on me to pass on irreverent takes on things, which are nonetheless very much grounded in fact. And surely, you can’t go to Penang without getting a little bit of its backstory!

How the British got the Straits Settlement of Penang

Pulau Pinang – together with Melaka some ways away to the south – is a UNESCO Heritage City due to the mixed Nusantara-Chinese Straits settlement culture that sprang up around a thriving seaport within the very lucrative trading route of the Straits of Malacca.

But Penang became a seaport only after Francis Light obtained permission from the Sultan of Kedah to settle his men on the island, which he promptly interpreted as colonisation in the name of Britain. Thus Penang became the first of the Malay lands in the archipelago to fall under the British crown. In a way, you could say he swindled the Sultan of Kedah out of the island. 

It’s actually a pretty common theme across the Malay peninsula when it comes to the British. The Portuguese captured Melaka with much blood spilled, in several waves of assault, and uncounted lives lost, and then suffering numerous (unsuccessful) re-capture attempts by the exiled royalty. The Dutch after them also took the southern port city by force, expelling the Portuguese entirely from the peninsula. 

Instead, the British did not gain any of the territory they controlled during Malaysia’s colonial period by military conquest. India received the brunt of the ‘attention’, leaving the folks tasked to acquire the peninsula towards more imaginative methods. So they made do with some kind of dishonesty, backed with just the threat of military conquest. 

Penang street | Penang shophouses | Penang UNESCO Heritage Area | Malaysia | Pulau Pinang
Georgetown street in Penang UNESCO Heritage Area

P.S: A short while after, Light also extorted from the Sultan a matching piece of agricultral land across the strait, called Seberang Prai. You know, so that they would also have a secure grain supply in case Kedah tries to starve them out. Together they form the present day Malaysian state of Pulau Pinang. 

P.P.S: Oh, why did the Sultan let him keep both bits of land? Sorry, forgot that bit. British gunships. Basically, whenever tourism brochures say European ‘persuasion’ , it is safe to substitute ‘gunships’. 

The Peranakan culture of Penang

I am always torn between feeling irked over the unglamorous way we were colonised, and a grudging acknowledgement that – if colonisation was an inevitable fate – at least this way minimised local casualties.

Penang straits settlement cultural motifs | Penang mosaics | Penang UNESCO Heritage Area | Muntri Mews | Malaysia | Pulau Pinang
Some Penang architectural motifs to look for on a ramble through the streets

But something different and unique sprang from it, when the dust settled. That’s the thing with human history – it is rare that something is ever wholly a blessing or wholly a calamity, given enough time.

Unlike Melaka, where the melting pot Straits culture had flourished from when the city was a world trade centre under the sultanate rule, Penang’s mostly came to bloom after British administration of the island. Nonetheless, together with British port #3 of Singapore, this hybrid culture called ‘Peranakan’, or ‘Baba Nyonya’, is new and recognisably distinct from others in the region. (Peranakan culture has survived only in Malaysia.) 

The first of the famous Penang Street Art

Penang street art | Ernest Zacharevic | Penang cartoon wire sculptures | Penang history | Penang UNESCO Heritage City | Pulau Pinang
Just a teaser – don’t want to spoil your hunt!

But I didn’t go to Penang for the Peranakan culture and history. (However, if you are, but don’t want to put in too much effort, snippets of the past is easy to review through a series of cartoon wire sculptures scattered across the Heritage Area).

I had come for the charmingly interactive street art that was – through what I must assume were a near-miraculous series of events – created in 2012 by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharavic for the Heritage Area.

To appreciate why I say ‘miraculous’, I must tell you something important that millennials do not remember, and boomers do not speak of. Yes, that’s what us Gen X are for. 

The sober Malaysians

We Malaysians did not typically play – at least after childhood, and certainly not in public (except for sports – sports are ok). There is verbal levity and slapstick humour, but as for whimsy, this is not really a thing. 

This was a strain on someone like me, who stubbornly kept to her computer games and Dragonlances well into young adulthood.

True, we are rich in artisanal crafts. They decorate our heritage buildings, and sometimes private homes and other structures. But painting on publicly visible surfaces? This is either done for practical purposes, or else by hooligans (aka graffiti) and totally frowned upon.

Occasionally painting on public walls may be allowed for non-practical purposes, but this would typically take the form of an officially sanctioned mural. 

No one can resist the endearing street art

But the 2012 Penang street art – this was when public whimsical play became socially acceptable.

Penang street art | 101 Lost Kittens | Penang cartoon wire sculptures | Penang history | Penang UNESCO Heritage City | Pulau Pinang
Spinoff Penang street art

I don’t quite know why. 

Was it due to how faithfully the artwork resonated with Penang nostalgia? Was it its sheer accessibility? The semi-3D nature of it draws you to interact? Or that it simply coincided with the rise of high quality smartphone cameras, making spontaneous photography more likely?

People posed with the artwork in wonderfully inventive ways*. Malaysians travelled from near and far – to play with the semi-graffiti, semi-sculptures. Images began to go viral on social media – perhaps Malaysia’s first Insta-boomed destination**. 

