Driving over Penang's glistening bridge with that salty sea air brushing past our cheeks, we grinned; all that stood between Batik&Bubbles and the start to a fabulous weekend exploring Penang was a couple of rickshaws pedaling slow and easy.
As our GPS chirped out directions, we wound our way to our destination: China Tiger, No. 29 Lebuh China, George Town, Pulau Pinang.
Although I've been to Penang a number of times, somehow I've always stayed on the outskirts. Most recently, my husband and I stayed at the beautiful Lone Pines, which proved to be fantastically relaxing but rather secluded. In fact, we hardly left the shady hammocks poolside. And before that I'd stayed in the gorgeous Pinang suite in the famous Eastern & Oriental hotel with three balconies and a crisp white pool overlooking the ocean. Yet, even that meant a hot long walk to get into the interesting, historical parts of town.
This time with just a few days in Penang, we were determined to stay right in the heart of Penang's UNESCO heritage zone!
China Tiger sits squarely in one of Penang's oldest streets; China Street was founded in 1798 and true to its name, you'll find early examples of Hokkien and Cantonese shop houses and later examples of cool, instaworthy art-deco architecture. And yet, true to Malaysia's incredible diversity, a few steps to the left takes you straight into the Little India district.
Happy as two little bees, we pulled up to the front of "Tropical Spice Garden in the City", which is located at the bottom of the spacious building that houses the China Tiger apartments our colorful home-away-from-home. The pretty shaded shopfront is filled with the most tempting spices and gifts for the adventurous cook!
As we walked up the minty green steps to our first floor apartment, a little purposeful homespun graffiti scrawled against the wall offered suggestions of neighborhood highlights, including nuggets of foodie wisdom which I mentally tucked away for later eats.
On the opposing wall, a vintage motor scooter hung precariously alongside artsy finds - obviously there isn't a single cookie-cutter, uniformly bland thing about these sweet digs.
China Tiger is awash in light and colors. The room is an open layout and amazingly spacious. Somehow, in this massive apartment, they've managed to create little bedroom nooks that are cozy and inviting. With three single beds and a queen bed, there's ample space to host a fantastic girls getaway. Or if you book the apartment upstairs, you could gather together a party of 10 and have two floors to yourselves!
As Batik & Bubbles first official trip to Penang, we had a packed schedule and were grateful to have a beautiful base to call home for the long weekend; someplace we felt instantly at home.
The vivid jungle and naturalistic prints that adorned the walls reflects the personal touch of the owners, Artist Rebecca and her husband David Wilkinson.
This appreciation for nature is evident in China's Tiger commitment to the environment and to maintaining these valuable heritage buildings in it's emphasis on recycling and participation with the Penang Heritage Trust. This is unsurprising to us, since China Tiger's sister property, Tiger Rock on Pangkor Island is a veritable jungle sanctuary that keenly observes the balance between the rights and needs of the jungle and all its creatures, including its guests.
Rebecca's art transforms the apartment into an inviting, creative space and sets the perfect mood for a little wander around the streets of Lebuh China.
So after a quick cup of tea, we stepped out into the neighborhood to explore.
It was the sounds of Little India that drew us in that direction first, as Bollywood music filled the sky with gleeful love struck choruses. We ducked into different shops, checking out the bright temple garlands and sparkly, cheap bangles.
Its a marvel how causally and seemingly seamlessly this neighborhood shares religious and cultural space; this is the 'Malaysia Truly Asia' that tourists have been promised worldwide.
As we wandered, we passed so many of Georgetown's famous UNESCO sites from the Goddess of Mercy Temple "Kuan Yin Teng" to a personal favorite, the bright green Pinang Peranakan Mansion explored years earlier with my father.
For those of us more accustomed to shiny glass high-rises and squeaky clean marble foyers, Penang's charms with its mix of colonial style island decay; former grandeur is no match for relentless sunshine and salty breezes mixed with air humid and heavy with monsoon rains.
Penang is renowned for its delectable street hawker fare and for its art, in particular its street art - whether Banksy style graffiti or modern metal work sculptures that share bits of history and lore etched onto unexpected corners.
Luckily for us, China street and its neighboring side streets are littered with interesting pieces of street art.
As we walked past all these semi-preserved and still functioning shop lots, it didn't take a stretch of the imagination to imagine the brisk trade conducted on Lebuh China a hundred years ago.
After peeking into shops and alleys, we headed back to China Tiger. For us, one of the best things about staying at their large studio apartment was that we could make it our own for the weekend. We could invite friends over for a glass of wine or a cup of tea and relax - something that's nearly impossible in a hotel room.
And that's precisely what we did.
We were lucky to have our girlfriend join us; a KL native but becoming more of a Penangite with each year, she was our wonderful guide to ferreting out some of the delicious hawker stalls nearby.
We'd heard that Love Lane and Jalan Chulia were around the corner and indeed, a few minutes ride plopped us right in the thick of hawkers stalls. We each went out and ordered a couple dishes and 5 minutes later, our little plastic table was overflowing with different Penang specialties!
Happily full, we waddled straight into a nearby traditional Chinese foot massage parlor for a little foot loving after our afternoon rambles.
The weekend passed quickly and on our final morning, we rose bright and early. We'd heard there was a Sunday Baazar on Beach street and so this time, we turned right and found ourselves in the midst of beautiful, grand colonial buildings.
The row of rickshaws lined up belied the readiness of the market and upon closer examination, it was clear we were a bit too early as we quietly passed a few of the drivers still snoozing as the vendors languidly set up their tents.
While the Sunday market slowly got underway, a little stall stacked with books caught my eye.
Free. Books. Library. You'd be hard pressed to find three words I love more strung together. A chat with the girl manning the booth uncovered that she'd started this in the hopes of fostering a regular book exchange. Since reading isn't exactly a national pastime, this type of civic voluntary effort really deserves applause and replication!
As we left the fair, the hunt for coffee began in earnest. While some may proclaim that early birds get the worms, apparently early isn't how island time rolls!
We passed cute cafe after cute cafe, with nary a open sign in sight - our craving for a steaming hot latte unmet, we remembered that China Tiger had recommended the South Indian restaurant on the corner - Sri Ananda Bahwan.
Two cups of steaming masala tea later, Sri Ananda Bahwan was making our taste buds sing!
We get a lot of good South Indian food here in Malaysia, but I can attest with some level of confidence that this is one of the best ones yet. This unassuming but delicious restaurant sits literally 15 steps from China Tiger door on the corner of Lebuh China.
Uncharacteristically for a neophile, I found myself wishing we'd had all of our breakfasts there!
There's simply something about Penang. It's this intriguing little island-city that manages to charm its way into your heart. There's a laid back nature to Penangites that leaves you with the impression that they've figured out a better work-life-foodie-culture balance then the rest of us.
And as we walked across the street and back up to our China Tiger apartment, we got to feel - even if only for a weekend - as if we also had a little home there.
Thanks to the Wilkinson's for restoring and preserving this beautiful building, and for inviting us to experience what it's like to live in the heart of Penang!
- You can find more details about booking China Tiger at: www.chinatiger.info
- To learn more about Penang's UNESCO status visit: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1223
- To discover more about these gorgeous silk clutches that are infused with heritage and history of their own, visit: https://www.frankitas.com/
- To find clothes that suit these tropical climes effortlessly, visit: https://www.facebook.com/coffeecovet