Elephant’s Leg


A WEEK IN MALAYSIA PART 1: PENANG
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Batu Ferringhi

I spent last week in Malaysia with my girlfriend, Waew. It was our first proper holiday together and my first proper trip to Malaysia (I did a brief border hop from Brunei in 2005 but that was essentially just to tick another country off the list). It was also my first proper holiday in South East Asia since moving to Thailand last year, having so far failed to live up to my promise to myself to see as much of the region as possible while living here.

We flew in and out of Penang, where we spent half of the week. The other half we spent in Langkawi. It proved a decent mix of city and countryside, culture and relaxation, with stays in three locations.

GEORGETOWN

Approaching from the air, the provincial capital looked to have been spoiled by an overabundance of ageing high-rise condos, which scarred an otherwise lush, green island. However at ground level I found Georgetown to be charming. True, a lot of the buildings are greying and flaking, but then it is a very old city, and you can’t have history without a bit of wear.

Thankfully the ugly high-rises are more of a feature of the outskirts than the downtown region, which is full of character. Malaysia is known – and celebrated – for its multiculturalism and tolerance, and this is certainly evident in Georgetown. Ancient Chinese shophouses mingle with mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples, and old colonial architecture.  Dining options offer Chinese, Indian, Malay, Thai and European, while browsing the myriad  ethnic stores is a delight. Aural atmosphere is to be found on every street, too, whether the five-daily Islamic prayer sessions, the joyous songs emanating from the Hindu temples, or bhangra pop music blasting from sari shops and Indian CD stores.

A short walk from anywhere in the city centre can take you to most of the downtown attractions and to the seaside, although typically of an urban coast, the sea is murky and unremarkable. However the beach legs of our trip were ahead of us; Georgetown was the cultural side.

A bus or a cheap taxi ride into the centre of the island takes you to the island’s showpiece tourist attraction, Kek Lok Si Temple. The sprawling Buddhist place of worship straddles one side of Penang Hill and dazzles in its colour and design. Chinese, Burmese and Thai influences come together in one site and make for one of the most impressive religious sites I have seen, and certainly among the very best Asian temples.

It’s then a short hop – 5 minutes by taxi or a 25-minute walk – to the Penang Hill funicular station. The train will take you on a steep ascent to the 830-metre-high summit, from where you can take in the inevitably sweeping views, although again the rash of condos do blight the landscape in places. It probably looks better at night, when the city lights switch on, but still the view is far-encompassing enough to offer plenty of interest, whether the cityscape or the jungle or out to sea.

In terms of nightlife, Georgetown offers some smaller, more characterful bars along Jalan Chulia which attract backpackers and expats, or the more upmarket Jalan Penang, boasting smarter bars, a throbbing high-end nightclub and the city’s beautiful people.

We stayed at the Broadway Budget Hotel, which was basic but centrally located, clean and staffed by very friendly and helpful employees. We couldn’t fault it for RM50 (£10) per night. We found it by simply walking around after finding one of the Rough Guide‘s recommendations, the Blue Diamond Hotel, to be unacceptable (ancient, musty, threadbare rooms) at the same price.

BATU FERRINGHI

With Penang island being circumnavigable in a day, we decided to hire a car and do exactly that. The car hire company we called was booked in Batu Ferringhi, the nearest significant beach spot to Georgetown, on the north of the island, where we intended to stay one night. The price of the rental was reasonable, but the hire rep had to come from BF to Georgetown, and then drive us back to BF, where his office was based and from where the rental would officially begin. Fine, we thought – it’s a free ride. Unfortunately the rep had seemingly been trained in the Bangkok tuk-tuk school of transporting tourists and rather than simply drive from our hotel to his office, he took us via a luxury chocolate store, a fabrics mill and a coffee outlet – all overpriced and all of which presumably paid him commission.

After checking in to a seaside guesthouse – Shalini’s, which was in a great location, just on the opposite side of the beach road, but otherwise not worth the RM75 they charged, if you compare with Broadway in Georgetown – we set off on our driving tour of the island, working our way clockwise.

The emphasis was simply on looping the island and seeing the countryside, and as it was already 1pm by the time we set off (thanks to our commission-seeking car hire rep), we didn’t have time for the major tourist attractions such as the Butterfly Farm, Tropical Fruits Farm and Snake Temple. Still, away from the city, the island proved beautiful, with lots of photo opportunities along the winding roads of the coast or of the jungle interior – just be careful when driving of monitor lizards crossing the road as if they have all the time in the world!

Almost back in Georgetown, we swung on to the bridge that links the island with the mainland portion of Penang province. At 13km long, it’s an impressive piece of architecture. The mainland seemed fairly featureless and access to Butterworth, the nearest city of note, incurred a toll, so, bearing in mind we were also pressed for time, we simply returned to the island via the bridge, which does offer a scenic run.

Finally, a quick run through Georgetown and then back up to BF and we had completed the loop while it was still daylight, giving us time for a stroll on the beach, which did not boast clear water but was scenic enough, with large boulders framing the western end and playful stray dogs chasing crabs . Dinner of carpetbag steak (beef stuffed with smoked oysters) inside a restaurant fashioned as a life-size ship, followed by a stroll around a night marker, completed a very pleasant day.

Part 2: Langkawi


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