Penang Island is connected to the mainland by two long 5 mile bridges off the north western coast of Malaysia. It also has it's own airport, (which is how we arrived on the island). It is a UNESCO World Heritage Island, and offers a mix of Chinese, Malay & Indian cultures living in harmony; though more so heavily Chinese due to the immigration of the Chinese culture in the 19th century to the island.
Here you can enjoy the old British Colonial feel of the island's main town of George Town with very nice shops, dining, and historic sites.
One of the most attractive things about Penang for tourism is how far the US dollar goes against the local currency. The value of the local currency is nearly or over 4 to 1. This means you can eat an entire meal easily for $5.00 on average, and we are not talking McDonalds! Street food vendors called Hawkers are world famous for the extremely good cuisine that you can enjoy all day long for just $1 or $3 a plate. You can eat duck, soup, noodles, rice, curry, prawn, pork, crab, or chicken for just a few dollars each. You need to have local cash though, Hawker stalls and courts do not take credit cards. You can easily find different cuisines such as Indian, Malay, Chinese, Western and more. A nice typical sit down Chinese restaurant with multiple plates and enough food to feed 4 or more, can usually be had for $25-$40. While parts of the lifestyle do reflect the difference in value, most tourist accommodations, dining and shopping are all
great bargains in Penang.
Mega shopping malls, like Gurney Plaza, are commonly 5-6 story indoor malls with everything you can possibly think of. Connected to the indoor mega malls are parking lot towers, that have electronic tracking of parking availability. Before you even pull into the garage main floor, you will see how many spots are available overall, then on each level you will see how many spots are available. Each spot has a little red/green light above it. Easily showing you while driving in the lot, where there is a spot. Why can't we do this in the US, Ingenious!!! (This is actually a common thing in Asia. As I've personally saw these garages in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Taipei.) In some you can even pay to have your car washed
while you go shopping!
Our stay here was split between time staying with my in laws in a charming community called Island Glades. We also headed to the far side of the island where the wonderful beach resort community of Batu Ferringhi is located, home to luxury and moderate beach resorts. We enjoyed a few nights at the Hard Rock Penang, in a really nice swim out suite.
The highlight of our time in Penang was visiting the stunning Buddhist temple complex of Kek Lok Si. It is the biggest Buddhist temple complex in Malaysia. It is built into the hillside of the island and consists of several temples, a towering pagoda, and a massive beautiful statue of the Goddess of Mercy, made of bronze. It is very impressive. An incline car connects the lower temple complex & pagoda to the upper temple. From the overlook at the base of the upper temple, you can look out and see the entire town of George Town and all the modern stylish high rise condos that are popping up all over the island.
To wrap up, Penang is a beautiful island, mixing traditional cultures with the modern way of life. English is widely spoken by many, and all signs are in English as well. This is due to the British colonizing the country in the 1800's and it remained a British Colony until the mid 19th century when it won its independence.
It's not difficult to get around the island and understand where to go, and to talk with locals. Banking, shopping, dining, transportation and sightseeing are all easily manageable.
Penang is an excellent value for US Tourists looking for something different and off the usual tourist path, it also can offer luxury at a much more affordable price than elsewhere in parts of Asia.
- Derek Schemonitz