Rediscovering Penang

The island offers all to intrepid travellers, from extreme sports and street art to nature walks

The Habitat Penang Hill is home to more than 2,500 different species of plant and flower.

As the bus takes us to George Town for breakfast, I glance out the window and see how similar Penang and Phuket islands are to one another. Both old cities are home to a unique collection of magnificent classic Sino-Portuguese buildings that harmoniously fuse Eastern and Western architectural styles.

To observe a way of local life, we sit at a cosy-yet-sleek cafe and enjoy delicious coffee that pairs well with freshly baked bagels stuffed with eggs and ham or salmon cream cheese. At the same time, a nostalgic look at a network of artistic streets allows us to picture Peninsular Malaysia in 1786 when British Captain Francis Light convinced the Sultan of Kedah to grant Penang Island to the British East India Company, turning it into a vital hub for marine trade between India and China.

With five centuries of trade and cultural exchange between Asia and Europe, George Town has become a melting pot and Unesco added this neighbourhood to the list of World Heritage Sites in 2008 to celebrate its prosperous heyday and rich cultural legacy.

Not far from our cafe, the Pinang Peranakan Mansion seems like a time machine to transport visitors back to when the Baba-Nyonya seafarers migrated from southern Fujian, China, to Penang. Situated on Church Street, it was constructed at the end of the 19th century by Kaptain Cina Chung Keng Kwee, a leader of the Hai San Society and one of the pioneers of a tin mining business in Melayu.

It was then left abandoned before Peter Soon spent almost 40 million baht transforming it into a living museum that now displays more than 1,000 antiques and collectibles from his personal collection. A remarkable fusion of Malay, colonial British and Chinese designs can be seen throughout this beautiful property.

The Habitat Penang Hill is home to more than 2,500 different species of plant and flower.

According to Feng Shui, the transparent ceiling allows sunlight to enter and a courtyard in the middle of the compound has drainage channels around to collect rainwater, which symbolise money and gold. Beautiful English tiles cover the floors and wood panels are carved to resemble auspicious Chinese plants and animals like birds, dragons and pixiu, while Scottish ironwork on balustrades adds an elegant touch.

The six rooms on the 1st floor are designed differently to symbolise the distinct Peranakan culture and opulent way of life. The Traditional Main Hall displays a series of finest mother-of-pearl furniture surrounded by gold-gilded carved wood screens, while the twin Victorian-style mirrors in Gallery 1 reflect a cheki game that is set up on a table.

Galleries 2, 3 and 4 are adorned with a variety of vintage ceramic tableware and afternoon tea sets to show how the Peranakans incorporated rich European culture into daily life. There're also opium chests packed with pipes, cartridges, knives, ashtrays and other tools.

Upstairs, Galleries 5-7 are modelled after bridal suites from three different eras from the 1900s to the 1950s. Numerous collections of traditional clothing, colourful ornaments used in Chinese wedding ceremonies and luxurious furnishings are on display. It was said that the more wealthy the owners are, the more intricate the wood carvings on the bed became.

Visitors can access the nearby Chung Keng Kwee Ancestral Temple via a secret corridor. Erected in 1899, the elaborate ceramic murals on the walls depict some dramatic scenes from various Chinese legends. The Straits Chinese Jewellery Museum, on the other hand, showcases a wide range of eye-catching Chinese embroidery and beadwork, including wedding gowns, tapestries, beaded shoes and mattress runners.

Pinang Peranakan Mansion displays more than 1,000 antiques and collectibles to celebrate beautiful Peranakan culture.

Returning to the present, we visit Penang Ghost Museum to learn more about the afterlife. Tucked away down Lebuh Melayu, it was established seven years ago and has the appearance of a haunted house, where visitors can act as ghost hunters or shamans to capture a band of devils from Malaysia, China, Japan and Egypt by selecting free costumes and props from a clothesline.

Before entering a terrifying cemetery, you can test your bravery by taking selfies with Puntianak (a woman who died giving birth) and Toyol (a miscarried child). At the Hungry Ghost Festival, a group of Chinese spirits are assembling, and two Anubis are pursuing visitors to the tomb of the Pharaoh.

Keep stepping inside, I start to believe that the experiences from Pirates Of The Caribbean, The Walking Dead and Hotel Transylvania are actually happening to me. When a curtain is raised and sunshine comes in, it is a signal to wake us up from the nightmare and bring us back to reality.

After a lunch in the Peranakan style, we head to Komtar Tower, which is home to Tech Dome Penang. It is Penang's first science centre and features 120 interactive exhibits on robotics, life technology, optics and electronics.

The highlight is G-Drop, the world's first floating vertical slide, which lets gravity pull you down towards the ground. Friction (the force that opposes motion between two things rubbing against each other) and the milder slope cause you to move more slowly as you slide along the surface, finally coming to a stop.

