PENANG, Malaysia, Jan. 30 (UPI) -- Penang, an island hotspot off the northwest coast of Malaysia, is an undiscovered hip and happening travel destination -- undiscovered by Americans, that is. Most Americans who show up are here for work, not play, which has something to do with the fact that Dell Computers has a headquarters in this the Silicon Valley of Malaysia.
In the meantime, the Australians and Japanese are enjoying uncrowded beaches, jungle trails, outdoor sports and indoor pleasures at relatively low prices. No wonder a growing number of European clubbers are descending upon this Malaysian Cancun as an under-exploited, cheaper and freer beach party scene than nearby Singapore and far-off Ibiza.
The people are friendly, the cuisine is delectable and the scenery is worth the journey, but the real gem lies in the historic center of Penang City, otherwise known as Georgetown.
Try to imagine well-preserved remnants of the pre-World War II British Empire. Only a trace remains in Hong Kong and Singapore, but Penang's Georgetown has protected the buildings and fostered the ambience of old-school British colonial charm. Brushed with Pacific and Asian flavors, this sleeper of a city adds new meaning to the concept of dilapidated chic.
The best way to see the city is by trishaw (bicycle taxi); if you get an Indian, as he pedals you in and out of traffic, the Indian Bhangra music emanating from his ghetto blaster will make it a hair-raising and multi-dimensional experience. Penang, you see, is not a place go, but a somewhere to experience.
ROOTLESS COSMOPOLITAN GUIDE TO PENANG
Country Code: 60
City Code: 4
Exchange Rate: $1 U.S. = RM 3.7
There are daily flights between Penang and major regional cities such as Singapore and Bangkok and 12 daily flights from Kuala Lumpur. For further info, check out Malaysia Air at malaysiaair.com.
Where to Sleep
1. Shangri-La's Rasa Sayang Resort
Batu Feringgi Beach
Luxury accommodations amid 15 acres of lush tropical beaches. This is the place to stay for those who prefer to lay on the beach, work out in top-notch facilities, engage in outdoor/water sports; it is only a 15-minute cab ride south of Georgetown for urban excursions.
2. Eastern & Oriental Hotel
10 Lebuh Farquhar
Room rates range between RM69-120
For the ultimate in old school cool, these 1885 digs can't be beat. Located in the heart of the historic section of Georgetown, it beckons back to an era of colonial chic elegance when the likes of Rudyard Kipling and Douglas Fairbanks stayed here.
3. Cathay Hotel
No. 15 Lebuh Leith
Rates are $70 for a double room
For a cheaper and more authentic old school stay, check out the dilapidated chic Cathay, with its colonial meets opium den decor. It is located on hip yet laid-back Lebuh Leith, in close proximity to some of the coolest bars and restaurants in Georgetown.
Eating and Drinking
Malaysian food is a close blend of Thai, Indian, Chinese and Islander food, but has its own signature style. For example, Malaysian peanut sate sauce is thicker and crunchier than its Thai counterpart. Penang is home to one of the two large Chinese communities on the Malay peninsula (Singapore being the other); as such, Penang-style food has a strong emphasis on Peranikan cuisine; commonly referred to as Nyonya (meaning "mother') cuisine, it is a variation of Malaysian and Chinese food. Such local specialties include Otak Otak (shredded fish steamed with coconut milk and spices served on a banana leaf), Assam Curry Fish (spicy and sour), and Kuih Talam (a melt-in your-mouth dessert made with rice, tapioca and coconut milk and served on pandan leaves.
Traditional Malaysian-style is heavier on the curries, but a bit less spicy than Nyonya cuisine. Local favorites include Nasi Lemak (rice in coconut milk with fried anchovies in chilli paste, topped off with cucumber, egg and a meat curry), Roti Jala (pancakes served with curry dishes) and Rendang (meat cooked with chilies, onions, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, nutmeg and coconut milk).
Indian cuisine has left an indelible mark on the local flavors, and comes in three varieties: Northern Indian cuisine (typically what you get in the West), Indian Muslim cuisine (Mamak) and Southern Indian cuisine.
Basement of Oriental Hotel
105 Penang Road
Amid cozy bohemian retro kitsch decor, Kashmir serves mouth-watering Northern Indian cuisine in an opium den-like ambience, such as live Banghra music and funky lighting. Be sure to try the five different kinds of Naans and the mutton.
2. Jaipur Court
11 Lebuh Leith
Housed in a rustic 19th Century colonial style structure, this restaurant too, specializes in Northern Indian cuisine.
1. Restoran Amandari Grand
Plaza Gurney, Level 4
Traditional Malaysian cuisine in a festive setting with live local music.
1. Dragon King
99 Lebuh Bishop
Specializing in quality Nonya wedding dishes, this 1950's bare bones diner resembles a Chinese noodle shop; the grandmothers in the kitchen will keep bringing you food whether you are full or not and insist you try the different varieties; try pietee as a starter, then try the Otak Otak; The fresh pineapple juice is divine. The menus still advertise video cassette recorders and the 1980 Olympics!
Penang's growing club scene is fueled by Euro ravers and Aussie tourists. Soho Club is the longest-running club because it is a popular Aussie haunt, but locals don't like to go to the same place for too long, so clubs move around frequently. Check out klue.com.my for the latest listings.
Bars and Lounges
1. Las Vegas Bistro & Pub
20 Lebuh Leith
Don't be put off by the cheesy name, this colonial era building is countered by digital art, projectors and disco balls. The contrast between old and new adds new meaning to colonial chic.
2. Twenty Leith Street
11-A Lebuh Leith
Mid-Century jukebox and cabaret-like stage, where live Malay pop bands perform add special charm to this 100-plus-year-old venue.
3. Thirty Two
32, Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah
Cool bar/lounge/restaurant, where colonial charm meets minimalist chic; it hosts live last century jazz with a fresh 21st Century flair. Try one of the Laici daquiries.
4. Old China Café
Ground Floor, ABN AMRO House
No. 9 Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street)
Housed in a restored bank circa 1857, it still has a colonial flavor. Try out the Penang Punch and the Sago Gula Melaka (a Nyonyan dessert consisting of coconut jellied custard in coconut cream)
To experience the best in local flavor, be sure to hit the night market; it changes location, so ask any taxi driver where the Pasar Malam is to get the current scoop.
1. Kek Lok Si
The Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas, Malaysia's largest temple is well worth the hike.
2. Snake Temple
Dedicated to the deity Chor Soo Kong, in the mid 19th Century, it is a refuge for pit vipers supposedly tamed by the burning incense. If you brave the adventure, it is located less than 2 miles from the airport.
3. Beach massage
Fun in the sun usually means some kind of rigorous movement, but many of Penang's resorts include open air on the beach body massages. An hour of Swedish/acupressure massage with oil is about $20. What a deal.
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