This article will tell you about all the cool things you can do when you visit Little India in Penang. It’s one of the most charming and busy parts of George Town, and one that testifies the culture of Malaysia’s smallest ethnic group. Good Indian food, loud Bollywood music, buzzing motorbikes, and century-old traditions are all here to discover.
A visit to Little India in Penang is definitely one of the very first things every first-timer to George Town should do. It’s here that you can find some of George Town’s best Western restaurants, and Little India is also pretty much close to most nightlife in Penang.
READ MORE – What to do in Penang in 3 Days
True enough, at first sight, a walk through Penang Little India is akin to walking in any of the world’s other Little Indias — but with this guide, you’ll immediately know what are the best things to do and eat when visiting Penang Little India. No waste of time, only the best local stuff.
So let’s start without further ado.
Best Things to Do in Little India Penang
1Go Hunting for Spices and Curry
If there’s one thing you’ll smell in Penang Little India, that’s the scent of curries and spices. There are several shops on each and every road in Little India. They sell all sorts of spices that more often than not are directly imported from South India.
One of our favorite shops is Jayam, a mini-market set in front of Little India’s entrance along Beach Street. Enter and pick and choose among the varieties of stuff on sale from the many metallic containers all over the floor. Whether you are looking for red or brown curry powder, dhal of various origins, almonds, cashews, or other nuts, you have come to the right spot.
2Experience the Beat of Tamil Cinema and Music
Come to Penang’s Little India during the day and start worrying if you don’t hear a thumping soundtrack of Bollywood beats blasting from the speakers of the local video stores. Lakshmi Video Center, on the corner of Jalan Pasar and Lebuh King, must be the oldest and the loudest. Take your time and watch the beautifully designed Tamil and Bollywood movie posters donning the walls — most often with rows of fresh coconuts placed before them. It’s a real aural and visual treat: if you have time, you can position yourself in front of one of the hanging TV screens, and spend your afternoon watching Tamil flicks. Be careful as they are quite addictive.
3Check out some of Penang Street Art
Some of Penang’s most famous murals are actually pretty close to the eastern end of Little India’s main thoroughfare Jalan Pasar and deserve a quick diversion. If you head right up to Beach Street and walk towards the traffic light junction, you’ll first bump into a parking lot. Here you can see a couple of interesting, huge, and modernist murals realized by Malay artists like Fritilidea.
Continue a bit further until the corner where Black Cattle cafe is, cross the road, and turn right into Ah Kwee Street. That’s where you’ll find the famous “Man on a Motorcycle” installation by Ernest Zacharevic among other interesting murals — including a giant anti-smoke installation with larger-than-life cigarette butts stuck into the wall. Proceed a couple of hundred meters until you’ll see Restoran Kapitan (you may stop for the great tandoori chicken here) on your right, and re-enter Little India proper from King Street — right across the road and next to the Nagore Dargha Sheriff shrine.
Best Things to Buy in Little India Penang
4Get yourself some Penang Little India Gold
Little India has traditionally been George Town’s foremost center of goldsmiths. The shops of way back when may have mostly upholstered to modern boutiques, but Little India is still a great place to come and browse if you are looking for a special pendant or golden jewelry at affordable prices.
The shops here can also fix most golden stuff — in my own experience, however, for white gold you are better off visiting the Chinese goldsmiths at the eastern end of Campbell Street.
5Buy a (cheap) Indian Saree
It wouldn’t be Penang Little India without some colorful sarees, of course. You’ll be spoiled for choices here, and you’ll be able to find almost anything, from the cheapest fabrics to the most expensive, intricate garments. Consider a ballpark price of RM50 for the least expensive dresses, and you’ll go upwards if you want to buy the more intricate/colorful/extravagant.
If you must attend a local Indian wedding and want to properly look the part, keep in mind that some of the shops here also have sarees for rent. Walk around and ask.
6Shop for Trinkets at Lebuh Pasar
Penang Little India’s main thoroughfare is Lebuh Pasar, or “Market Street”. There are roads jutting out of every one of its corners, and that’s where you’ll find an array of small shops selling all sorts of tourist tat. Looking for aromatic incense sticks? Himalayan-styled fabric hanging lanterns? A pair of cheap flip-flops, or maybe a hat? Check, check and check. Little India has it all — it may not be special, it may not be original or authentic, but it’s on sale here to provide you with long hours of window-shopping and browsing. Truth be told the incenses, aromatic soaps, and essences for sale are pretty good deals.
