Pulau Pinang: The Pearl of the Orient

Near the very northwest corner of Malaysia lies the island of Penang, once dubbed “The Pearl of the Orient” due to its mish-mash of Asian and European cultures — a result of its geographic location at the mouth of the Strait of Melaka.  This heritage-heavy hot-spot is one of the earliest European colonial settlements in this part of the world, predating even Singapore and Melaka.  Whereas the previous two may have since lapped Penang in the world’s eye, there is still no better place to see the immediate blending of both Indian and Chinese cultures into the Malay way of life, all topped off with splash of British colonial architecture.

Today, Penang — much like many other historical cities that have popped up on the tourist trail — is beginning to show signs of over-development, where vast swaths of the jungle have been cleared in order to build condos and hotels and locals cling to the remaining vestiges of the Penang they once knew.  The good news is that the on-going developments haven’t taken over completely yet.  A quick stroll through the streets of Georgetown (the main city on the island) will still yield such images silent prayers being spoken through the joss-smoke-filled temples, street vendors cooking up noodles in a smoking woks, old men sipping tea at a 100-year old tea houses or “pulled tea” from street stalls, rickshaws narrowly squeezing their way through the back alleys, and smiling faces going about their daily tasks.  It is still a beautiful city — one that doesn’t want to let you leave.  Here are a few of my favorite images:

St George’s Church

The Queen Victoria Memorial Clocktower

Upper Penang Street populated with revelers enjoying the warm nights

Adding further splendor to the island of Penang is the Kek Lok Si temple — the “Temple of Supreme Bliss” — located just outside of town.  This is the spiritual heart of the local Chinese-Malay community and has since grown to be a symbol of the island itself.  The temple is more of a complex, really, with a variety of gardens, pools, pagodas, statues, and grand, golden-clad halls strewn throughout the grounds.  Once you’ve weaved your way through the tourist shops at its base, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a place that explodes with more color and intensity than the Kek Lok Si temple (especially during the Chinese New Year celebration, during which I was lucky enough to visit):

The Kek Lok Si Temple rising above the streets of Penang

The Ban Po That (Ten Thousand Buddhas Pagoda) as seen through the New Years decorations

Lanterns as seen through the joss (incense) smoke

The interior courtyard

Another great option to get out of the heart of the city and explore the rest of the thankfully undeveloped island is to hike up to the top of Bukit Bendera, better known as Penang Hill.  Though the summit rises only a moderate 821 meters above the rest of the island (and apparently only merits a “hill” connotation), the 3-hour hike straight uphill is anything but easy — mainly due to the heat and humidity.  After you’ve sweated through your shirt, your shorts, and even your backpack, you’re out of water, you can’t see the top, and you’re ready to quit, you’ll know that you’ve made it about half-way up.  I’m proud of myself for making it to the top, but if you’d prefer and easier method, there is a rickety train that will take you to the summit without the massive energy expenditure.

The path through the hillside (the start of the trail up to Penang Hill is located within the Botanical Gardens)

Don’t be surprised, either, when you realize that you’ve made a few “new friends.” I’m not sure if these guys latch on to every visitor, but they certainly seemed to follow me everywhere I went

When you finally reach the top, you’ll be treated to a great view back over the rest of the island:

Another reason to visit — and the real reason I decided to swing over — is that fact that Penang is the culinary heart of Malaysia, and has frequently been recognized on many travel guides’ “Must-Eat Places” lists.  In fact, many of the dishes I’ve been sampling on the Southeast Asian leg of my trip so far (Laksa, Char Kway Teow, Rojak, etc.) were first made famous on the streets of Penang.  Given the regional differences, I made sure to try each of these in their home environment, but don’t worry, I won’t make you sit through a slide show of repeats.  Before hitting the food vendors, however, we first need to take a lap through the markets:

The open-air stalls in the Campbell Street Market

A fruit vendor

Gourds for sale

In need of roasted duck? A fully roasted pig? They’ll take care of you…

Squid drying in the sun

When dining out, the best places to go are the busy food centers (similar to the hawker centers in Singapore) for variety or to the many street stalls and vendors for authenticity.  And continuing with the tradition set at my last few locations, the average dish will only set you back two to three dollars, at most.  Enjoy:

Curry Fish Head — my favorite dish while in Penang (though this one was a touch more expensive than the “few dollars” that I just mentioned)

Street vendors sell these Nasi Lemak pouches wrapped in a banana leaf for on-the-go eating

Fried Oyster Omlette (with a few prawns thrown in for good measure)

A variant on the common Chicken Rice dish you’ve seen me eat a few times is the local “Duck Rice,” which is exactly what it sounds like

Prawn Mee (a spicy noodle soup with shrimp)

Koay Teow Th’ng and Lorbak (…I think)

Given that Georgetown has a large Indian population, I had to at least sit down for one Thali plate

Ice Kachang (similar to Chendol) is a mish-mash of grasses, sugars, syrups, beans, and fruit, all tossed over a bed of shaved ice

Another famously Malay tradition is that of Teh Tarik, or Pulled Tea. The vendor will pour (or “pull”) the milky tea back and forth between two pots to create a foamy texture

And the result is as pretty as it is tasty

Penang marks the finale of my Malaysian adventure, as I’m heading north to take in some of the beautiful beaches along Thailand’s Andaman Coast.  If you haven’t heard from me in a month or two, just assume that I’ve found myself a nice little spot on the beach that I couldn’t drag myself away from.  And although Penang’s beaches won’t quite compare to those of Thailand, I’m still going leave you with a nice teaser from the Batu Ferringhi beach here on the island.  Enjoy:

About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

8 Responses to “Pulau Pinang: The Pearl of the Orient”

  1. This is one of your best posts! The pictures are awesome. I feel like I am traveling along with you – minus some of the stuff you are eating. Be safe.

  2. Nice post. Penang certainly has a lot of delicious hawker food. Hope you had an enjoyable trip in Malaysia. Wish you a safe travel up north 🙂

  3. Glad to see, Andrew, that even on the road you are a “Hillclimber.” Thank you for this tour of Malaysia!

  4. Oh Penang…so close to Indonesia but I have yet to make a visit there. But your pictures have made my mouth water enough to want to go there.

  5. Your post makes me wants to drop by Penang the next time I visit Malaysia. 🙂 Great set of photos.

  6. I am half Malaysian and I go back to Penang often! The pictures of the food made me sooo hungry! Personally, Malaysian food is the best in the world (but I’m probably being biased!). Thanks so much for sharing!

    • If I can show pictures of Malaysian food to someone who is half Malaysian, and they actually get hungry, then I know I’m doing something right! Thanks for reading, and I totally agree with your sentiment that Malaysian food is some of the best in the world!

      • Yes! I really enjoy your blog! It’s interesting you started at 29, I began great changes in my life at 29 – although I didn’t go travelling, I started getting honest with myself and started my blog. I loved your insight that we are all the same and that you see a bit of yourself in everyone (I read your SE Asian reflections). Congratulations on a great job – oh and Belgium has great beer!

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