Lori Guretzki

Article Summary:

Recounting a Penang vacation, including recommendations and tips for travelling there.

Penang, Malaysia Vacation

My husband and I flew with Singapore Airlines to Singapore's Changi Airport, boarded an Air Bus and shortly thereafter arrived at the Beyan Lepas International Airport in Penang, Malaysia. Penang is a turtle shaped island located on the North Western coast of the Malay Peninsula at the entrance to the Straits of Malacca.

The national language of Penang is Bahasa Malaysia but English is spoken in the hotels, shops and tourist areas. The Ringgit is the currency. Major credit cards were accepted in the hotels, restaurants and most shops however; when we were in the smaller villages only Ringgits were accepted.

We hired a guide to drive us around for the duration of our stay in Penang. They drive on the left side of the road in Penang so if you aren't familiar with the rules of the road, save yourself the stress and headache and don't do the driving yourself.

As we left the airport, the streets were plugged with cars, trucks, buses, motor bikes and Trishaws. Our guide told us that congested traffic is normal for Penang all the time. A little patience wouldn't hurt, drivers honked at each other, they drove over sidewalks to get around vehicles while others would pass with only inches to spare.

Our hotel, The Holiday Inn Resort was a beachfront resort in the heart of the Batu Ferringhi community, located approximately 18 km from the capital city of Georgetown. Our room on the 4th floor was very spacious with wall to wall and floor to ceiling glass doors that overlooked the swimming pool and the Indian Ocean. We were very comfortable with our accommodations.

Our guide would pick us up at our hotel every morning and would spend approximately four hours driving us to all the interesting sights in Penang. We didn't want to miss anything that this beautiful Island had to offer. We visited Penang's Botanic Gardens, a tropical park with unusual trees like the Cannon-Ball Tree, trees that bear sour-smelling fruit the size of a human head, and the Monkey Bread Tree known to live up to 2000 years that bears an oblong hairy fruit. The wild monkeys that inhabited the park were very cute but not exactly friendly as they swung from tree to tree; others hung off street signs yelling at each other or maybe they were yelling at us?

The Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram Lorong Burma is a Buddhist temple and one of the most interesting temples we toured. It was home to the reclining Buddha said to be the longest Buddha in the world at some 33 meters in length. The gold plated statue was mesmerizing. Behind all that glittering gold was a wall of cubicles filled with the ashes of Buddhist devotees. We didn't stay long, the smell of incense burned my nose and since we had left our shoes at the door; we weren't sure if they would still be there when we left.

We visited The Kek Lok Si Temple in the village of Air Itam. Our guide told us the Temple is the finest Buddhist Temple in South East Asia. It was built in tiers, beginning in 1890 and still wasn't finished - pretty slow progress. The Temple consisted of two structures; a seven story pagoda and a huge bronze statue of the Goddess of Mercy. We toured the temple houses; they were filled with many prayer halls and different sized pagodas. We also visited the Butterfly Farm in the village of Black Water. The farm was the first in the world to housing some 4000 live butterflies in their natural habitat. The butterflies landed in our hair, on our shoulders, on our arms and on the ground where many were stepped on; there was also an insect museum, and my favorite spot - the scorpion pit. The insects were enclosed in glass cages but the pit had only cement walls that stood about 2 feet high with no cover on top. Hundreds of scorpions climbed over each other, trying to get out. Time to leave!

On one of our evenings, our guide picked us up, along with another couple, two Doctors, a husband and wife from South Africa, and took us to a Chinese buffet in Georgetown. The restaurant was on the 52nd floor of a building called The Tower. Long narrow tables were set up end to end around the three outer walls of the large dining room. We took our plates and lined up to help ourselves to the various Chinese delicacies. Although the selection was extensive, the only items recognizable were rice, squid and fish. It didn't take long to eat a plate of rice, however the Doctors ate fish with the heads on and eyes still intact and plates of stuffed squid. There was something for everyone's taste!

We left the restaurant and drove across the Penang Bridge, the third longest bridge in the world; it took almost three years to complete the 13.5 km span. On the other side of the bridge, we drove onto a ferry that took us across the Malacca Straits. The ferry boat had two wooden sides and only ropes across the front and back. As we stood outside the car in total blackness, the waves splashed over the front, getting everyone wet and forcing us back into the car. It would have been interesting to take that trip in daylight.

On one of our tours, we were driven to the other side of the island, through many plantations and jungle areas, stopping to investigate different kinds of local fruit growing wild, like papaya, bananas, mangos and the king of fruit, the durian. We stopped at an open air stall where an elderly lady sold spices and oils used both for cooking and healing. The smell of cloves and nutmeg filled the air and made my nose tingle and my mouth water. We bought a bottle of Nutmeg Oil. The proprietor told us that the oil was good for coughs, arthritis, stomach aches and anything else we could think of.

