Pulau Pinang, or “the island of the betel nut,” is one of the most popular places in all of Southeast Asia. Once an uninhabited hideout for pirates ransacking ships leaving Malacca, the natural harbor caught the eye of the British Empire in the 18th century. Although much colonial architecture from the British era can be found throughout the small island, Chinese, Indians, Arabs and Malays have contributed their own flavor and culture to Penang.
We visited Penang April 9-12, 2010. We spent our first two days in historic George Town and our remaining time on the white sand beaches of Batu Ferenghi.
On Penang Island sits the capital, George Town, a city steeped in history and tradition . Certain sections of George Town present a quaint picture from the past where narrow side streets, rickhaws, temples and hawkers, seem to belong to a forgotten era.
And yet other parts are, well, dumpy, prompting Laura to ask dissapointingly at times: “so, like, where is the part worth seeing.” But certainly there are many parts of George Town worthy of a visit, provided you’re prepared to explore its serpentine streets under a scorching sky. Below, Laura stands in front of George Town’s esplanade with City Hall in the background (left) and on a typical covered sidewalk in town (right).
Across from Town Hall and City Hall is Fort Cornwallis (below), an old star-shaped fort located on the northeastern coast of Penang. Fort Cornwallis was built by Captain Sir Francis Light after taking possession of the island from Sultan Kedah in 1786. I’m picuted on the right-hand side below beside a statue of Captain Light, helping to keep Penang safe from the natives.
Malaysian food is exceptional– a culinary diversity originating from it’s multi-ethnic population of Malay, Indian, Eurasian, Chinese, Nyonya and the Indigenous peoples of Borneo. A famous dish is mee goreng (Indian-style Fried Noodle), yellow noodles and vermicelli infused in rich and spicy coconut curry, with cubes of pig’s blood, cockles, fried tofu puffs, cuttlefish, and shrimps as toppings. Below I’m enjoying some Mee Sotong.
The Peranakan Mansion (below) is one of the most ornate private homes in Penang. It once belonged to Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee, a colourful personality in the late 19th century.
Currently, it is a museum showcasing antiques of the Peranakan-Baba-Nyonyian community. Paranakan is the term used for the descendants of immigrant populations (such as Indian and Chinese) that over time have assimilated into the local communities. We also visited the Paranakan Museum in Singapore. Below, Laura stands before an outside mural in the mansion’s courtyard.
Inside the mansion we put to good a use an antique “kissing chair.”
Lebuh Armenian (below), or Armenian Street, is a street in the inner city of George Town. It derives its name from a Armenian family that had its home at the junction of the now Armenian Street and Beach Street in the early part of the 19th century.
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (below) which won the 2000 Most Excellent Award of UNESCO Asia-Pacific for culture Heritage Conservation, is a grand and intricate estate built by one of the wealthiest tycoons at the turn of the 20th century. The mansion, which covers the terrace house at the opposite side,is a fusion of Oriental and Western architecture.
Penang is well known as a “Hawkers Paradise” and there are many open-air complexes housing stalls selling a variety of inexpensive, fresh food. One of the most popular is the Persiaran Gurney hawker market, which was a short walk from our hotel. We a lot of Char Koay Teow (stir-fried flat rice noodles), a classic Malaysian dish. The silken, slightly chewy rice noodles are tossed in a spicy-sweet sauce with shrimp and crunchy bean sprouts. Another tastey treat is Oh Chien (Fried Oyster Omelette). Originated in the Fujian region in China, Oh Chien is fried omelette with fresh oysters, with starch mixed into the eggs. The key to this dish is Wok Hei (breath of wok) as well as the generous use of fresh and succulent oysters. If you’re still hungry (and I was) you can fill up on either satay or Lok Lok. Lok Lok (below, lower right) is fresh food in skewers that you dip in a pot of hot boiling water. You stand around the communal pot and pick skewers to boil and then dip in any of several flavorful sauces. You can wash down all this yumminess with some freshly squeezed raw sugar cane juice (below, lower center).
On April 11-12, we stayed in Batu Ferenghi. Characterized by miles of sandy white beaches and swaying palm trees, Batu Ferringhi is one of the most popular destinations in Penang. A lot of your pre-set illusions of life slip away in Batu Ferringhi, most of them after you see two women in burkhas riding double on a jet ski. We stayed at the Park Royal, which had a water slide that I took frequent advantage of (below).
I also went parasailing. Laura wanted to go, as well, but the guys running the activity were adamant against taking her up. My understanding is that Malaysia does not have the same tort laws or liability culture of the U.S.; so, when you have a bunch of Malay beach bums unanimously and vigorously opposed to something you best listen.
Of course, it’s not a tropical paradise unless you can sip a cool drink under a thatched roof.
In Batu Ferenghi we continued our tour of Penang’s hawker centers, enjoying some appetizing satay (below-left) and grilled whole fish (below-right).
You never really forget you’re far away from home in Penang, whether its the constant reminders not to bring your durian fruit inside (below-left) or the random opportunities to share your fruit with fellow passersby on the street (below-right).