Penang is diverse, historical, and full of aggressively leering men, which really makes it difficult for a girl to have a pleasant walk down the street. (The lack of consistent sidewalks, few crosswalks, heavy traffic going the wrong way, and huge open drains on the side of the street also contribute to the annoyance of being a pedestrian in Penang.)
On the evening I arrived, the island was immersed in one of Malaysia’s biggest national holidays, Hari Raya Aidilfitri, a celebration at the end of the Muslim fasting month, Ramadan. It also happened to be Malaysia’s independence day, Hari Merdeka, also a nationwide public holiday. The entire island seemed to be participating in the festivities: setting off firecrackers in the street, chanting prayers or singing on street corners, eating feasts, and generally evoking merriment.
I paid a short visit to Batu Ferringhi, a beach town on the north coast of Penang, on my first morning there, but as the beaches were nowhere near as impressively beautiful as other beaches I’ve seen on this trip, a quick look was all that was necessary. After getting my twenty minute fill of the beach, I headed to a hostel in George Town, the capital of the island and state of Penang.
My first day in George Town, I planned to hang out with a guy I’d met at dinner the night before. A very interesting fellow, he was born in Sri Lanka, spent his young adulthood in Switzerland, and is now traveling around literally the entire world on his motorcycle. I had thought we were going to sightsee around George Town on foot, but instead, upon meeting me at breakfast he handed me a helmet.
Throwing caution to the wind (my longest ride on a motorcycle before this was a slightly nervous five minutes on the back of my brother’s ’85 Kawasaki Vulcan in our parents’ neighborhood), I hopped on, reassuring myself that someone who has traveled around half the world on this thing must be a pretty good driver. Plus, this trip is about trying new things and ignoring my nagging worries, and this was a great time to pay heed to this resolution.
Speeding around on a motorcycle is definitely the way to see a city. We zipped through George Town, passing colonial buildings, mosques, and temples, and headed toward the bottom of Penang Hill. Feeling adventurous and on a bit of a high after the exhilarating ride through the city, I insisted we walk to the top of the hill rather than taking the cable car or driving up.
Admittedly, I might have underestimated how hard it is to climb a 5.1 kilometer hill in extremely hot, humid conditions. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly enjoyed the sweaty, strenuous climb to the top of Penang Hill, alternating between stopping to chug water and circumventing the devilish monkeys causing havoc on the side of the road.
The top of the hill boasts a view of the entire island of Penang extending to the mainland, as well as a Hindu temple and a mosque.
The walk back down was much easier. After a rest, we reconvened for dinner at Kompleks Makanan Medan Renong, a food courtyard on the water filled with Malaysian Chinese food stalls. Dinner was a delicious shrimp noodle dish and dessert was a not so delicious rojak, a mix of fruit and vegetables covered with a sweet-ish paste tasting like a combination of peanuts, chiles, chocolate, and some sort of fish.
The next day, I decided to explore the colonial landmarks of George Town. I was particularly excited to become acquainted with George Town because UNESCO lists the town as a World Heritage Site due to its uniquely preserved colonial architecture and convergence of Chinese, Indian, and Malay cultures.
I started at Penang City Hall, an immaculately-white Victorian-style building still used for municipal affairs. Next I stopped at Fort Cornwallis, a star-shaped compound surrounded by a brick wall, containing a gunpowder magazine to store explosives, canons, a chapel, and a lighthouse. Captain Francis Light (who is known as the founder of Penang) built the fort at the place where he and his crew first landed on the island of Penang in 1786 to establish a British trading port. The fort served as the administrative and military base of the British East India Company.
My colonial building tour continued with stops at the 60-foot Queen Victoria Clock Tower, which was commissioned by a local philanthropist to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 (her 60th anniversary as Queen of Britain) with each foot of the tower representing one year of her reign; the bright white, arched and pillared National Museum, which is closed on Fridays (guess what day it was?); the Town Hall, the Cathedral of the Assumption, and St. George’s Church – endless colonially beautiful white buildings that made me feel like I was walking down a street in the 19th Century (except for the masses of honking cars and motorcycles noisily speeding by). Gorgeously painted, exquisitely adorned, and distinctively architectured mosques, Chinese temples, and Hindu temples rounded out the diversity of George Town.
When I thought my legs would work no longer, I finally arrived at Weld Quay, the jetty for ferries to the mainland (called Seberang Perai) that is adjoined by Tanjong City Marina (where I was really tempted to stop for a cocktail and look at the sea for a while, continuing on only because the marina restaurant was closed).
I kept walking on and spent my afternoon at Prangin Mall, a huge shopping and entertainment complex at the base of Komtar, the tallest building in Penang (really, the only tall building in Penang). On the top floor of the mall, I found myself at a movie theater, and I just couldn’t not stop for a movie. The Smurf showing for the afternoon was sold out, so I saw Cars 2 instead, which was a fun happenstance as I saw the original Cars during my first international movie theater experience when I arrived in Milan for my semester abroad during law school. Nachos and margaritas on Upper Penang Road, the hip “going-out” area of George Town, ended the day.
On my last day in Penang, I trekked to Persiaran Gurney (Malay for Gurney Drive), a promenade along the Malacca Straight lined with upscale high-rise condos and hotels and ending at Gurney Plaza, a luxury mall with fashion-filled department stores and boutiques that begged me to shop at them (but which I miraculously resisted).
A dinner of the best Indian food I’ve ever had – a perfectly spicy chicken dish sidled with a mix of some sort of amazingly flavored veggies, melt-in-your-mouth naan, and sweet laasi – was a great ending to my visit to Penang.
I’m very excited for tomorrow, because I’ll be flying to Bali to meet my favorite traveling buddy, Connie!