We spent one day just browsing through Batu Ferringhi, the village where we were staying. The houses were primitive, many were shacks but all appeared to be well kept and clean. Outside each house, on a shelf, sat a religious statue, a burning candle and a few pieces of fresh fruit to offer to their gods. The people of Penang are a mixture of Malay, Chinese and Indian and although the official religion is Islam, everyone enjoys the freedom to worship whatever god they choose. More countries should take a lesson from the people of Penang.

In the afternoon we sat on lawn chairs beside the pool watching the guests of the hotel cooling off in the ocean and playing water sports. We had decided to take a walk down the beach; the sand was the most beautiful gold color in the afternoon sun and the water felt warm and inviting on our feet. We walked for about an hour, never running out of sandy beach when I realized that I wasn't carrying my purse, I had left it draped over the arm of the lawn chair I had been sitting in.

In a great panic we ran back to our hotel, not an easy thing to do in the hottest part of the day and there, on the chair was my purse. Someone had been sitting in the chair and had left their towel on the back but hadn't touched my purse. I was so relieved; in my purse were our Passports, airline tickets, traveler's cheques and credit cards. I needed a nap after that. That was the last time my husband ever allowed me to look after his Passport and airline ticket for him.

The food on the Island was exceptional, in taste and variety, a real treat for the gourmet tourists who enjoy immersing themselves in the local cuisine. Dishes like Gado Gado, a salad of boiled local vegetables served with a sauce made from fresh peanuts, coconut milk, shrimp paste, chillies and local spices; or Ice Kachang, a dish made from sweet red beans, jelly and corn poured over shaved ice and served with a sweet liquid syrup and evaporated milk.

For the not so daring, fresh oysters, prawns, crabs, lobsters, cuttlefish and sea cucumber served in a cream sauce, a sweet and sour sauce or heavily spiced and fried was also available. Many of our meals were eaten in our hotel's Terrace Café, an open concept restaurant overlooking the pool, gardens and ocean. Every night the Café would be crowded with tourists and locals, enjoying the barbecue dinner buffet that was offered for the entire evening. On weekends and special occasions, a buffet dinner was set up around the pool; we would help ourselves to the various selections, only a few were familiar to us, and then sit at one of the small tables set up so we could watch the beautiful sunset or the huge, white cruise ships sailing by. This was paradise!

Shopping in Penang was definitely an experience. There were modern complexes consisting of many small stores, roadside stalls where we could purchase locally made items, duty free shops and the "pasar malam", a night time shopping extravaganza reminding us of a flea market where the locals did their shopping for everything from food to clothing to tools, and everything in between. The items didn't have price tags on them, instead the art of bargaining took over and when both the seller and buyer were satisfied, a sale was made.

On Christmas morning, the staff at the hotel had outdone themselves. We were not aware of other Canadians staying there but when we awoke, a handmade Christmas card addressed to us, had been shoved under our door. When we left our room, Christmas music was playing throughout the hallways and lobby and a small tree had been set up in the corner sometime after we had gone to bed the night before. We felt very special indeed.

Our guide was very friendly and while we were curious about his life, he was just as curious about ours. He thought because we were visiting Penang, we had to be wealthy shop owners. He told us that Penang does not have a welfare system because there was almost no unemployment on the Island. When the children grow up, they marry and continue to live with their parents. It is customary for the parents who work out of the home to also eat their evening meal out of the home and only cook and eat their meals at home on weekends and holidays. Land on the Island was very expensive to buy but anyone can purchase property, native or tourist, "with the exception of Communists of course", so our guide said.

We enjoyed our holiday on the Island of Penang. We found it exciting, interesting and very educational. The staff at The Holiday Inn Resort was both friendly and hospitable and the service was exemplary. Our guide was exceptional, he made our many sightseeing trips fun and he forgave me for hiding my face in my hands when he drove faster than I thought he should, or when he drove over a sidewalk to get around other vehicles. He also never took it personal when I could never remember his name so I didn't call him anything or when I sat in the back seat of the car and laughed almost hysterically when I became nervous while traveling on some of the narrowest roads I had ever seen.

Final Comments:

If you travel to Penang, you will need a Passport with an expiry date of at least 6 months past the date you exit the country. Be sure to leave your drugs and guns at home, possessing either will get you hanged without question.

Lori Guretzki lives in Abbotsford, B.C. with her husband of 23 years. By day, she is an Administrative Assistant in a large high school in Abbotsford, by night she has a home based business called Lori's Canine Creations and in her off times, she shares her love of traveling to all corners of the world with her husband. Lori's latest accomplishment is her book, soon to be published, The Reluctant Traveller, about holidaying in Peru, South America.

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