That Jimmy Choo is from Penang, is known. Or that Penang gives the world many good badminton players is known too. But in our 9th article in the Malaysian Series, our writer Shonita enlists what else you really should know about this quaint state in Malaysia…
In an eclectic mix of old and new ways, Penang offers the perfect blend of interests for a traveller, alluring beaches for the sun-lovers and cultural vibrancy for the history-buffs. Split by the Penang Strait, the two parts – the Penang Island and Mainland (Seberang Perai) – are connected by a 13.5km bridge, one of the longest bridges in South East Asia.
It may be the third smallest state in Malaysia (roughly about a 1,000 sq-kms), but what it lacks in size it makes up in its development and diversity.
The Southern part of the Penang Island is host to some of the biggest electrical manufacturing companies like Dell, Intel, Motorola, Seagate, while the northern part is home to UNESCO World Heritage site – Georgetown. But here’s the part that a foodie or a shopping-junkie should love – the Penangites love Street Food and offer tons of Street Shopping. And for that, it doesn’t matter where you are!
So the choice you have is – You can either put up your feet and rest by the beach and forget about the rest, or you can visit the historical sites and study the culture, cause Penang has it all!
Here is a curated list of the Top 10 Must Do’s in Penang Island:
1. Georgetown Murals/ Canon Street:
The city of Georgetown is the capital of Penang. Owing to its cultural mix of colonial British buildings with Chinese shop-houses, Indian mosques and Hindu Temples, the inner-city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. To understand Georgetown, it is important to briefly understand the demography of its population.
Penang is largely dominated by a Chinese population, speaking the Hokkien dialect. Even today, there’s a strong ‘clan’ (also called ‘Kongsi’) influence, which means, that each Chinese clan, depending on their surname, have their own set of customs and temples, and worship their own ancestors. For example, the Khoo Kongsi is different from the Khaw Kongsi or the Lee, Lim, Ong or Teoh Kongsi.
The resultant of this is that you’ll see many varied temples some of them hidden in a way that only the clan members know where the place of worship is, with varied styles of architecture.
Then came in the British, and they brought with them Christianity – Anglican churches, Victorian buildings and forts. And with their advent came in the Indian settlers and Islamic settlements. So Georgetown has mini-nations on a single land, still surviving and thriving.
But that’s not the only reason why Georgetown is so famous. Along with its narrow roads and quaint settlements, a characteristic feature of Georgetown is the tiny shop-houses. Earlier, shop owners would own shops on the lower floors and have their homes built just above, on the upper floors. That’s how the name stuck on.
Factoid: Because the British taxed the owners per the width of the entrance, most houses have a narrow entrances and are really deep, giving you the pigeon-hole feeling.
So when at Georgetown, you can walk along Canon Street and the older streets, and see most of these places; or better still, hire a Trickshaw to take you on the main sites. Keep an eye out for the Temples, shop-lots, the Street Mosque and Colonial buildings. But most importantly, do not miss the famous life-like murals along the walls. The charm of Georgetown will be inescapable.
2. Kek Lok Si Temple:
Even if you’re an atheist, make sure you don’t miss the Chinese Kek Lok Si Temple. There’s a reason why the temple-name means ‘The Temple of Supreme Bliss’.
Built atop the Air Itam Mountain, the temple is split into 4 parts. The two lower parts are separated by beautifully built gardens, fountains and compound walls. The two prayer halls they hold are enormous and immensely clean, with breath-taking artwork and sculptures. The intricately carved pillars and the ginormous Buddha Statues are quite overwhelming, while the paintings along the ceilings rival some of those from the Vatican Chapels.
The third part consists of a tall Pagoda. The architecture is a combination of the three Buddhist cultures – Chinese, Burmese and Thai. This 7 floor structure holds ten thousand Buddhas, layered along the walls of each level and is also called ‘The Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas’. The architecture is intelligently designed, as you have to cross the entire floor before you can take the staircase to go up further.
And at the very top, is the home of the biggest statue of the ‘Goddess of Mercy’ (closely related to Buddhism and Taoism). At 200 feet, the Bronze Goddess looks formidable and is guarded by her two sentries. With the Chinese’s belief in an octagonal design, she is housed under a 16-pillar pavilion, to protect her from the sun and the rain. At the foot of the statue you’ll also be treated to a spectacular view of Penang Island, the Mainland and the Penang bridge.
Factoid : The original height of the statue was higher but it was later reduce as the shadow of the Goddess was falling on the Penang State Mosque.
3. Penang Hill:
At 2,000 feet above sea level, the Penang Hill is an attractive hill-station in Georgetown. The most exciting part is the funicular train service that takes you from the ground level right up to the top. Covering a distance of about 2kms in 10 minutes, it’s the longest funicular track in the Asia and is one of the most modern ones. Besides the train, you could chose to hike your way up 5kms of garden and forest land with hundreds of staircases. Halfway, you’ll have a rest point, where you can enjoy a few snacks and get refreshed for your journey ahead. Make sure to carry enough water as it’s a really steep climb.
At the top, you are treated with a panoramic view of Northern Penang and you can easily locate the Keh Lok Si Temple and other major attractions. There are several walkways and restaurants, allowing you to enjoy the view and spend a fine evening.
Tip: If you choose to use the train service, on the way up, try getting a seat at the topmost section while coming down, make sure to sit right at the base to enjoy the steep rides.
Also, there’s a fun ‘Love section’ at the top where for a few Ringgits, you can purchase a lock and clasp it around a fence with the name of your loved one and a special message.
4. Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion or the Blue Mansion:
The Blue Mansion in Penang, was the favourite residence of owner Cheong Fatt Tze, one of the most influential and enterprising businessmen of his time (1840-1996). Nicknamed ‘The Rockefeller of the East’, Cheong Fatt Tze was born to a poor family in China and then moved to Indonesia. With his acute business sense, he created an empire that oversaw almost every trade that took place at that time.
Of the several mansions he owned, the Blue Mansion in Penang is one of the two biggest ones outside of China. Housed by his seventh wife, he spent a large amount of his time here and raised his sons.
What makes this an interesting visit is that the mansion, with its 38 rooms and 220 windows is quite cleverly designed. It incorporates various elements of Chinese Feng shui with western styles of Gothic windows, Scottish cast iron works and stained glass, and Chinese porcelain work.
And with one of the best tour guides ever, Joann Khaw, you’ll learn of several interesting facts in her witty and theatrical style. She’ll tell you of the Chinese invention of the cut and paste technique, the architectural acumen of the designers of the mansion and of course, why the mansion is blue!
You also have an option of booking a suite in one of the 18 rooms at the mansion or simply enjoy the dining facilities. But irrespective of your preference, make sure to visit the mansion at the official tour times and of course, ask for Joann.
Note: Tour timings are 11am, 2pm and 3.30 pm (RM 16 adult/RM8 children)
Factoid: The mansion has featured in many commercial films including the acclaimed ‘Blue Mansion’ movie.
(Part 2, coming soon…)