By Jessamy Baldwin
I was recently invited to a destination wedding in Penang, a tropical island off the north-west coast of Malaysia and my husband David and I jumped at the chance to visit this exotic corner of the world. One of his best childhood friends, Kara, was marrying Chris after 10 years together (aaahhh) and it was set to be the wedding of the year.
We spent nine days soaking up the sights, thrills and strong cocktails of Penang and if you’re planning a trip to Malaysia soon, it’s well worth a trip to the ‘Pearl of the Orient’.
Penang has long served as the link between Asia’s territories and been an important outlet to the markets of Europe and the Middle East. Listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 2008, this lush paradise has no shortage of history, cultural sights and stunning natural scenery. It’s famous for its marble-white sandy beaches, fishing villages, mountainous jungle, farms growing nutmeg/durian, and is fondly regarded as the food capital of Malaysia – and for good reason. Our bathroom scales can vouch for this (worth it).
There’s an exceptional art scene alongside vibrant festivals, and an undeniable enthusiasm from locals and tourists alike for Penang’s long history and kaleidoscope of cultures. A fascinating fusion of the East and West, Penang cleverly balances modernity whilst retaining its classic, old world charm.
At Penang’s heart, is diverse yet distinct, quaint yet cosmopolitan George Town. The island’s main city and urban hub delivers old-world Asia in true authentic style and doesn’t disappoint. As Lonely Planet affirms: “Think trishaws pedalling past watermarked Chinese shophouses and blue joss smoke perfuming the air”.
Exploring George Town is best done earlier in the day or once the sun has gone down – a lesson we failed to heed but did learn. We set off with SPF 50 slapped on, all gung-ho, wanting a taste of local life, stat. But alas had to dive undercover for chicken satay and cold beers for fear of melting onto the pavement more than a few times. “Mad dogs and Englishmen” after all…
Everything can be done on foot, which is great because that’s the best way to explore any city. For a hit of Penang’s multicultural society, start off at the ornate swirling domes of the 1803 Kapitan Keling Mosque. Nearby is an Indian pavement shrine whose worshippers leave fragrant jasmine flowers and crack open coconuts, as well as the Goddess of Mercy Temple – Penang’s foremost Chinese temple – where Buddhists light giant incense sticks and burn ritual offerings.
Next, dive into the city’s maze of narrow, bustling streets. Get lost, photograph colonial buildings and if you’re feeling up for it, join a walking tour around the city’s Unesco sights.
Once you’ve had your fill of Georgetown, head towards the centre of the island to bustling Ayer Itam. The friendly town is tourist-free and its colourful markets are worth perusing. Nearby, the Kek Lok Si Temple – the largest Buddist temple in Malaysia – is marked by a towering 30-metre statue of the goddess Kuan Yin.
Penang Hill covers a number of hills, with the highest point at Western Hill which is 833 m above sea level. It’s the oldest British hill station in Southeast Asia, dating back to the late 1700’s, and there’s a nature trail to follow through the rainforest. You can join it after getting off the funicular train that takes visitors up and down.
The beaches of Penang are a must-see and I’m sure you need no convincing here. Check out Batu Ferringhi and Tanjung Bungah. There are also lots of pretty bays with rustic piers, like the one below.
Take a boat that hugs the coast, stopping off at idyllic Monkey Beach for a swim before arriving at the turtle hatchery and oasis-like meromictic lake at Kerachut Beach.
Tropical Spice Garden
The Tropical Spice Garden – the only spice garden in South East Asia – is a true gem. Paths lead through landscaped jungle, past hundreds of species of exotic plants, flowers and spice terraces, through water gardens and bamboo groves.
Penang National Park in Balik Pulau
From the Penang National Park headquarters on the north-western tip of the island, you can trek through dense jungle and enjoy the marine reserve.
Around the rest of Balik Pulau, visit the Entopia Butterfly Farm, the Escapeadventure park if you’re bringing kids, durian farms and the Ghee Hup Nutmeg Factory, a reminder of how important the spice trade once was to Penang.
The street food scene is legendary in Penang and the Batu Ferringhi night food market was one of the best I’ve been to in Asia. With a dazzling array of cuisines from the island’s Chinese, Malay and Indian communities, there’s sure to be something to get your taste buds going. From rich, sticky chicken satay and Hokkien prawn noodles to fresh fruit smoothies and spicy curries – it’s a foodie’s heaven.
The Penang Botanical Gardens
Located in a valley along Jalan Kebun Bunga, the Botanical Gardens are a veritable feast for the eyes (and camera). The gardens feature 12 sections, among them a Tropical Rainforest Jungle Track, Aroid Walkaway and Cactus House. There’s a special ‘monkey path’ that leads up to Penang Hill, which is about an hour’s walk away. It is a steep but highly rewarding trek.
If you fancy exploring a little further, hop over to Lankawi island. The ferry takes around three hours from Penang and it’s a stunning place to put up your feet and indulge. Think palm fringed beaches and turquoise lagoons.
A version of this article was printed in The Guernsey Press in January 2018.