Malaysians and Foreigners Alike
I recently returned from yet another holiday spent in Penang, that glorious tropical island. Surprisingly even after numerous family holidays spent along the beaches of Penang, especially the famed Batu Ferringhi beach, my entire family are still enamoured by the island’s many charms.
Looking back over the last sixty years or so, I can still remember my first experience of Penang. It was way back in the early fifties when my late father, Victor Morais was the editor of a newspaper in Ipoh, Perak called the Malaya Tribune. My parents took us for a holiday to Penang in a brand new Austin A40 motor car.
I remember vividly that we stayed for a few days at a then prominent and well patronised two-storey hotel with the quaint name, Springtide Hotel. This hotel was situated along the then famous Tanjong Bungah beach. Today, that beach plays second fiddle to Batu Ferringhi beach.
Springtide Hotel Beckons
Springtide Hotel was unlike our modern hill rise hotels and resorts. It was basically a two-storey bungalow that was converted into a small hotel. It was patronised mostly by British civil servants, planters and tin miners. Most locals then chose to stay with relatives or friends when on holidays because it was much too costly to check into a hotel in those days.
The hotel was able to serve both western as well as Chinese dishes. We normally had a western breakfast of toast, butter /jam, scrambled or half boiled eggs and occasionally some sausages. For our lunch, it was the all-time favourite of nasi goreng ( fried rice ) or sometimes fried seafood noodles, Cantonese style.
The rooms had ceiling fans to cool us and I think we also had nets over the beds to keep out the pesky mosquitoes. It was a different time and a different era but it nevertheless remains a wonderful, cherished memory.
Impressive Park Royal Hotel
On this visit, we took four rooms at the 300 plus rooms, Park Royal Hotel, a 5-star property located along Batu Ferringhi beach. My two daughters and their families had a room each as well as my son. My wife and I took the last room.
As luck would have it, the hotel had just completed a refurbishment exercise. A few years ago, we had stayed at the Park Royal Hotel during another holiday. So it was great to see the hotel looking spick and span and the lobby lounge itself was totally transformed into a modern and spacious lounge. A three-piece band comprising two young female singers and a male musician belted out lively songs during the evenings to entertain the guests in the lobby.
The buffet breakfast at the Cinnamon Asian Restaurant was pretty impressive and there was something for everyone’s taste. There are western, Chinese and even Indian dishes on offer. The waiters and waitresses at this restaurant were on the ball and were quick to attend to our requests with a smile.
The hotel has a large, well-maintained garden with many medium-sized coconut palm trees offering guests lying on deck chairs plenty of shade as cool breezes from the sea blew in periodically. However, it was disappointing to note that a few of the deck chairs were broken! The hotel also has two swimming pools, one with a slide which young children seemed to enjoy. There is also a tennis court and two table tennis tables for those looking for some light and fun work out.
Wall Paintings Adorn Some Buildings
One of the unique attractions in Penang, over the last ten years or so, are the many wall paintings of local scenes, especially children at play, that adorn some buildings in George Town. This trend in Street Art was started by a then little known Lithuanian artist named Ernest Zacharevic.
His paintings are regarded by many as funny, captivating, fascinating and certainly open to interpretation by individual viewers. Later on, a few other foreign street artists added to this effort to make the city even more interesting.
Penang, I suspect, believes in re-inventing itself from time to time and that makes it doubly attractive to visitors. No wonder, it is often referred to as the Pearl of the Orient! And shine the pearl does quite beautifully.
Amazing Penang Hill Railway
A must do for any visitor to the island, with time to spare, is to take a leisurely trip up Penang Hill. The Penang Hill Railway first started operations in 1923. It was then a two section railway. In 2010, a major overhaul was undertaken to improve the level and comfort of service.
In the sixties, when I first travelled up the hill, it was on a wooden train that took about half an hour to reach the top. The trains then had no air-conditioned carriages. After the overhaul, the new funicular trains, one section railway, were smarter looking and Swiss made, I think. They were much faster but still afforded us lovely, breathtaking views of the hill as we ascended and descended. The new trains are air-conditioned and the one-way journey now takes a mere eight minutes.
Some Suggested Activities on the Hilltop
What do you do when you reach the top?
There are a few options. I have been up the hill thrice in the last seven years. My wife and I always take a ride around the hill in an eco-friendly electric tram that seats maybe four to six passengers.