We continue to transcend the height by climbing to the Top's Rainbow Skywalk on the 68th floor. It is the first curving skywalk in the world and is located 248m above sea level, making it the ideal spot to take in panoramic views of the city and other famous sites. Those seeking even more heart-pounding thrills can sign up for Gravityz tallest zipline on the 65th floor. Here, you can learn from professionals how to walk, sit and behave like you're performing an acrobatic stunt.

Visitors can glide through the air thanks to the Gravityz zipline.

Back to the ground, we swoop to Armenian Street, which was once a bustling commercial district where Armenian, Chinese and Muslim merchants ran import and export businesses thanks to its proximity to a pier. While old Sino-Portuguese shophouses have been transformed into trendy cafes, bakeries and boutique hotels, the street has now become a well-liked destination for travellers to shop for souvenirs and handicrafts.

As part of the Making George Town -- An Idea competition, it has been turned into a major art stage for winners to showcase a series of imaginative steel-rod sculptures and street art that illustrate Penang's history and lifestyle.

At the mouth of the street, visitors will be greeted by the steel-rod artwork Procession. It depicts a group of Chinese pilgrims participating in traditional ritual celebrations at Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple. Visitors can also see how this street has changed through the Then & Now artwork.

As visitors wander down the narrow lanes, the walls serve as a large canvas for striking paintings of Kids On Bicycle, Love Me Like Your Fortune Cat, Skippy as well as Brother And Sister. Just a short distance, we reach Chew Jetty, which is home to a waterside fishing community.

Local villagers have turned their wooden houses into lovely shops and offer a variety of ice cream, bubble milk tea, souvenirs, toys and other collectibles. At the end of a lengthy wood path, visitors can unwind while watching the sky become orange as dusk falls.

The following morning, we wake up early and travel 30 minutes to Penang Hill that includes 12,481 hectares of marine and terrestrial habitats and was designated a biosphere reserve last year. Thanks to modern technology, we hop on a funicular tram and enjoy a leisurely 10-minute ride up the steepest tunnel path in the world.

Armenian Street is one of the main spots to see street art depicting Penang's lifestyle.

Deeper in the Habitat Penang Hill, we pay an extra 60 Malaysian ringgit (485 baht) for a sightseeing tour along a 1.6km nature trail that the British East India constructed in the early 1800s. Even though it is pouring with rain, we continue to explore the lush rainforest, home to more than 2,500 different species of plants and flowers.

We wander through the Langur Way Canopy Walk and enjoy a bird's-eye perspective while witnessing a bunch of tiger orchids and bromeliad. The selling point is the Curtis Crest Tree Top Walk, where visitors can take in a panoramic view of the lush surroundings and heritage bungalows.

Previously a British military camp, this area has been transformed into a vacation destination for visitors. The oval canopy walkway is named after Charles Curtis, an English botanist who was the first director of the Penang Botanic Gardens.

Leaving Penang Hill, it takes 30 minutes to get to Entopia by Penang Butterfly Farm. Opened in 1986, it was created as a tropical insect and butterfly sanctuary to educate people about the importance of bugs to the ecosystem.

It is divided into two zones. The Natureland outdoor garden boasts more than 200 varieties of flora and more than 150 different types of fauna. Visitors can view more than 50 different species of tropical butterfly here and learn about their short lifespans -- they can only survive for two to three weeks after emerging from their chrysalises. Sliced pineapples become the best source of nectar besides flowers.

The Cocoon indoor discovery centre uses cutting-edge multimedia technology to educate visitors about biodiverse ecosystems through interactive exhibits and family-friendly activities. Escape Penang is the final station and it's only 450m from Entopia. This outdoor theme park offers a wide range of challenging activities and games.

We just have one hour remaining, but my friend doesn't miss an adrenaline-pumping ride down the 1,111m water slide, which Guinness World Records has deemed to be the longest outdoor water slide in the world. At the same time, I take a chairlift ride amid the green rainforest backdrop and sign up for a fun tubby tubing race to end our trip.

Chung Keng Kwee Ancestral Temple.

TRAVEL INFO

  • This month, Malaysia streamlined the entry process and visitors no longer need to fill out the Travellers's Card on the MySejahtera application. To pave the way for a tourism rebound, the Penang Tourism Board recently launched the 7 World Wonders Of Penang campaign to provide fresh holiday experiences for people of all ages. Visit mypenang.gov.my for further details.
  • Travellers with KTC credit cards can book Thai Smile Airways direct flights to Penang with special benefits starting at 6,965 baht for travel dates between Aug 1 and Oct 29. You will receive a 1,000 baht discount when you purchase two tickets. Visit ktc.co.th/ktcworld for more information.

The Top's Rainbow Skywalk offers a breathtaking view of Penang Island.

The Curtis Crest Tree Top Walk is the world's tallest suspension bridge.

Entopia by Penang Butterfly Farm educates people about the role of insects in ecology.

Escape Penang is drawing local families with a variety of exciting water activities like riding a 1,111m water slide.

The Straits Chinese Jewellery Museum boasts a collection of refined embroidery and beadwork.

The Penang Ghost Museum takes guests to the afterlife.

Tech Dome Penang offers the world's first floating vertical slide.



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