Penang – The Forgotten Paradise

(pic - Story) Penang - Title

I’d almost forgotten about Penang, that is until one day when I was bored at work and exploring Google maps, I discovered this island just off the coast of Malaysia that rang a bell. When I was much younger Penang seemed to be the go to place for Australians, however over the years that has changed quite a lot – these days the go to places are Bali and Phuket – Penang just seems to be this forgotten place that sits closer to Phuket than to Bali. Then again, the major reason for that probably has a lot to do with Penang being much cleaner, and in a way more boring, than the other places.

Yet, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t catering to Australians because when I was wandering around one of the massive shopping centres (and becoming quite lost in it as well), I stepped out the back and discovered that there were a number of cafes that were clearly Australian – in particular Dome, which suggested that a lot of miners from Western Australia find their way over here. Then again, we are talking about miners, and a part of me feels that maybe they would more likely end up in Bali or Phuket as opposed to Penang – one of the reasons is that they don’t have a Bangala Road in Penang.

(pic - Story) Penang - Gurney Plaza
Probably doesn’t give as much of an impression of how confusing it was

However, since we were making our way up the Malay Peninsula, and that the train stopped at Butterworth, which is just across from Penang, it was a no brainer that since I had been reminded of this place, that we would go and pay it a visit. I probably should also make mention that Butterworth is also a place from my childhood, not that I’ve ever been there before. The reason is that there happens to be an airforce base there. These days it belongs to the Malaysian Airforce, but originally it was a British airbase (namely because Malaysia was a British colony), and then became an Australian airforce base. However, the purpose of the base was always to provide Malaysia with an airforce, it is just that they didn’t really have one, so relied upon other Commonwealth countries, such as Australia, to provided support. Oh, and I also had friends whose fathers were stationed there.


There are a couple of ways to get to Penang if you arrive by train. As is the case with most places in South East Asia, as soon as you step off the train and leave the station you will be swarmed by cab drivers all wanting to take you over to the island (or anywhere else you wish to go, but I don’t think there us all that much to see in Butterworth). However, the ferry is probably much cheaper, though not as comfortable as going by cab (and the concierge at the hotel suggested that the cabs were a rip off). However, when we left the station we noticed that they were redoing the area, so while you normally could go straight to the ferry, this time the route was blocked, so you had to catch a bus, which was pretty packed, particularly with everybody and their bags (I still wonder how I managed to get our bags onto the bus).

Now, the ferry isn’t anything flash. Don’t expect comfy seats and a well stocked bar – it isn’t one of those ferrys. Actually, if you want a comfy seat then you will either need to bring your own, or go by car (or even taxi). You see, the ferry is a car ferry, and those of us who are traveling across by foot basically make ourselves comfortable around the cars. In fact there aren’t even any seats for us. Once the ferry is over the otherside, the cars then all begin to make their way out as those of us on foot dodge between them. However, crossing by ferry isn’t all that bad, particularly since you get to see the massive port of Malaysia (of which there was a Lego model back in Legoland – it was interesting noticing the models in real life).

(pic - Story) Penang - Ferry

Once we were off the ferry, the first thing I noticed as we made our way into Georgetown was that there was a market set up between the ferry terminal and the bus station. Then again, there are literally markets everywhere in Southeast Asia, even where you don’t find tourists (but they aren’t tourist markets so you generally only find food and textiles at these places). I decided that catching a bus wasn’t worth it, so after shoing off a cab driver, I sheepishly came back to him, but he wasn’t talking to me so I gave my money to somebody else to take me to the hotel.

I should make a comment about cabs because you do need to be careful. Look, while it isn’t as bad in Malaysia as elsewhere, I found that a lot of cab drivers, even in Singapore, don’t take card, so it is cash only. Also don’t expect them to use the meter – they never do, even though they have meters in the cab. While the cabs in Malaysia prominently display the fact that they are metered, so there is no haggling, they never use the meter, particularly for tourists, which is always why you should set the price before getting into the cab because I have heard stories of people being ripped off once they get to their destination, and don’t expect anybody to come to your aid either.


I actually discovered something really interesting about Georgetown – it was founded by the father of Colonel William Light, the guy who founded the city of Adelaide (and the reason that sticks in my mind is because I grew up in Adelaide, so we heard a lot about William Light, and his name is plastered all over the city, as well as there being a statue of him overlooking the oval, and his tomb being in the middle of a park). Francis Light set up the colony at the request of the British East India Company, who wanted to establish a trading outpost on the Malay peninsula. The story also goes that Light sided with the Sultan of Kedah who was at war with the Kingdom of Siam, and as a gesture of thanks, he gave the island of Penang to him.

(pic - Story) Penang - Round-a-bout

Georgetown is the main city on the island, and is actually a world heritage site. The harbour is next to the old fort – Fort Cornwallis, which was supposed to be pulled down, but nobody ever got around to it, and they eventually decided to leave it as is and turn it into a tourist attraction. Not surprisingly, much of the old town displays a lot of the colonial architecture of the time, and like many of these old colonial towns, it is very sublime. However, like most places in Asia, the streets are narrow, and the traffic can be rather horrific.

