Penang: Isle of the Betel Nut

The island township of Penang has diversified attractions for tourists – a seaside resort, heritage township, exotic temples, pulsating nightlife, shopping, et al. A city that takes great pride in its cosmopolitan culture, as a holiday destination Penang offers great value for money. By Sudipta Dev

The second largest city in Malaysia, Penang has the distinction of being a unique holiday destination – it is an island township that combines the beauty of a seaside resort with the buzzing nightlife of a big city. Most of the resorts that line the Batu Ferringhi Beach open out to the sea on one side and face the hills on the other. The highpoint of the city is the George Town that takes you back to another era. Tourists who frequent here come from England because of the historic links, Australia, and the regional countries like Japan, Korea, Thailand and Singapore. It has been in fact a preferred holiday destination since the 1970s – much before Phuket or Bali gained prominence. Penang is also the favourite vacation spot of the Malays who take a short trip here during school holidays and other vacations.

The name Penang originated from ‘Pulau Penang’ meaning ‘Isle of the Betel Nut’, in reference to the betel nut palms that lined the beaches. A port town historically, Penang became famous as ‘The Pearl of the Orient’ – a melting pot of cultures that attracted Chinese, Indians, Malays and others. Even today the city boasts of a cosmopolitan culture which is known for its mixed marriages and all communities have lived in harmony for generations. In Penang, 55 per cent of the population are Chinese, 35 per cent are Malay and 10 per cent are Indians.

The city is an electronics and IT hub and takes great pride in the presence of big international companies. However, you can still come across the Chinese clan jetties (wooden houses on stilts) inhabited by families belonging to a particular surname. These jetties proliferated as the taxes that were imposed by the British were applicable only on land, not on water.

George Town calling

The heritage city of George Town has been named after King George III. It was Queen Elizabeth II who accorded Penang a city status in 1957 – the second in the Federation of Malay after Singapore. In 2008, George Town, along with with Malacca, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Restoration of the buildings in George Town has been a committed process by the government. It has taken years of painstaken effort to retain the original charm of the pre-war buildings. The City Hall, the Town Hall, Penang State Museum and Art Gallery and Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, are some of the most important edifices in George Town. Currently undergoing renovation is St George’s Church. It was built by convicts back in 1816 and is known to be south-east Asia’s oldest Anglican church.

The rich cultural and historic heritage of George Town is not just what attracts tourists, but its night clubs, restaurants and innumerable shopping options, make it popular among both, the young and the old.

Temples of Penang

The other highlight of the city is Wat Chayamankalaram, the Reclining Buddha Temple. The Thai temple is home to the statue that is 33 metres in length and happens to be the third largest in the world. The temple was built in 1845 on a land granted by Queen Victoria to the Thai community. The locals call it the Sleeping Buddha. Reclining on one hand, after 45 years of teaching, Buddha called his five disciples, spoke to them and attained Nirvana. The temple also houses the ashes of thousands of deceased devotees kept in urns behind the colossal statue. Exquisite and ornate craftmanship mark the interiors and entrance of the temple that also has many statues of mythical beings.

Just across the street is the is lesser known and the Dharmikarama Burmese Temple that houses a colossal statue of Buddha standing upright, robed in resplendant gold. Kek Lok Si Temple or ‘The Temple of Supreme Bliss’ is famous for its seven-storeyed ‘Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas’. Interestingly, the structure has a Burmese crown, the mid level is Thai and the octagonal base happens to be Chinese. The Snake Temple or the Temple of Azure Cloud was built in 1850. It is dedicated to Chor Soo Kong, a Buddhist monk who had extraordinary healing powers. Legend states that the monk provided protection to the snakes that lived in the jungle and after the completion of the temple the snakes moved into the complex and have lived there since. Though poisonous, these reptiles are considered harmless inside the temple and according to locals have never bitten anyone.

Diversified attractions

You can reach the top of the Penang Hill – at 830 metres above sea level – by hiking or taking the funicular train. The 30 minutes ride to the top is a pleasant experience, with a view from the summit that is breathtakingly beautiful – the historic George Town, the sea and the Penang Bridge stretch out in a panaromic frame. There is a bird park, a flower garden and restaurants at the top.

Penang has a unique attraction that is known to few – a ‘live sex show’, but of a diurnal insect kind. The Butterfly Farm is promoted as the world’s first live and butterfly insect sanctuary. The farm has a focused approach to R&D and breeding of butterflies. It is home to 3,000 exotic butterflies, frogs, scorpions and other insects belonging to 50 species, many of them rare. You can take phorographs of butterflies at close quarters. There is an insect museum at the farm. School programmes and workshops are also organised.

One of the city’s major landmarks is the 60-foot high Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower that was built in 1897 to commemorate the 60th year of her regime. Not very far from the Clock Tower is the star-shaped Fort Cornwallis.

The Penang Bridge that stretches across 13.5 kms is an engineering marvel that joins mainland Malaysia with Penang island. Built in 1985, it is one of the longest bridges in the world. A national landmark the structure was awarded the United States of America Engineering Excellence in 1986 and many other awards.

For tourists, both domestic and international, one of the highpoints of their visit to this island resort is the night market that opens everyday at about 7 pm in the evening till late at night. The 2.5 km long market in front of the resorts along the Batu Ferringhi Beach, a variety of ‘genuine imitiation’ products. You have to sharpen your bargaining skills before being tempted to go on a shopping spree though.

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