The island of Penang, eulogised as the ‘Pearl of the Orient’, lies just off the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia. Recently a network of expanded tourist facilities has been created, which have ruined many of the island’s main beach charms. Some of the beaches that are popular with resort developers, in particular those around Batu Feringgi on the north coast, have become blighted by jet skis, private hotel stretches of sand and various touts and hawkers. Despite this uncontrolled development to the north much of the rest of the island is still a beautiful tropical oasis of palm trees and sandy beaches, and it is also the main international gateway to northern Malaysia. It was the natural harbour that first attracted the British to Penang in the late 18th century, and the port is still one of the most important in the country today. There is a regular ferry service between the island and the town of Butterworth on the mainland and a spectacular road bridge.
Charming Georgetown is Penang’s main settlement, a thriving hub where Malay, Chinese, Thai, Indian and European cultures merge, as does the architecture which, in the space of a few miles, takes in a British colonial style cricket pitch and a rumble of Chinese stilt houses. The main shopping is on Campbell Street and Canarvon Street. Worth visiting are Khoo Kongsi, an old Chinese clan house, Fort Cornwallis, a British 18th-century fortress, Penang Museum and Art Gallery and the many churches, temples and mosques found throughout the town. The first class laksas and unique Penang dishes are reason for visiting alone, with many meals enjoyed outside at the ubiquitous food stalls.
REST OF PENANG
Penang has more than just beaches. One of the most unusual attractions is the Snake Temple, which swarms with poisonous snakes, but their venomous threat is countered by heavily drugging them with incense. Wat Chayamangkalaram Temple contains an enormous gold-plated reclining Buddha, which at 33 metres long, is believed to be the third largest in the world. Penang Bird Park is a must for bird lovers’ and horticultural enthusiasts alike. The landscaped park in Seberang Jaya is home to over 400 species of birds. Specially designed aviaries are placed among man-made islands with beautiful waterfalls and gardens ablaze with ornamental flowers and tropical greenery. A wide variety of orchid and hibiscus can also be seen. Over 100 species of butterflies and insects can be seen in the gardens of Penang Butterfly Farm in Teluk Bahang. The farm is open daily to visitors. In the centre of the island is Penang Hill, with a 700m (2300ft) summit, where tourists who can bear the massive queues to ascend the cable car are rewarded with splendid views and jungle walks.
More than 100km (60 miles) north of Penang lie the 104 islands, many of which are just outcrops of coral, that make up Langkawi. The largest, Langkawi Island, is the only one with sophisticated tourist facilities (it has been declared a free port and duty-free shopping is available). Several international hotels and resorts have opened as the government and international developers flood into what is set to become Malaysia’s premier island beach resort. The island’s many coves, lagoons and inlets make it ideal for all kinds of watersports such as swimming, sailing, fishing and scuba diving. Horseriding facilities and golf courses are also available. Travel to Langkawi is by air from Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Alor Setar or by road and sea.