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The Island of Penang, Malaysia

Author: BJC
Date of Trip: February 2001

We decided to go back to Penang after an absence of 6 years, so you can imagine what changes we found in the Island over that time, especially with the proliferation of “high rise” apartment buildings, dare I say it but the place is starting to look more like Singapore!

Penang is definitely an Island on the go, that struck me as an economy based on manufacturing and trade, with Tourism playing only a minor roll, despite promotion to the contrary, based on a couple of observations which I will detail below, one might even venture to say the “Singapore of the North”.

We were told by our driver, that the recently released 5 year plan for the Island includes a second bridge from the mainland, south of the existing bridge and about twice as long, coming in at the back of the Airport.

Also a Monorail is planned to run from the Airport to George Town, then out Penang Hill way and even on towards Batu Ferringhi Beach, I suspect it might terminate at about the Penang Swimming Club, just before that “torture track” around the hill and down into Batu Ferringhi.

There are also plans to expand and widen a number of roads, hopefully the “torture track” will be amongst these, and there are a number of new high rise blocks planned for construction to meet an expected increase in the Island’s population, so it’s all go, go, go in Penang.

We stayed in the tourist area of Buta Ferringhi Beach, which still provides most of what any tourist would want to find in accommodation, however I would recommend that the hotels at the George Town end of the strip would be more pleasant.

So what did we do and where did we go, firstly Penang Hill via the funicular railway, was well worth the effort, and while there isn’t a lot to do at the top it was a pleasant experience.

Mind you the view was not the best, as the all pervasive smog that literally permanently hangs over most of Asia from China and Korea all the way to Bali, meant that we were barely able to see George Town, let alone the causeway bridge, which was such a shame, but is now a fact of life.

For those who had expressed concerns about traveling up on the Railway, let me assure you it is no different than if you where to drive up the hill in a car, it travels along at just over walking pace, and is less “frightening” than using the lift in your hotel.

I would recommend that on the way up sit in the last carriage facing backwards, and on the way down sit in the same place which is now the first seat looking forward, that way you get the best view.

Also go early to beat the rush and preferably not on the weekends as that is when the locals go, we left our hotel at 0830 and arrived at the lower station at about 0915 and caught the 0930 train, it runs every half hour in both directions.

Next is the magnificent Kek Lok Si Temple, or the Monastery on Crane Hill, you can walk there from the Penang Hill however if you are not accustomed to the heat and humidity I recommend you catch a cab about 5MR.

We had hired a car and Driver for 2 days, and on his recommendation we had him drop us off at the middle of the three major levels and we walked and took the chair lift up to the top and worked our way back down. We where to meet up with our driver again in the middle level car park, under one of the temples, and decide if we would continue to walk all the way to the bottom and meet him again there, but the heat and only 4 hours sleep on the first day got the better of us and we gave it a miss, which just means we have to come back and finish the tour.

Anyway about Kek Lok Si Temple, this is an amazing place, and well worth at least two or three hours of your time, especially with the construction of the huge pergola over the top of the Kuan Yin Statue, which is a project and a half, consisting of a number of giant pillars, there must be at least 16 or more, using pre-cast and sculptured concrete rings, about 2 and a half meters in diameter, and about 1 meter high, each weighing a ton, and I believe each column will have either 42 or 44 of these rings, and the carvings are just breathtaking such that when assembled they actually look like marble.

You can assist in defraying its construction costs by paying 35MR to have one of the Monks paint your name, in Chinese characters, on one of the thousands of roof tiles that will be used in the pergola, and thereby you would enjoy blessings for the rest of your life.

There are a number of Souvenir Shops strategically positioned within the Temple, such that you can not move from one section to another without you passing through one, where you can purchase just about everything, the profits going to charitable works and helps keeping the place ticking over.

The Penang Botanic Gardens was another early morning start for us, and as we drove up just after 9 am we were met about 2 blocks from the main gates by a procession of about 1,000 School Girls, who our driver told us had been in the Gardens to do their morning exercises, it was so wonderful that they, and many more of the “locals”, use this facility for healthy pursuits.

At just about every turn and under most of the big shady trees we found the locals, ranging in age from small children to elderly Grandmothers, doing some form of exercise, it must be uplifting to do it is such beautiful surroundings.

The park is well worth a look, unfortunately if you, like us, have been spoiled by having previously visited the Botanic Gardens in Singapore and especially their Orchid Garden, then you might be a little disappointed, as this garden is on a much smaller scale.