A part of the old town is referred to as the heritage zone, which means that you can’t really build there. However, it is full of twisting and narrow streets (which was completely the opposite to the design of Adelaide that William Light created, but then again by the time William Light was surveying Adelaide, the principles of city design had changed, namely that there had to be rhyme and reason to the layout as opposed to people just building wherever they felt like building.

(pic - Story) Penang - Red House

As we wandered around the old town, I noticed a few things, namely that there were a lot of motorcycle shops – probably not surprising considering that a lot of people use scooters over here. However, it still seemed a little odd, considering the type of person who rides motorbikes in Australia tends to be the enthusiast, whereas in Asia it tends to be the average person. Mind you, enthusiasts spend an awful lot of money on their bikes. The other thing I noticed was that there were quite a lot of chicken rice shops. Like KL, restaurants here tend to be somebody who specialises in one dish, and that is it – which means you better like chicken, fish, and pork (well, not so much, considering that Malaysia is a Muslim nation).

Oh, there was a lot of street art in the old town as well, and as well as just the cool looking art, there are also works of art that outline what was originally on the street, and also gives you a bit of history of the city as well. However, outside of the core of Georgetown, you have the typical Southeast Asian city (or large town, but I think it is actually a city). Our hotel was on the edge, so across the road was a shopping complex. Along the northern shore there are also some rather exclusive hotels (including the Eastern and Oriental, which was built by the same people who built Raffles hotel in Singapore). There was also that really annoying shopping centre I mentioned previously, annoying because the directory wasn’t working – honestly, I really don’t know how much time I wasted trying to find my way around, particularly since my sim card decided to die at that exact moment as well.

(pic - Story) Penang - More Shops

Back Beach

The next morning was a round-island tour, which ended up being just us, the tour guide, and the driver. Well, it wasn’t quite a round-island tour because we just went for a drive along the north coast because, well, there isn’t all that much elsewhere. It was good to have a tour guide to chat with though, but we only ended up going to a batik factory, where they make those colourful Malaysian shirts by hand (and I suspect that the idea is that you buy stuff as well, though nothing grabbed my fancy) and the butterfly park. Well, there was also the spice gardens, but my brother wanted to see the butterflies. It was a shame that we couldn’t do both though.

However, as I mentioned, having a guide is helpful because they do tell you about the place, and it was from him that I heard about Francis Light. Actually, I almost forgot to mention that we also visited a couple of Buddhist Temples – the land was gifted to the Chinese and the Burmese by Queen Victoria to build the temples, and it is interesting to see the differences between the two. Well, one of them claims to be a Thai temple, and who am I to argue, though I did notice that they had a pretty large reclining Buddha in the temple.

(pic - Story) Penang - Temple Entrance

He also told us about Millionaire’s Row, which is a stretch of road along which there are a lot of mansions. However, the mansions all look as if they are falling apart. Many of them are simply not lived in. He explained that many of the families that own these mansions simply have no desire to come to Penang, but have no desire to sell them either, so they simply let them fall apart.

After the butterfly farm we were taken down to the entrance of the national park where there were a bunch of places offering boat trips to other parts of the island, such as monkey beach. When I was in Thailand in 2013 I was told about a Monkey Beach there, and thought it was something unique, but it seems as if not only are there a bunch of monkey beaches all around the area, but there are also an awful lot of monkeys. However, one thing I didn’t know about was that there is a beach of cats – don’t you hate finding out about things once you get back home.

(pic - Story) Penang - Back Beach

Oh, and Hard Rock Cafe has also got into resorts, though I noticed that there are also a few resorts that have been abandoned and are falling apart. I guess it is just a symptom of the fickle nature of the tourist industry, and the fact that Penang simply does not have the charm that it once had.


Up the Hill

Like Hong Kong, Penang has an funicular railway – basically a train that goes up and down a hill. I really don’t know what it was with the colonists and their desire to go up hills, but they did it in Hong Kong, and did it here as well. Anyway, when the technology to allow trains to go up hills was developed, they installed a train so that the poor natives no longer had to lug people up and down the hill in sedans anymore. When we were here we were quite lucky in that the lines were not all that long, at least for going up the top (though that wasn’t the case coming down). Well, you can avoid the line if you want, but you have to pay extra.

As it turned out, there wasn’t all that much up here anyway – just one of those touristy places with a view of the city. Still, it did give us the opportunity to go up by the train. However, what really annoyed me was the lack of ATMs – I forgot to get some more cash before coming up, so I had nothing to spend up here. We ended up going back down, and it was still a nightmare attempting to find an ATM (which we eventually did).

(pic - Story) Penang - View from the Hill

While the hill wasn’t that great, there was something cool nearby – a bat cave temple. Basically it was a temple with a cave out the back where bats slept. That did add a bit of charm to the trek, particularly since they had no problems with us shining a torch into the cave so we could see the bats. Oh, we also went and saw the huge temple, or at least a small part of it (namely because we couldn’t work out how to get any deeper), but I’ll leave that adventure for another day.

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Penang – The Forgotten Paradise by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.

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