Sunday, 15 February 2015

Penang Island - Unlocking Malaysian Culture

Experiencing Penang and writing this blog is unique. There are no theme parks, integrated resorts or casinos at Penang. Yet, the state of Penang is considered one of the best tourist destinations in Malaysia. For one, the capital of Penang, George Town, is a UNESCO heritage site. However, I think what really sets Penang apart from the rest of Malaysia is the food. Somehow, the fried kway teow, laksa and other Malaysian favourites are so much better there.

We did not have much chance to eat, though, since we visited Penang via a cruise and the ship caters all meals. In fact, everything covered in this blog is completed in 4 hours.

The Penang cruise terminal building is the first thing we saw when we arrived.

Getting to Penang

There are multiple ways to get to Penang. For one, you can take a flight to Penang International Airport located at the south of the island, with direct flights from Singapore, KL, Hong Kong and Bangkok. If you are like most Singaporeans, though, you will pay about $35 to $40 for a direct 7-8 hour bus ride. However, my visit to Penang was incidental as it was part of the cruise itinerary of Mariner of the Seas.

Alighting the ship was quite a nightmare. We took the lift down to deck 1 where disembarkation is to take place, and...well...we cannot even step out of the lift. We had to wait at the Royal Promenade for about half an hour before the crowd has dissipated.

Don't forget to come back on time. The ship will not wait for you!

Unlike the airport style ship-bridges at Singapore, disembarking at Penang calls for a more traditional gangway

At least the disembark area is sheltered

Exploring George Town, the UNESCO Heritage Site

George Town is one of a few UNESCO Heritage Sites in Malaysia, the other is Malacca further south. It is renown for British colonial architecture and is host to a large variety of temples, mosques and churches, playing homage to the multinational and multicultural nature of colonial trade. Alright. enough big talk, let's get onto the tour itself.

We decided to rent a taxi for 3 hours at RM150 (SGD60), available from the cruise terminal. In this way, we do not have to risk not being able to find a taxi. When you take this service, do speak to the driver about your plans and intended objectives or destinations. It is so much more enjoyable to tour with a taxi driver you can trust. He can even be your tour guide.

This is the taxi we took. Larger 7 seat taxis are also available at a higher price.

As out cruise stopover is relatively short, we did not have the time to stop by every single stop. Instead, we drove past several conservation buildings, many of which are converted to government offices.

A local government building. Note that the facade includes both British colonial and Malay influences 

St George Church is the oldest Anglican church in Penang and it is founded in 1818

The State Assembly building was once used by the British as their local court

Church of the Assumption, founded in 1786, is a World Heritage Church

Journey to Penang Hill

As we journey out of the city center, we could see the lifestyle of Penang. On one hand, there are some old, run down single story houses just at the city fringe. Further out, nice shop-houses with beautiful stone, glass and metal facades. Along the streets, there are also people preparing for Thaipusam, a traditional Indian festival.

This is the modern side of Penang, and these new shop-houses are a staple throughout Malaysia

For Thaipusam, they actually set up row upon row of elaborate tentages along the entire street, whereas in Singapore people cannot even play the Indian drum. Talk about religious harmony.

We also stopped by at Kek Lok Si, the largest temple in Penang. It is also the third largest temple in Asia. Unfortunately, we arrived at 6.45pm which is just minutes after its closing at 6.30, so we can only admire the structure from the outside. The taxi driver told us that the construction work we see is actually a private funicular railway specially for the temple. Talk about conspicuous consumption.

Kek Lok Si is the largest temple in Penang

Even beyond the city, you can find many memorials to World War 2, from a cemetery dedicated to the military dead to a large bronze sculpture at a major road junction, it is clear that the people (or more likely, government?) of Penang love their culture and heritage.

This bronze structure is in commemoration of the British Army which defended Penang from the Japanese

"This memorial is dedicated to the defence of Penang"

Penang Hill

Penang Hill, or Bukit Bendera is the most developed hill of Penang and is famous for its funicular railway. Some rich residents also built luxurious homes along the slopes of Penang Hill and there is a visitor's center for tourists located at the peak. However, to get there you need to take the funicular railway, which costs RM30 per person.

