Northbound! Back on the train, we settled in for a 7-hour ride up the Peninsular Malaysia to the island of Penang. This time, the view from the window was of rolling hills speckled with cattle and winding paths cut through the mountains of jungle. For what seemed like an eternity, a large family of restless and unsupervised Malay children ran up and down the aisles of our car, bouncing off chairs and swinging from curtain rods like wild monkeys. Thankfully, for our (and the rest of the passengers) sanity’s sake, they departed halfway through our journey leaving behind a trail of crumbs and candy wrappers.
From the Butterworth train station we could see the waters of the Penang Strait (part of the Straits of Malacca), which separates the island from the Malay Peninsula. As we rolled our suitcases from the train to the ferry, the sky began to swell with ominous storm clouds. We looked at each other, wondering if our island visit was going to consist of movie marathons and rain ponchos instead of beach strolls with ice cream cones. Not to worry! The rain came and it went, revealing the tropical sunshine once again the next day.
Walking around the island we quickly understood why Penang is known as the “food paradise of Malaysia”. The island’s rich multicultural history not only shows in the architecture, it’s also translated into a delicious variety of Malay, Chinese, Indian, and European food options. Oh so coincidentally, we booked our hostel 5 steps away from the BEST night market/ food extravaganza on the island… jackpot! The Red Garden is like nothing we’ve ever seen before: food stalls galore offering the most interesting section of (cheap!) Asian food, dancing karaoke performers framed by neon lights on stage, and people from all over the world happily dining at vibrant plastic tables, beers in hand.
Most of our time on the island was spent wandering around Georgetown (Penang’s capital and a UNESCO World Heritage site), admiring the interesting variety of British colonial architecture, Chinese, Indian, Siamese, and Burmese temples, Islamic mosques, as well as modern skyscrapers. Talk about a crazy place! Sadly, many of the buildings are in need of repair. It appeared to us that historical preservation is not a top priority, and the structures that are maintained are just for tourism, not for serving a functional purpose.
Penang is a quaint little island with a lot of old world charm. Although we were slightly disappointed by the condition of many of the buildings, the island caters to tourism so the people were friendly and the food was excellent.
Our RATINGS: (out of 10)
- Transportation n/a (ferry was fun, we walked everywhere)
- Weather 8 (equatorial climate. hot & humid)
- English Proficiency 9 (everyone spoke English. tourist friendly)
- Cleanliness 5 (litter was a common sight. so were rats)
- City Pulse 4 (not a whole lot to do except walk around)