Penang, a cocktail of Asian cultures where Chinese, Indians and Malays live happily together on an island that is so diverse. I trekked through rainforests in the morning, lazed on a beach in the afternoon and enjoyed the bustling city of George Town by night.
I was delighted to be invited by Qatar Airways and the Malaysian Tourism Board to stay in George Town, the island’s capital for three nights. This cultural town is the very heart of Penang. With a population of 1.8 million, of which a staggering 70% are Chinese, it was completely different to what I had imagined. Penang is not typically Malaysian, in fact at times I felt it was more like a large Chinatown, than a Malaysian island. This, however, has its advantages. The influx of Chinese and Indians make for a bustling multicultural capital, that absolutely oozes character and has a strong cultural heritage. There are British colonial buildings alongside Chinese shophouses, mosques next to Chinese temples, yet somehow it all works! The old town is certainly the heart of the city and is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but there is also a modern side, with shopping malls and skyscrapers, if you fancy a change of scenery.
George Town – What to do:
We took a walking tour of George Town, something I would highly recommend you do on your first day. It is a great way to see the highlights and to get a feel for places you want to return to on your own. The first thing that struck me was how completely safe I felt. Malaysia is a prosperous country and I saw no seedy elements and no one hassling you to come into their shops. I would have no problem walking around there on my own. George Town has a happy vibe to it too, a local man was delighted to show us how he made incense sticks, people were excited to pose for pictures and no one ever asked to be compensated.
Our first stop was the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, a nineteenth century mansion that has been transformed into a museum, housing over 1,000 antiques. This is a typical home of a wealthy Chinese man or ‘Baba’ as they are known. The lavish furnishings and classic architecture make it a must see in Penang.
There are numerous temples throughout George Town, most of which you can admire as you pass by. Take time though to visit the temple at Khoo Kongsi. This was originally built to support Chinese immigrants and was a place where Chinese families with the same surname could go to worship their ancestors. The Kek Lok Si Temple is one of the largest temples in Southeast Asia and is also a must visit. We went at night time where it was illuminated for Chinese New Year.
I liked the look and feel of George Town. Walking around the city, admiring the pretty Chinese shophouses and extraordinary mix of temples is an attraction in itself. There is also fantastic street art scattered throughout the old town. If you have a guide they will point it out to you, but it would also be fun trying to find them on your own, it would be one way to ensure you see the main cultural centre.
Another way to get around is by trishaw (three wheeled bicycle). These are great fun and ideal if you need to rest the legs for a bit. My driver, ‘Lee’, a 68 year old Malaysian Muslim as he liked to tell me, was delightful. He talked non-stop describing the highlights and was clearly proud of his city and its culture. A full hour trishaw ride is only €10!
We walked down the popular Love Lane, once home to the mistresses of wealthy Chinese immigrants, but is now the hotspot for nightlife. There are numerous cocktail bars and cafes that spill out on to the street and it is lively until the small hours. Mish Mash, a more sophisticated choice is just around the corner and serves the best Guinness in Penang (apparently!) and some kicking cocktails too.
Beyond George Town:
If you fancy a break from the buzz of the city, take the 30 minute bus ride to Penang Hill. This hill resort was used as a retreat during the British colonial period and is the oldest British Hill station in South East Asia, dating back to the late 1700’s. There are still colonial bungalows located there and it is 833 meters above sea level. We took the funicular to the top and went to one of Penang’s top attractions, The Habitat. This eco tourism site in the heart of a rainforest is spectacular. A short walk through the authentic rainforest leads you to a canopy walk, 230 meters in length and an even higher tree top walk. The latter is 13 meters high and is the highest viewing platform on the island, with 360 views of Penang and its surrounding islands. Ironically this was built by an Irish engineering firm, ClearTech Engineered Solutions! Try to visit on a clear day for the very best views and arrive early to avoid queues.
The rainforest is home to many nature trails and complimentary guided tours are provided. Home to a myriad of flora and fauna as well as giant black squirrels, reptiles and exotic butterflies, we saw a snake lazing on a branch and numerous spider holes with tarantulas inside! Not exactly for the fainthearted perhaps, but with our guide beside us, we felt safe at all times.
