On arrival, visitors are usually intrigued by the narrow, congested streets of Georgetown and its pulsating waterfront. It is here, on the waterfront, that Penang is linked to the 20th century by the flotilla of freighters and streamers anchored in the harbor, which cause the ferryboats from Butterworth to zigzag a 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) winding course to reach the landing at Weld Quay.
Penang is a Far East warehouse for everything imaginable, from electronic gadgets to plastic toys. There are silks from Thailand and India, fabric from England, cameras from Germany and Japan, textiles from America and from Malaysia, brocade and sarongs. Jalan Pinang (Penang Road) is the main shopping market. Shops open in the early morning and do not close until the bars are empty and the late moviegoers have cleared the streets.
Lebuh Campbell, just off Penang Road is the main “Chinese” shopping center where Nepalese street vendors sell nylon shirts, fake alligator-skin shoes, laughing jack-in-the-boxes, and precious stones, guaranteed to cut glass.
Perhaps the most exciting shopping in Penang is in the many junk shop along Rope Walk. Here, shoppers must literally climb over mounds of discarded gear. Those who do not mind getting their hands dirty are certain to discover a dusty thing or two. One London boutique saleswomen found a luxurious Chinese emperor’s robe salvaged from the local opera stage. So, why don’t you give a try and you might find something more interesting that you expected.
The Central Market, stand where the original building, according to Swettenham “a very insecure shed” , once the house market seller from out of town, displaying fruits and vegetable, as well as household products and handicraft. The present building, completed in 1936, initially served as a produce market, was recently spruced up with its artistic décor feature and high ceilings renovated and repainted in pastel pink and baby blues, and how now became a “handicraft central”. Insides, there is a good selection of handicraft at a fairly reasonable price, though bargaining is still advisable. Besides housing various shops, stall and restaurant, the Central Market also has a programme of live shows. Pick up a brochure here or at the tourist information office and you might be lucky enough to catch music, dance or a shadow puppet performance.
At the end of the Central Market is the business center. This juxtaposition of the old and new creates an interesting alleyway. There is a shop house complete with a tree growing out of its wall on one side, small food stalls in the middle and the stark wall of a high rise building on the other.
After a walk in Central Market, you may want to visit the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, once the colonial secretariat head quarter and the house of the Supreme Court. It just takes you 10 minutes walking distance from Central Market.
The road to Penang’s north coast follows the curve of the land, twisting up and around a hill or skirting the fringe of the sea. Rocky headlands jutting out into the sea divide the shoreline into small bays and coves, each with a different character and charm. Although the waters are not as clear as on the East Coast, the beaches are still popular for swimming and sunbathing.
Most activities are centered around Batu Ferringhi, one of the most popular beaches in Southeast Asia. Batu Ferringhi is locates about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) from Penang city. The large luxury hotels and resort of Shangri – La’s Rasa Sayang Resort, Golden Sand Resort, Parkroyal Penang Resort, Lone Pine Hotel, Hydro Hotel, Holiday Inn Resort, The Bayview Beach Resort, Hard Rock Hotel and more can be found. Their facilities include water-skiing, sailing, windsurfing, water scooters and horse riding. Smaller and older, but comfortable and reasonable price, are Palm Beach Resort and Sri Sayang Resort. Small inns and motels as well as many villagers in this area also offer accommodation.
As the sun set, Batu Ferringhi comes alive with a carnival-like atmosphere with an open-air bazaar selling anything from ornate curios to enticing souvenir items. Anyway, water sports and beach activities are the main entertainment during daytime. Besides, tourists are advised to beware of jellyfish, in case you get stung, apply vinegar (get from any restaurant nearby) and get to the nearest clinic. When the moon rises, night market and restaurant are the best place to go.
Of all the Chinese temples in Penang, the oldest Kuan Yin Temple is Lebuh Pitt. As is fitting, it is also the most humble and most crowded. This temple belongs to the people in the street – the noodle hawkers, the trishaw riders, and the housewives doing the daily shop in the market, the old shopkeepers calculating cupboards, repairing bicycles or selling sundries. Kuan Yin, a Buddhist god that shows the most mercy.
