The first thing to notice about Penang is how bouncy the runway is. Bounce Bounce Bounce came the Malaysia Airlines 737 down the runway after a 50 min hop from Kuala Lumpur airport. Penang is a fairly relaxed place, nothing seems to be rushed or taken too seriously - it's probably something to do with the heat. Over New Year the temperature was hovering around the low thirties, and coupled with a high level of humidity makes for something a lot more pleasant than the snow/ice/wind/rain combinations back in Europe.
On arrival at the Casaurina Beach Hotel in Batu Ferringhi, we immediately went to check out the beach and sea. This is really the only downside of the place. The beach is nice, with golden sand, palm trees and all you'd expect from a tropical paradise. Sadly, the sea isn't. Whilst it's a lot cleaner than that in somewhere like Pattaya in Thailand, it's certainly not up to that of Almirida in Crete. The water is brown, so if you were to stand in it up to your waist you'd certainly not be able to see the bottom. This, the suspect brown foam on top in places and the slight jellyfish presence makes swimming inadvisable. Luckily, there is another beach about 1km west of the Casuarina Beach hotel where the locals go. Whilst the water is not much cleaner, it somehow feels a bit better, and therefore was suitable enough for swimming in the shallower bits. But it's not the best beach in the world, for sure. It's a shame, as Penang is a great place otherwise. As I heard one other hotel guest commeting to a porter, if they see the sea, they want to be able to swim in it. The locals we met were generally friendly and talkative, and were not so interested in ripping you off, though of course they are very interested in selling you things. We even mananged to take a few taxi rides that were both reasonably priced and did not "detour" to some tailor/shop/jewellery store that the driver's wife/cousin/brother/friend's uncle's wife owned, like they so often do in Thailand. The taxis are a mix of either Protons (a cheap Malaysian car based on old Mitsubishi designs) or clanky engined museum piece Toyotas, Datsuns and Nissans, most of which have long had their day.
The "town" of Batu Ferringhi is little more than a long road filled with hotels, shops for tourists and at night, market stalls and restaurants. It's certainly the place to come if you want either nice or tacky souvinirs of Malaysia. If a pewter clock/barometer model of the twin Petronas towers from Kuala Lumpur is top of you shopping list, this is your Mecca. On the other hand, if you are looking for something a little more tasteful, (if not authentic), you'll be well catered for too. There are some tailors, probably about twelve in Batu Ferrenghi, but they're more expensive than those in Thailand. As with all of Asia though, shopping in general is much cheaper than at home. Inevitably, if you're looking for cheap DVDs, they'll be here too. The restaurants we tried were all at least above average quality of food, with very cheap prices. Some of the combinations were a little strange, as one place claimed to specialise in both Arabic and Italian cuisine. We tried the Arabic, which was quite nice but not nearly as Arabic tasting as some we'd had a previous year in Paris. Many of the restaurants offer satay sticks as a starter, so I took the opportunity often. The little kebabed pieces of meat and the bowl of spicy peanut sauce are heaven. The seafood is also plentiful, and if you really desire to give some creature a death sentence, you can choose a live one from a tank in some of the restaurants. It will henceforth be killed and cooked (or sometimes the other way round) and then presented to you on a plate.
Many of the tourists in Batu Ferringhi seems content to lie out in the sun near the sea, slowly roasting and occasionaly sitting up to baste themselves with a little more sun cream, but this is a sad waste of Penang, where there are better things to see and do. Most of them are away from Batu Ferringhi, but they does exist. The newly opened Tropical Spice Garden is a shortish walk from the hotel, opposite the beach we found suitable for swimming. As it's only been open for about 6 weeks some of it was still under construction, but about 80% was done, and it is already a relaxing haven. Such was the low level of tourist activity we pretty much had the place (and it's cool swinging rope seat) to ourselves for a few hours. The garden contains lots of tropical plants and trees, and a large selection of edible/medical/aromatic spices. If you want to see black pepper, lemon grass and many other cooking ingredients growing naturally outside, this is the place to come.
