Our experience in Penang was fantastic. I wrote a blog for it about a week ago but have really struggled to make it flow the way I want it to so I’ve decided to break it up into a couple blogs and hopefully my words can create the excitement and love we found on this island.
So why are we on Pulau Penang?
It was recommended to us by numerous people. It’s a big tourist attraction for foreigners and Malaysians. In 2008 Georgetown was named a UNESCO World Heritage site. It also has a beautiful national park and some intriguing temples to see.
In 1776, Captain Francis Light who represented the British East India Trading Company landed on Penang Island and renamed it Prince of Wales Island and Georgetown was established. To my understanding, Penang didn’t become a part of the federation of Malaya until 1948. The information is confusing as to when the name was actually changed back to Penang or if the name “Prince of Wales Island” was ever accepted by the locals. Either way it is inhabited by Malaysians, Chinese and Indians who have all fused different elements of their cooking into the Malaysian street food.
Part 1 – Heritage Celebrations Festival
After a short 5 hour bus ride and 20 minute ferry, we arrived on Pulau Penang (Penang Island). Still waiting to hear from our requested Air B&B host we start walking into town to find lunch and wifi. Something strange is going on here. It’s 2pm and 80% of the shops are closed. Even a couple roads are closed. All that’s open is a few street vendors and a couple restaurants… most of which didn’t have wifi.
After an hour, we get an email from our host saying yes he can host us. We jump in a taxi and head 20 minutes south to our destination. Our taxi driver explains to us that today and tomorrow is Heritage Celebrations. Our timing for showing up on this island could not be better! When we told him it was our first time in Penang, he says, “Well then I have to personally invite you to the festivities of our Heritage tomorrow. I expect you to be there!” Like we would miss this.
We meet our host, who is not the host from Air B&B but an older student renting the apartment. He’s very nice and did his best to help us with everything. Our room was a simple bed and desk with an ensuite. Unfortunately the ensuite was quite dirty and had very poor drainage. Bathrooms here have everything built into the room with no separation. Shower, toilet and sink all together. So if we showered first, then we had to stand in a pool of water to brush our teeth. You also get used to taking toilet paper in and out of the bathroom.
Gross bathroom aside, the condo has some amazing amenities: Huge pool with a water slide along with kids and adults area. A convenient store, laundromat, hair salon, restaurant, gym, a theatre and a classroom. You are 25 minutes away (In Gelugor) from the center of Georgetown but if you just wanted to relax and enjoy your vacation, you would never have to leave here.
Our first night in Penang, we jumped on a bus and rode back into Georgetown to see the heritage celebration festival. There were roads closed down and many street vendors set up. They had different stations where you could weave roses out of leaves and make traditional dream catchers. One station was set up to have henna for a small price so Kristi had it done.
At one part of the street, it was all Indian art set up. One man called us over to his table and insisted we put on the traditional hat. We then gave each other red dots which I read men only wear on special occasions such as ritual worship or marriage (maybe they secretly married us) Then we had our pictures taken together. It started with one photographer. Then there were two. Three. Now there is a big crowd of not just photographers but people in the street taking our picture. Maybe 20 different cameras pointed at us. I think people may have legitimately thought we were famous. Afterwards, a few people asked us to write our name and country on their programs. It really was an exhilarating experience. An afterthought suggested that I should have been charging people to take pictures then I could use the money to make it rain. I probably could have signed some autographs too.
We tried some old traditional food in the street where the people who served it didn’t have a name for it. It was similar to dim sum but filled with veggies or peanuts. It was alright but nothing to get super excited about.
The bus ride back was a whole other experience. Because we are so far out of town, it is not a common bus to see tourists or travelers on. So I’m standing on the bus looking at the tops of everyone’s head as they stare at Kristi and I in confusion like “do these people have any idea where they are going?” and “why do they have dots on their foreheads?” Once again, I kind of felt like a celebrity except this time I couldn’t help but feel like when they stared at me they were wondering how successful they would be at robbing me.
Of course this was just white person paranoia as we stayed on the bus for an hour and left without any incident. We were so fortunate to be able to see this since it is only a 24 hour event. We found out the following day that we had missed most everything else in the morning and all the streets were opened again and it was back to business as usual.