Asian Travels - Penang (2010)


We crossed the border into Malaysia without incident and then spent the next 4 hours on a very smooth Malaysian tollway speeding down to Butterworth and then across the 13.5km bridge (3rd largest in the world)  onto (Pulau Pinang) Penang Island arriving at our chosen hotel at 2030hours.  A very long day, considering we had caught the 0900 ferry at Ko Phi Phi and been on the go all day long - part of which had to be shared with a smelly nappy.


The long bridge between Butterworth to Penang            Penang's Jelutong and Georgetown


I had always planned a final rest-up here in Penang and so had booked us in for 4 nights at the Hotel Mingood ( in Argyle Street just off  Jalan Penang (Road) in the middle of Georgetown, at a very reasonable cost of  A$28/night for a great room with all the usual comforts and included breakfast.  The hotel is owned by a Chinese family but it is staffed by Indians.  We later discovered that the hotel was well known to both Australian and English tourists who seemed to dominate the rooftop breakfast room. 



View from our hotel room looking across the roofs of some Chinese shops to the Komtar Tower
- Penang's tallest building



                                                                                                Penang's (vehicular) Ferries


I suspect that a alot of  tourists choose Penang as part of their Asian itinerary because of its British colonial links and because they feel very safe here.  Judging by the number of luxury apartment blocks, quite a number of people also choose to retire here.  The roads along the northern beach areas are awash with luxury European motor vehicles side and we were advised that the inhabitants of the wealthy condominiums live here primarily during the northern hemisphere winters.  It would be a perfect base from which to cruise and yacht about.

Georgetown also has a very large night food market which we attended one evening to taste its fair of Chinese, Indian and Malay cuisine:




On another occasion we found a series of foreshore restaurants just north west of Georgetown around Gurney Drive before one gets into the glamorous condominium developments of Batu Ferringhi  - these are all very reasonably priced and we had lunch in one.

I did keep an eye out for a restaurant specialising in Nonya (Straits Chinese) cuisine which is the outcome of blended Chinese and Malay kitchen craft.  Its supposedly a very complex fusion of hot spices and thickened sauces applied to traditional Chinese dishes.  However, I did not come across an establishment advertising such dishes, maybe next time around.  



Quite apart from its British colonial past, the island has been an important trading centre for Chinese merchants for many centuries and their beautifully restored house compound's can be viewed on tours, along with the various temples that dot the island.  We undertook a tour of the Cheong Fatt Tze eclectic mansion built in the 1880s with its Stoke-on-Trent floor tiles, Scottish wrought iron work and European inspired stained glass windows all incorporated in a floor plan designed strictly in accordance with the principles of Feng Shui.  When this chap died in 1916, he was hailed as one of the last Chinese mandarins and Penang's flags were flown at half mast.  Curiously, a great grandson in the 1970s returned to Penang and stripped the mansion of most of its valuable fittings including the Chinese pottery and took them  to Melbourne where he then lived and auctioned them.  The tour did cause me to reflect that  perhaps our failure to observe the ancient principles of Feng Shui with our own housing has led to our current state of penury.....but, more likely, it can be attributed to our lifestyle choices....... ho hum.

Chinese culture and customs are alive and well  as we witnessed very early one morning when a nearby business was being blessed by much gong and cymbal banging, fireworks and lion dancing.  





 The various states of renovation of a number of old Chinese merchant mansions

On the suggestion of a mate in Yeppoon (Charles D.), we decided on one particularly hot afternoon, that we would incorporate a visit to the Penang Club whilst exploring Georgetown.  Unfortunately, since he was last a resident here, the Club has become alot more selective in who it allows in and we were advised that we would have to be signed in by a member or belong to an affiliated club....failed on both counts. I do recall that years ago the old Darwin Club  was in fact affiliated with this club.

Unfortunately, at the time of our visit' the Penang Hill Railway service was closed for maintenance which prevented us from seeing the panoramic views from the highest point on the island.  Nevertheless we did an historic walk around Georgetown, noting the impressive, schools, law courts, fortifications, museum and old government house....its no wonder that Georgetown has gained a UNESCO World Heritage listing.  We also paid a preliminary visit to the palatial Eastern & Oriental Hotel ( which is celebrating its 125th birthday this year.  I especially liked the doorman in his, khaki safari suit, pith helmet and long white socks. 

The E&O was established in 1884 by the Armenian Sarkies brothers who later went on to establish Raffles Hotel in Singapore.  Over the years it has accommodated the likes of Kipling, Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham.  It was surprising to learn that the hotel closed in the early 1990s and fell into disrepair until it was rescued, totally renovated and re-opened in 2001.

We booked into Sarkies bistro (Prix fixe buffet @ A$25/hd)  for our final night's dinner .  We did view the fine dining room's menu but declined on noting that the main courses were costing over A$75.  However, the hotel was also taking advance bookings for:

  • Labour Day 'Wine & Dine' Buffet - A$40 

  • Mother's Day Afternoon Tea A$19

  • Hi-Tea with Mum A$19

  • King's Birthday Hi-Tea A$19

  • Father's Day Dinner  (including a gift mug) A$90

Quite apart from the historical sights, there are many other things to look at on the island including a Butterfly Farm, Tropical fruit Orchard and Spice Farm. Unfortunately, the day we selected to hire a taxi to visit these, the day was overtaken by monsoonal rains which pretty much put a kybosh on further sightseeing. 

