Saturday, April 18, 2009

Penang, Pearl of the Orient

I've been to Penang Island many times in my life. It's one of my favourite getaways. It has a very unique culture, climate and most of all I love the food! However, my latest trip to Penang Island recently was like a maiden visit. Like I've never been there before :)

Here goes the story...

My friend Awang, who's working with MENGO (Malaysian Environmental NGO), a non-profit organisation formed in 2001 funded by the Danish based association to look into matters pertaining environmental issues in Malaysia, he invited me and my friend Jasz to volunteer for Water Day Penang held in Penang Botanical Garden on Sunday, 12th April'09. The event was launched by the Chief Minister of Penang, YAB Mr. Lim Guan Eng. It was the kick start of our adventure in Penang Island.

Getting to Penang

There are many means of transportation, however, we decided to take the challenge of express bus instead of driving. So on Saturday, 11th April'09 at 9.00am we started our journey from Pudu Bus Station with Transnational Coach to Penang. The ticket priced at RM35.00 per person for one way.

We arrived at the Sg. Nibong bus station at around 2.00pm. First thing first, we needed to check in to our hotel in Jalan Kebun Bunga, nearby the Botanical Garden. We saw taxis waiting outside the gate of Sg. Nibong bus station waiting for their prey, I think. True to my assumption, our predicament started thereon.

Penang Taxis

We realised that all Penang taxi does not use meter. The charges were fixed according to zones in regardless of the distance. Waterfall Hotel was only about 10km away from Sg. Nibong and the charge is RM30! The taxi driver explained, it’s their normal practice. No wonder the locals don’t bother to use taxi as means of transportation.

In my opinion, Penang taxi drivers should review their system and learn from KL to get better image from visitors and increase their income in the long run. Being expensive will only give bad image to the industry and eventually killing the business itself. I wonder why they can’t see the logic. So no argument, we paid our fare of RM30 and check-in at the hotel.

The next thing we need to do is to get our lunch. We wanted something authentically Penang. We asked the hotel reception, where we could eat. The answer we get was so cold because they wanted us to eat at the hotel’s restaurant which only served western food! She told us that all eateries are so far away from the hotel. Getting the cold and unfriendly respond from the second person we encountered was not a pleasant experience, but we didn’t want it to spoil our spirit. We still insist in getting the taste of Penang, so we decided to walk.

The walking part was fun. We took the wrong turning where the road was long and endless. We were happy and playful. At the end we hailed a taxi, no choice if we were to make the best of our limited time there. A less than 5km distance to Pulau Tikus, the taxi charged us RM10. We didn’t argue this time knowing very well that it was their culture.

Eating in Penang

We had Nasi Kandar for lunch. It’s very rich and delicious. You have you own pick of the servings from fish, eggs, chicken, mutton, beef and veges. Just name it and it’s yours. I had a kurma mutton with spinach. Umm… yummy as always!

After Nasi Kandar, we checked out an ice-cream outlet. We wanted to taste the ice-cream first before buying, but we were told, we can’t taste it. Not their practice. Huh! Okay, we had to respect people’s way of doing business. No worries, we selected our flavours and off we go to Gurney Drive area.

Walking gives us better view of Penang Island and its architecture. We noticed a lot of new high-rise, high-end condominiums under construction. New shopping malls too. Hmm… not bad as if the economy is booming. The walking and observation part was fun.

We ate some more at Gurney Drive before taking a bus to Feringhi Beach. Let's makan :)

So full with Nasi Kandar and Ice-cream, we want to check out the famous Gurney Drive hawker food centre. We saw these beautiful exotic snails they called Siput Duri, translated 'Thorny Snail' which I thought can only be found on beaches to be made of souvenirs. They were too pretty to eat. A full plate of beautiful snails was only RM10. It tastes great! We ordered some Chinese dumplings and a Yam Cake as well. Both cost us only RM4. That’s reasonable.

