With its eclectic cuisine and diverse population, Penang in Malaysia seems more like a cultural prism than a "pearl of the Orient" - a microcosm of Malaysia that rewards exploration after a challenging getting-to-know-you process.
Penang was founded in 1786 by a multilingual maverick, Captain Francis Light of the British colonial firm, the East India Company. The Sir Francis Drake of his day, Captain Light envisaged his new town as a harbor for China-bound ships in pursuit of tea and opium.
Under Captain Light, Penang was given duty-free status and new arrivals were allowed to claim as much land as they could clear. According to one story, he ended up bombarding it with silver dollars from cannons, in the hope that Malays would clear the forest to retrieve them.
Penang's Capital Georgetown
Today, the 115-square mile (300-square-kilometer) island has plenty to see, more than Malaysia' capital Kuala Lumpur, even. Much of the action happens at the island’s colonial capital, Georgetown.
Named after the crazed English king who lost America, Georgetown boasts Southeast Asia’s finest collection of 19th century and early 20th century buildings. In fact, Georgetown was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, in recognition of its unique architectural and cultural gifts.
Georgetown's grid makes it easy to navigate the streets that teem with the bazaars and bucket seat restaurants that underpin the city’s gourmet reputation. The diverse menu runs from limejuice spiked with sour plum to duck-meat noodle soup. One is tempted to hang around downtown and eat and eat. (The more fastidious might complain that the streets are often shabby and populated by vicious dogs, but the dedicated foodie can look beyond these with little effort.)
Beyond Georgetown’s hedonistic sphere, Penang has some engrossing natural attractions, not least the bird sanctuary. Flycatchers, kingfishers, fairy bluebirds, pheasants and flowerpeckers are just some of the birds on parade at the sanctuary, which is threaded with waterfalls.
The sanctuary’s sister, the butterfly park, houses over 4,000 tropical butterflies encompassing 150 species and is touted as a "live museum". At time of writing, plans are underway to add a night zoo stocked with nocturnal creatures and tropical insects.
Drawn like moths to the flame, most tourists visit at least one of the many incense-drenched temples dotted around the island. Penang has more places of worship per square mile than anywhere in Malaysia.
Two of Penang’s most exceptional temples are to be found in the same workaday Georgetown street, Burmah Lane. On one side of the lane stands the Dhammikarama Burmese Temple that bristles with standing Buddhas, and on the other the Wat Chayamangkalaram of the Thais, which contains a reclining Buddha the length of a small ocean liner. Beneath him are niches stuffed with the ashes of dead devotees.
Agents of death infest Snake Temple, aka the Temple of the Azure Cloud, which is set near the airport. Apparently drugged by incense smoke and de-venomized just in case, the “holy and harmless” green pit vipers laze and sustain the myth of a monk with a soft spot for lethal reptiles.
The monk, named Chor Soo Kong, gave shelter to the snakes of the jungle. When the temple was completed, taking the monk’s behavior as proof that they were family, the snakes moved in. As much a part of the furniture as the 600-pound (270-kilogram) Manchurian bell, they look unlikely to leave any time soon.
Snake Temple and its Burmah Lane rivals may seem hard acts to follow, but they pale in comparison with Malaysia’s biggest temple, Kek Lok Si (Temple of Supreme Bliss). Perched on the summit of 2,600 foot (800 meter) high Penang Hill, the tiered temple features a turtle pond, the Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas and a profusion of iconography.
The highlight is a towering, sinuous statue of Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy, who forsook Nirvana so that she could help lost souls in the world of suffering. At Fort Cornwallis, the star-shaped fort on the island’s northeastern coast, the rather rakish statue of Captain Light looks comparatively modest.
Penang's much-vaunted and over-touted beach, Batu Ferringhi, has now been comprehensively spoiled by over-development.
Signs along the beach warn visitors not to bathe, due to the large number of jellyfish that have been attracted by the effluent in the waters. The signs are somewhat superfluous though, as one look will be enough to deter most visitors from a dip in the almost opaque, green water. It looks so acidic that the beach-comber may wonder if the occasional t-shirt washed up on the beach is all that is left of the last tourist unwise enough to try a dip.
After a downpour the pollution is given a much-needed flush and the green goo changes color – to brown, a product of the run-off from the island’s deforested hills.
What really sets Penang apart is the cuisine. Adventurous foodies are now turning to Penang for their culinary kicks, where all the world’s main cuisines are thrown into a culinary melting pot, often to exquisite effect.
When readers of the New York Times recently voted for the 44 destinations they recommended for 2009, Penang was the only Asian destination included in the "foody" listings: the surprise was not that Penang came first in the Asia roundup, but that other destinations like Singapore and Hong Kong didn’t even make it!
You can get a good selection of local eats from food stalls along Penang Road, Gurney Road, New Lane, Macalester Road, and Magazine Road. Better yet, ask a local about his favorites - you'll get no two similar opinions, but you'll certainly get passionate and informed advice about Penang's cuisine choices.