Wherever you look online you will get a different ‘tagline’ for Penang. The reality is it’s a small island at the Northwest of Malaysia connected by an 8km bridge or hourly ferry from Butterworth. It holds major significance in terms of history since it is where the British elite used to chill out and was once a major port for freighters heading West. The capital is Georgetown and the entire place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The island itself holds many reasons for a visit which mainly are cultural, historical and culinary. The island is populated by Chinese, Indians, Malaysians and the main religions are Buddhism, Hindu, Muslim and Catholic. I know that really doesn’t mean much, but when you consider Penang’s size you soon come to appreciate the diversity the amazing island.
The first day we arrived and we chilled, which pretty much is what the doctor would order. Often we are crossing time zones, staying up at night, and it throws us out. A day of rest really makes a huge difference and so that’s what we did.
There are many attractions on Penang itself, the main seem to be historical monuments and such and so we saved those for the final day. We considered visiting the Butterfly farm which gloats at how Tony Blair visited with his family but I heard it is tiny and not worth the visit – Also it is Penang’s most expensive attraction at 20MYR per adult (£4) We looked at hiring a car but got stupid amounts and so our first proper day in Penang was spent taking the local bus to Air Hitam (Itam) There is the biggest Buddhist temple in Malaysia – Kek Lok Si. It is pretty impressive in how it looks and the 20 minute walk through high humidity and the hot sun was worth it.
Perched on the side of a mountain and standing high above the greenery and surrounded by rice paddies, Kek Lok Si reminds visitors of the prominence of Buddhism not just in Penang or Malaysia but in SE Asia. It is so prominent it is almost an eye sore and were it not for its beauty it would look out of place, yet how only the Chinese know they have managed to plant a structure that looks perfectly placed.
Entrance was free but there are certain parts you have to pay for, such as the cable car to the big Buddha, but even then it was only like 2MYR or something which is about 40pence. We spent a couple of hours there and had a great time. It is nothing like the Temples in China but was well worth a visit.
The rest of the day we spent relaxing and sampling local food.
The third day in Penang and we decided to do something we don’t do enough. That was walk. I got Google maps up on the phone and we left our hotel and walked. We spent the whole day walking about looking at old British Colonial buildings, China Town, Little India and then ultimately ended up at Fort Cornwallis on the harbour front. We climbed the huge lighthouse and visited the fort where the kids loved learning about the history and playing on the old cannons and exploring the old buildings set inside the star shaped castle grounds.
The sun was full on and at times it was quite difficult as we all dripped in sweat, but we soon realised the UNESCO status was fully deserved as we walked from street to street seeing what was almost surreal in terms of culture and diversity.
When I was at school the class ‘RE’ was just coming into prominence and in true British style every ignorant white person felt immediately threatened. All the hardcore ‘British School British Values’ parents sent letters into school excluding their children from RE and as such reinforced in their kids that nothing matters outside of British history and British values; The reality is the world as a whole has never been more multicultural and whilst it might have failed miserably in the UK it is thriving in Penang. The perfect RE school trip would be to Penang where in one street you see Hindu Temples and Hindu music blasting out of twenty year old speakers with popped cones. No one has the heart to tell them that it sounds like shit and a quick volume change would regain the crispness and as such sound a load better. Indian restaurants bang out Chicken Tandoori like it’s going out of fashion and the smell of curry is prevalent.
Yet walk to the next street and suddenly all you see is Chinese calligraphy and the sweet smell of Chinese food and rice fills the air. Not an Indian in sight suddenly by crossing a road you are in China Town, walk on further and see the Parapet above the buildings and it won’t be long before the guy giving out the prayer call is busting your ear drums from the gorgeous, yet simple mosque.
That is Penang.
Come here and expect Malaysian beaches, parties and theme parks and you will be gutted to find there is little here other than a bit of history, good food and tonnes of culture.
Our Culinary time on Penang has shown us Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Malay and Western and I can confirm the food is as good as it gets. Best food of the trip? A dip I had today, I asked how it was made and was told it was simple Lime, Chilli and Garlic – Followed closely by Chicken Tandoori and Naan.
Tomorrow we leave Penang early for an island just up the coast – Pulau Langkawi, aptly known as the emerald isle – I know Ireland as a whole has robbed that line but believe me, I lived in Northern Ireland for 3 years and have been to Southern Ireland several times and except for the massively overrated Dublin it is fully deserved. Whether Langkawi is more deserved, well we’ll see.