Feringhi Beach

Going to Feringhi via Rapid Penang is only RM1.50 from Gurney Drive. We were advised by two good Samaritan of policemen who were having their meals. The bus driver was a kind person. I was accompanied by a good-hearted elderly woman on the bus telling me things about the beautiful beaches of Feringhi and where to stop. We stopped ourselves at the Shangri-La Penang Beach Resort.

The beach was awesome with lots of people and activities. Since it was unplanned, we didn’t bring our swim wear. Nevertheless we had great fun riding on a horse which has a funny name and an attitude, namely 'SAY YES'. Hahaha... We were running in the water, lazing on the sand observing the crowd and finally the sunset. It was a beautiful and special moment for the three of us.

Gifts & Souvenirs

Usually I will buy Buah Pala (nutmeg) or Asams (preserved fruits) as gifts from Penang. However, this time around, I was not interested on those. I wanted something different. We browsed through the Feringhi night market for souvenirs. Most of the items were China-made, nothing authentic of Penang except for water-colour paintings of Penang scenery by local artists and t-shirts. Very disappointing because I would expect trinkets, handicrafts or anything local as we should promote local products as souvenirs to tourists. Finally I bought a dreamcatcher even though it is not authentically Red Indian’s. Someone used to give me one, so I just want to buy one for someone :)

Night Life

We took a cab to the new clubbing area near The Garage. The charge was RM15 from the hotel. It housed a few happening clubs like SS (Slippery Senoritas), Fame, Mois, Momo, Uptown and many more. We tried Momo. Clubbing in Penang was more expensive than in KL. On Saturday’s night, most of the clubs were patronized by youngsters of local Penangites. We took a cab back home at a bargain charge of RM25.

If I were to rate clubbing in Penang in terms of the crowd, pricing and delivery of quality services, it was 6 points out of 10.

Sorry folks :)

Places to Visit

There are many places you can visit in Penang. They have beautiful sandy beaches of Feringhi, beautiful UNESCO heritage buildings which features colonial architecture around the city, toy museum, snake temple, Bukit Bendera (Penang Hill), Penang Botanical Garden and many more to name just a few here.

Since our Water Day was the reason we went to Penang, we had a chance to walk around Penang Botanical Garden. It was beautiful although in my opinion, more can be done to it. It’s not supposed to be named a botanical garden at all. It’s not like Singapore Botanical Garden or even the Putrajaya Botanical Garden. There’s no learning centre or interpretive elements expected out of its name to the visitors. How I wish it could be a place whereby our future generation could learn something from the world of plants. Instead, it’s just like The Lake Garden in KL, a place for recreation activities.

However, I do love some of the trees I found over there such as the Canon Ball Trees, some low big branches trees which I didn't get to check the name and the Tabebuias (yellow coloured flower trees commonly found in Penang road sides).

Like wishing for the stars... but still wishing. I wish the local government could invest more in creating a real Botanical Garden with visitor’s interpretive centre to showcase our wide range of vegetation and create awareness of the conservation and research in the areas of botany.

After the Water Event, we went for a vegetarian lunch. Nice one :)

Then we went to Snake Temple near the Bayan Lepas area. Quite amazing. Lots of green coloured viper snakes coiled around man-made pillar branches passively. Not even a slight movement. It just sit there oblivious of people who came near them. Our friend, Hong told us that the snakes have been charmed by the monk at the temple. But it can also be the incense smoke that made them dizzy and passive like that. I am not sure… not enough time to really research on this matter.

In terms of architecture, the temple has many unique features. From the deity statues, to the bells, and the paintings. If only we had an expert to explain more of their meaning, it would be wonderful. Since we had so little time to catch on our coach back to KL, we made the visit short.

We went for a round to the USM campus. Hong showed us the Twin Towers of Penang. Hahaha… it’s actually a high end condominium with connecting bridge in the middle. Very expensive, it seems. About a million over a unit! I can do a lot of things with RM1mill.

Penang twin tower and Penang Bridge from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) view

Back to KL

So there you go my adventure in Penang Island with two good friends. It really feels like a maiden visit as we went to places we never been before, with means of public transports which gave us a different kind of experience. It turned out to be fun and adventurous :)

If you want something that is not boring, do it differently!



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