The half-hour drive around the hill is a most pleasant and enjoyable experience. During the slow drive you pass under a canopy of tall trees affording much shade and you can feel the cool and refreshing air. You can also get fantastic views of George Town from different vantage points along the route. One can also go for leisurely walks or even rent a bicycle and go for a ride if one is so inclined.
To cap the day off before you descend, you can stop by David Brown’s Restaurant for Afternoon English Tea. But do be warned, this place is expensive. There is also a cheaper option, a food court, for those just looking for a drink and some bites.
Exotic Array of Hawker Food
Visitors to the island, who enjoy indulging in exquisite hawker food, can do no better than visiting and dining at some of the world famous hawker stalls in George Town, Penang. I do remember reading about Penang being listed as one of the 10 Best Hawker Food Destinations in the World some time ago.
Then recently, the famous TV personality cum travelling chef, Anthony Bourdain reported that he was going to include some of these Penang hawker foods in a new place that he was going to open in New York. This is true global recognition indeed.
Some Hawker Food Favourites
What are some of these famous hawker foods?
Char Kway Teow, Loh Bah, Hokkien Mee ( Prawn Mee ) and not to be confused with another dish with the same name in Kuala Lumpur called Hokkien Mee. This is noodles cooked over a very hot wok and with the generous use of dark soy sauce. Another winner in Penang is Nasi Kandar. I once attempted this dish in George Town but decided against it after I noticed rats scurrying around the place. This was at one of the more famous outlets!
And finally, there is that famous Assam Laksa from Ayer Itam. However, this is now, in my opinion, not worth the effort. I happened to discover by chance, a very good Assam Laksa in a 5-star hotel, the E & O ( Eastern & Oriental ) once owned by the Sarkies brothers. I enjoyed this dish at Sarkies Corner ( quite misleading actually ) because the restaurant is huge. It also has an outdoor seating area facing the sea.
Reputation Built Over the Years
The international fame and reputation for Penang’s hawker food started way back in the seventies. This was when Adelaide and George Town became ‘ sister cities ‘ after the Prime Minister of South Australia, Don Dunstan and the Chief Minister of Penang, Dr Lim Chong Eu initiated this historic move.
This resulted in a Penang Week or Penang Fortnight in Adelaide on an annual basis. A number of the then well-known hawkers were sent on a mission to Adelaide to introduce the hawker foods and in the process to whet the appetites of South Australians.
This exchange programme… both ways incidentally went on for a number of years. I believe this Penang Week, forty plus years ago, paved the way for George Town’s current culinary fame.
Foreigners Who Visit Penang
Among the foreigners who choose to visit Penang, sometimes on a yearly basis for months at a time, are Germans, Brits, Russians and Australians. The Germans and the Russians choose to escape the cold winter months in sunny Penang.
The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) once had an airbase in Penang for a good number of years. Many of these visiting Australians were once stationed here while with the RAAF. Quite a number were also born in Penang. Mathew Radcliffe Ph.D, the author of the book published in Australia titled ‘ Kampong Australia – The RAAF at Butterworth ‘ was born in Butterworth. He had served with the RAAF too.
These days many of the visitors are from the PRC. The citizens of this growing middle-class nation now have the money to spend on travel and the luxuries and they do travel extensively. According to some, they are also big spenders. They can sometimes be a little too loud too.
The Incredible Pull of the George Town Festival
I have sometimes visited Penang merely to attend some activities associated with the now famous George Town Festival. The George Town Festival or GTF is an annual month-long celebration of arts, culture, heritage and community. Some may remember that George Town was listed as a Unesco Heritage Site in 2008. GTF venues include historic mansions, landmark streets and arts-related sites like the Penang Performing Arts Centre.
The indefatigable and creative Joe Sidek is the festival director for the hugely successful GTF and he is also responsible for initiating two other fairly well-known festivals i.e. the Butterworth Fringe Festival and the Rainforest Festival.
From time to time, a one day Eurasian Fiesta is organised alongside the GTF and this fiesta is basically a heady mix of typical Eurasian food and music from well known Eurasian musicians and singers…… both past and present. The people behind this fiesta are James Rozzels and Kathleen Rodrigues.
I could go on but this should suffice for now. Penang is too big an attraction to be covered in a single blog post. Hopefully, this sharing has whetted your appetite to get to know this amazing island and its many delights.