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Penang is an island state of Malaysia, one of the most visited destinations for travellers to the country and has well earned the name ‘Pearl of the Orient’. This turtle shaped island covers 285 square kilometres, has its own international airport and is connected to the mainland by the Penang Bridge, one of the longest bridges in the world.
Taking a short flight to Penang from Kuala Lumpur I landed on an island of modern business and holiday sophistication where a rich history and culture has been preserved. I chose to stay in the Batu Ferringhi beach resort area of the island where hotels and enticing restaurants line the coast and golden beaches on the N.W. tip of the island. Batu Ferringhi is also the home of Shangri-la’s Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa Penang.
My main purpose for this trip was to visit George Town; a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site. Here the city is a treasure trove of British colonial architecture from the end of the 17 hundreds as well as more ancient Chinese influence going back six or seven hundred years. Buildings have been preserved with strict conditions placed on their residential and commercial occupancy. One is still able to purchase some of these remaining but abandoned structures but with the obligation to renovate and maintain the original detail.
One of George Town’s most interesting attractions is Khoo Kongsi, the famous clan house in Penang. Built some 650 years ago on Jalan Acheh, off Lebuh Pitt, the building is situated in a beautiful courtyard in which the spectacular architecture of Khoo Kongsi houses murals and carving depicting the early establishment of a Chinese trading post.
A landmark that can’t by missed by the casual observer is the Kek Lok Si temple that sits atop a hill overlooking Air Itam. This is Malaysia’s largest Buddhist temple and is comprised of monasteries, prayer halls, temples and beautifully landscaped gardens. Central to this site is the Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas or the Pagoda of Rama IV. Work on this was completed in1930. For a rewarding view of Penang it is well worth a climb to the top. The steps up will take visitors past aspects of Buddhist humanity and at the top pavilion one is able to purchase souvenirs and recordings of ancient mantra.
One of the most talked about and exposed features of George Town is the street art of Ernest Zacharevic. His works can be found all over the city in the form of artistic murals, some with amusing overtones.
Penang is regarded as the food capitol of Malaysia and it is here that the whole gambit of the island’s cuisine history can be sampled at high dining, casual and market venues. It is the hawker centres that have most appeal for me because it is from these that the real taste of Asia is made available at local prices and inimitable flavour. One of the popular eating-places is the Gurney Drive Hawker Centre, one of Penang’s most popular shopping malls. Here the stalls offer all sorts of local dishes such as kwey teow, asam laksa, nasi lemak and the best chicken curry I have had anywhere in the world.
This busy and prosperous island state of Malaysia has managed a sensitive incorporation of modernity with its rich and colourful history.