Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Penfold in Penang

Having just returned from a long weekend on the island of Penang and as it was my first visit to Malaysia, I thought it would be a good opportunity to share my thoughts on the destination.

I had read extensively about Malaysia on the internet prior to my trip and settled on Penang due to its proximity to Thailand and the fact it had plenty of tourist attractions and historical sights to visit.

We flew in style on Air Asia......I am joking of course!!! For those of you unfamiliar with Air Asia they are the Asian equivalent of EasyJet or Ryan Air, a no frills, budget airline who offer cheap flights but you pay for all the extras, including your food and baggage. Our 2 return flights with 2 pieces of checked in luggage weighing 15kg each, cost a little over 8,000 baht (about £170 at the current exchange rate).

British passport holders don't need a visa to enter Malaysia, if your stay is for leisure. All you have to do is complete the immigration form that is given to you by the airline staff and present it, together with your passport, to the immigration officials. You will then receive a stamp in your passport which entitles you to stay in Malaysia for up to 3 months.

On arrival in Penang, the queues for immigration were very short and it only took 5 minutes to get my entry stamp. The immigration officer was also happy and smiling which is a rare thing these days.

Our hotel, the Copthorne Orchid Penang, was in the resort of Tanjung Bungah and cost 1,500 baht (approximately £32) per night. It took about 30 minutes to get there in the taxi and the journey cost 52 ringgits (about £11 or 520 baht). The Malaysian's drive as badly as the Thai's and we saw 2 accidents en route!!!

On arrival at the hotel we were met by the porter who was friendly and chatty but the same can't be said for the check in staff. They had reserved my room under the wrong name and it took a while to resolve the problem. This was due to the staff members poor command of English. I also noticed that she didn't greet or even acknowledge my girlfriend, despite my girlfriend smiling at her several times.

However, we soon learnt that this was a common problem in Penang. Staff members in shops and restaurants, only spoke to me and this annoyed my girlfriend intensely.........and she made the point that Westerners "aren't God" and her money "is as good as anyone's".

Another problem we encountered was with the level of spoken English, both in the hotel and outside. Although English is widely spoken and most Malaysian's speak English better than their Thai counterparts, there were 4 occassions when people couldn't understand what I was saying!!! And it's not because I was drunk or have a heavy scouse or cockney accent. I like to think that I speak the Queen's English....except when I've had too much whiskey and coke!!! ,

The hotel itself was nice enough, our room was quite spacious, the bathroom was clean and we had a nice view. There was a decent pool area and a small beach. The beach wasn't the nicest I've ever seen, the water was cloudy and there were warnings about jellyfish, so we steered clear of swimming in the sea.



The service in the hotel's terrace restaurant was very slow and the staff seemed disinterested when guests came to dine and on 2 occassions I had to get up from the table to ask for a menu or order a drink.....but despite the poor service, the food at the evening buffet was very good and only cost 30 ringgits per person (about £6.45 or 300 baht). The price of drinks was quite high with a small bottle of tiger beer costing 15 ringgits (£3.20 or 150 baht)

Carrying on with the theme of food, I was drawn to Malaysia by the prospect of sampling some of the local cuisine, but I ended up being a bit disappointed.

We went to the Hawker stalls at Gurney Drive which is listed in all the guide books and travel websites as one of the best place to try Malaysian food, but I found the food on offer to be quite bland and uninspiring, except for some excellent chicken satay and delicious squid with a sweet chilli sauce.



The food was, however, reasonably priced at 7.50 ringgits (approximately £1.60 or 80 baht) for a plate of Nasi Goreng and a plate of Char Keow Teow, 5 ringgits for the Satay and 3 ringgits for the squid.

We also ate at several local restaurants and again I found the food to be uninspiring. At a restaurant in the food court of the Prangin Mall, I had a bowl of noodles with fish balls and my girlfriend had some Tom Yum Mee, but it didn't light my culinary fire!!!

We also went to a restaurant along Gurney Drive called Bali Hai, which specialised in seafood. Our meal of fried rice, mantis shrimps and fried grouper was nice but the price was eye-watering at 200 ringgits (about £43 or 2,000 baht). For the same price in Thailand you could eat for a week!!!! In the bars along Gurney Drive a large bottle of tiger beer cost between 12 and 15 ringgits (about £2.60-£3.20 or 120-150 baht ) which is significantly more than Thailand.

Penang and the capital Georgetown (a UNESCO listed city), are rich in history and there are plenty of attractions to keep vistors entertained. There is also a free shuttle service in Geortgetown called the "MPPP Rapid Penang CAT" which stops at many of the top sights and runs from 6am to 12 Midnight. We took this service from Prangin Shopping Mall to visit Fort Cornwallis.




The fort was built in 1786, by Captain Francis Light who took control of the island for the British East India company. It is now a popular tourist destination with bus loads of local school children and foreign visitors arriving daily. The admission was 3 rinngits (about 65 pence or 30 baht).

On our last day we took taxi tour and visited the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion also known as the "Blue Mansion" which is a 19th Century courtyard house built in the Chinese "Hakka-Teochew" style. This UNESCO recognised house is now used as a hotel. They run guided tours in English at 11am and 3pm everyday. We went on the 11am tour which cost 12 ringgits per person. Our guide was very informative and had a good presentation style. Unfortunately, they don't allow you to take photos inside the house, so I only have photos of the exterior.




Our tour also took in the Penang State Museum, where the entrance fee was an extortionate 1 ringgit (about 20 pence!!!), the Snake Temple with its resident Malaysian pit vipers and the Thai and Burmese Buddhist temples. The reclining Buddha at the Thai temple is 33 metres long and is one of the largest in South East Asia. I reserve a special mention for our taxi driver, who described Arabs as "Ali Babas" and burka wearing muslim women as "ninjas". I laughed so hard I almost wet myself!!!







If I was writing Penang's school report, it would read: "satisfactory but could do better" and I'd give it 6/10. The beaches aren't great but there's a lot of interesting history and some nice scenery. The food is very hit and miss and there wasn't much variety. The people are an unusual bunch, some are very approachable and friendly, while others are very curt and sour faced. The prices for food and drink were significantly cheaper than the UK but more expensive than in Thailand. I can now tick it off my list of places to visit and if I decide to go to Malaysia again it will almost certainly be to another destination.

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