Penang, Malaysia – “The Pearl of the Orient”
Malaysia’s tourism slogan of the moment is “Malaysia, Truly Asia.” Whether the veracity of that statement is true or not I cannot say. All of Asia is Asia, after all. Though I will say this: I love Malaysia, and for MANY good reasons!!
People often ask me what my favorite places are that I’ve traveled to, and there are things I like about many places I’ve been to.
I love the nightlife of Latin American cities like Buenos Aires and Medellin. Love the serenity and tranquility of Luang Prabang. Love the “coolness” factor of Tokyo. Love the delicious Pho and coffee and in Vietnam. And finally… I have to put Penang, the crown jewel of Malaysia – very high up on that list as well.
Pulau Pinang is an island located on Malaysia’s Andaman coast at the Strait of Malacca, a few hours to the south of the Thailand border. It’s an island paradise with warm weather, warm people, jaw-dropping beaches, delicious food of virtually every type imaginable, a relaxed and welcoming vibe, and it’s dirt cheap too!
I was in Florianopolis, Brazil about 14 months before arriving Penang. And while the two islands are worthy of comparison – it’s important to observe that Penang is, on average, five times cheaper then Florianopolis. For obvious reasons, this makes Penang more accessible and easier to enjoy!
I absolutely love Penang. Of all the places that I’d been to in Southeast Asia – Penang was one of the few that I could see myself living in for an extended period of time. My plan was to find an apartment near the beach where I could hang out, relax, and focus on some work stuff for one or two months. Interestingly, Penang is also the location of the movie “Return to Paradise” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Vince Vaughn.
Unlike Thailand, Malaysia also has a much more relaxed visa policy – it doesn’t matter how you get into the country, you’re given a 90-day visa for free. Thailand’s visa policy is much more strict and annoying in my opinion. If you fly into Thailand you only get a 30-day visa, and if you arrive overland it’s only 15-days. You can’t help but get the feeling that Thailand is trying to discourage foreigners from immigrating for the long-term into Thailand by making it more difficult for them to stay. Thailand’s government also restricts foreigners from getting the best jobs. Malaysia’s relaxed policies, on the other hand, are refreshing by comparison. In my mind Malaysia’s attitude is very welcoming to foreigners and encouraging for anyone wishing to emigrate to Malaysia in the short or long-term. You can see this in their pro-active policies such as visas and (as I’ll explain later) healthcare.
For these reasons Malaysia’s economy is booming and Malaysia is well on its way to joining Japan and the West as a developed nation. Thailand, unfortunately, still has a large segment of native Thai people who are prejudiced against foreigners, and this attitude is handicapping the country.
Culture in Malaysia
Culturally, Malaysia (and the southern Kra peninsula of Thailand) is a complete 180 from the central plain area of Bangkok and the northern mountainous regions of Thailand. Bangkok is a very western city, after all, it was the most traveled-to city in the world for 2013. It has all the trappings of a large city; I’d never seen so many shopping malls in one place in my entire life. Cambodia, Northern Thailand, Laos, and Burma are steeped in Buddhist tradition. Vietnamese culture, on the other hand, is very Chinese. But with Malaysia, the influence of Islamic culture is everywhere. Malaysia bills itself as the “face of Modern Islam,” so to speak.
For me, the contrast in culture after a month in westernized Bangkok was potent and very welcome. After 6 months of traveling I was starting to get de-sensitized, but arriving in Malaysia I got that feeling of “novelty” again. Malaysia was the first Muslim country I’ve traveled to.
I found every Malay Muslim I met to be kind, sincere, forthright, honest, and accommodating. I distinctly remember a Muslim taxi driver in Kuaula Lumpur who was exceedingly friendly, and polite. It’s a far-cry from the often rude, prejudiced taxi drivers of Bangkok. He engaged me in a real conversation to exchange ideas – not in a confrontational manner, but in a friendly “I’m interested in you” sense.
Malaysia is also probably the easiest country to hitch a ride of any country I’ve been to. Even the police were exceedingly friendly. One night after a long hike to the bottom of Penang Hill I was faced with a long bus ride back to my guesthouse and two kind officers escorted me back in their car. They even agreed to take a photo or two me in the back – with me in a mock apprehensive-looking state, which was fun to send to my mother and friends back home, too 🙂
Malaysians are polite and respectful but shy. All you have to do is ask, “How are you doing today?” or smile and nod and you’ll see the friendliest, most heartwarming grin break upon their face.
The food is completely different, too. Malaysia lies at the center of the world’s most active trading route traversing from the South China sea to the Indian Ocean and beyond. As such, the nation is a melting pot of ethnic Malays, Chinese, and Indians. There’s also a huge population of migrant workers from other parts of Asia – Nepal, Bangladesh, Philippines, and the South Pacific.
There was so much delicious Indian food in Penang that I was in heaven. As a matter of fact, Penang is actually nicknamed “food heaven!” It was cheap, too – my favorite dish was a Kothu Parrota (a South Indian delicacy) which only cost the equivalent of $1 – 1.50 USD. Masala Dosai, a type of folded pancake filled with vegetables, was another staple of my diet in Penang. Aloo masala. Laksa soup. Wash it all down with a “Bru coffee” and cap it all off a delicious frosting-covered Roti pancake for desert. I ate a whole bunch of other incredibly delicious and flavorful foods while there and it was all delicious and equally cheap. I can’t recall all of the names, however.
