By Anirban Sarkar – If Kuala Lumpur is a high-tech city, Penang is where nature unfolds itself generously. Penang provides a perfect weekend sojourn. The local people, which, like anywhere else in Malaysia, comprises mainly the Chinese, Indian, Bangladeshi and of course the local Malay population – the son of the soil. If Kuala Lumpur is a state-of-the-art hi-tech city, Penang is a perfect weekend retreat. And to some extent like Oxford or Cambridge, it has a traditional style of construction dotted with rare sky-high swanky buildings. The signature colonial architectures boast of vibrant colours too.
We stayed in George Town, the capital of Penang that overlooked the cluster of similar looking slanting roofs, housing the local people. The hotels offered incredibly low rates. You could expect a five-star lavish shelter right in the heart of the city for less than Rs2000/night. That’s a favourable arrangement to attract tourists to Penang round the year.
George Town is a city that reminds you of the colonial rule and every nook and corner. Signboards with distorted English blaze along the roads. The South-Indian drawl in their accent cannot go unnoticed.
Penang is known for both its beaches and freezing and windy hilltops. The beaches are simple, spread across the county without much fanfare. Needs a lot of care to turn it into a special tourist destination zone. But as it stands now, it’s closer to nature, unspoilt and uncared. The quaint shores of the North and South Channels pen the city in. The unbridled gerrymandering by nature makes the boundaries changing in short spans.
The most popular beach in Penang is Batu Ferringhi. Calm and moderate waves disbursing lacy foam across the stretch, souvenir shops and restaurants to cash in on the little fame that it has, a popular night market where pavements are occupied by hawkers and only a none too snob buyer with a penchant for haggling can extract a reasonable price from them.
Batu Ferringhi is certainly not one of the beaches where you instinctively plunge into water, roll and jump. It does not tempt to such enjoyment. Rough pebbles, shells and often worse kind of filth and stench rather caution you as you stroll down the beach. Despite the repulsive elements strewn along the sandy beaches, groups of local people were seen taking dips. I tried to make some sand castles, but too many pebbles and stone chips spoiled the fun. The channels are rather in perpetual torpor, but never lifeless.
Our next destination was Penang Hill. About 6 kms from George Town, it is a cluster of ambitious peaks overlooking the entire district of Penang. It’s cold, it’s soothing, it’s gorgeous and it’s thrilling too. The top has a temple and a mosque, souvenir shops, eateries and to top it all, a mesmerizing panoramic view of Penang. It’s rather a fuzzy bird’s eye view, clouds hampering the visibility further, only to add a romantic charm to a city bred soul.
The most thrilling part is the journey to the top. More than 2,700 ft high terrain can be reached by a funicular railway system. There is an alternative motorway too. But we chose the thrill. Barely slanted, it goes almost straight up. There are small stations on the way and a few small houses to be seen among the thick forest surrounding the rail route. Some parts of it are cleared and turned into small villages. Somewhere midway on the journey there is a halting station. There we got off and boarded the next train that took us to heaven. The route is steep straight more than we could previously imagine. A personally suffered from vertigo, yet, enjoyed the thrill.
Large coniferous trees, typical in any similar landscape and herds of squirrels greeted us on the way. More exhilarating was the wide variety of birds chirping through the thick foliage. But for a middle class salaried employee in Kolkata, nothing really could put a check to his worries and apprehensions all the way up.
During our stay in Penang, we mostly survived on Nasi kandar and Nasi Lemak. These popular local dishes generally comprise rice and a variety of curries. Can’t say it was delicious, but a change was welcome. Once we had something they called Biriyani in an ‘Indian’ restaurant, which was far from what we generally mean by this delicacy. Penang also offers a wide variety of fish. But I had a hunch, could not really trust their cooking even if it was a known fish, prawn or lobster.
The way to and back from Penang was also quite an experience. When we came to Penang, we took the famous Penang Bridge that connects Penang with the mainland of Malaysia. It divides the North and South Channels. It is one of the longest bridges in the world, and the longest in Malaysia. It is about 8 miles long, sees a regular heavy traffic, but surprisingly unlike in India, even the biggest traffic snarl does not provoke incessant honking. Even the most disconcerting trapped in traffic moments were strikingly silent.
While leaving Penang for good, we took the waterway. They have a robust ferry service, similar to what our Gangasagar pilgrims experience every year, but bigger, cleaner and more organized. We tucked our car on the lower deck and went up to have a bigger view of the Malay Channels. Needless to say, we enjoyed it thoroughly.
Rest is as usual. Back to KL, the city, the rush, the artificial décor, the monorails, the Twin Towers. We stayed in Kuala Lumpur for few days before we returned to Kolkata.
Just a few quick facts in the end:
Penang is the smallest district in Malaysia, but with maximum population density.
State religion: Islam