Touring Penang

The domestic flight on Malaysia Air from Kuala Lumpur to the island of Penang went off without a hitch. As I picked up my bags and traveled north to the coastal resort town of Batu Ferringhi, Penang instantly reminded me of Bali’s verdant landscape.

Penang is often referred to as the Pearl of the Orient. Back in 1796 an Englishman named Francis Light convinced the Sultan of Kedah to cede Penang to the British East India Company. Light seems like quite a character. When he landed at what is now Georgetown’s esplanade, he fired cannons loaded with gold coins into the surrounding jungle to inspire his men to clear the land. Georgetown got some good news during my visit– it was celebrating its new status as an official UNESCO World Heritage Site, and movers and shakers were discussing the positive effects this would have on the city’s tourism. At the same time, the Malaysia city of Malacca received the same status.

My guide for this leg of my trip was Wong Lok Weng. He was born in Penang and has spent 10 years as a guide; he’s currently working for Asians Overland Tours, which has been handling my ground operations throughout my Malaysia trip. Wong told me that Asian Overland Tours can provide four-hour Penang tours for groups as small as two people, for about $18 per person. If it’s a mixed group the company is limited in how much they can customize the tour, but if it’s a like-minded group they can tailor the tour to the group’s interest.

standing buddha

The standing Buddha

Wong puts Penang’s top three destinations in this order: 1. Kek Lok Si Temple, the biggest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia. 2. Penang Hill, the highest point on the island which offers dramatic panoramic views. 3. The reclining Buddha at Wat Cahiya Mangalaram Temple in Georgetown– the reclining Buddha is conveniently across the street from Dhammikarama Burmese Buddhist Temple, which has a standing Buddha, the style worshiped by the Burmese.

Penang Hill is presently closed for repairs to its Swiss-built funicular railway. Reports have it pegged to be up and running by November. Most tourist schedule about two hours for roundtrip up the hill and back. A tip: When you board the railway car, remain standing– if you sit down you won’t be able to see anything. The train ride up the hill is marked with beautiful scenes of vegetable plots, bungalows, orchards and farmhouses.

A pleasant option for fitness buffs is to take the railway up and then walk down a trail that leads to the Penang Botanical Gardens. In the afternoon this would be a hard walk, since much of the trail is in the open sun; morning and evening are the best times to hike. The price for a roundtrip ride on the railway is approximately $1.25 for adults and 65 cents for kids. This is a typical example of the good value Penang offers visitors– you don’t have to break the bank to enjoy yourself.

Wong also says a big part of Penang’s appeal is its food, especially hawker stall favorites Asam Laksa (a spicy noodle soup) and Hokkien char mee (fried rice noodles). Hawker stalls are little open-air restaurants that are popular with locals. If you sit down at one restaurant and they don’t have what you want on the menu, before you know it the dish is being delivered by an adjacent hawker stall. If you’re concerned about dining in immaculately hygienic conditions, hawker stalls aren’t for you. Otherwise, I heartily recommend them for an authentic experience.


Travel by trishaw

Throughout the island, and especially in Georgetown, visitors can opt to travel by trishaw, an open-fronted three-wheeled vehicle powered by the driver’s pedaling. Make arrangements with the driver beforehand since there’s no set fare, and hire them by the hour if you want to travel for an extended period. They make an especially appealing appearance at night, since many are tricked out with colored lights.

Throughout my visit, Wong’s been trying to get me to sample the Asian fruit durian, which he says, “Tastes like Heaven, but smells like Hell.” Somehow, through all my Asian travels, I’ve managed to dodge the durian bullet. Wong hasn’t been able to tempt me yet, especially when he says, “Take a little bite at first– too big a bite and you’ll probably throw up.” As we travel, he points out fruit sellers, usually with the announcement, “Look– durian.” I look the other way.

durian fruit

Selling durian in Penang

On the drive south to the airport on my final morning in Penang, en route to catch my flight to Kuching, Wong drove along the east side of the island. This is a less-developed part of the Penang. The winding road follows the sea and passes fruit orchards, fishing villages, the only rice paddy on the island and Malay communities, where they still live in traditional Malay houses raised on stilts. When we passed by numerous trees with hanging durian fruit, I knew I wasn’t out of the woods as far as tasting durian. Another mile or so and Wong pulled to the side of the road, where a fruit seller displayed his wares. Wong asked, “So, you want to try a durian?” The seller sliced one open and I tried the fruit, taking a tiny bite like Wong advised. The smell wasn’t nearly as bad as its reputation and the flesh clinging to the kernel tasted creamy and sweet. I could have easily, surreptitiously ditched it in the roadside bushes; instead I finished what I was given. Not bad at all.

In the weeks to come, I’ll be preparing a feature story on Penang for Travel Agent, in which I’ll profile some of the island’s hotels, including the ultra-historic Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Georgetown, and two resort hotels in Batu Ferringhi, Shangri-La Golden Sands Resort and the Holiday Inn Resort Penang.