On our final day we enjoyed another completely different experience. We left George Town and took a forty minute bus ride to Kuala Sungai Pinang Jetty, in the Penang National Park, where we embarked on a boat trip through a mangrove, into the sea. The scenery was spectacular and the contrast of wildlife in the mangrove to the vast open sea was staggering. From the boat we saw a large monitor lizard escaping from the water, eagles soaring overhead, hundreds of walking fish (something I had never seen before) as well as numerous exotic birds.
When we arrived into the open sea, the scenery changed dramatically. There were numerous white sandy beaches dotted around the coastline with rainforests tucked in behind them, it was spectacular. We stopped at Pantai Kerachut beach which was practically deserted. There is a turtle sanctuary there as well as a bridge which leads right into the rainforest. We opted for a short trek but there are also two longer trails that take about two hours. Would you believe that some of the Malaysian rainforests are 130 million years old? I was amazed to learn that contrary to popular belief, it is not the Amazon that is the oldest rainforest in the world, that accolade belongs to Malaysia.
Our next stop was the popular Monkey Beach, which is only accessible by trekking through the rainforest or by boat. You can actually walk through the jungle from Kerachut beach to get to it, which must be a cool thing to do, but we went by boat to save time. We enjoyed a barbeque on the beach and some chill time. As the name suggests there are also some resident monkeys hanging around which added to the experience. There were some jellyfish in the sea so only the brave went swimming. I decided against it, even though it was very tempting – the seawater was so warm!
And so it was time to say goodbye to Penang, an island that left me hungry to see more of Malaysia. I loved that there are so many different experiences to be found there. The island is so diverse, with tropical rainforests, white sandy beaches and the bustling city of George Town, all within easy reach of each other. It is not just the range of activities available but it is the happy vibe from it’s people, where people from China, India and Malaysia, with completely different religions and cultures coexist in one thousand square kilometers. It is impossible not to appreciate that in these modern times.
Where to stay:
There are a wide selection of hotels and apartments to choose from. We stayed in the landmark Eastern and Oriental hotel (or commonly known as E&O). This five star heritage hotel is located in the heart of the city and was visited by Prince Charles in November last. Suffice to say, if you are looking for luxury in the city, look no further!
If you are looking for a more authentic experience check out the local Clans Kongsi hotel, which is a collection of 15 traditional houses in an extraordinary setting in the heart of the George Town Unesco World Heritage site. The houses were originally occupied by the Khoo Clan in the 1860’s, wealthy Chinese newcomers fresh off the boat from China. They combine traditional furnishings with a modern twist – I loved them. For a beach holiday there are numerous hotels in the popular resort of Batu Ferringhi.
Where to eat:
Penang is renowned for its delicious food and for its eclectic mix of Asian cuisine. There are traditional Indian, Chinese and Malaysian restaurants but I like that in many places you can have a combination of all three. One of my favourites was a local café called the Mews Cafe. We were treated to beef rendang and a delicious seabass that was bursting with flavour. The typical Malaysian lok-lok or hot pot, is a great sharing dish and can be found at many street food vendors or local restaurants. You cook fresh meat, fish and vegetables in a pot of boiling water and eat with a variety of home made sauces. Another local favourite, char koay teow is Malaysia’s take on pad-thai, but with seafood and a little more spice added. I had this a few times and loved it.
How to get there:
Until recently, you had to take three flights to get to get to Penang, but with the new service from Dublin with Qatar Airways, you can get there seamlessly on their modern Dreamliner aircraft, with just one stop in Doha. Qatar Airways fly daily from Dublin to Doha with onward connections to Penang three times weekly, and Kuala Lumpur four times weekly. They will also be starting a new service to Langkawi later this year, which is only a 3.5 hour boat ride from Penang. A two centre holiday of Langkawi and Penang would be a winning combination. You can choose to avail of a free overnight stay in a four star hotel in Doha or connect straight to Malaysia with a short layover. Visit QatarAirways for more details.
After our three night stay in Penang, it was time to move on to Kuala Lumpur. You can take a short one hour flight but we opted to go by bus instead. This may sound like a daunting task but the access of the Penang bridge, a 13.5km bridge that crosses the Penang Strait, makes it a pleasant 4 hour drive. See my post about things you must do in Kuala Lumpur.