Gradually, in the coming years, homegrown artists and/or local small business began to imitate it, creating art of their own, with their own meanings. 

Anonymous people paint around random things in the public space like bollards and Chinese prayer altars and a dismantled pipe, and make art.

A coconut ice cream man painted a semi-3D piece of art by his stall. (Yes his ice cream is delicious and very welcome in the heat, too). And of course there’s the 101 Lost Kittens series.

Art is now something the public participates in, without authority deciding what they would be about in advance. 

On the trail of the original set of Penang street murals 

If you’ve read some of my other stories, you will already be aware of my obsessive treasure hunting tendencies. Unsurprisingly, I came to Penang with a ‘treasure map’ of the street art.

I limited myself to only the original Ernest Zacharavic artwork and wire sculptures, so that I was only managing one map (the one on the Penang Tourism website).  I thought about picking up the 101 Lost Kittens as well. But in the end, I decided to allow myself the spontaneity of encountering them by chance.

I found all of them bar one. One of the Zacharavic murals – the one within the Clan Jetties – was already basically gone, worn away by the blistering Malaysian sun. I noticed that many of the other works were also beginning to fade and show signs of wear compared to photos I had seen on the internet. It was only 3 years, but the harsh Malaysian weather proved quite equal to the task. 

The ephemerality of street art

You could say, it’s an inherent element of this kind of art. The play and interaction, and being out there exposed to the city air and punishing equatorial rays. Use. Use wears things out. I wondered whether they would be touched up. It would kind of be a shame to lose them.

But wouldn’t the alternative be immortality by petrification? We’re good at that, us Malaysians. Clinging to the form, freezing our arts in its heyday past, instead of allowing present-day artists spin our craft into new iterations.

How would it even make sense for street art? Taking the playful art out of reach of the playing public, away from the bustle and commerce of the city that inspired it. Away from its own heart. This isn’t the kind of art you shutter away in the name of its protection, to be looked at but never touched. 

Perhaps it is better to let them ebb eventually away. Other spinoff street art that they have birthed grow now all around them, alive, and living in the minds of future artists yet to paint and build in Penang’s streets.

Immortality by letting go, and evolving. Something, in this age of global change, we desperately need to learn. Or risk losing the core of our cultural heart to the sweep of the times. Left holding only sacred empty petrified shells.

Poignant homegrown Penang street art | Penang spinoff local street art | Penang UNESCO Heritage City | Pulau Pinang | Malaysia
Some of the spinoff street art is of the poignant kind.

A look back through Georgetown streets

The Penang Heritage Area is quite rewarding for a casual ramble through the streets. This is true even if you’re there on a Malaysian long weekend, which means that the old city heaves with tourists.

What things would you encounter?

Straits settlement clan houses

You should visit one of these if you’ve not been. I’m Melaka-born, and so obviously partial to the lavish Peranakan homes there. But while in Penang, pick at least one – perhaps the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion (mainly because this one showed the excellent taste of being blue!).

Indian Muslim culture

Then of course there are the non-Peranakan parts of Penang culture (*gasp* what?? there’s another hybrid culture in Penang??). Hey, you don’t get called ‘melting pot’ for having fused like, just 2 cultures! Indian traders had come to settle as well, and also formed a pretty distinct Penang Indian Muslim (‘mamak’) culture. 

Kapitan Keling mosque | Penang Indian Muslim history | Penang UNESCO Heritage Area | Malaysia | Pulau Pinang

For instance there is the Kapitan Keling Mosque, built by Indian Muslims. Try one of the many mamak shops selling delicious south Indian breakfasts and nasi kandar lunches. 

Kopi tiam and cafes

And then of course there is the iconic kopi tiam. These are distinctly a Malaysia-Singapore style Chinese coffee shop. Distinctive features include such touches as marble round tables and stools (sometimes marble-topped), and mosaic tile floors.

Tip: Order toast with butter and/or kaya spread. 

The Alley Penang | Penang coffee shop sign | Penang UNESCO World Heritage City | Pulau Pinang | Malaysia | Justin Bieber
Devastatingly cheeky…

Penangites insist that their food is the best in the country. I’m not a foodie, and moreover a southerner, so I excuse myself from this debate for diplomatic reasons!

Aside from the traditional kopi tiam (Chinese coffee houses), hipster cafes have popped up as well. They sometimes with oddly inspiring signage – and sometimes with devastatingly cheeky ones.

Chew clan jetty

Then there’s the Chew Clan Jetty, which you would easily come across while looking for Penang street art around Lebuh Armenian. Long and shaded, the wooden walkway stretches on high stilts, flanked on either side by homes similarly propped over the water.

Chew Clan jetty | Penang UNESCO Heritage Area | Malaysia | Pulau Pinang
Chew Clan Jetty

Far to the end, the walkway emerges into sun. From here you can see the iconic Penang suspension bridge in the distance, one of the milestone infrastructure projects of the Malaysian ’80s. Before this bridge was built, mainland crossings were by ferry only.