The Butterfly Farm on a dry day would have been magnificent.  The same could not be said for its large and vulgar adjoining souvenir shop.  However, we did manage a glimpse or two of the odd animal and insect.




We visited a local craft market and even visited another of those ghastly high rise shopping malls in the 65 story Komtar Tower in search of a golf bag and mah-jong set which we again failed to find.

We inadvertently stumbled across the backpacker district along Lebuh Chulia complete with a string of cheap bars.  The Hong Kong Bar is a particular favourite with Australian servicemen when on exercises over at their camp at Butterworth.  I blundered into a group of them on Anzac Day.  This same street is home to both a Muslim Mosque and a Hindu Temple.  While I agreed to don a djellaba to tour the mosque, I quickly fell foul of the local Imam by stepping inside somewhere I shouldn't have and all hell broke loose and we had to beat a hasty retreat. 




Penang also has a number of Buddhist Temples including this one complete with a rather tacky Reclining Buddha, behind and underneath which are stored numerous urns containing the ashes of  the devout all of whom were, no doubt, now in a state of nirvana.

With Maria having another dose of stomach problems, I decided to sort out our last bit of travel down to Singapore.  I had originally planned to catch the night train from  Butterworth  to Kuala Lumpur and then get another train two hours later down to Singapore arriving at about 1630 hours in plenty of time for our international flight home at 2100 hours.  Ah, but at the station ticketing office I was advised that the night train was frequently late in arriving at Butterworth and often missed the connection in KL and that I had better take the express day train which left at 0745 hours and went straight through to Singapore arriving at  2230 hours.  This would mean booking a single nights accommodation in Singapore plus spend all the following day there.  I could take a chance, but it could jeopardise our flight home and so I took the safer option and booked two 2nd Class Seats on the day train @ A$23 each.  I even took a dry run on the Penang Ferry and walked from it to the station just so as I knew the way and the time it would take.  On my return to our hotel, I jumped onto the Internet to find a 'cheap' bed in expensive Singapore.  I eventually identified the Hotel 81 Orchid (A$46) in the Geylang district which was on the rail line between Bugis St and Changi airport.  Job done and the monkey off my back.  Now able to enjoy remainder of our time in Penang worry free.

Maria decided that it was definitely time to purchase another suitcase on wheels to help disperse our bulging backpacks and so we headed off to the markets where we were able to haggle the price in half of a rather large wheeled soft bag.  No wonder the price was reduced so readily, as one of its shiny black wheels scrubbed out before we had managed to get it to the railway station - so we skull-dragged it all the way home!  I think there is a message here.

Our dinner at the E&O lived up to our expectations and was a very enjoyable evening.  We began with Camparis poolside, moved inside to the sumptuous buffet tables  with mounds of seafood, roast meats, salads, breads, torte everything you could think of to gorge off accompanied by a rather expensive bottle of red wine a Beringer Cab Sav (A$50), and finally into their shop where I bought a very nice souvenir polo shirt and 2 x pint beer glasses as gifts.  At the risk of repeating myself, the wine drinker is heavily handicapped in Asia as there is simply no such thing as a cheap bottle or glass of the stuff.  In comparison, beer and spirits are provided at give away prices.

We were surprised to learn during our stay here that Penang was also hit by the 2004 Tsunami and I managed to find this picture of the waves coming over the E&O's sea wall at the time.



We noticed this fellow fishing just over the wall of the E&O  while we were enjoying some pre-dinner drinks besides their very nice pool.






                                                                                                                                                                                            With my E&O souvenir show bags


Penang proved to be  a very restful interlude  which we both needed after the hectic pace of the previous weeks.  We therefore had to steal ourselves to catch  the 0600 ferry next morning across to Butterworth. Unfortunately, our train turned out to be a rather grimy affair with no buffet car because there was no First Class carriage and absolutely filthy toilets.  The train journey was slower than expected and for an express service, it still managed to make about 12 stops. 


 On the 0600 Ferry with our new albeit broken bag                          Our Express to Singapore whose levels of service bore no
                                                                                                                                    similarities to a  TGV let alone The Ghan


 Recalcitrant 2nd Class passenger with shoulders, but not head, covered!

Apart from the occasional bits of undisturbed tropical rainforest, the train's route seemed to travel through interminable Palm Oil and Rubber Tree plantations with the odd market gardens sprouting up on the outskirts of villages.  Near Ipoh one could catch glimpses of the Cameron Highlands with its hill stations and tea plantations shrouded in clouds. We were starving by the time we reached Kuala Lumpur and so I made a dash during our 10 min stop up the escalator and buy the only takeaway food on offer - KFC and that exercise nearly caused me to miss the bloody train and give Maria a fright.  Very few westerners on the train.  The bus, I learnt later, is much faster (by 3hrs) and of course, alot of tourists must simply just fly. 



Malaysian landscapes from the train window as it crawled south to Singapore

Some rather lovely isolated glimpses of virgin jungle



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