I went for one but got back to my hostel around 1.30am. I had thought that alcohol was a no-no in a Muslim country but I was wrong. Penang had a lot of surprises.
I had a great time in Penang, Malaysia in 2018. I started going through my travel journal while writing about places like Khao Sok, and Tonsai in Thailand and I can’t stop now – I have to write about Malaysia as well.
“There are a few things that surprised me in Penang :
First surprise: Malaysia is much more western and modern than Thailand while still very Asian at the same time. Penang is decorated (or littered) with tall buildings and big, international brands such as H&M, MacDonalds, and Starbucks, but it also offers great street-food and strange plastic chair restaurants on the rundown side streets.”
I didn’t know much about the city before I visited so I was very impressed by the street art scene. Walking around the streets checking out murals, buying snacks and food from the street food shops, and popping into little souvenir shops was a great way to spend time in Penang. I especially liked the Clan Jetty area, also at night when most of the shops had already closed.
I spent one day walking in the national park with another backpacker I had just met. The bus ride to the park was easy and we walked to the Turtle beach to have lunch. The park is not special but offers something different to do when you are done with exploring the city.
“Second surprise: I thought it would be much more difficult to get alcohol in a Muslim country as it is forbidden to drink if you are a Muslim. But it is nor hard at all!”
“The man who runs the hostel I’m staying at took us to this hidden liquor store. Plastic chairs were stacked in front of the shop. Cheap beer was sold directly from the fridge and people grabbed chairs from the piles and set them on the street forming little circles. All sorts of people of all ages and nationalities were chatting and drinking in the dark. Such an amazing atmosphere. No way I would have found this gem on my own as it was well hidden into a back street.”
“Third surprise: I had read that homosexuality is a crime here and the punishment is pretty hard. Yet, there are several gay bars that are well-known secrets. On my second night I was exhausted and after a few beer I went to bed early. I slept really well but my friend, who headed to a secret gay bar, had a very different kinda night!”
Penang is probably a bit different than the rest of Malaysia because of the strong Chinese (and British) influence. Muslim culture and rules seemed to be more prominent in other places as I found out later. Penang offered more freedom and an easy going atmosphere.
Although my hostel friends visited gay bars in Penang, Malaysia is not LGBTQ+ friendly in any sense. Despite decriminalisation efforts, homosexual acts are still illegal in Malaysia and the punishment includes imprisonment for up to 20 years and whipping (!). An article by Asher and Lyric Fergusson from last November lists Malaysia as the 9th most dangerous places to visit for LGBTQ+ people.
This is a huge, screaming problem with Malaysia which in many other ways is an attractive travel destination. It and the way I was treated in KL (I’ll write about it soon) make me doubt I’ll visit the country anytime soon.