Penang, the Jewel of the Straits

A week in Penang is more than enough to soak up the sights and sounds. And it’s definitely not a stopover. It is an exotic destination within itself, competing with other island tourist destinations like Phuket and Singapore.

In the past, Penang use to be a stop over destination for back packers either heading north to Thailand, or South into Malaysia. Travellers would enter Malaysia from Thailand passing through Hat Yai, and then get off the train at Butterworth train station to take a ferry across to the island.

This can still be done, but now a bridge connects the island to the mainland. And Air Asia offers direct flights from Bangkok, or Kuala Lumpur, to the island.

The 28-sq-km island can easily be explored in a day but I’d consider at least a week, as the island offers many surprises for travellers with diverse travel agendas. Motorbikes or cars are easily hired, and best for exploring the island.

Georgetown, the capital of Pulau Penang became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008. The accommodation, ranging from run down guest house to boutique hotels offer surprising architectural treats, pre-war buildings to louvered shop house, and narrow cobbled streets — many of these shop houses serve as restaurants, from Indian cuisine to Cantonese noodles.

And within walking distance are Chinese, Taoist and Buddhist, Hindu temples and impressive ornate mosques.

First on my list of things to do would be to walk around the old part of town, and be impressed by the Straits colonial past. Juxtaposing these colonial buildings is the The Jade Emperor’s Pavilion, near  Penang Hill Railway Station in Air Itam. Taoist believes that Jade Emperor, which the temple is dedicated to, is the supreme ruler of heaven.

While The Reclining Buddha, situated in the tranquil Pulau Tikus town at Wat Chayamangkalaram, is an example of the islands religious diversity. The temple was built in 1845 and is home to a 33-meter gold-plated reclining Buddha.

But if it’s nature you are after, a visit to Penang’s National Park in Pantai Acheh, with its nearby Pantai Kerachut beach and fresh water lake. Boat rides can be provided to nearby islands, and the old lighthouse built in 1883 –which is still operational – adds to the idyllic location.

Or if it’s views you want, try a hike up  Penang Hill, 821m above sea level. Here you get great views of the island overlooking colonial mansions, many which have been converted to restaurants and boutique hotels.

Not only is Penang an island of many hidden treasures, for the epicureans, the island offers a myriad of flavours and tastes. Being a multinational island, consisting of Malay, Chinese and Indians, the range of gourmet dishes is wide and varied. It’s as easy as taking a walk down the different areas of Georgetown, and then follows the scents and smells.

In the Chinese district down Jalan Pintal Tali Street, they serve  Char Koay Teow,  a popular dish, consisting of a flat, fried white noodle dish. It has a touch of Cantonese to it, a big influence in the Chinese quarters. 

While in little India in  Lebuh Pasar street, I’d suggest  Nasi Kandar. It’s a rice dish served with curried fish, chicken, squid, prawns and beef. Or depending on taste, try out the other wonderful Indian dishes are usually served from a  baine marie .  The prices are very reasonable and the food is clean. After a good spicy meal, finish it off with a milk tea, another Indian influence, from the island’s colonial past.

Penang is jewel in the crown of Malaysia, and never disappoints.

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