Penang – “Pearl of the Orient”

There is a lot to see, do and, most importantly,  eat in Penang!

The public bus system is good, easy to navigate and very cheap so getting around is not a problem. A bonus was that on the day we arrived was the last day of a free “Hop on – Hop off” bus service which linking the points of interest around Georgetown. We decided to give it a go but, unfortunately, being a weekend, so it seemed did everyone else in Penang. After waiting for 30 mins at a bus stop in 35c heat we were about ready to forgo the delights and views of the top deck in favour of some aircon – not a chance, it was packed! We sweltered on around the first part of the route stopping at points of, as far as we could tell, very little interest.

Penang bus

Crowds queuing to get on to bus half way round and the forced exit of existing passengers at Gurney Drive. No one was happy!

After around 30 mins we arrived at stop number one on the route to be met by a very long queue of very hot and not too happy looking people. Apparently they had been waiting for rather a long time, hence the cheers when we arrived. They seemed less than pleased when we waited on the bus to go on to the next stop and those cheers turned to boos and calls ( I am guessing!) for everyone to get the **** off the bus. After 10 mins of wondering what the hell was happening, the bus guy came upstairs and told everyone to get off and wait for the next bus to come along. We decided cut and run and head back to back into town on a normal bus. The Koreans on board decided that they were going nowhere and decided to stay put and, for all we know, are probably still there.

Hawker Food in Penang is justifiably famous the world over and the cuisine of choice for many, if not most people on the island. There is a huge variety of tasty treats on offer on just about every street.  The choices seemed endless, probably the greatest variety and quality of street food we have tried anywhere in Asia, if not the world. We did not have a bad meal our entire time there. Rather than use a guide book Carolyn surfed the net for current food blogs. These ardent foodie bloggers proved excellent sources of current information, so much better a than the guidebooks. What was really nice was to be able to sit down at a table amongst a bunch of hawker stalls, have a look around, pick want you want from any stall and then have it served at the table ready to share. The stallholders are all incredibly friendly and happy to share their advice on foods to try.

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The only hawker place we were not impressed with was probably the most famous of all, at Gurney Drive. It was very, very busy but the two or three dishes we sampled there were really not that great and twice the price of those in town. Our advice is to give it a miss.

We toyed with the idea of getting a ferry up the coast to Langkawi, to revisit the island where we got married but decided instead to visit some of the sights of Penang.

Penang walking tour

Armed with a photocopy map from the tourist office, we wandered the streets in search of the street art of Penang created in 2010 by Ernest Zacharevic, a Lithuanian artist. It is a great way to while away few hours and the paintings are really easy to spot – just seek out the hordes of tourists pointing cameras at a wall or building for no apparent reason and you will find the art.

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

 Cheong Tze Fatt mansion

Cheong Tze Fatt mansion

What a waste of time and money. Described in the literature as a “magnificent 38 roomed mansion” which it undoubtedly was – when we last visited 6 years ago. Since then it has been converted into a hotel and only a few rooms and the courtyard remains open for viewing on the tour.  The 16 Ringitt entrance ticket buys you a group tour with a lasting 40 minutes, the first 25 of which are spent listening to a Chinese lady droning on and on in one place. Not so much a tour as a lecture and probably the most tedious lecture I have ever attended. At first I thought it was just me; I tend to get bored easily. Indeed I was the first to get up and wander off, but I was quickly followed by others. About 10 minutes from the end of the tour there were only about 3 of the 40 people left ( and two of those were listening to taped translations!).

Ke Lok Si Temple

The “Temple of Supreme Bliss” built by the Chinese Malay community in the late nineteenth century, this place is very impressive. A 45 min bus ride out of Georgetown to the entrance followed by a long, very hot walk up through covered alleyways jam-packed with souvenir stalls. Despite the time it takes,it really is worth the effort. Having negotiated hawkers pushing cheap souvenirs we pass a turtle pond, absolutely packed tight with the poor creatures all gasping for air. We eventually reach Ban Po Thar pagoda which is supposed to be Chinese at the bottom, Burmese at the top and Thai in the middle. From there you get a cable car to the top where you are greeted by an imposing 38 metre high bronze statue of Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy who did not look at all merciful! An impressive sight, as are the views of Georgetown and Penang from the top. Well worth the climb. Our last day on the island arrives and we just wander around soaking up the atmosphere and begin to appreciate why so many foreign expatriates make their home here. The properties look fantastic (if you like high rise apartment blocks) and, although expensive by Asian standards are still reasonably priced in comparison with England, whether buying or renting. It is also pretty easy to obtain residency here.

Batu Ferringhi

On our final evening we take a bus ride out to Batu Ferringhi beach where Carolyn has found a restaurant we want to try. It is called Andrew’s Kampung. It is very hard to find as it is on the second floor of a not very inviting shopping centre. Once there we had to ask around to find it but as soon as we found it up a dingy staircase, where we were welcomed by a wonderful Chinese lady who explained the menu to us. The process is very straightforward. You order whatever takes your fancy, they cook it fresh and deliver to your table. Enjoy, repeat – as many times as you like as the price is an “all you can eat” price.  The food was simply sublime and it just kept on arriving.  Eventually we waddled out and made our way back on the bus back to Georgetown.

The Clan Jetties

The Clan Jetties

The Clan Jetties

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Pengkalan Weld was one of the worlds most important ports. A Chinese community grew up around the quayside, living in stilt and floating houses which became known as the clan jetties. Nowadays the clan jetties are still a community, albeit a small and somewhat dilapidated one, but it is an interesting place to wander around for an hour or so. Each jetty belongs to a different clan and each has their own village hall and pagoda.

It is time for us to leave Malaysia for now. We expect to return several times during the course of the next year as it is a convenient and cheap base from which to explore the rest of the region. We walk back to Komtar bus station in the centre of the City to get the bus to the airport.

Bus station conversations

One of the major joys of travel is the people we meet on the road. Whilst waiting for the bus I get approached by a Japanese guy that strikes up a conversation (in English as my Japanese sadly runs to about four words). His English is much better and he opens the conversation with the same quick-fire questions that most Asian people always seem to ask on first meetings: Where are you from? How old are you? How many children? What is your job? After this we start chatting about where we are going and the places we have been. It turns out that this mans bucket list is to visit 50 countries. Malaysia, it turns out is his 42nd!

We chat about his favourite places and pick up many tips. He has something good to say about all 42 countries, some of which we had already visited, others not even on our radar. A fascinating guy with many tales to tell. An hour in his company and we are already adding places to our own bucket list. The wait for the bus and our subsequent bus journey just flew by. Carolyn asked him why his wife was not travelling with him, he looks around furtively as though someone could be listening, leans over conspiratorially and whispers “she says Asia is too dirty”. Compared to Japan, I suppose it is, so it is difficult to argue the point too strongly.

We arrive at Penang airport for our $20 bargain flight to KL. We will stay the night at the Tune Hotel at the airport as we have a very early flight onwards to Hanoi. Never a great fan of airport hotels but this one is fantastic! A large and very comfortable bed, huge TV, great wifi and a five minute walk to departures. Tomorrow Vietnam!

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