What’s Penang Like? First Impressions of a Malaysian Island

As the aircraft descended down over the coast of Butterworth and approached the island, it appeared like a mini Hong-Kong. Docks, ferries and high-rises lined the north-eastern coastline gave way to sprawling condos interspersed with run down asian buildings. Flying north down the coastline revealed a semi-industrial area with apartment complexes up against a backdrop of hills carpeted in tropical jungle.

In this lighting, even the bad parts of town looked good. Amazing what a blue sky and a spattering of banana palms will do for a place.

Malaysia was a breeze – no visa, just a 90 day stamp on arrival and an easy transit through to domestic. Despite many things I’d read we were never asked to prove our bank balances or show onward travel. Penang airport was considerably smaller than Kuala Lumpur, but modern, clean and pleasant, with a tropical upbeat vibe, live band and large windows looking out to the aforementioned palms laden hills.

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Much more English is spoken here than in Thailand, so previously complex tasks such as organising the right bus and buying sim cards for our phones were straight forward and simple.  Stepping outside was hot, but not muggy and humid like I had imagined. Dry season in Malaysia brings something akin to the New Zealand summer, but hotter with blazing sun during the day and gorgeous balmy warmth through the night.

The most striking feature of Penang is the food, this island is hailed by many as the food paradise of Asia.  You can walk into even the most chaotic and dirty hole-in-the wall and most likely run into something spectacular, or at the very least damn tasty. Penang is a cultural blend of Indian, Chinese and Malay which brings a vibrant blend of sights, sounds, flavours and festivals. 3 days in and we haven’t had a bad meal yet, everything we have randomly selected during our exploring has been great value and very delicious.

Tender roasted chicken, sliced and drenched in a soy and sesame oil sauce served up with perfectly cooked rice and a home-made sweet chilli sauce without the sickly-sweet of western bottles versions, bottomless indian vegetable curries served atop a fresh banana leaf and eaten with the fingers; the food here is real and satisfying, having lived up to all of my expectations.

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You can travel the full circuit of the island by taking 3 different busses, stopping over in two smaller fishing villages on the island. The buses wind and loop up the hills and the views out to the durian and rubber farms stretch right out to the ocean. We spent our first day catching the buses around the island, and our second day on foot exploring the historical centre of George Town, a UNESCO world heritage site.

We have arrived into Penang right before two major festivals, the first is Thaipusam, a Hindu celebration of good vs evil, where as I speak a 15 hour procession carrying the chariot with the statue of Lord Muruga is currently making its way through an arduous journey up to the temple on the hills. Festival celebrations and penance begin tomorrow, and we are going to go and see this spectacular and unique festival for ourselves.

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The next large festival begins next week – Chinese new year, a huge festival spanning almost 2 weeks. With the large number of Chinese residents in Penang this is due to be a giant celebration full of festivals, food and fireworks.

We still haven’t decided on a longer-term accommodation, but are in a hotel for the week while we look around and get a feel for where on the island we want to be located. In the mean time, we continue to explore and eat our way around this diverse and vibrant island.

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