After many years of visiting the Greek islands for our annual holiday, we wanted something and somewhere different to spend the New Year. Students at the University I work suggested I try Penang, on the northwest corner of Malaysia. Feeling like intrepid travellers, the three of us (myself, partner and 13 year old son) headed off on our first long-haul flight ever. We were amazed that the aircraft was so big – 3 columns of chairs! That’s not all – we got unlimited food, drink and movies and to make the beginning of our holiday that much more special the flight attendants on Malaysia Airlines were wonderful. Nothing was too much trouble for them, even my son’s constant questioning: “what’s that mountain”, “where are we now??“
We arrived in Kuala Lumpur, and the airport was yet again beyond our expectation – it was so big it even had a mini-forest inside. However, it did take us a while to find out where we were going and to eventually realise we had to go on the train to the next terminal for a domestic transfer to Penang.
Once arrived at Penang, we felt like “old-hands” as we were coping well with the high temperatures and 78% humidity and even worked out that you had to pay for the taxi in advance in return for a ticket to travel – an excellent system as you know how much it is going to cost before you get there. The taxi driver was a fountain of knowledge, pointing out the old colonial houses; horse-race tracks as well as the many Proton cars that he proudly announced were made in Malaysia!
We had booked to stay at the Ferringhi Beach Hotel at Batu Ferringhi – we knew nothing of the hotel or even the area when we booked, but we weren’t disappointed. The room was amazing – as our teenage son had outgrown staying in a room with mum and dad we had booked a suite and we each had our own bathroom, balcony, and bedroom, with a small lounge area. More spectacularly, everything overlooked the sea. It certainly makes one wonder why anyone would bother to holiday in England when you could have such luxury at half the price you would pay for a standard English hotel room.
Armed with cameras, the necessary sunhat and a litre of water we set off to explore Ferringhi — and here I would like to caution a word of warning. We hadn’t gone much past the hotel entrance when suddenly, we were ambushed from the trees and sent running for cover under a torrent of coconuts flung from above. Surely we couldn’t have upset somebody so soon? We soon saw the culprits — monkeys. Certainly something you don’t get on the Greek Islands!
Snakes in the temple, and a giant reclining Buddha
We decided to travel into George Town by bus. This was an experience indeed! They were very old and very crowded, but the ride was so cheap you couldn’t really complain. George Town is an excellent place for shopping — the bus station is located right under Komtar – a huge shopping complex where it is very easy to get lost! If you are into console games, these are remarkably cheap here, as are the mobile phones — and all the shopping centres are wonderfully cool! Apart from shopping, George Town offers some really interesting places to visit. Fort Cornwallis, a British fortification is an oasis of calm — looking out to sea with the cannon still in place.
In the evenings we set off to Batu Ferringhi for dinner, and the place to eat was the Food Court — the range is amazing and so are the prices! Try the Tiger Beer — it’s wonderful! If you are feeling adventurous have a Guinness — a locally brewed version. I challenge you to finish a bottle! As a vegetarian there was lots of choices for food here, which certainly makes a change! The stuffed chapattis with cheese just melted in your mouth while the meat eaters strongly recommend the satay’s, which like everything in the Food Market, were cooked as you waited — and brought to your tables when done.
No trip to Penang is complete without visiting its many Temples. The snake temple, although quite attractive, has lost many of its star inhabitants years ago. Only a few very sleepy snakes remain — carefully kept out of the public’s way. The snakes are apparently made sleepy by the incense and you can take a photograph with one of the not-so-little darlings wrapped around your neck — a task not for the fainthearted. You pay for the photos while you are there and they will deliver the prints to your hotel either the same evening or early the next morning — for you to prove to everyone at home how brave you were! The Temple of the Reclining Buddha is a truly fantastic and moving experience. Made with gold trimmings, it is huge! You are allowed to take photographs but don’t forget to take your shoes off, though. Outside the actual temple there are fantastically coloured dragons and cockerels marching about.
To fully describe the sights, sounds, smells and the wonderfully friendly people; the fantastic food and the huge culture shock would probably require that I write a book or two! I do hope you have enjoyed reading this and I am sure that anyone who visits Penang will not fail to fall in love with it Our family have and we will be on our third visit this year!