7Buy Flower Garlands
If you come to Penang Little India and don’t see any flowers being assembled into colorful, long garlands, please start thinking that something bad is going on. In Penang Little India, flowers are everywhere. If you approach Penang Little India from the God of Mercy Temple along Kapitan Keling Road, you will start seeing flowers on sale next to the small Hindu shrine located on that same street corner.
Flower sellers are ubiquitous in Little India and are a very colorful and authentic part of it. Talk to them and buy some flowers: you may want to get a garland to spruce up your home, or gift some to someone you care about.
Best Things to Eat in Little India Penang
8Get Yourself a Roti Benggali from a Bicycle Pushcart
Little India is one of the few remaining places in Penang where you can still find Bicycle Pushcart peddlers selling snacks and the traditional Benggali Loaf Bread. Stopping one and buying a few slices of fresh bread off the street definitely makes for an old-world and unique experience that’s only available in Penang Little India. Try it before the last ones are gone forever.
9Taste Ali’s Famous Bubur Kacang
Not to be confounded with the other Ali Bubur on the food corner besides GAMA shopping center, this famous hole-in-the-wall shop at Penang Little India’s main thoroughfare Jalan Pasar number 52 sells delicious bubur kacang you shouldn’t miss. Bubur kacang is a Southeast Asian sweet made with mung beans porridge (the “bubur”), coconut milk and palm sugar. The beans are boiled until soft, and then spiked with the sugar and coconut milk to enhance the flavor. Even on a hot day, this special dessert is enjoyable and refreshing, and Ali knows how to peddle it best.
10Fill Yourself Up with Penang’s Best Samosas
Penang Little India has been samosa central since I arrived on the island in 2008. Big, crunchy, and irresistibly filled with spicy masala potato and green beans, Little India’s samosas are a treat you won’t easily forget. They come in vegetarian, chicken, and other meat varieties, and cost from a mere RM 0.60 per piece.
One of the best places to try them is the stall that has now re-branded itself as “Penang Famous Samosa” — go figure. It’s set on the corner of Jalan Pasar and Queen Street and never had a signboard for years. But beyond popularity and branding, the samosas here are pretty much still the same: deliciously crunchy.
If you are up for tasting other Indian snacks, try their fried vada and the chocodok — the quintessential Malaysian banana ball fritter that goes down extremely well if dunked into the teh or kopi tarik available at every corner.
11Eat a delicious Masala Dosa
Masala Dosa is a crispy semolina pancake that really represents South Indian vegetarian cuisine and is also one of the essential Penang food. Rolled into two, the crispy outside crust contains a “masala” (”mixture”) of potatoes and spices that’s truly irresistible — although very simple. Garnish it with some spicy coconut chutney, and there you go: yummy perfection.
Penang Little India is by far the best place in George Town to come and eat dosa: Lebuh Penang probably has the biggest concentration of vegetarian restaurants where you can try it. Whether you choose no-frills Veloo Villas — which, however, serves some very nice masala dosa and a very crunchy and crispy Rawa dosa — to upper end yet cheap Woodlands, or family-friendly Sri Subham, every place infuses its own spin to this South Indian classic — and you should take your time to try the different tastes and concoctions it’s whipped in.
Truth be told, for the quintessential Penang Little India dosa experience, we believe that Krsna Restaurant at 276 Lebuh Pasar is the hardest to beat. Be ready to lick chutney off your plate and fingers.
12Eat Nasi Dalca
Live in Penang and think that every curry over rice must be nasi kandar? Well, you better think twice, for Nasi Dalca is a completely different experience.
Also called nasi ganja or nasi hujan panas, this North Indian dish gets its name from the way it’s prepared: the rice is cooked with lentils or dhal mixed with onions, carrots, and potatoes until it infuses completely with vegetable taste. In Penang, Nasi Dalca is served with sides like fried chicken, stuffed squid, mutton, and different vegetable curries.