There are shops on either side selling local snack foods and general confectionary. I bought a set of local northern white coffee packaged for individual servings in a box made to look like a shophouse. (This was before I went to the Blue Temple, and before I took the No Plastics April challenge. Today I would likely make a different purchasing decision.)

General tips for posing with Penang street art

*Penang street art tip: If you’re intending to take those whimsical Instagram-worthy photo ops, I strongly advise not doing Penang as solo travel unless you’re the kind who will, say, immediately bond with random like-minded travellers at a hostel.

**Also, try to avoid Malaysian long weekends. You’ll have to wait for every photo op, and it’s hard to get in a really fun mood when there’s a line of people waiting for you to wrap up. In the interests of abating overtourism, check out an alternative Malaysian town for Zacharavic street art

Jambatan Pulau Pinang | Penang suspension bridge | Penang UNESCO Heritage City | Penang Weekend Trip
Penang bridge

Stay in Georgetown, or wander further afield?

In theory, if you start out early, and are reaaaallly dedicated, you could do all the above in a day. If instead you prefer to soak it in, it’s an easy couple of days.

But there are other things in Penang than the UNESCO Heritage city. Depending on what you gravitate to, there’s

For a lovely take on the rest of Penang island beyond the street art, check out this article: Highlights of Penang.

For a more serious guide of Penang sightseeing over a long weekend, check out: The Essential Guide to Georgetown, Penang (and Tips for More!)

27 Responses

  1. Soraya says:

    I loved Georgetown, and I must admit, I was one of those Malaysians that traveled from afar just to see the street art. It really is interesting to see how street art really took off in Penang, and now so many cities around the country have copied the trend and made it their own. Street Art way back when…like you said was done by ‘hooligans’ and now its a trend and a piece of art that Malaysians and Travelers alike have been able to appreciate.

    • Teja says:

      I see from newer blog articles that the spinoff art has continued to expand. Makes me so happy for some reason. I’m going to try and stop by Valparaiso while in Chile; it’s supposed to be filled with street art.

  2. Jackie says:

    I loved this post! Learning about Penang and the Peranakan culture and history was awesome and you told the story in such a captivating way! Penang looks like the perfect place to head to with a treasure map for street art! Such beautiful pieces.

  3. Kim says:

    Wow, I didn’t know Penang had so much street art! I love randomly coming across murals and street art while exploring new cities.

  4. Jen says:

    The street art is really stunning, and you can never go wrong with a UNESCO world heritage site. Thanks for sharing!

  5. So glad I discovered your blog! I’m planning a Southeast Asia trip for January and I’m definitely saving this to my bookmarks! Thanks for sharing :)

  6. Emily Hines says:

    I’ve never been to Malaysia but I do love street art. Really interesting post!

  7. Chasing street art is also my thing. I loved your pictures, especially the Owl Shop!

  8. Joanna says:

    The street art in Penang looks really fantastic and I would love to explore the streets of Georgetown one day. So colorful! I have been to Malaysia before but I didn’t make it to Penang.

  9. Sarah says:

    I loved this post! I was in Penang just last week and loved just strolling around too. Fortunately it wasn’t very busy when I was there so I was often alone with some of the street at which was pretty great. Love your photos :)

    • Teja says:

      Haha I wish I’d the presence of mind to drag, bribe, or threaten someone to come with me tho!

  10. Jason says:

    Thanks for the tips! I’m heading up this weekend so I’ll definitely check out the art and perhaps hit the beach or do some hiking.

  11. I love how they turned a water spout into a cute lil elephant <3

    • Teja says:

      When I saw all the ‘unofficial’ arts that sprang up, it was a revelation to me. I thought, hey, why should we ever suffer boring blank walls again, especially what with how lazy we are with sprucing them up… ! And just leave architectural ‘imperfections’ in place until an idea comes, because it’s all a difference in perspective isn’t it?

  12. Hannah says:

    Ugh I skipped Panang because of cost (I had a few days extra but it was much cheaper for me to spend that time in Phuket), but every time I see photos of the street art I want to kick myself. It looks like such a cool place to explore and I love murals. Plus, as you said, there are nearby beaches too! Guess I need to go back

    • Teja says:

      Yeah, inertia. I totally get that. I’m a seaside girl myself and definitely once you park me by the shoreline, it’s hard to remember why I need to leave.

  13. I’ve been to Penang, briefly, but don’t remember any of this! Looks like I need to go back =)

  14. Cherene Saradar says:

    Love this so much. I enjoyed Penang immensely and enjoyed reading the history you shared. I definitely will go back and explore more because I missed so much.

    • Teja says:

      If you do we should go together! Hopefully there will be many more art then!

  15. Danielle says:

    Wow, looks amazing. I love street art so I think this is something I’ll have to add to my bucket list! Thankyou for sharing

  16. Chiara says:

    I’ve aways been fasvinated by Malaysia, both the culture and the landscaoes make me very curious. Definitely a must do in the future :) I really love dyoyr post, it gave me a new prospective about a city that I don’t knwo very well!

    • Teja says:

      Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I thought I’d not do the street art honour roll since so many have done it way more photogenically, and give something extra beyond that instead.