Penang, Malaysia

I was standing at the famous Marina Bay Sands Sky Park Observation Deck in Singapore when I overheard someone say, “You can see Malaysia from here, but there’s nothing much to see there”. That was seven years ago. I returned to Asia on a few occasions, but never visited Malaysia until recently. Malaysia flew by my travel radar probably because its tourism industry is not heavily promoted or not as developed as Thailand its neighbor in the North or its southern neighbor, Indonesia. With the oil and rubber industry, and port of Malacca, Malaysia does not depend upon its tourism.

On a recent trip to Malaysia, I decided to go to Penang first. What a better way to learn about the country’s history than a visit to Georgetown, Penang’s capital city. It is a historic city included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. The city is a living example of the multi-cultural heritage (Malay, Chinese, Indian) and tradition of Asia and European colonial influences. Its mélange of culture is expressed in a great variety of living quarters, art, and food and religious buildings of different faiths. For example, across the road from 
Wat Chaiyamangkalaramthe Thai Buddhist Temple that houses a 108-foot-long reclining Buddha, we find another ornate Burmese Temple.

As a nature lover, I always gravitate to scenery of nature. So, I really enjoy my visit to the Penang Hill and Kek Lok Si Temple because they offer both cultural sight and natural scenery.

The view of Georgetown from the Kek Lok Si Temple Garden

Penang Hill (Bukit Bendera)

Riding the tram to Penang Hill is a great scenic introduction to Georgetown and Malacca. The views of Georgetown and the Straits of Malacca on the way to the top are outstanding, as the peak rises more than 2700 feet above sea level. Aside from the stunning views of Georgetown and the Straits of Malacca, and the longest bridge in Malaysia, Penang Hill offers a variety of attractions: a skywalk, mosque, Hindu temple, an owl museum, a playground, and a variety of nature trails, birds and monkeys. I walked to the summit to see an old colonial mansion reminiscent of an English village. There’s a view of a forest from this side which is a part of the National Park.

Walking on the steep hill is allowed. However, the tram ride is an experience in itself and the ride on the way down is quite exciting. I was lucky to snag a seat at the top of the tram on the way up, and at the bottom of the tram on the way down. However, my camera froze so I was not able to film or take pictures.  The tram ride to Penang Hill is probably the most popular tourist attraction, so be prepared to wait in line for an hour. 
And getting the best seat is dependent upon your place in line. 

Kek Lok Si Temple

Built in the early 20th century, Kek Lok Temple aka the Temple of Supreme Bliss is one of the largest temple complexes in Southeast Asia. It was built in tiers on a hilly slope as well as perched atop Air Itam. The highlight is its towering seven-story Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas, whose stunning design is Chinese, Thai and Burmese. 

The temple complex is divided into three sections. The temple grounds comprise the hill entrance, souvenir, and food stalls and the turtle liberation pond. I climbed several steps to reach the second tier to see the Four Heavenly Kings Pavilion, the pagoda, and the gardens.

An enormous statue of the Goddess of Mercy occupies the top tier. 

Georgetown is a treasure trove of well-preserved heritage buildings. Some of the most visited sites include:

The Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi, also known as Khoo Kongsi, is one of the most beautiful Chinese clan houses built outside of China. It is well known worldwide for its extensive lineage that can be traced 650 years back.

The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion is also known as the Blue Mansion because of its striking indigo color, the result of mixing lime with natural blue dye made from the indigo plants. The architecture is mainly Chinese style but with a European flair. Painstaking restored to its original form for a period of six years with craftsmen brought in from China.

Chew Jetty and Lee Jetty are unique Chinese settlements or villages along the pier with wooden houses built on stilts. Although there seem to be more tourist booths selling souvenirs than clans that still reside here.

Also, a visit to the museums will give you a better understanding of Penang’s rich culture and heritage. The Colonial Penang Museum will bring you back to Penang’s colonial past. Another Museum is the Penang Malay Gallery to learn about the history of the Malay settlement in Penang Island.

Penang is the food capital of Malaysia. One can buy authentic dishes from many food traditions with a stop at any food court.

NOTE:  All photos by the author



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