In search of old Penang

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 March, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 March, 2000, 12:00am

One could be forgiven for believing that a remnant of British colonialism lives on at Penang's Batu Ferringhi beach. Between January and March, hundreds of English package tourists flock to resort hotels here in Malaysia, escaping the cold weather back home.

Many spend their time swimming, sunbathing and over-indulging at the Shangri-La's adjacent Rasa Sayang and Golden Sands hotels, and don't venture beyond the souvenir stalls and seafood restaurants nearby.

I have to admit I nearly did the same. It had been seven years since I visited Penang, and the increase in high-rise residential development was something of a shock. The drive of around 50 kilometres up the east coast to Batu Ferringhi from the airport was a frustrating crawl through traffic snarls. Where the moped had ruled, now it is the motor car.

It was a relief to find that the beach remained unchanged, and I could easily have spent my three days break there in resort mode. But I decided to go exploring, taking the hotel shuttle bus to nearby Georgetown, former capital of the Straits Settlements, fearing that its famous shophouses might by now have succumbed to the demolition ball.

It was a relief to find that Chinatown, a maze of narrow streets and back alleys, is safe, protected as part of Penang's heritage.

Here, beneath the landmark Komtar tower, and behind Jalan Penang, you step back in time. Far from being an area preserved for tourism, Chinatown is alive and kicking. Fung shui masters give advice in dimly lit rooms between shuttered shops where salted fish are hung to dry and sacks of herbs and spices perfume the air.

You can still take a trishaw to explore, if you can stand the traffic fumes, though the number has dwindled now from 3,000 to around 700. I went on foot.

Some of the old hotels in the side streets still have ceiling fans, and you must pad down the corridors to use the communal bathrooms. But they are cheap. The recent devaluation of the Malaysian ringgit by about one-third means you get a good deal on just about everything in Penang.

Chinatown offers great value for budget travellers. The Cathay Hotel, for example, was once a merchant's mansion, and its old-world ambience is intact. Air-conditioned double rooms are M$75 (about $150). Back-packers' accommodation is as low as $20.

Many of the merchants' houses that stand in extensive lawned grounds have been beautifully maintained, but developers are beginning to move in, and some of the old houses are being demolished to make way for condominiums.

But many old buildings are protected. Take the Heritage Trail from the ruins of Fort Cornwallis, just outside Chinatown, where the British established a garrison in the late 18th century. There are 11 historic buildings on the trail, which threads through Chinatown. You can cover it at a leisurely pace in a couple of hours. The historic buildings include the old city hall, town hall, court buildings, temples, and a shophouse which was the base of Dr Sun Yat-sen from 1909-1911. Its interior remains unchanged.

After dark, take a taxi along Gurney promenade just outside Georgetown. This is where many locals relax with their families, and lovers stroll. Car parks give way to dai pai dongs, and the best of these is the Golden Phoenix.

Take a table and wander around the various seafood and noodle stalls, ordering dishes. Just tell them your table number and have a cold beer while they cook. They'll bring the food to you. No tips are expected, and you'll be entertained by Chinese singing in Mandarin on a small stage. A meal for two and beer should not cost more than $60.

While the east coast of Penang is becoming increasingly developed, the west is largely untouched, and the forested plain around the village of Pantai Acheh offers excellent trekking.

The best way to explore is to hire a moped or small car. I took an air-conditioned vehicle, great value at $100 for 24 hours.

Stop off at the Butterfly Farm and wander the enclosures among winged wonders before visiting the batik factory or the tropical fruit farm run by Quah Ewe Kheng.

The fruit farm is worth seeing for the view alone, but here Mr Quah grows a staggering 140 varieties of tropical and sub-tropical fruits, most of them native. Gorge yourself for only a few dollars, or take a guided tour of the farm, which covers 10 hectares.

Cut across the middle of the island to Ayer Itam on the way back to Georgetown. Here is the equivalent of Hong Kong's peak tram, leading up to the cool summit of Penang Hill at 820 metres.

Built by the British in 1923, the funicular railway is in two sections. It takes 30 minutes to reach the top, passing colonial homes on the jungled slopes, where monkeys play.

The summit offers terrific views and you can stay overnight here in a former colonial villa. For me, three full days was not enough to explore Penang.

Mike Currie paid just over $2,500 for a package of four nights at the Shangri-La Golden Sands, including buffet breakfasts, transfers and return air ticket. Check with your travel agent.



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