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Monday, March 16, 2015

My Visit to Paradise - Penang

Dr Nihal D Amerasekera

During the harsh English winter months it’s been my ritual to gather tourist brochures in search of a place in the sun. This year I found a turtle shaped island off the coast of Malaysia which formed the northern gate of the straights of Malacca. It is the well known island of Penang.  The island covers an area of 285 sq. kilometres and is connected to the mainland by the 3rd longest bridge in the world. It's population of more than a million represents a happy mix of Malays 32%, the Chinese 59% and the Indians 7%. Penangites are known to be hardworking ambitious and creative.  Its tropical climate all year round has been a haven for western holiday makers for many decades. The months to be avoided are October and November when violent storms lash out day and night transforming the island temporarily into a dark demonic world. 

The recent history of Penang began in 1786, when Captain Francis Light negotiated a deal with the Sultan of Kedah and  acquired Penang Island for the British East India Company. In return Captain Light was to protect Kedah from its neighbours. The Captain did not keep his part of the bargain but kept the island and named  it Prince of Wales Island. He created its capital Georgetown in the name of King George III. Its malarial marshes were filled and the jungles cleared to make the island habitable. Soon it became a trading post for tea, spices and  rubber and a land of opportunity for Europeans and Asians alike. Along with Malaysia, Penang became an independent country in 1957. 

We arrived to the  warmth and sunshine of Penang in February this year and stayed in a hotel between Georgetown and Batu Ferringhi in the north-east of the island. I felt quite at home in the hotel by the sea which was comfortable and provided a friendly service. Each day we took the local transport to Georgetown. The city is an amalgam of the old and new and has a population of 400,000 people. Georgetown is a wealthy, bustling city with a busy port. It has a reputation as a lively, liberal, cosmopolitan place. The industrial free trade zone  of Georgetown is the Silicon Valley of the East, Its old heritage is still preserved in its narrow alleys and labyrinthine streets. The tallest building in the city is the 65 storey Komtar, a twelve sided geometric block near the main bus station. It houses many government offices and in its top floor is a plush Chinese restaurant with a panoramic view of the city and its surrounds. At night the shimmering lights of the city and its port is breathtaking. 

My wife who is a Hong Kong Chinese was quite at home in these surroundings. As we moved around in this paradise island I had an in-house interpreter and a navigator. The China Town area of Georgetown was established by immigrant settlers from mainland China in the 1800’s. Despite the passage of time it has maintained its old world charm. We were intrigued by the many clan houses, shops and temples that studded its streets. The most famous clan house is the Khoo Khonsi. This family house and temple was built by the rich Khoo family who were traders in the early 19th century. The exquisite ornamental wood carvings of the roof, walls and pillars reflect the art and architecture of ancient China. 

There is a thriving Indian community too and their enclave is famously called Little India. It now attracts heritage enthusiasts. Consisting mainly of South Indian settlers from way back a century ago they have maintained their culture and way of life There are many colourful shops selling sarees, garlands and stainless steel cutlery. Loud south Indian movie music greeted us when we went in search of Ananda Bhawan which served the best banana leaf rice and ‘stretched’ tea. They made fine authentic  thosai, Idli and Ulundu vadey. Built in 1883 the most imposing landmark in the area is the Sri Mariamman Temple. It has an ornate dome with multiple colourful figurines and a grand entrance. There is an unmistakable aroma of burning incense wafting through its front door. The area is littered with Indian Money changers, seated by their personal computers, giving the best rate of exchange for foreign currency. 

Fort Cornwallis is built where Francis Light landed in 1786. Originally a wooden stockade, it was replaced by a concrete structure in 1804. Today, an open-air amphitheatre, a history gallery, and a handicraft and souvenir centre occupies its interior. It also has a  famous Dutch cannon that arrived on the Peninsula in 1606 as a present from the Dutch to the Sultan of Johor.  

 A day trip around Penang island is a must.  The island has a spectacular undulating landscape with silent green mountains and deep lush valleys.  I was quite at home with the islands fauna and flora which is almost identical to what we have in Sri Lanka. We got the opportunity to see a typical Malay settlement and to walk around and speak to the local people. Unlike in most other settlements there were no War Lords and no fortifications. They were friendly and welcoming and offered us fruits and green tea. On the way we stopped at a wayside boutique selling souvenirs, local tiger balm and nutmeg oil. We visited the famous snake temple probably the only temple of its kind in the world. There are many writhing pit vipers coiled around objects on the altar believed to be rendered harmless by the smoke of the burning incense in the temple. The devotees regard the snakes as holy. The snakes move in and out of the temple at will and have never been known to bite humans. 