Penang Little India has two of the island’s most popular Nasi Dalca places at the end of Queen Street. Nasi Dalca Rahim may look like a humble stall but has been serving this rich rice dish at the front of the Sri Maha Mariamman temple since 1948. Try their filling and tasty Nasi Dalca Ayam (around RM 7), which comes served with a whole chicken leg garnished with potatoes and carrots.
Just a few meters down the road on the corner with Lebuh Chulia is Kassim Mustafa Nasi Dalca, a popular 24-hour mamak joint that sells, among other things, tandoori chicken, naan bread and the usual fried mee and rice. But go for the dedicated Nasi Dalca booth at the front for some of the island’s freshest and silkiest. Pick your meat or vegetable choices, and please don’t forget to ask them to douse your plate with a spoonful of all the different varieties of curries they offer. You’ll be licking up your plate as you finish.
13Try some of Penang’s best Tandoori Chicken
Oven-roasted chicken perfection is best savored off the streets of Penang Little India. Tandoori Chicken, a popular North Indian dish, is most famous in Penang Little India at Restoran Kapitan on Lebuh Chulia — right in front of the Nagore Dargha Sheriff shrine.
A set of tandoori chicken (thighs or breast)and plain naan will set you off about RM 11, with a slight increase in price for the tandoori garlic or butter naan varieties. Truth be told, the tandoori here is juicy and possibly the best in George Town — but the service has become less attentive year after year, and accolade after accolade. Still, it’s good and you should go knowing what you’ll get: great tandoori and dismissive service.
The situation is slightly better in the room upstairs, which has a dedicated tandoori oven, more receptive waiters, a large and comfy air-conditioned room, and a covered veranda with beautiful views over the Nagore Dargha Sheriff and the end of King Street.
If Kapitan is too lansi for your tastes, Kassim Mustafa Nasi Dalca is a hundred meters down the road. Beyond their great Nasi Dalca, they have slightly cheaper and less juicy tandoori and naan on sale. The service is still the usual dismissive mamak style, but the crispy, well-cooked naan bread here make it the best substitute to Kapitan.
Visit Little India Penang Heritage and Culture
14Pay a visit to the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple
Penang Little India wouldn’t be India if it didn’t have a beautiful Southern Hindu temple with a striking gopuram (tower) filled with colorful gods and goddesses. Built in 1833, the Sri Arulmigu Sri Maha Mariamman temple is the oldest Hindu shrine in Penang and its main entrance is located along King Street — even though you can see the gopuram and a smaller gate on Kapitan Keling Street where it crosses with the middle of Chulia Street.
Sri Maha Mariamman is one of Penang Little India’s main attractions and a good place to come see pujas or traditional Indian prayers. The resident priests perform pujas either in the morning around 6.30 am, or in the evening at 6.30 pm. The temple is generally open from 6 am to 12 pm and 5 pm to 9 pm, but we have found it to be closed many times even at these hours. Be prepared for disappointment or make sure that you time your visit during an Indian festivity when devotees come here in big numbers to pay their respects to a multiple array of gods.
15See the Last Standing Penang Songkok Maker in Action
Septuagenarian Osm Mohd Shariff has been making Muslim skullcaps (”songkok”) from this corner of King Street in Penang Little India for decades. The shop was first opened by his late father OSM Mohd Shariff Mohideen Rawhter, who passed away in 1973, and has been operating for 80-odd years.
Come and see how Mohd Shariff still cuts and sews each and every hat by hand using an old type sewing machine, scissors, and a lot of experise and patience. The songkok are sold for about RM 25 (US$ 6) each and makes for a fantastic souvenir from Penang Little India.
16Visit the Nagore Dargha Sheriff
If you come to Penang Little India you can’t miss the oldest Indian Muslim shrine in Penang. Set on the corner of Lebuh Chulia and King Street, it was built in the early 1800s and is dedicated to Syed Shahul Hamid, a 13th-century saint from Nagore in India. It’s the second shrine dedicated to this saint in the whole of Southeast Asia — the other being in Singapore.
Nagore Dargha Sheriff shrine is a testimony of the importance of South Indian Muslims in this area of Penang island — called by the British colonizers “chuliers”, Indian Muslims lived in this area in big numbers, so that Chulia Street — today’s Penang backpacker heaven — took its name because of them. Come for a visit and enjoy the building’s white and green arches and dome, a striking contrast to other more modern buildings in George Town.