She is ever-present on Chinese altars, whether the worshippers be Taoist, Buddhist or Confucian. Throughout the day, people visit her temple to burden her with problems they cannot solve or to thank her for the blessing which ended their worries. The clicking of “divining sticks” ricochets throughout the halls as devotees ask her advice for the coming week, men and women of Georgetown know that Kuan Yin will reply. She is perhaps the most beloved divinity of all the Chinese altars in Penang. The worshipping of Kuan Yin is a meeting ground between traditional Chinese belief and Buddhism.
Kuan Yin Temple has a well-worn look. The halls are heavily laden with scented smoke. The floors are littered with joss sticks wrappers and discarded shopping bags. The altars look like a banquet table with roasted chickens, sweet cakes, oranges, pineapples and cookies neatly placed as humble offerings to the goddess. If you are not a Buddhist, you may just want to walk by and take a photo of this oldest temple in Penang.
The streets of Georgetown, Penang are made for nightlife. The Chinese, in particular, never seem to go to bed. Their open-front restaurants are noisy gathering places where waiters shout your order to someone in a back room. A jukebox, if there is one, is turned on full volume. Hawker stalls on Gurney Drive and the Esplanade do a thriving business, while brightly lit stores cater to late-night shoppers. At the fashionable hotels, latecomers wait in line at the discotheques. There are roof top restaurants where dinners look down over the city light, hills and harbor, and dark cellar cabarets with no view at all.
Those who prefer to seek entertainment in bars can find a few around Georgetown and on the northern outskirts of the city. Some small and friendly establishments, like Hong Kong Bar, keep a “family album” of snapshots showing just about every traveler who has walked in and bought a drink. They provide jukeboxes for dancing, game machines for entertainment and barmaids for conversation. If you prefer a light music and comfortable surroundings, I would like to recommend the Penang Bar Street, along the stretch of Penang Road from Cititel Hotel and to where it intersects with Lebuh Farquhar. Others are more consciously sophisticated, like the Farquhar Bar in the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, which only operate until midnight.
The Fort Cornwallis, named after the Governor General in Bengal in the late 1700s, Charles Cornwallis, is one of the most interesting historical landmarks in Georgetown, Penang. It is located close to the Esplanade, next to the Victoria Memorial Clock. Originally, Fort Cornwallis was a wooden structure. Between 1808 and 1810, it was rebuilt with convict labor. Today, the old fort still stands, but its precincts have been converted into a public park and playground. Its ramparts are still guarded by the old cannons; the most venerable and famous of which is Seri Rambai”, known to many Penang residents as “the travelling cannon”. The cannon has certainly travelled. Cast in Holland, it was presented by the Dutch to the Sultan of Johor in 1606. Seven years later, in a devastating raid on Johor, it was captured by the Achenese in search of a Bugis alliance. After the British bombarded Kuala Selangor in 1871, the cannon was captured and brought to Penang.
For several years, it was left lying in the sea off the Esplanade until it was hauled out and places as its present location. Like most ancient cannons, Seri Rambai is attributed with magical powers; it is believed that women desiring children will have their wish fulfilled if they place flowers in the cannon’s barrel and offer a pray. Legends are always a beautiful mystery, but that is not a loss for giving a try.
Pangkor lies off the coast of Perak, and is the most popular beach resort in the state. To get there, you need to take the road from Ipoh to Sitiawam and Lumut. The broad Perak River is crossed at Bota Kanan, where there is a hatchery for river terrapins. After the town of Sitiawam, head for the coast at Lumut, the principal base for the Malaysian Navy. Their officers, ships and apartments can be seemed from Pangkor just across the bay.
