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Why Penang is my Asian destination of choice

11 April 2013


Blog by: Louise Allen

My first encounter with The East was in the early 70’s as a child when my family and I emigrated from the UK to a new life in the Antipodes. Flying in those days required many, many stops on the way and Singapore was our chosen stopover.

I rekindled my Asian affair six years ago with my first visit to Penang, and after that first visit, I was hooked. In the six consecutive years following, I've visited Penang annually to get my fix of Asia. I often get asked why it's Penang I enjoy so much... here's my answer.

Penang is an island, and also the name of one of the provinces in Malaysia. Penang, the island, is my chosen destination. It is situated on the western side of peninsular Malaysia in the Straits of Malacca, one of the world’s busiest waterways. It has a long interesting history of colonisation, initially by the British it was bought for 6000 Spanish dollars by the well known pioneer Sir Francis Light of the East India Trading Company. I stumbled upon a cemetery in central Penang and after plucking up courage to visit the rather dark and overgrown place, I was intrigued at the headstone and gravesites of some of the well-known characters of early Penang.

Penang is a true multicultural metropolis, with Malay, Chinese, Indian, and European cultures intertwined. Because of this, there are many festivals celebrated from the Chinese New Year, to Hari Raya Aidilfitri, to Christianity’s Easter and Christmas. And as expected there are Mosques alongside, Hindu temples, and Buddhist temples and churches side by side. I have visited many of the different places of worship, and I have to say my travelling companions usually groan at my many visits. Last year in particular I wanted to visit the new Hindu temple, Sri Balathandayuthapani Temple, which is the biggest Hindu temple outside of India. It has been newly built on a steep hillside above the Botanic Gardens, and boasting a superb view over the whole of the capital Georgetown.

The day I chose to go was Hari Raya – bad choice of days to go to a temple in the middle of a Muslim public holiday! After seeing what was probably the entire Hindu population at the temple that day, I decided to put it off until a quieter day. Eventually I did visit and it was magnificent, even the 500 steps climb up the hill, in barefoot, as per tradition to the top. The grounds, not quite finished, but the temple itself, was fantastic. I was the only European, blonde female inside the temple, so I didn’t take any photos inside without drawing any more attention to myself, and not sure if it was protocol. Beautiful marble floors with gold statues, incense and flower garlands everywhere, it was an awe-inspiring experience.

Another favourite temple of mine is Kek Lok Si, a Buddhist temple nestled under the Penang hill. A visit here can span a whole day if you want it to, and much easier to reach by rental car than by bus, which requires many changeovers. As Kek Lok Si is built on a hillside as well, there is a quaint narrow walkway up to the temple, with loads of market stalls on the way up. The idea is you haggle with the stallholder on the way up, and buy on the way back after you have made out you don’t want to buy. Hawker stalls abound all around Penang, and here at Kek Lok Si is no exception. You never have to go hungry in Penang, and even though the street stalls look like a health and safety nightmare, they produce some delicious local dishes at unbelievably cheap prices.

Penang Laksa

Penang is well known for its cuisine, and the choice is wide. Nyonga dishes, which are Chinese in origin, compete with Malay food, curries and Indian fare, and hot spicy Thai dishes. The famous Penang Laksa is one to try, if you like spicy - a soup-like Laksa, with fish, prawns and vegetables in it. Another favourite of mine is Otak Otak. The word Otak means brains, which best describes the custard/omelette-like fish dish cooked and served in banana leaves. For the meat lovers, Beef Redang is a well known dish of beef in a hearty, rich, spicy sauce, of course served with rice, or Nasi Lemak, which is rice cooked in coconut milk, giving it a lovely coconut flavour which goes well with spicy dishes.

Being female, and enjoying shopping, Penang is literally a shop-till-you-drop destination - once again my travelling companions can attest to, often leaving me to it to find refuge in a coffee shop or worse still back at the apartment swimming pool, leaving me to catch the bus back. There are three large shopping malls in Georgetown, the newest and largest being Queensbay Mall situated in the southeast of the island on reclaimed land and facing the once leper island colony of Pulau Jerejak. Queensbay Mall has all the big chain shops, Forever 21, Esprit and the like, along with the worldwide eateries of MacDonalds, Subway, Dome and Starbucks. With this glitzy mall environment comes a bigger price tag and stock standard products. My favourite shopping destination in Georgetown is Prangin Mall. The oldest Mall sits adjacent to KOMTAR, the tallest building in Penang. A 65storey tower with a shopping plaza at its base. Prangin Mall is a warren of small interesting shops selling all manner of things from the many mobile phone shops on the ground floor, to the high tech computer stuff on the 6th floor, and every imagineable clothing and footwear store in between. I have spent many a day getting lost in Prangin, with it’s many offshoot wings as well. Tip: If you see it and want it buy it then and there, because you’ll never find it again.

The other criteria tourists look for in a holiday destination is beaches. Penang has its share of beaches, however they are not the white sandy beaches we think of when we think Thailand. With the busy waterway on its doorstep and centuries of inadequate sewerage disposal, this has had its effect on the beaches. Having said that, the “powers that be” have woken up to their valuable resource and the beaches are the best they have been for a long time. The North east side of Penang is where the beaches are, with the best known one of Batu Ferringhi where most of the tourist accommodation is. Here there is the usual watersports of banana boats, paragliding off the beach and jetskis, along with beachside massage, reflexology and nail art to entertain the non swimmers. For the more adventurous you can take a trip to Teluk Bahang Village, which is the starting point to the National Park and some lovely beaches. Monkey beach is around the headland, reached by an hour long bush walk or a 15 minute boat ride. I opted to walk which I was a little nervous about, being in the bush by myself with possible snakes, monkey and all manner of creepy crawlies around. My companions opted for the boat ride, which was 100RM for a return trip, the boat to yourself, and pick up whenever you wanted. And with the price equating to $42NZD it was cheap - I hitched a ride on the way back as it was scorching hot walking through the bush. The name Monkey beach was very apt, as hoards of monkey descended on us when we bought the picnic out and even cheeky enough to help themselves in my day pack.

If you're thinking about Penang, do pop in and have a chat with any of our team; we'd be delighted to get you there!

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