My guesthouse was right next to a popular food court called the “Red Garden” with many varieties of delicious cheap food on offer – from Western food to teriyaki steak to Filipino food. Every single night, despite how busy (or empty) the food court was, there would be female singers singing pop songs in Malay and English (such as “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” and “Love You Like a Love Song”) until the wee hours of 2 and 3 in the morning.
The State of Transportation in Malaysia
Penang, and by extension Malaysia, is not without its cons. The public transit in both Penang and Kuala Lumpur leaves MUCH to be desired. I would almost use the word “horrible.” From Georgetown, the hub of Penang, it’s about a one-hour bus ride to get to any nice beach. You’ll also have to sit at a crowded, dirty transit station while you transfer from one bus to another. It makes no sense to me why they don’t have a direct bus that makes things convenient for travelers and beach-goers, instead of leaving us to sort out all of the different local buses with their routes and stops.
The streets are also crowded and filled with dangerous drivers, so it’s difficult to cycle around Georgetown unless you stick to the small one-way streets and alleys. Kuala Lumpur (the capital of Malaysia), despite being an urban metropolis, is plagued by transportation issues too. To transfer from one metro rail to another near Chinatown, for example, you have to walk across a highway! This was not very convenient for me as I was on crutches when I arrived in Kuala Lumpur – more on that later. But I would say that lack of convenient transportation is one major drawback of Malaysia from what I’ve seen.
Penang has plenty of things to see and do! One of my favorite places to hang out was the “Little India” district in the center of Georgetown. I probably went to Little India almost every day for lunch. The food was out of this world. It’s easy to miss the small sign that says “Little India” on the street but just follow the trail of Bollywood music in the air, and you’ll find yourself smack dab in the middle of it soon enough.
Georgetown itself is interesting in its own right. A former British colonial center with a unique heritage, the town features unique colonial-style architecture with small one-way streets that makes for pedestrian-friendly walking about the Old Town. There are also remnants of a fort, and some other battlements, which I didn’t get around to checking out. There is also an interesting historical building where Sun Yat-sen (the Chinese nationalist who brought down the Qing dynasty and ushered in democracy for China) stayed when he visited Penang’s Chinese community a hundred years ago.
Some other highlights of Penang include the Kek Lok Si temple, Bukit Bendara (Penang Hill), the Botanical Gardens, the Taman Negara national park, and of course its stunning and picturesque beaches, such as Batu Ferringhi. Kek Lok Si temple, located in Air Itam (a district located about 30 minutes from Georgetown by bus), is the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia.
Kek Lok Si Temple
While I was pretty de-sensitized to yet another temple by this point, Kek Lok Si was definitely unique and interesting. For starters, the steps that lead up to the temple proper form a tunnel of sorts. I can’t remember if it was covered in tarp or what, but it was a dark tunnel of stairs with a whole bunch of shops and vendors on the way leading up. The temple proper was interesting mix of Chinese and Mahayana buddhist (Indian) influence.
Apparently the initial construction of the temple was partially funded by none other than the Emperor Guangxu, one of the last Qing dynasty emperors of China. I was also told the Chinese community of Penang has made considerable donations to the temple. These funds have been used to build new structures and enormous bronze statues of Buddhist figures, such as Kuan Yin, in the upper temple plaza. There was lots of other interesting features as well, including a unique mixture of Thai, Burmese, and Chinese architecture as well as a small passenger train leading from the mid-level of the temple to the upper area… though due to time and space constraints I can’t cover every detail of Kek Lok Si.
Penang Hill – Bukit Bendera
Penang has another awesome attraction which is surely a favorite for active folks, called “Penang Hill” – or Bukit Bendera, in the local Malay tongue. If you pay a small fee you can take a train on rails to the top – otherwise you’re in for a long 4 or 5 hour trek. The top of Penang Hill is a large open area and hosts beautiful sites all around. There are many restaurants and shops, with great views. There were also some houses on the hill and even a boutique luxury hotel in the center (well out of my backpacker’s budget, however).
It was at the top of that I received some much needed peace of mind while meditating there for several hours. After a month in crazy Bangkok, empty spaces and fresh air were exactly what I needed. Meditating on the hill, a centipede crossed my path on the dirt in front of me reminded me of the values of slowness and steady progress. Afterwards I met with Malaysian police officers, one of Indian origin and the other Malay, two of the friendliest people I’ve met. They drove me around on a tour of the island and dropped me off back at my hotel.
The next day I finally headed out to the beach – more specifically, Batu Ferringhi, which was beyond amazing to say the least. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
The whole beach community around Batu Ferringhi is awesome. It’s got that small town, easy, laid-back feel. The beach was not crowded at all and there were probably more locals than tourists. I definitely felt at home here and wanted to find a place to stay in the town. There was also a luxury resort behind the beach where I tried to sneak into the pool area, but was soon chased off by an attendant asking about my room arrangements.
That was a Sunday. I spent the afternoon circling around several hundred feet above the Andaman sea on the west coast of Malaysia. For about the equivalent of around $15 USD, I put on a parachute, hooked up to a speed boat and off we went. With nothing but emptiness and turquoise seas below, I could not stop my hands from shaking. But the beauty of that moment and the world below will never be forgotten. Then a picture-perfect sunset soon followed accompanied by a tasty snack of roasted corn on the cob.
I consider that last magical day on that beach in Penang to be the end of one chapter, and the beginning of another. The very next day, something dramatic would happen that would change the course of my life forever.