Penang, or popularly known as the Pearl of the Orient is located in Malaysia which itself is sandwiched between Thailand and Singapore. Before Penang, the Pearl of the Orient, was known to the world as a beautiful, exotic holiday destination, she was Pulau Pinang – a virgin paradise that got her name from the abundance of betel nut palms scattered across her soft, sandy beaches.
Literally translated, Pulau Pinang means the “Isle of the Betel Nut” in Malay – Malaysia’s national language. Steeped in history, “Penang” was born when charismatic English captain Francis Light persuaded the Sultan of Kedah to cede Pulau Pinang to the British East India Company. In recognition of her rich heritage, George Town, together with Malacca, was listed on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site on July 7, 2008.
For all her advancements, exotic natural beauty and historical relevance, Penang’s greatest pride is her people. The many communities – especially the Chinese, Malays and Indians, each boast of their own unique religious and cultural festivals but it is a Penang tradition for everyone (yes, tourists too!) to join in the fun.
However, it is important to note that not all Indians observe Thaipusam and not every Chinese celebrates the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. There are many Chinese and Indians here who are Christians and Catholics although these races are commonly associated with being Buddhist, Taoist or Hindu.
The locals love having tourists participate and take an interest in the festivals and religious events but it is important to know about the dos and don’ts and to be respectful and mindful of each community’s sensitivities especially when visiting places of worships. For instance, when going inside a Hindu temple, one is expected to leave the shoes outside and when visiting mosques, only those properly attired are allowed in (sleeveless tops, skimpy skirts and shorts for women are a no-no!).
Whether it’s exotic local street food or the elegance of fine dining you crave, Penang has it all. Ask any true blue Penangite and he or she will proudly tell you that there is no place like home – especially when it comes to food!
Because Penang is a melting pot of cultures, her food also bears interesting nuances of flavour that hint of different influences. Eating is almost considered a favorite pastime here with many coffee shops and eateries open until the wee hours of the morning. Some (notably the Nasi Kandar outlets) are open 24-hours daily, serving rice, piping hot curries, noodles and an array of mouth-watering fare to hungry patrons round-the-clock!
George Town, named by the British after King George III, is Penang’s capital city. The government center and financial heart, George Town is an interesting and bustling city with modern high rise buildings, cathedrals, mosques, government offices, temples, bazaars, shops and cafes. A myriad of delights, George Town is very compact – the older part of the city is a labyrinth of narrow lanes and alleyways, which makes it a pleasure to walk and sight-see.
Indeed, walking is highly recommended – a leisurely stroll will enable one to slowly drink in the many details that would otherwise be lost in a hurried tour. If walking is considered tiring, try a ride on the old but exciting trishaw.
Nightlife and Shopping
Penang is never quiet – not even at night. When it comes to chilling with your buddies or new found friends, there are countless little pubs, bars and cafes in George Town.
Chulia Street, Leith Street and Penang Road are backpacker areas dotted with many little establishments serving cheap beers and hot snacks (street food is always readily available here).
At the Garage in Upper Penang Road, Mediterranean-inspired clubs, lounges and bistros and al fresco eateries thrive. To really experience the ground move (literally) under you, pop by on a weekend. Live bands and the latest chart-topping hits are popular.
Just a quick trishaw ride away at the Tanjung City Marina, a panoramic view of the ferry, private boats and yachts await. Park yourself at any one of the restaurants or clubs and be amazed by the sight of the sun disappearing behind the iconic Penang Bridge.
At Gurney Drive, the hotels, eateries, coffee shops and clubs lining the famous tourist stretch offer excellent value-for money entertainment… great for people watching!
For a more casual setting, beachfront pubs and shacks along Batu Ferringhi are your best bet – nothing beats cool music, the soothing sounds of the waves and a starry night sky! The many beach resorts also have very nice lounges with nightly live band performances. At night, the tourist belt comes alive with stalls selling everything from food and wooden handicrafts to silver jewelery, totes and tees.
Across the channel on the mainland, Highway Auto-City is a party hot spot that’s great for unwinding as the mind-boggling variety of eateries are all open until the wee hours of the morning. There are about 50 international and renowned eateries namely Starbucks, KFC, McDonald’s, Tao Restaurant, Svenssen, Old Town Cafe, Sushi King and many many more.
New York Times readers choose Penang as the number 2 must-visit destination in 2009.
So if you are looking for a unique island with friendly people, delicious foods, affordable accommodations and a totally enchanting experience, then Penang will surely live up to your expectations and more. Come and live to tell the tales.
By World Barrios Contributor: D.A.
Flickr photo Tanjung Bungah Beach, Penang, Malaysia by Wohin Auswandern
Flickr photo Invitation to watch sunrise – Penang by Christopher Harriot
Flickr photo Wat Chaiyamangkalaran Temple, Penang, Malaysia by Wohin Auswandern
Flickr photo dinner at the food courts, Penang, Malaysia by McKay Savage
Flickr photo Chinatown street in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia by McKay Savage