Should we believe the hype about Malaysia's Eastern Promise
The view that Malaysia is one of the most beautiful countries in the world is often bandied about but rarely quantified
It’s no secret that Penang is the jewel in Malaysia’s already substantial crown.
To the northwest lies the famed Shangri-La, with its miles of golden beaches, warm waters, exotic sights and startling sunsets, but as fabulous as its beaches are — and they are — some of Penang city’s deeper mysteries shouldn’t be missed. And what better way to do it than by trishaw, which passes as a taxi in this neck of the woods.
Although Islam is the national religion, Malaysia's relative tolerance and love of all religions is no more evident than in the large number of Buddhist and Hindu temples that line the landscape.
Local lore claims that Snake Temple is inhabited by slithering reptiles, which crept out of the jungle the night the temple was completed. Don't worry, the pit vipers are rendered harmless by the smoke of the burning incense. Or so they tell you...
Wat Chayamangkalaram Temple houses a mammoth and magnificent gold-plated reclining Buddha, said to be the third largest in the world. Crevices behind the statue secure the ashes of devotees who have moved on from this mortal place.
I stayed at the Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa, in Batu Ferringhi, a renowned beach retreat on the northern tip of the island, which opened in 1973, quickly establishing itself as a favourite with the rich and famous. Although having undergone a multi-million pound redevelopment, the hotel is still fondly remembered on the island as the Grand Old Dame of Penang and continues to give a nod to its past through the offerings on the menu of the Ferringhi Bar and Grill.
Here, the signature dishes of Caesar salad, tomato soup and a roast beef dinner — carved at your table and with an unmistakable colonial feel — have been constants since day one. Today, they are joined by a gourmet gathering of Malay, Chinese and Indian flavours.
With its myriad of cultural influences, this is a country renowned for its creative, complex and patiently prepared cuisine. Food is taken very seriously, from the copious five-star restaurants, right down to the street vendors. Sauces are highly developed, mostly using local fruits and spices, and the seafood is what you'd expect from a country surrounded by ocean.
I took the winding road from Batu Ferringhi to explore the island. First stop, Georgetown in the northeast, named after King George III and known for its fascinating collection of fine, old buildings. Take the trishaw tour and you'll quickly find yourself immersed in the port's eclectic mix of cultures and architecture, from the Sri Mariamman Temple, with its gold, diamond and emerald-encrusted facade, to the breathtaking beauty of the Kek Lok Si Temple, an oasis of peace high above the bustling state capital.
Take in the romantic peak of Penang Hill and Fort Cornwallis. Other worthwhile stops are the delightful Penang Bird Park and the Pantai Acheh Forest Reserve, crisscrossed with beautiful trails leading to those wonderful, isolated beaches. A trek through the reserve's interior reveals rare flora, monkeys chattering in the trees, sea eagles surveying their prey, and maybe a glimpse of a hawksbill turtle heading for the sea. Early morning is the best time for such a trek.
Cultures have been meeting and mixing in Malaysia since the beginning of its history. More than 1,500 years ago, a Malay kingdom in Bujang Valley welcomed traders from China and India. With the arrival of gold and silks, Buddhism and Hinduism also came to Malaysia. A thousand years later, Arab traders arrived and brought with them the principles and practices of Islam. By the time the Portuguese arrived, the empire they encountered was more cosmopolitan than their own.
You can go from a Malaysian kampung to a rubber plantation worked by Indians to Penang's Chinese kongsi and feel you've travelled through three nations. In the cities, you'll find everyone in a grand melange. In one house, a Chinese opera will be playing on the radio; in another, they're preparing for Muslim prayers; in the next, the daughter of the household readies herself for classical Indian dance lessons.
It’s a wonderful experience.