Navigating Penang: The Island of Diversity

Image: Seren Hughes

From beautifully preserved heritage to white sandy beaches, from wide stretches of rainforest to mouth-watering cuisine, Penang has it all. It is also perfect on a low budget.

Picture this: I step out of my wonderfully preserved 19th century townhouse with its tropical air wells (for natural ventilation) filled with plants feasting on the sun and rain, into bustling central George Town after a day in the office. It is early evening, so the streets are less crowded with tourists and the heat is more bearable. Anyway, the roads are all so small that cars do not drive dangerously fast, and as long as you are within the heritage conclave, walking is easy. I walk along Armenian Street, and see an old man lighting offerings outside his home. A trishaw makes its way slowly past me, a man peddling his few tourists around in this make-shift vehicle. Further along, more incense, billowing from a temple meets me like a warm hug. I take a long inhale. I turn left and the melodic call to prayer greets my ears as I pass by the large, white Kapitan Keling mosque. Before long, my nostrils are confronted by the stench of durian, currently in season, and sold at every corner from an open truck. No matter where I turn, I see the vibrant colours and ornate decoration of a temple or a clan house: bright reds off-set by golden Chinese letters, blues and greens of various deities. As I approach the sea, the colourful two-storey town-houses are replaced by pristine and imposing colonial buildings and churches. The vibrancy of life at its very best.

George Town has the heritage movement to thank for its well-preserved state. I was lucky enough to be interning with Areca Books, home to one of the shining lights of the movement, Khoo Salma. Their work is invaluable to retaining the authentic feel of the city. Unfortunately, this new preservation is attracting buckets of tourists, and more and more boutique hotels are popping up in the centre, throwing out the locals and ironically detracting from the authenticity that is so enticing to them. However, this only makes the work of the heritage movement more indispensable.

Anyway, Penang has attracted people to her shores for centuries. Over the years she has welcomed Chinese and Indian immigrants, and been subject to colonial power by both the Dutch and the English. George Town, the island state’s capital, is the perfect example of the multicultural, and this manifests itself in the diversity of its inhabitants, its religious buildings, and its food. One feels truly welcomed by the inclusive nature of the very environment, not to mention the friendly people. Everyone seems eager to start a conversation with you, from strangers on a bus to the woman cooking your meal.

Here, street food is the answer all day, everyday: dim sum for breakfast in China Town, nasi goreng for lunch from a hawker stall, chicken biriani for dinner in Little India. Everything is cheap, and no one seems to cook for themselves, which is understandable when you are so spoilt for choice. I was fortunate to be interning with locals, so they took me to all the hidden and best places. Half the time I had no idea what I was eating, but it was sure to be delicious. Penang is not heralded the food capital of Malaysia for nothing.
Further afield, past the high rises and massive shopping centres, lies Batu Ferringhi and the National Park. A cheap and efficient bus links George Town to these fantastic locations. Batu Ferringhi is a white sandy beach which stretches for kilometres. The water is murky, but warm and perfectly swimmable.

A few more bus stops and you reach the National Park. From there, you can walk through the dense rainforest to Turtle or Monkey Beach. The walk to Turtle Beach is on a well-made path, and many backpackers do the trek in flip-flops. The rainforest was alive with the loudest cicadas I have ever heard, screeching like fire alarms. After an hour or so, we reached the secluded Turtle Beach, another pristine white sandy beach which is only accessible on foot.

The other path takes you to Monkey Beach, which, by contrast, is bustling with activity. You can sip a beer on a beach-side swing, go horse riding, or do water sports. There was an absence of monkeys on the actual beach, but continuing on up to Muka Head, you were sure to meet with a herd of pesky monkeys, hissing and making advances at you and the tasty lunch in your backpack. The walk up to the lighthouse was all uphill and stiflingly hot, but at the top, a cool sea breeze and fantastic panoramic views of rainforest and deep blue sea stretches out before you, making the effort worth it. Swallows dive around the tops of the trees, and seagulls glide on the breeze, surrounding you with nature.

Penang is truly the definition of travel variety. This one island has so much to offer that it is easy to see why so many different ethnicities call it their home. So much to see and do, at such great budget prices, there is never a dull moment. I only touched the surface.

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