Two other tourist attractions located round the North-west corner of the island are the Tropical Fruit Farm and the Butterfly Farm. The fruit farm is a tour round many different fruit trees and plants, some imported and some local, with the opportunity to taste some of the nice (Cocoa) and not so nice (Tamarind) fruits that are growing. In addition to lots of butterflys, the Butterfly Farm also has a "show-and-tell" section giving you the opportunity to either handle things such as stick insects, snakes and scorpions, or alternatively, run and hide behind your spouse/parent/friend to cower until the offending insect is moved to a safe distance.
Probably the most interesting place is Georgetown. Choosing to go on New Years Day is not a bad choice. The town is dead enough to not be bustling, and alive enough in the right areas - those of Chinatown and Little India, who don't bother much with Christmas or New Year anyway. These two places are inevitably the most fascinating as they are the most different from home. Sure, Foleshill in Coventry and the Golden Mile in Leicester, both in the UK, contain a high number of Indian shops, but the heat, untidiness, smells and noise here make it so much more like the real India. There are sari shops by the ton, lots of Bollywood movies and music blaring out from the shops, and roads and streets that look positivly third-world. As a blessed relief compared to the real India, what it didn't have were a million hawkers following you around trying to sell you any old crap. I saw a few westerners sporting Henna tattoos though. The Chinatown here is quite colonial. Many of the buildings in and around Georgetown are old colonial style buildings, and most of those in Chinatown look like they are from that period. There was a large wet market that from the outside reminded me of any number of market buildings from England, except for the overpowering smell of chicken shit, and the sights and sounds associated with a group of elderly Chinese women in wellington boots removing live chickens from overcrowded cages, killing them and then boiling them in large oil drums of water and black slime to remove the feathers. The mindless bureaucrats who spend their time spewing regulations and rules in the European Union would have a field day of Health and Safety here, but the locals looked none the worse for their methods, and were certainly a lot slimmer than their European equivalents. A few streets earlier we had stopped at a local cafe for some chicken and rice breakfast, a place where only locals were eating. I wondered about the food preparation methods, but we were not sick the next day, possible thanks to the glass of Cretan Raki taken each morning.
Another place we found in Georgetown was a Chinese temple. We stumbled upon this quite by accident, whilst looking for the more tourist orientated Khoo Kongsi temple, a place we ended up not visiting. The temple we found was relatively small, and located on a street corner a few streets from Khoo Kongsi. Luckily for us we'd happened upon it on the one day of intense activity in the year, an offering by the local people their gods/ancestors of food and money (in the form of large paper bundles of "money" to be burnt outside in large metal cages). We got talking to a friendly local inside the temple who gave us this information. There was a lot of burning incense, together with bread, fruit and whole pigs inside laid out on packed tables. Fantastic.
Further out from Georgetown is a large Buddhist temple complex spanning across one road. Both sides are Thai/Burmese inspired, one room of which contains the world's third largest reclining Buddha. There's lots of curly roofs, pictures of Buddha on the path to enlightenment, incense sticks and things painted gold. It's very mystical and awe-inspiring. Outside on the road are lots of stalls and tourist crap. It's very commercial and sad.
The final day in Penang was taken up with a full day trip of snorkelling off a coral reef near to the island of Langkawi. In this stretch of island coastline, some long boat ride away, you can see right down to the bottom and the water is crystal clear. The only thing between you and the view of the sea floor is hundreds and hundreds of brightly coloured fish, and a few ugly silver ones. Snorkelling is great, apart from a slight sense of claustrophobia from the rubber masks and the loud sound of your own breathing in your ears. Also, if you happen to swallow any of the water, it's very high salt content makes you want to retch. There were many cool things to see underwater, including the coral and clown fish (like Nemo, if you are familiar with films but not fish). We even managed to see a shark, but it was only about 1.5m long, and swam off very quickly when it saw us. The beach here is much better than Batu Ferringhi, clear blue water and soft golden sand.
Sadly, this was the last full day of the trip so there was nothing the next day but Bounce Bounce Bounce down the runway to start the long trip back to England.
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Copyright © M.F.Hughes 2004