An island to explore before you die

THERE are, according to experts, close to 200,000 islands spread across the water bodies of our vast Earth.

Some are in seas and oceans, others of reasonably appropriate size are on lakes and rivers. Some are continental, others are oceanic; some are natural, while a few are artificial.

There are tropical islands, and islands in temperate regions. There are atolls and there are rocks; volcanic islands and sand barrier islands. Some are inhabited while others are mere “desert islands”, mostly too rough or remote to support living communities.

Of those that harbour human settlements, a total of about 170 are recorded to have a population size of more than 100,000 each. The most highly populated are Java in Indonesia and Honshu in Japan, both with more than a 100 million people.

The internet portal Yahoo! recently went on a quest to determine which 10 among these are to be counted as the most unique on the face of the Earth, that a traveller must visit at least once in his lifetime.

Understandably, these are 10 extremely special islands that stand above others with the awesome appeal of their respective qualities – whether geographical or cultural, historic or modern. They are each in a class of their own.

So dramatically enough, the list came to be called the “10 Islands to Explore Before You Die”. And when it was announced very recently, our sunny island of Penang was placed among these 10. It was ranked eighth, ahead of Galapagos and Palm Islands, Dubai. Bali, the only other Asian island, was ranked at the very top of the list.

Others in the list were Vieques in Puerto Rico which was ranked second, followed by Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean, Ischia in southern Italy, Chiloé in Chile, Bora Bora in French Polynesia, and Key West in the United States.

The inclusion of Penang in this elite and extremely privileged list certainly prompted many Malaysians to prop themselves up to full attention. Here is an island heralded by the world as among the most exciting to explore, and it has been lying all along right in our very living room.

Indeed very few islands can boast of having traditional villages and inner-city heritage communities, next to upscale malls and world-class electronics and computing factories. Fewer still can feature pristine sandy beaches and equatorial rainforests, as well as a potpourri of cultures and people from varied ethnicities and languages within such easily accessible proximity.

Even as far back as the early 1800s, the island’s lieutenant governor, George Leith, wrote: “There is not, probably any part of the world where in so small a space, so many different people are assembled together, or so great a variety of languages spoken.”

Sometimes, it takes an outsider to pinpoint to us the special attributes we possess, but have for too long taken for granted.

In paying tribute to Penang, Yahoo!’s travel portal cited the “fusion of cultures” evident in its local architecture, which ranges from modern highrises to buildings built by 19th-century British colonialists; and the mix of beach resorts, preserved mangroves, small fishing villages, and a share of temples, mosques, and churches as key factors for selecting the island.

It also commented on the “food crawl” at stalls that crowd the streets of George Town. “The delectable fare on offer memorably mingles Malaysian, Chinese, Indian and European flavours,” it said.

The accolade comes on the heels of ECA International having selected Penang as the eighth most liveable city in Asia last year, and Unesco’s listing of George Town as a World Heritage Site. And for some years, the Conde Naste Traveller magazine also placed Penang as among the top islands to visit in the world.

But the recognition is a reflection of the uniqueness not just of the island, but of the remarkable culture, the colourful history, and the immense natural riches of Malaysia as a whole. Straddled by two oceans and the great civilisations of time, we have evolved one of the most unique potpourris on the face of this Earth.

The honour is therefore a tribute to the spirit and aspirations of the communities of this immensely endowed soil, who have toiled to develop this land to what it is today. If Penang is an island to explore before one dies, then the same uniqueness that uplifts us as Malaysians must be safeguarded and held as something precious to die for, for many generations to come.

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Category: News @ George Town