Making Friends Over Monk Fruit Juice and Pork Belly in Penang

In Malaysia, a traveller encounters a host like family.  
Penang Malaysia
George Town, in Penang, is famous for its food courts, where sweet and savoury flavours are served at fuss-free street stalls through the day. Photo: Phalinn Ooi/Flickr/Creative Commons (

I’m trying to find the perfect frame for the view before me. Outside the window of my room on the 14th floor, Penang’s charming, tiled-roof homes extend, freshly washed after a short tropical shower. I want to linger but Henry Teh, my Airbnb host, is waiting in the living room, to give me a tour of the neighbourhood, which I am eager to explore. I take one last picture, and scoot off, following him out of the apartment.

Henry is a gracious host, and goes out of his way to make me feel at home. A little earlier, he picked me up from the bus station and drove me home. Though there’s a bit of a language barrier—he speaks predominantly Bahasa Malay and Penang Hokkien—he still offers to show me around so I can get my bearings. For more complicated conversations, he gives me his English-speaking sister’s number.

Henry’s apartment (right) is simple, homely, and offers views (left) of Batu Lanchang, a suburb on the outskirts of Georgetown. Photos: Prathap Nair.

Henry’s apartment (left) is simple, homely, and offers views (right) of Batu Lanchang, a suburb on the outskirts of George Town. Photos: Prathap Nair.

This is my first time using Airbnb. Tired of soulless hotel rooms, I had decided to give it a try during my travels in Malaysia. Henry’s apartment, where I have a room to myself, is in the Batu Lanchang neighbourhood on the fringes of Penang’s capital city, George Town. It has great views, is well connected, and within walking distance of various eateries, as my host points out during our walk.

As I take in the locality’s leafy lanes and sense of calm, he gives me an introduction to the region, telling me about George Town’s colonial connections, and the Chinese and Indian settlers who arrived here in the 1800s. He doles out tips too: “Jelutong Market is great for breakfast.” “George Town and Gurney Drive are only fifteen minutes away by bus.” “Carry an umbrella always, the rains here are unpredictable.” “You should also go to the Penang Hill and the botanical gardens.” Within half an hour, I have a tried-and-tested list of things to do.

Armed with his suggestions, I set out to explore Penang’s vibrant streets where traditional Chinese mansions stand next to onion-domed mosques. The elegant minarets of the Kapitan Keling Mosque and the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, with its towering gopurams, were particularly fascinating.

Georgetown Penang Malaysia

George Town’s architecture is a blend of Chinese and colonial styles, and the best way to soak it in is with a heritage walk through the city. Photo: Phalinn Ooi/Flickr/Creative Commons (

In Penang’s widely popular Gurney Drive promenade, I slurp bowls of pungent Penang laksa from hawker’s shops with views of the waters of the Malacca Strait. Laksa is the pride of Penang’s cuisine, and the feisty fish broth is known across Malaysia. Another time, I tuck into spicy-tangy Peranakan cuisine, which blends Malay and Chinese flavours, and was cooked by the Chinese migrant community that came to Penang as traders in the 1800s.

The weather remains unpredictable, as Henry had warned. One minute, it’s pouring, and the next, the clouds clear to reveal sunshine. On a clear day, I hike up Penang Hill on the outskirts of George Town on a trail hugged by coniferous forests, for aerial views of the island. I also take long walks in Penang Botanic Gardens and a guided tour of the colonial structures of George Town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. When the humid days dissolve into purple-pink sunsets, I return home and share the day’s happenings with my host.

On my last night, Henry takes me out for a late dinner. By 11 pm, the stalls of Batu Lanchang Hawker Centre are winding up their business for the day: the chairs are upturned on tables, and vessels are being put away. Nevertheless, Henry asks a stall owner if he can put together a meal for us, and soon after, we are sharing a platter of fried pork belly, chicken wings, and tofu, glistening with sauce. We settle down with glasses of monk fruit juice.

Penang Food Malaysia

Penang cuisine is known for its vibrant flavours, rich in coconut, and appealing to both meat-eaters and vegetarians. Photos: yeowatzup/Flickr/Creative Commons ( (rice); Phalinn Ooi/Flickr/Creative Commons ( (stall)

Listening to him talk about work, I take a moment to appreciate the camaraderie I feel. Though we hardly saw each other during the day, Henry would always stop by my room when he returned in the evening, to say hello and ask if I needed anything. “Bring your parents next time,” he says as we wrap up our meal. “It’s my personal invitation.” Oddly, the gesture feels only natural; the sort of invitation my father would extend to a house guest. When it was time to leave, we exchanged numbers and promised to keep in touch. A few days later, I noticed he’d left a review on my Airbnb profile. It read: “Don’t forget to come with your mum and dad on your next trip to the beautiful island of Penang.”

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    Prathap Nair quit his job to travel and write a few years ago. He has travelled on the TransSiberian train, walked the Flaming Cliffs of Mongolia and hiked up Mt. Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia. He likes the unpredictability of loosely planned solo travels.

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