The Pearl of the Orient is a wholesome Malaysian experience packaged in an island, so says Esther Shan Lin Hor as she recounts both the good and the bad
Do hike in Penang, where a network of jungle trails concentrated around Penang Hill is easily accessible from various starting points in the Botanical Garden, Youth Park and Air Itam Dam. Varying in length, difficulty, and scenery proffered, the interconnecting tracks are numbered according to rest stations.
Fitness enthusiasts should not miss a three-hour hike to the peak of Penang Hill for a spectacular view of the island and the Straits of Malacca. The peak is also accessible by train and road.
Don’t miss Penang’s famed street food. Dubbed Asia’s Food Paradise, eating in Penang is a 24-hour experience. Culinary fares are multicultural, ranging from the aromatic, must-try char kuey teow (wok-fried flat rice noodles with eggs, juicy prawns and cockles), assam laksa (chewy white noodles in thick gravy that is truly an explosive fusion of tastes) to the perennial nasi kandar (a dish of Indian Muslim origin). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!
Do immerse yourself in the cultural and religious atmosphere by strolling through Penang’s capital, Georgetown, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. Dotted with idiosyncratic Chinese shop houses and clan houses, old-styled mansions, little India bazaars, and temples, Georgetown truly reflects its colonial past and gives visitors an overload of cultural infusion on any regular day. Some of the well-known attractions in this area are the Cheong Fatt Sze mansion, Kek Lok Si Buddhist Temple, and the Kapitan Keling Mosque.
Don’t display expensive belongings, as Penang is notorious for its pickpockets and snatch thieves. Save yourself from the trouble of having to negotiate with incompetent policemen by simply being cautious at all times.
Do check out Penang’s uninterrupted stretch of sandy beaches in Batu Ferringhi that’s teeming with water sport activities and sun-bathers all year round. Lined with a myriad of hotels ranging from budget hotels to the opulent Hard Rock Hotel and Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa, beach-goers are spoilt for the choice.
Don’t rely wholly on asking locals for directions. Although most Malaysians are able to hold a conversation in English, many are ignorant of lesser-known attractions, especially those of heritage and cultural fame. Penang’s maze of road system and outdated maps further complicate this matter when a wrong turn could render you helplessly lost.
Do visit one of National Geographic Channel’s Top 10 Most Haunted Sites in Asia. The Penang War Museum is a sprawling historical complex containing bunkers, tunnels, secret pathways, and war paraphernalia used during the Second World War. Night tours and stays are offered for the bravest of souls.
Don’t expect punctuality from tour guides and the public transport system. Malaysians somewhat subscribe to the ‘Malaysian time.’ “On the way” can mean anything from a person is just getting out of bed to they are stuck in a traffic jam.
Do find out suitable travel times to avoid getting stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic jams during school dismissal and after work hours. Also, remember to look at the sky; dark puffy clouds indicate imminent downpour that will drench you to the core. When raining, do what the Malaysians do, run into the nearest shopping mall and indulge in retail therapy to counter the stormy mood. Fret not, for in a couple of hours, the sunny warmth will return.
Don’t miss the Penang National Park. Although it is Malaysia’s youngest and smallest national park, it is the only national park with a beach coastline and is home to South-East Asia’s only meromictic lake; where saltwater meets fresh water. Plus, eight of Penang’s best beaches, some with nesting turtles, are hidden in this secret enclave. The trails are well maintained with an interspersed view of the sea, tropical forest, and mangroves.