Air Itam is a suburb of Georgetown and houses the Kek Lok Si Temple. Completed in 1930 it is one of the largest Buddhist temples in the world and is built on to a hillside overlooking the town. The seven tiered pagoda has a Chinese,Thai and Burmese design and is known to embrace both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. On the hillside above the pagoda is the 30m bronze statue of the Avalokitesvara - Goddess of Mercy. 

The Kapitan Kling mosque is one of the oldest in Penang. It has a Moorish design and was built in the early 19th century by an Indian Muslim merchant called Muhammed Kling who was the headman of the local community . It has the most beautiful golden minaret. As the clear sunlight catches the dome it radiates a rich elegance inviting the faithful to prayer. When we wanted to see its inside there was a caretaker who took us to a young white American. He most kindly showed us around explaining its history and importance. The calmness, simplicity and serenity inside the mosque was extraordinary.

No account of Penang is complete without a liberal mention of its hawker stalls. It is an interesting concept.  First look for a table and sit down. Each table has a number. Remember the number well. There are many hawker stalls serving Chinese, Malay and Indian food. Order what you like from the different stalls and give them the table number. Pay each time they bring a dish. Tipping is not required.  Penang is a  gourmet paradise and the smell of the food near the stalls and the noise of the sizzling pans was enough to make me ravenously hungry. Two well known hawker centers are Gurney Drive near Georgetown and the large hawker complex in Batu Ferringhi. Penangites are passionate about their food eating out in Hawker stalls almost everyday. Perhaps little cooking is done in their own homes as such a wide choice available at a knock down price. The stalls are under the control of the Department of Health and maintains good hygiene.

The Botanical Gardens is a short drive away from Georgetown and covers 30 hectares of prime land. With its peaceful surroundings is a haven for tourists and locals alike. Many joggers, walkers and those practicing Tai Chi use the park. We wandered along its narrow paths amidst colourful flowers and well kept lawns. Its beautiful layout and design and the many plant houses and nurseries must be a lure for enthusiastic gardeners. There are many groups of mischievous rebel monkeys who roam the gardens looking for unwary visitors to plunder their food and cause mayhem. They are a menace and all visitors are asked never to feed them. Despite this we spent a happy day close to nature enjoying the warm sunshine by a babbling brook. On the tourist trail is Penang Hill. It is 800 ft above sea level  and provides an excellent view of the island. The cable car takes half an hour to the top. There is also nature trails from the Botanical Gardens taking 3 to 4 hours to the top of the hill.

Penang is a shoppers paradise.with modern shopping malls, roadside stalls and night markets. The prices are reasonable and the quality is variable. Batu Ferringhi is famous for its night market selling designer clothes, DVD films and music CD’s. They are a fraction of their real price but are not authentic goods. Fake Rolex watches is their specialty. Batu Ferringhi has grown from an old fishing village to a tourist paradise. Sadly much of its greenery has been replaced by concrete. Although many tourists swim without a care in the world although the sea around here is said to be polluted. Stinging jelly fish is a problem and safe bathing areas are cordoned off by nets and orange coloured buoys. 

Island’s law and order situation is impressive, It is perhaps one of the safest countries in the world for tourists and locals alike. There is a conscious effort to maintain a green belt and for every tree that is felled, that needs government approval, another has to be planted. All refuse is recycled and no one is allowed throw waste except into a refuse bin. These good habits are taught in school and is now incorporated into their culture. 

We spent a happy fortnight in Penang. Its warm sunshine and the gorgeous food is a magnet for tourist from all around the world. The humid nights, the incessant screeching of the crickets and the many fireflies reminded me of my childhood in Sri Lanka. For us above all we enjoyed their generous hospitality which they offered with a broad smile. Back in the UK now my memories of Penang are largely intact. It often springs vividly into life in my dreams.


  1. Many thanks for that dream visit to Penang! Yes that's how I feel, as though I have just come back from there myself, as you made such a good picture of the place and all aspects of life there. It's very readable too. Thanks again, Nihal!
    From Zita Subasinghe

  2. A fascinating description of part of the World I haven't yet visited. This has whetted my appetite and may be I should put this right although I won't have the luxury of an in-house navigator as you so charmingly described your better half. Thanks for sharing your experience ND,

  3. Mahen and Zita
    Thank you for commenting. It is so lovely to get a feedback without which it is like 'whistling in the wind'. To get back to the Clans in Penang, Rachel Khoo who is a culinary expert had a programme, recently on BBC TV, about her visit to Penang and the Khoo Khonsi Temple. A walk down memory lane. She showed the scrumptious delights and the panoramic scenery of Penang most vividly. Mahen, I would recommend Penang without any reservations.