Penang: One of the World’s Best-kept Travel Secrets
Regardless of the political climate, Thailand has always maintained international interest. Yet Malaysia it’s Asian neighbor or Penang specifically, may be the area's best kept secret. It’s not news to those in Asia, especially those in Singapore who frequent Penang regularly (their Hamptons) and make up the majority of their tourist. Many European and Middle Eastern travelers who favor the conservative climate are regulars to the island.
It’s hard to imagine how the island has completely escaped the American traveler's radar, as it is a rich and layered bit of bliss. Perhaps The Travel Channel’s famous foodie Anthony Bourdain and famed flier Samantha Brown’s recent visits and shows will pump up the volume on the area. If you missed the memo or their shows, here’s a sneak peak in to what is on offer, islands style.
Once you settle in to Shangri-La’s oceanfront Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa, night and day different in décor and ambiance than their Singapore property, head to the Spice Market for your first feast. The restaurant plays homage to the spice driven cultural crossroads of Malaysia offering buffet style fresh Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Baba Nyonya, Western and International fare in an open air restaurant overlooking the Batu Ferringi beach. If you want to take a bit of this with you, you can. Pop in to the Spice Boutique where they offer over 100 dried herbs and spices from the region. Place your order as you leave. It will be delivered to your suite that evening.
Next up is an afternoon at CHI, the most luxurious spa in all of Penang. Relax in one of the eleven private villas where you have a private outdoor tub and lounge as well as a luxurious treatment villa. After a consultation, your practitioner will assign an element to you for your signature Malay Rasa Asmaradana treatment. You will leave floating on air and begging for more. Don’t forget to purchase the CHI CD in the boutique to relive the tranquility.
After a sophisticated swim in the Rasa Wing’s adult only pool, a walk on the Batu Ferringi beach is a must. Hawkers are not allowed on the premises. So, your lounge in the garden or by the pool is a peaceful and private one, but you will miss the local boat if you don’t capture the characters, theatrics and the stunning sunset, which will literally steal your breath away.
Before dinner, take advantage of the complimentary happy hour with succulent Asian bites prepared by Chicago native chef Adam Roy. Dinner at Feringgi Grill on the beach is a nice warm up for the evening’s night market, but a few feet away form the hotel door. Here haggling is not only welcomed, but expected. So, work it!
It’s difficult to leave the property and many opt not, but venture off premise in to Penang as George Town the historical capitol of Penang was given Unesco World Heritage status in 2008 as it’s architecture an culture are unrivaled.
What’s unique about Penang and George Town is that there is a mad mix of both cultures and religions that seamlessly seem to coexist peacefully throughout the city. You will see side-by-side mosques, temples and churches where Islamists, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Taoists and Catholics among others worship.
Hitch a ride on a rickshaw, as the heat can be a challenge. Lazily take in the city sites and hop on and hop off when visiting the many temples in town. Be sure to pop in to Wat Chaiyamanglaram Thai Temple to see the large sleeping Buddha. Then visit the Dharmikarama Burmese Temple across the street to see the large standing Buddha and what appears to be a Buddha museum behind it.
The city itself with its many old shop houses has great bones as one of my fellow travelers said. You can see the prominence and power of the past. Many today are working to restore the properties and the city’s richness. You will see an architecturally rich city in transition with boutique hotels, shops and restaurants popping up in the now restored storefronts.
Architecture and cultural diversity aside, the other big draw in the city is the cuisine. Malaysia is famous for it’s street food with hawkers and stalls everywhere. Penang is known as Malaysia’s culinary capitol. The cultural collision makes for a very vibrant cuisine unlike anywhere in the world with influences from China, Thailand, India and Malay. One of the most famous cuisines in Penang is Nyonya, the result of the mix of Chinese and Malay known as the Peranakan. Penang too has a Peranakan Museum in a beautiful and ornate private home from the 19th century.
Live like a local
Once out of city center nip off to the tropical fruit garden for more foodie fun. Try an array of local fruits and juices like fresh mangosteen, star fruit or nangka fruit. The Dorian is not for the faint of heart. You have to grow up on it to get it. Its odor and flavor are unique.