[tip] Visit Penang Hill on Monday to Thursday after 7.30pm and get half price on the funicular railway tickets

The Penang Hill Railway was recently renovated and includes sleek, air-conditioned trains and a new station building

Be prepared for a queue at the ticketing counter. The staff will tell you when the next train departs but they usually do not follow the official timetable

There are signs on both Malay and English

I think Malaysians really treasure privacy more. Even the fact the CCTVs are used has to be displayed. That never happens in Singapore

A gallery dedicated to the history of Penang Hill and Penang Hill Railway

This is the sloped platform. The steps are actually a lot steeper than it looks

We were able to secure a spot on the front cabin, so we had a great view of the track above. I must admit that the train was a little faster than I expected, and I was surprised that there were curves along the way (I thought funiculars all go straight). Older trains are placed alongside the tracks at strategic locations, reminding visitors of the railway's past.

This track is about 30 degrees steep now and goes up to 45 degrees

The crossover section is the most important part of any funicular railway. It allows 2 trains to operate simultaneously

These mid-course stations are actually used be residents during the weekdays

We are now arriving at the peak station

From this angle, the steepness of the station really becomes evident

There is a small visitor's center at the peak as well as a small complimentary owl museum. The buildings there are made of local timber and give a traditional feel. Some of the seats at the food center are traditional swings! A replica of an old Penang Railway train is located beside the amphitheater, and I suggest you follow the instructions of not climbing in. The floor looks like it can collapse at any moment!

This 3 level visitor center includes food, drinks, and an owl museum. Prices are marked up 50% compared to the rest of Penang

Notice the traditional stools and swings for the seating

Most of the stalls on the lower level sells drinks and dessert

This is a replica of the older Penang Hill trains

This is the real front entrance to the food center, but most will simply enter from the back

Buy your Penang Hill souvenirs here

Another facade of traditional Malaysian Kampung buildings. These replicas are actually modern code compliant structures

The waiting area on the way down actually provides the best view of Penang. There is a new observation gallery under construction as of February 2015 and I'm sure it will provide a much better view for visitors. There is a long queue for the train and we had to wait for 3 trains (20 minutes) before we can board. My family is quite pissed that some Malays are allowed to board even when they did not present their tickets.

This is the best view we could get of Penang, from the train station waiting area.

The track is illuminated by coloured lights at night

It's Shopping Time

Along the way to the shopping district, we drove past one of the weirdest Mcdonalds I have ever seen! It is situated in a freakin British colonial building. The drive-thru is just sacrilege to history.

For shopping, our taxi driver brought us to a shopping cluster near to Komtar Tower. The shopping centers there are government controlled, and the lower rentals there means cheaper products of the same quality. There are actually several shopping centers there such as Prangin Mall, Parkson Grand and Komtar Tower. We could only visit Annex A of Pranglin as we had less than an hour.

My dear Singaporeans, does this look familiar?

Unlike Singapore's shopping centers, Prangin Mall has a more geometric architecture and less elaborate structures. Perhaps this is part of their strategy to keep retail costs down.

The Waterfront

If you just came off a cruise ship and don't want to venture too far, the waterfront is the ideal place to go. There is a food center that sells traditional Penang delicacies, a children's playground, several food carts and also a beautiful view of the sea. As with everywhere Penang, you can still find a world war 2 memorial here.

The food center sells many Penang delicacies though I was quite surprised that vegetable fried squid is the most common dish found here. Prices are competitive for Singapore standards.

The little provision shops sell some popular Malaysian snacks and toys for the little ones

This playground is a great place for kids to burn off their excess energy after an uneventful day visiting churches and museums

The walk back to the Cruise Terminal involves passing through a narrow and dark side road, so it is best to go in a group. The pathway is quite uneven and you will need to jump between walking on the path and on the road itself. It takes 10 minutes to return back to the ship from the waterfront.

World War 2 Memorial, again?

Swettenham Pier Cruise Terminal at night


Alright, that's all for our half day Penang adventure. Please do stay tuned for more posts ahead. If you like this, you may also want to view our cruise experience on Mariner of the Seas. Do like our Facebook page to receive more exciting news, updates and experiences from Second Drop - The Attractions Blog.