A disappointment for us was that most of the specific plant type enclosures, such as the Orchid Enclosure were closed to the public for maintenance on the day we visited, and while you can look in through the wire fence, unfortunately we couldn’t see much!

Also the main Waterfall is not open to the public, however I found the Penang Water Board web site where you can request a Permit to visit the waterfall, unfortunately I left my run too late as their response with the Permit Request Form was e-mailed to me after we had left, so if you want to visit it then I suggest you put in your request about a month in advance.

We also visited the Spice Gardens about 2 Km along from our Hotel at the end of Ferringhi beach, heading towards the Butterfly Park, we had thought of walking to it, but glad we drove there, as it is typical of the Buta Ferringhi Road, winding and with little or no room for pedestrians! The Spice Garden is a couple of years old and needs to “grow” before it will become a real attraction, as many of the examples of the different “spices” were small in number, 1 or 2 plants, and size being only 1 or 2 years old, and barely recognisable.

I am sure that it will get better as more plantings are done, I noted that many of the spice bushes had clear plastic bags of potting mix attached around a branch which had been scored so as to produce “on bush” root promotion, which, when the roots are formed, will be cut off and planted.

I can recommend that if you make a visit, go to the top of the hill where the museum, shop and tea rooms are situated overlooking the sea, and with a very good view over the little Island and back along BF Beach, there they will blend up various ice cold drinks using lots of the spices and fresh fruits, each with funny names, we had the Monkey Punch which had about 6 different spices and fruit in and tasted most refreshing!

Like Singapore, Shopping Malls are plentiful in Penang, sorry we are not a big shoppers, well not for what you tend to get in shopping malls, I go mainly for antiques, arts, craft and pottery, so they are somewhat waisted on us, however we did spend some time looking around and picked up some good bargains, mostly for the rest of the family, especially for Granddaughters, well that’s what grandparents are here for!

Gurney Plaza, a shopping complex which could have been in any city anywhere in the world, they are all much of a muchness only their size and prices of goods seem to vary.

The one thing I did note in Gurney Plaza was that like all over Penang there were “Sales” in celebration of the Chinese New Year, same as our Stocktake Sales, only the name has changed to entice the punters in, however on the top floor the discounts being offered was as high as 70% Off, on the next floor down it was 50%, then on the next 30%, until you got to the ground floor where there appeared to be no discounts given, it pays to look around first Ladies!

Prangin Mall next to Komtar was well worth a visit, seemed to be more “locals” there which is always a good sign, also there are a number of Restaurants on most floors, we ended up in a Hong Kong BBQ Restaurant on either the 3rd or 4th floor, I had the HK BBQ Duck and Noodle Claypot, which was simply delicious and very good value at just 8MR, I just love Duck but no one will share with me at home!

Komtar is sadly getting old and appears somewhat neglected, an English couple we had shared the mini shuttle bus from our hotel with, went to the observation deck and said it was pretty shabby, also the shops were not very inspiring either, nor is the food court with about 80% of the stalls closed and empty.

We also walked around George Town, where all the usual items are available, clothing, jewellery, watches, pewter, and Chinese emporiums selling all sorts of things, the Chowrasta wet markets with fish and meats, and while tempting we only went window shopping.

The Stalls on Buta Ferringhi’s main street, which are set up at about 8.30 pm each night, have a reasonable selection, and with a bit of haggling you can do a bit better than the Malls even with their % Discounts, we ended up buying a couple of Brand Name leather bags, and with a bit of assistance from me by telling the stall holder that she only wants to buy the bag not the whole Factory, we managed to get them at a very reasonable price. There are also a number of local Arts and Craft Shops, there are also a number Chinese Antique and Art Gallery on each side oft the strip, I was looking for and found some Japanese Netsuke, originally being the small hand carved ivory objects that a Samurai threaded a cord through to hang his wallet style bag off his kimono sash, but nowadays it is the term used for any small carved object.

They aren’t allowed to use ivory any more, unless it is old ivory with a certificate, so they use bone, or soapstone, anyway I managed to pick up a nice little piece for myself, if you are into Oriental Art and Crafts and Antiques this place is full of all sorts of interesting pieces, and the items down the back of these shops, are normally the real deal, however you will have to pay for what you get, but ask and you should normally receive a discount.