Before leaving your oasis get out on the water. The staff at The Shangri-la can arrange any water sport activity or the rental of a boat. After an early morning rainforest hike we hopped a boat and bared the choppy waters en route to a turtle sanctuary. Due to the inclement weather we were forced to turn around. But the ride out in the stormy seas was just as one would imagine an island in Southeast Asia…. evocative.
We did our good fortune and toasted our gracious hosts at Shangri-La with a culinary feast prepared by Chicago chef Adam Roy in the award winning Feringgi Grill. Drilled Pizette and smoke grilled duck liver, a sampler of soups, smoked beef filet and grilled black cod was topped off with a death by chocolate. It’s fair to say after a few days in Penang I definitely felt like I died and went to heaven.
Girl Talk - Even more so than Singapore the landscape in Malaysia is very conservative. It is a religious and Muslim country where homosexuality is illegal and gay bars are scarce. The reason that Malaysia remains under the travel radar is that Penang and KL are not promoted as party cities as it’s a Muslim country therefore drinking is not overly promoted nor allowed within the religion. Yet it is widely exercised by locals and visitors alike.
On Penang’s beach you will see many women from the Middle East in head to toe traditional clothing fully covered regardless of the oppressive heat. They feel very comfortable in the conservative climate. You will too, just exercise discretion, as you’re not prone to see sexual expressiveness regardless of the preference.
Stay – Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa offers an unrivaled service. It’s no wonder honeymooners choose the spot, many spent a few months in residence and Tony Blair made it his respite while the ash was settling in Iceland. (shangri-la.com/en/property/penang/rasasayangresort)
Play – Penang’s oceanfront is an aquatic playground for thrill seekers and sun worshippers. If the play becomes too much work, you may want to opt for the reflexology poolside at Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa. Grab you can pool and have him radio one of he six reflexologists on site. You will be lounging by the pool or in the shady garden my pleasure place of choice. In minutes you’ll be dreaming, drooling & back in balance. At $30 USD, if they were in the US, I would have them on speed dial.
Flying High – Fly Cathay Pacific, which is sure to set the sophisticated tone. Slip in to your private pod in Business Class with the season’s best cinema and the world’s best wines. Your stopover in Hong Kong, Cathay’s hub, is one for the travel books. Pray for that long layover so you can hit the famous noodle bar before grabbing a shower. (cathaypacific.com/us)
For more information on Penang: (tourismpenang.net.my)
Blogger Bio: Karen Loftus is a Multi Media Maven. She's an International Comedian, Writer, Travel & Lifestyle Editor and Globetrotting Photographer covering the good life on The Global Road. After globetrotting through The Middle East, Europe and Asia, entertaining Expats, execs, the US troops abroad and theater savvy audiences around the globe at international theaters and comedy festivals, award winning playwright and international comedian Loftus took a break from touring, slipping in to journalism, putting on the page what she once delivered onstage. As a journalist, Loftus found her definitive niche in travel writing, covering the luxury lifestyle and vino trends in travel and culinary and cocktail tourism. It was a coming home as her Irish grandparents ran a speakeasy, distilled their own spirits and ran many a famous pub. This fashion forward foodie takes great risks and goes to extreme journalistic measures on the global road, parasailing, surfing, bungee jumping, four tracking and canyoning in search of the story. Today Karen's vibrant tales can be seen in 40 different regional, national and international magazines, newspapers and websites. In between her travels Karen still flexes her funny bone and will take up touring again in 2011. Her passion project Body Comedy where she uses humor to heal is hitting the Global Road. Karen’s worked with several thousand people over the years, from prisoners to teen prostitutes and women and children who have experienced abuse on the body. She’s been featured in several documentaries, MS Magazine & MSNBC. Comedy Central has been a supporter of the US program for seven years. Karen’s is taking her Body Comedy program and heading to Kenya in November to work with orphans and young entrepreneurial woman. A TV show is in development based on The Body Comedy Project. Stay tuned. For more info: www.karenloftus.net You can follow Karen on Twitter @LAKArenLoftus