The Penang Guide
Penang is a small state in Malaysia located a few hours north of KL. I have never considered myself as a well-known South East Asia traveler and, therefore, I really would not be the one to ask which places to visit. But here is a recommendation of what to do around KL if you only have a few days to get to know the city and the land area around the capital. Or even better: here you can get some inspirations for your own travels.
I traveled with two companions I met the weekend I got to Malaysia and traveling to Penang was a spontaneous day trip. I personally recommend to stay in Penang a few more days as it has a lot of beautiful things to offer.
A little history of Penang
I think Penang has an interesting history: Penang, also known as the pearl of the orient, is inhabited by about 700.000 people, of which around 60% are Chinese, 30% are Malay and 5% are Indian. The rest belong to other religious groups. The diversity of its people clearly indicates its cultural differences and background. Penang, “The Pearl of the Orient”, “东方花园” was called “First (or Single) Island” by early Malays because it was the largest island encountered on the trading sea-route between Indonesia and Malaysia.
The island of Penang is strategically located in the northern entry Strait of Malacca and thus became an important trade route for Europe, the Middle East, India and China in the distant past where nature has made it a natural harbor during the monsoon months for Arabian, Chinese, European and Indian ships. One of the main reasons merchants used Penang on their route is because of the monsoon. The Strait of Malacca is exactly on the crossing of two monsoon periods. They could not set sail until the winds were favorable.
Pretty interesting history I find!
Going back to the travel guide: Basically Penang is a pretty island and an interesting mix of different influences. Most people in Penang speak excellent English, and will help you out with directions as much as they can. Today, Penang has evolved to a real tourist destination and the island has been compared to Hong Kong and Singapore with its mix of pre-historic buildings and modern atmosphere.
The Journey to Penang
We took a bus staring in KL. The easiest way to get to Penang is via bus. Take a train to Plaza Rakyat, next to it you will find Puduraya Bus Station. You can either take the bus straight to Penang Island or as we did, you go to Butterworth, then take the ferry to Georgetown Penang Island.
It is the best shortcut to go to Penang Island via Georgetown. If you are to take the bus straight from KL to Penang Island, it would have to pass through Penang bridge which is 25kms long. It is not the actual length of the bridge that makes this journey longer but the loop in the mainland.
You can purchase your tickets inside the station or simply approach one of the barkers going around the area in front of the stations where many buses which couldn’t fit inside the station are usually parked. Although I would suggest you get inside the station to buy tickets as it gives you more freedom to choose your time and bus company. In our case, we arrived 5 minutes before 9 am and immediately approached one of the barkers who said his bus leaves at 9:30. We were too eager and too much in a hurry. The bust left around 10:00 am. So we were lured to believed it will leave in 30 minutes even if it wasn’t the case. Just make sure you are not rushed into buying bus tickets.
The bus seats in Malaysia are very comfortable!
The ‘highway’ in Malaysia or at least the street to Penang is comparable to most Western countries, very clean and free of traffic. But the journey will take you about 5 -6 hours and is very comfortable. Actually traveling in Malaysia is very easy and convenient compared to traveling in some other countries around South East Asia.
It is interesting to observe the flora of the surrounding rainforest.
When you get to Butterworth simply ask your way to the Ferry Terminal and take the ferry to Georgetown (the ferry takes about 20-30 minutes). When we got on the ferry the weather was quite raining with cold winds. Very unpleasant. But before I forget, I remember the ferry was ridiculously cheap!
In this picture we were standing right behind the gate to the ferry, waiting for the vehicles to get on the ferry first.
Here you see the view from the ferry, the little boats docking to Butterworth harbor and the industrial land of Penang on the other side.
This is what the small ferry looks like. It transports vehicles from one side to another and also has seats for passengers. The day we took the ferry we found ourselves mostly amongst local travelers, but occasionally saw some Western tourists enjoying the see winds and ocean air on their way to Georgetown.
As soon as we reached Penang we realized the effects of a holiday on a Sunday in Malaysia- everything was closed. From temples to shops, to restaurants. We were definitely disappointed but decided to make the best of it.
Around Penang Island you will find plenty of Buddhist temples, Mosques and churches from all faiths – Malay, Indian, Chinese and old colonial churches, therefore, you will (depending on the holiday) still find religious institutions of one belief that are open.
Firstly we started exploring the city of Georgetown and went to a few temples. We observed the architecture of the European looking buildings and tried to find our way up to Penang Hill. We stopped for Chinese-Malay lunch, which was very delicious. There we tried some local dishes recommended in the Lonely planet.
Chinese-Malays, joining us at the Chinese street restaurant.
Another Chinese Malay dish we had, sorry should have taken a picture of it before we ate it!
One of the highlights of my travel to Malaysia was probably entering- my first mosque. We entered the mosque namely the Kaptain Keling Mosque. You can admire the Indian Muslim architecture, take note that the mosque underwent a makeover in the 1930’s which radically altered its appearance. For me it was quite interesting to visit a mosque. I came prepared wearing long pants and a t-shirt covering my shoulders, but I was still given this head scarf to wrap around my head and shoulders. We weren’t allowed to view much of the mosque; only the few meters around the worship hall, which is out of bounds to non Muslims. I was allowed to enter the women praying room. Women were covered from head to toe and kneeing on the ground praying to Allah, even little girls were praying with their mothers. Maybe 5-10 years old.
The mosque; I actually think it is a beautiful building.
At the end of our 5 minute visit we were given two kinds of flyers: The first one explained why Allah is god and the second one stated why Jesus is only his messenger. Very interesting if you ask me.
Some other western tourists. The girl got quite burnt.
After this insightful visit went up the famous Penang Hill. On our bus ride we observed a Hindu festival right outside, you really got the taste of what the Indian culture is like and it was the first time in my life I had the urge to go and see India. The festival seemed so peaceful and vibrant, everyone was singing eating and dancing on the street.
Peaceful street celebrations.
The bus took us up the Hill and after 30 minutes we finally reached the place where to take a cable car up the mountain. It is very steep, takes 15 minutes and literally takes you to a new dimension. The Penang Hill railway has been operating since 1923, providing 87 years of service until today. In 1977 new cars were provided, before the most recent upgrade starting February 2010. New cars were purchased to increase the passenger capacity as well as the speed of the train. Today it is capable of carrying up to 100 passengers at one go, and the train runs every half hour from 6.30am to 9pm daily.
Adult: RM 8 per adult
For Foreign Tourists:
Adult: RM 30 per adult
Children: RM 15 (age 7-12) per child
On top of the mountain you see two temples, besides an amazing view over Penang which is compared to the view you have in Hong Kong on top of the Peak The view is really stunning, especially at sunset. We could not believe how pretty it was. On one side you could see the see, and long bridge to the mainland, the skyline of Georgetown and the Malaysian jungle in the far back. On the other side of Penang Hill you had a layer of clouds at the bottom and you were able to see the sun setting above the clouds making it seem like heaven. Breathtaking.
The amazing thing about this hill is that you will find a temple and a mosque right beside each other. The Hindu temple is very beautiful, the mosque is very small in size, but the amazing thing about the temples is that they represent a peaceful image of two religions existing in harmony, there is no conflict but the only thing that counts is the belief. What a beautiful metaphor. If only more places like this existed on earth.
Cute little Malay boy in front of one of the temples.
This picture is from a Buddhist Temple in Georgetown shot by one of my dear travel companions and now friends.