Many local don’t even make the crossing to Pangkor, but instead make to Teluk Batik, a pleasure beach resort 6.5 kilometers (4 miles) from Lumut. There are some resorts in Teluk Batik recommended by the tourism Malaysia, which are Teluk Batik Resort, Marina Cove Resort, Crystal Bay Chalet and Impian Chalet. Others go to the Wilderness Adventure Camp, south of Lumut, where activities are arranged to exercise the body and to teach adults and children alike about life in the forest. Make an appointment at www.wilderness-adventure.com.my and custom your own adventure with your friends and family. The Pesta Laut (Sea Festival) is held in Lumut in August every year, and sea sport competitions, funfairs and food outlets attract the crowds. Pangkor can also crowd during this time and any of the Malaysian school holidays; so if you like the beach to yourself, make sure you choose the right month.
Kallie’s castle (Kallie’s Fort) is located near Batu Gajah, and is about 20 minutes from Ipoh, Perak. Some years ago this building was overgrown with wild fig and banyan trees spreading over and into it, but an effort has been made to rescue this interesting structure from the encroaching foliage. It stands on the land of what was once the estate of William Kellie Smith, a rubber plantation owner who made his fortune in Malaya (Old name of Malaysia). The house was intended to be his second home, but it was never entirely finished, as Smith died while he was visiting his native Scotland. The house was meant to be reminded of his Scottish castle far away, but now it lies all but forgotten, and the remnants of its fine architecture and the orange colored bricks lying in ruins give it the air of something from a fairy tale.
Smith was an interesting man, who was evidently popular with his South Indian worker. A Hindu shrine stands nearby, erected for the plantation worker during a time of sickness. Amongst the figures of animals and gods, stands a man in a white suit and hat, presumably Smith himself. A walk around the ruin is to step back into the prosperous days of colonial life. A bridge has now been built across the river, providing access from main road. Tours can also be arranged from Ipoh.
Kampar, a very Chinese town at the foot of Bujang Melaka on the main trunk road south of Perak, prides itself as being largest of these towns, while Gopeng has its long gone prosperity wanly reflected in its largest wooden market, the Chinese theatre and the signified rows of shop houses. Walk along and you can see the Kampar Independent Clock Tower located at the center of the town. Some old and historical restaurant or stalls along the road might make appetite. Clay pot Chicken Rice, Sago Dessert and Chinese Egg Tarts are Kampar delight. Where to go? Which restaurant? No worries walk and spot a restaurant with a small crowd, and that’s the place you go. Otherwise, take a walk in the market in the morning or night, delicious local food just around the corner.
Just south of Gopeng, a narrow side road to the right branches off to Kota Bharu, a little village on the railway, it then leads on to Mekam Teja, the tomb of Bendahara Alang Iskandar, one of the great state officers of 19th-century Perak and a direct ancestor of the present ruler. As is often the case with the graves of distinguished Malays, the site has become a shrine (keramat) visited by humble folk in search of blessings or tradition that a newly installed Sultan of Perak must pay his respects at this shrine.
The Kinta Valley, whose tin production of long time ago was half that of the rest of Malaysia combined and 17 percent that of the world’s total, stretches funnel-shaped for 70 kilometers (45 miles) from Sungai Siput (Siput River) in the north of Ipoh (Capital city of Perak state) to Kampur in the south. The speedy North-South-Highway cuts straight across these hills joining Ipoh with the Perak River Valley and Kuala Kangsar.
What was once a vast expanse of forest crossed by sluggish jungle streams and swamps has over the past 100 years been virtually denuded of all its trees, its swamps drained and even the course of the Kinta River straightened out; the land now lies flat and open, offering nothing but the vistas of deserted mining pools spreading over the bleached scars of tin tailings; dotted here and there are the wooden palong (boxes) of the Chinese mines; and floating majestically in pools of their own making are the huge tin dredges.
Mining townships, occupying land once roamed by wild herds of elephant, scatter themselves over the face of this valley. Some, like Ipoh, rose with the tin industry, but when the local tin deposits were exhausted, they declined and shriveled into villages or even became a ghost town, like Papan, Tronoh and Pusing. Some, such as Batu Gajah and Gopeng, were once greater and more prosperous than Ipoh itself. Take a walk in this small town and discover the history of mining.