Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Penang 2011 - Hills and Temple Tour

We booked another half day tour through Viator - this time it was an afternoon Hills and Temple Tour. We were picked up from our hotel at 2.30 p.m. in a car. As the agent had been overbooked, they decided to fit our group into our own car - a Proton Perdana for a private tour. We didn’t mind at all.

Basically the tour only covers the Kek Lok Shi Temple and the funicular ride up to Penang Hills. The temple was the first stop. After a 40 min car ride, we arrived at the foot of Penang Hills where the temple is located. The temple has gained in size over the years, and now they even have a gigantic statue of The Goddess of Mercy reachable by their own private funicular ride. We decided to stay only at the lower levels, as to me the most interested part of the temple was the main complex and the pagoda.

The gigantic statue of The Goddess of Mercy sits at the top of the temple complex, reachable by a short funicular ride.

We made our way to the top of the 8-storey Pagoda, and was rewarded with nice views of George Town.

The Temple is very popular with devotees looking to get their prayers answered.

After spending a couple of hours at Kek Lok Shi, we were ready for the next stop which is not far from the Temple. The guide had warned us earlier that it may be a long wait for the ride as it was a public holiday. We decided to try our luck - but before reaching the station we knew our chances were dim. There were simply too many people - and the wait was up to 3 hours long !

We did get to see the infamous "Kancil Car Park". This building was supposed to be built to ease the car park congestion at the foot of the hill, but they forgot to check the slope and headroom of the ramps ! As a result, only the smallest car - a Kancil (Malaysian made car about the size of an Austin Mini) can use the car park. Somebody somewhere should be in a lot of trouble for this big mess up.

Our nice guide decided to make up for our lost opportunity by taking us to a famous ice kacang shop - Kek Seng on Penang Road, very near the Komtar tower. It was an old kopitiam full of old world charm. The furniture looked like they had not been changed for over 50 years.

The Ice Kacang was quite nice - but in my opinion not better then our own Swee Kang Ice Kacang in Kuching. The durian ice cream was creamy and delicious.

It was quite nice being driven around in our own transport - giving us the feeling of freedom and flexibility usually not available in a packaged tour. After the ice kacang - the guide was kind enough to drop us off at Gurney Plaza for some shopping.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Penang 2011 - Island Discovery Tour

We decided to book a half day Island Discovery Tour to venture out a bit from George Town. Booking through Viator - it was quite hassle free. You pay online, get a voucher with the local contacts - then call the local agent to confirm the tour. After we just landed in Penang, we got a call from the agent to remind us of the tour. Good service.

We were picked up from our hotel at 9.00 a.m. in a medium size van. Besides the four of us, there was a couple from Australia, and another couple from Japan - all very nice travel mates.

The tour starts with a drive to Batu Feringghi - and a visit to batik factory. It was a public holiday so the factory was only operating in holiday mode - with only 1 batik artist on hand to demonstrate the craft. It was interesting for the kids.

The shop had a lot of batik fabric on sale, and also some batik paintings. I was more interested in the batik blocks - and was very happy to be able to snatch 2 of them - the only ones they had at the moment.

Next was a drive up the hill at Teluk Bahang. We stopped at a small road side stall to see some local spices being processed - nutmeg and cloves. There was also a rubber tree right in front of the stall - so a little demonstration of rubber tapping. Frankly this part of the tour would have been more interesting if we had visited the actual spice plantations - but that was not to be.

Fresh nutmeg. You can actually eat the flesh which is a bit like a tart green apple.

View of the northern tip of Penang Island.

Next we drove through some Malay Kampungs in Balik Pulau (literally "back of the island") on the Western side of the island. This area is famous for durians and rice production. It is interesting to see that rice is still grown on this small island.

Our next stop was at the famous Snake Temple. Here is a sneak preview - I will have more pictures in a future post.

The final stop was to a German Jewelry factory. They produce mid to high-end jewelry - including some costing tens of thousands of ringgits. It was an interesting visit - but no pictures were allowed unfortunately.

All in all this was a relaxing drive around the whole island and you see some sights that you don’t normally see on a visit to Penang. The tour takes aroun 3 1/2 hours. Highly recommended if you have the time.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Penang 2011 - Christmas Eve Dinner

We landed in Penang on Christmas Eve, and one of the things I was trying to pre-arrange was our Christmas Eve Dinner knowing most places would have been booked out. I have already picked the place we wanted to dine at, unfortunately they do not take bookings and was strictly first come first serve only - despite my pleading via email and on their Facebook Page. Fearing that we might end up with no place to eat on a Christmas Eve, we went to the restaurant half an hour earlier. Luckily they were already open.

The restaurant is called Soul Kitchen, located on Muntri Street which is not far from our hotel. It is run by a German-Malaysian husband and wife team. I have read many good things about it and it was on the top of my Penand food list.

They had a 4 Course Christmas Set Dinner which looked really good and we settled on that. We ordered a pizza for the kids. The Set Dinner came with and Italian Starter, a Seafood Soup, Roast Pork Loin, and Dessert.

The Starter was excellent. All the four items were very well prepared and really tasty. We wished there was more.

The Seafood Soup was also very nice - it had chunks of fresh fish meat and was made with a good fish stock.

The Roast Pork was truly excellent. So tender and juicy, and marinated with beautiful flavours. The accompanying side dishes were also no slouch - the roasted vegies were very flavourful, tender potato gratin, and a dried tomato compote. This is true soul food.

Pizza for the kids. Very good.

After all the great preceeding courses, the dessert had a hard act to follow. It was a Strawberry Mascorpone Panna Cotta. A good finish to the meal with a good coffee.

Christmas Eve in Penang was surprisingly low key. We expected the place to be packed - given the great food and good value, but there were only 3 tables occupied with ample tables to spare. No wonder they did not feel necessary to take bookings.

This small but cosy place served the best food we had on our trip. If you are in Penang now - don’t miss it.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Penang 2011 - Penang Esplanade

Penang Esplanade is at the Northern Eastern Tip of Penang Island. Here you will find an amazing collection of Colonial structures - from one of the oldest - Fort Cornwallis to the Penang Townhall, etc. When you first set foot on the large square that fronts the Townhall, you could be transported to somewhere in England or Europe - as you are surrounded by European buildings. The Esplanade itself is not much to look at, and views from here are mostly toward the ugly Bayan Lepas Industrial Estate. However this was the centre of Colonial life in Penang and no visit to Penang should end without a walking tour around this fascinating historical district.

One of the best way to explore the area is to start from Fort Cornwallis, at the Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower, built to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of the Queen in 1897. From here you can follow Lebuh Light (Light Street) which is named after Captain Francis Light who landed in Penang in 1786. The Penang Assembly is in an old Colonial building facing the Fort. From here you walk towards the town square and the Townhall - a beautiful building painted in yellow. Next to the Townhall is another handsome Colonial building fully painted in white - the City Hall.

Moving away from the Esplanade, you will reach the Penang Supreme Courthouse. Behind the Courthouse is the famous St. George’s Church - in front of which is a Francis Light Memorial.

Penang Town Square at the Esplanade.

The Penang Town Hall.

Penang City Hall.

Penang High Court.

Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower.

Penang Assembly Hall.

St. George's Church fronted by the Sir Francis Light Memorial.

There are so many other buildings and sites to explore - it is best to take your time and go with your instincts. When you get hungry or thirsty, just sneak in to nearby shophouses for a nibble and continue.