Transport, previously I had indicated that we had the use of a Car and Driver to do our sightseeing, there are a number of local Tour operators that can provide you with a good new clean car and an English speaking driver, at around 25MR per hour, and short of driving yourself, this is the most economical way to get around Penang.

On occasion we also used the Shuttle Bus from our hotel to George Town, and at 15MR each return, is very good value for money.

We also used the Free Shuttle Bus service in George Town doing a round trip, then getting off at Fort Cornwallis and having a look around it, before wandering back along the Heritage Walk route number 2 until we got back to Komtar.

If you are going to do the Heritage Walks, there are two and you can get information from the Penang Heritage Trust, I recommend you start early in the day, it’s very hot in George Town by lunchtime, and ladies you might like to get yourself a sun umbrella.

The one thing I like about Penang is that, unlike Bali, if you say “no thankyou” to a stall holder or trishaw driver they accept it and leave you alone, we never felt threatened or intimidated.

On food, we ate all over the place, trying something different each time, and the food reflects the different cultures such as Indian, like a very nice Rogan Josh, and yummy vegetable and meat Samousas with sweet chilli dipping sauce, both just hot enough, but not too hot for our tastes.

The Malay food was as delightful as we remembered it from 6 years ago, the mixed Seafood in the shell for starters, the deep fried Calamari with a Thai shredded Mango Salad to die for, so good we went back another night and ordered something else but had them supply a small plate of the salad as well.

Mixed Satays to start, then pan fried fish in garlic butter, and a baked fish topped with a seafood mornay sauce of prawns and crab meat and grilled cheese, as you can imagine it was awful, but I managed to eat it all and only good manners stopped me from licking the plate!

Most restaurants on the strip are a delightful, and as with all places we ate, the service and attention to detail is outstanding, the little things like complementary garlic bread to start with, iced water topped up every time you took a drink, and often a complementary plate of fresh fruit pieces after your dinner to cleanse the pallet. Then there are the little surprise finds, such as the Galaxy Barbershop, at the end of the little group of shops that are just alongside our hotel, a nice young Indian Barber, providing a very good haircut, beard and eyebrow trim, to exactly the length and style, number 9 of the 50 or so style photos displayed in the window, and reasonably priced at 25MR, I am always delighted to find such services.

On shopping for bits and pieces, there are a number of good “convenience” stores up and down the strip, the one over the road from our hotel supplied all our needs, cans of Indian Tonic Water for our G&T, cans of various flavoured Iced Tea, a vast array of “nibbles”, as I call chips and nuts, with a variety of flavours and textures.

Also most provided a laundry service at 5MR per Kg, which is cheaper than the cost of the power, water and laundry detergent we would use at home, and same day service if you get it in early, or next morning pickup if put in at night, couldn’t fault it, and most hotels supply an iron and board, however as I ate so well, the tightness of the cloths over the expanding body tended to have them selfiron!

In summary, we had a marvellous week in Penang, and it met and exceeded the number one on our list of what makes for a great holiday, which is we felt very safe and comfortable within our environment, none of the constant looking over your shoulder, Penang is such a relaxed and friendly place to holiday.

The local Restaurants and Cafés are excellent and their service first class, the food is well prepared, tasty and good size portions, drink prices are ok for beer and soft drinks, spirits average and wine we found expensive, having said that we loved eating out and about, all I can say is go forth, eat and enjoy.

If like us you dine early at night, like 7 – 7.30 pm, and then want go shopping, be aware that some of the Stalls on the Buta Ferringhi strip don’t start setting up until 8.30 to 9 pm, so take you time over dinner!

By the way many stalls have lots of very nice paintings, original watercolours and some oils and acrylics, however there were lots of prints, so be careful when purchasing watercolours, the starting price is normally the best indication of an original or a print, if in doubt ask, we found most to be honest traders.

Take the opportunity to get out and about soak up the atmosphere, the culture and the history, Penang is a safe and friendly place, also the beautiful fauna and flora and the birds.

One of the joys in the late afternoon was to sit on our balcony, and watch the beautiful Golden Eagle family, mum and dad teaching their young one to use the updrafts along the front of the hill opposite, to gracefully circle upwards and then to power dive down as if to pick up their prey.

Also a pair of magnificent White Sea Eagles, who also used the updrafts to gain tremendous height before heading out to sea to fish, both sets of Eagles lived in the trees near the top of the hill opposite our hotel, and it was such a joy to watch them, as they are so graceful in flight.

I hope you also enjoy Penang.

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