As part of our travels Sam and I agreed to look out for a spot, where at some point in the future, we might want to stay for a month or two, away from the English winter. We’ve seen many beautiful places but nowhere with the right balance of things to do, see, experience and enjoy for an extended period…..until we came to George Town on Penang Island, sitting on the north-west coast of Malaysia. On entering Malaysia you get a three-month visa free of charge – a great start – then you meet the wonderful multi-cultural people, eat the fabulous food, and of course bask in the tropical climate.
Tucked at the top of the Straits of Malacca, Penang had an important strategic position in the development of trade in the 1700 – 1800’s, which saw colonial powers impose themselves along the Straits – British in Penang and the Dutch in Malacca. Both cities now enjoy UNESCO Heritage site status largely due to the incredibly well preserved and diverse architecture of their respective old towns.
However, the architectural heritage is not limited to colonial style buildings. One of the most striking features of Penang and to some extent Malaysia, is the evidence of its multi-cultural history and presence. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the “Street of Harmony” where in the space of a mile you can walk from the Anglican Church of St George’s,
to the Chinese Goddess of Mercy Temple, which contains remarkable stories about the warring Chinese Clans in the 1840’s…
on to Sri Mahamariamman Hindu temple,
and to Kapitan Keling Mosque in the space of half a mile.
The history is fascinating. Captain Francis Light is credited with the development of George Town (hence the colonial name) in 1786, serving the interests of the British East India Company. Through some typically duplicitous colonial dealings he secured a lease on the land. If ever there was an example of history being written by the victorious it can be found on his monument in St George’s.
Judging by the reaction we got when we asked a local guide about the veracity of the epitaph it would probably be labelled “fake news” these days!
One of the endearing features of George Town is the plethora of ramshackle trading stores adorned with vintage signage. I particularly liked this one with the old Raleigh sign (Robin Hood included)…
..and ancient seemingly decrepit workshops that still showed signs of activity, although quite what they produce…well, who knows..”housing materials” apparently.
Complementing the architecture is a wonderful array of street art. Tracking these down becomes something of an adventure in itself with unexpected delights popping up all over town. There are three particular popular ones which use real bikes to make the art even more remarkable.
However, this is just the tip of the iceberg and George Town has rightly become famous for its burgeoning street art scene. Here is selection of some of our favourites..
More Monkey Business
As well as the pleasures of George Town, Penang Island has lots of other attractions, including Penang Hills, where the temperature drops and a lush tropical forest sits towering above the town. We jumped on a bus and enjoyed a ride through the Island for a few pence before reaching the Hills. A swift cable car journey up and before we knew it we found ourselves gazing at beautiful and striking Dusky Leaf Monkeys. They look unreal and you find yourself staring at them in amazement. By monkey standards they are shy, so we were delighted to see them and their striking features close up.
We took a guided tour through the jungle high across a walkway and were able to view the jungle close up, with the sound of cicadas (and mimicking Drongo birds) for a soundtrack.
Our guide spotted something quite unique, a crab that lives in the foliage in the mountains – the Highland Vampire Crab. I don’t know what you think, but a creature called a Vampire Crab isn’t ideal! Here is a picture of one modelled rather bravely by Sam….
It wasn’t all trekking and animal spotting. I had time for a jungle canopy swing. Turn the volume up to get the full Cicada soundtrack at 10 secs…..
Before we finished our visit on a canopy walkway looking down the jungle treetops
Malaysian Nom Nom
Whether you go away for a long trip or a long weekend you can’t help wondering if you are going to be okay on the food front in a foreign land. The scales we occasionally come across in our hotel rooms provide an unambiguous answer and are a testament to the fact that we are having absolutely no difficulty filling our faces. With a small handful of exceptions, the food has been excellent, and George Town with its multi-cultural offerings tops the list for cuisine. Penang is known as the food capital of Malaysia and rightly so. The Little India neighbourhood was full of lovely restaurants with great veggie dishes. We also indulged in a lot of pancake eating having discovered a superb place on the Street of Harmony serving up the best pancakes we have ever eaten – and as pancake/crepe aficionados that is high praise. Their speciality one included beansprouts and sultanas – an odd mix but it was delicious. Here is a sample of their wonderful wares..
Penang and George Town have made a really great impression on us and it’s definitely a place we want to return to. We scratched the surface on our visit and there is a lot more to see on this wonderful Malaysian Island. Getting on the ferry across the Straits of Malacca, to get the train south to Kuala Lumpur, we felt excited but a bit sad to leave. Sam caught me looking like a wistful traveller on the ferry looking back at Penang.
We visited KL as recently as three years ago, and enjoyed seeing the main sites such as the Petronas Towers and the Batu Caves on that trip. So we took the opportunity to have a bit of a relax and have some down time. That didn’t stop us popping up the KL Tower for some great views of the city and to test our nerve by walking in the glass sky box that is appended to the Tower. Given the popularity of the sky box you queue for at least 20 minutes and then you are allowed a maximum of two minutes in the box before you are asked to leave and let the next group in. Most people abused this rule, staying in there for far longer until a burly Malaysian security man insisted they leave. When our turn came we gingerly stepped out onto the glass, looked down very briefly, adopted suitable poses for pics and after about 40 seconds I suggested to Sam that we had seen all we needed to see and should really leave and let the next people in the queue have their moment.
We also visited a few night markets, enjoying the food and atmosphere, but not so much the rain. I don’t know what it is about KL but it rains more regularly than any place we have ever been to, with every day delivering huge downpours with violent thunder and lightning.
We continued our journey down the west coast on Malaysia’s excellent railway system – the best we have experienced so far. Clean, comfortable and punctual, the ideal way to see the countryside unfolding. Malacca is another interesting town with an important trading history that was primarily developed by the Dutch and Portuguese, with a bit of British interference at some point. Although not quite as interesting as George Town (to us at least) it has its charm including the pink Christ Church dating from 1753.
…and a great riverside walk where there is more evidence of the Malaysian enthusiasm for street art and murals.
The town is also famed for its colourful street market on Jonker Walk which gets jam-packed at the weekend and is perfect for people watching from the respite of a bar stool.
The Malacca Tourist Board won’t thank us for saying this, but two of our abiding memories from the town are firstly the bizarre and quite frankly horrendous pimped up “rickshaws” that cycle about the town decorated with venerable historical characters such as Hello Kitty and Pokemon while pumping out deafening cheesy music. We were told that they are one of the local traditions. Well quite frankly they are an abomination to a town claiming heritage status. Your Honour, I present “Exhibit A” for the prosecution….
Secondly, we found our way into what looked like a British Pub – our suspicions confirmed when we looked at the menu and my eyes immediately alighted on the words “Branston Pickle” while Sam spotted “Pie and Mash”. Absence really can make the heart grow fonder when it comes to HP sauce, Branston Pickle and mashed potato with gravy! We both love South East Asian food and didn’t really think we were hankering after any food from home. That is until we saw the menu and scoffed down our meals in record time. We were two very happy campers after that meal…..until we ran into some more of the blasted rickshaw contraptions again!
From Malacca we took another train south to head into our sixth country – Singapore. However, we will be returning to Malaysia in November when we go to Borneo in search of more jungle wildlife. In the meantime, there is a lot of travelling to be done including the next stages in our adventure which are going to present us with a real contrast: spotless Singapore, followed by the wild Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java.