The Pearl of the Orient

Are you running out of idea as where to go for your next R&R? You feel the world-famous Phuket resort in the south of Thailand has become overcrowded with too many retirees from Europe who have decided to make their home in this part of the world. With their comparatively stronger currencies, they hope to be able to live comfortably and inexpensively in the "land of smiles".

There are also a number of young “dropouts”, often referred to as “Aussteiger” in German, who have come here to live at the expense of the taxpayers in their respective countries. To obtain a residence permit, all they have to do is marry a local and live happily ever after on this “paradise island”. Naturally, to the chagrin of many inhabitants of the island.

Koh Samui also situated in the south of Thailand is suffering the same fate. The beautiful island has become a haven for the idles and the decadants from the West..Bali though lovely and peaceful is perhaps too faraway for a short but precious R&R. Singapore is another favourite destination but anyone who has been living in Shanghai for a while has been there at least for shopping, if not for a vacation.

So what’s left by way of sun, sea and sand? Surely, you don’t want to sit for hours in a plane if you only have a week or ten days to spare. Should you feel you need to get away for a few days but still can’t make up your mind where to go, I’d like to recommend Pulau Pinang or commonly known as Penang Island which lies on the north-western coast of Peninsular Malaysia. It’s easily accessible by air with daily flights from major cities of the region, operated by Malaysia Airlines.

The island is not new to me as I have known it ever since I was a girl still in school uniform. Therefore my recent trip there was like walking down memory lane.

Arriving rather late at night from Bangkok, I was met at the Bayan Lepas International Airport by an old friend. The airport is about 20 km. from the city centre – a 45-minute drive, depending on the traffic flow. If you have no one to meet you, I would recommend an airconditioned limousine to your hotel.

It is along the northern shoreline of Penang that resorts of international standard have sprung up. My favourite is the Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang which is on the lovely beach of Batu Ferringhi. Penang Mutiara Beach Resort on the Teluk Bahang Beach is also quite famous. Besides these two beaches there is Tanjung Bunga Beach which is equally popular among beach lovers.

These three beaches offer expansive stretches of glittering sand interpersed with secluded covers within the shelter of gigantic rocks. They also offer a host of water-based recreational facilities such as sailing, windsurfing, water skiing, parasailing, canoeing and speedboat rides. If you are fond of snorkeling, scuba diving and fishing, you can always take off to a number of quiet islands which are ideal for these underwater world activities.

Although Penang has ceased to be a shopper’s paradise, it still maintains a very good range of shops. The main shopping areas are concentrated in Jalan Penang, Lebuh Campbell, Lebuh Kapitan Keling, Lebuh Chulia and Lebuh Pantai (Writer’s note Jalan means road). Batik is a “must” item on every one’s shopping list.

Eating can also be a lot of fun as Penang food reflects the different cooking styles and tastes of its multi-racial population which is approximately 1.2 million. My favourite dishes are Asam Laksa, Hokkien Mee, fried noodles and satays. They really are mouth watering but you have to go where the locals go that is at the so-called casual market or the hawkers’stalls. To round out your evening meal, you’ll have to sample “ice kachang” which is a dessert of crushed ice plus local fruit in syrup topped up with milk.

Penang history can be traced back to 1786 when Francis Light managed to persuade the Sultan of Kedah to cede “Pulau Pinang” (Betel Nut Island) to the British East India Company. In return the British promised Kedah protection from its powerful neighbours. Light landed at the site of the present Esplanade or Fort Cornwallis. Legend has it that he fired gold coins into the surrounding jungle to induce his men to clear the area. To encourage settlers, Penang was accorded a duty-free status and new arrivals were allowed to claim as much land as they could clear. The settlement grew up from here and was later named Georgetown after King George III. Penang remained under British Colonial Rule for more than a hundred years when it gained independence in 1957 under the Federation of Malaya. In 1963 it became part of Malaysia when Sabah and Sarawak came into the group.

While in Penang I took the opportunity of going to visit someone in Ipoh which is situated on the mainland between Penang and Kuala Lumpur. The train ride took about three hours and a half from Butterworth which is linked to the island by the Penang Bridge which was officially opened in 1988. The beautiful bridge spans 13.5 km. across the channel, offering a beautiful view of the open sea and the coastlines. Before the bridge was built, a ferry had been used for crossing. The ferry is still in existence and it operates around the clock for both passengers and vehicles.

On my return from Ipoh I rode on a bus along the North-South Highway which runs from the Thailand border in the north to Jahore Bahru in the south. The highway is elevated and zigzags through the lush and green tropical jungle. The scenery on both sides of the highway was breathtaking and I could not help but admire those people who designed and carried out the construction to perfection.

Penang is a quieter version of Singapore. Although it is not as well kept or as well organised as the City of Lion, the place is certainly worth a visit. You will enjoy the relaxing atmosphere of the place. Because of its unassuming and unpretentious loveliness, Penang certainly deserves to be called “The Pearl of the Orient”.