Why I Love Penang
Many months have passed since returning from Malaysia’s Penang and still, I miss it. Is it the place or just the idea that I was standing somewhere completely new for several days? Doesn’t the honeymoon effect attached to exciting locations wear off over time? Sure, but it didn’t go away in one of Malaysia’s best destinations, as you’ll see. Whether you’ve ever considered visiting, this story about our trip there and exploring some of its highlights will demonstrate exactly why I love Penang.
Other than learning about the currency and watching a few travel shows/reading up on traveler forums, I know that we are visiting a melting-pot country and hub of the old spice trade. Research led me to realize that one should visit Malaysia first for its wonderful food and Penang in particular, where the famed “hawker” food stalls dominate the scene. As soon as the plane lands in Penang, we encounter faces full of expressions that screamed “Hey friend!” followed up by firm, long-lasting handshakes. I felt very welcome in Kuala Lumpur but Penang steps the “buddy-scale” up about ten notches.
Our hotel sits right across from an oceanside hawker mall that served up anything worth eating. We stare at it every morning from the infinity pool and go in one night for a meal. Hawker food wows visitors with its wide variety of stalls serving different ethnic foods and in this case, to accompany the lineup of variety Malay, Chinese, and Indian food. So many delightful choices make one visit hardly a surface-scratcher at these places. Cheap yet not too filling food allows one to move around and sample, sample, sample. It’s hard to top these moments eating beautiful, delicious food and having a view of quiet water.
When traveling, we all have to do those things that others might call “touristy” or “tacky.” The Tropical Spice Garden’s Malay cooking class and its accompanying garden tour teaches wannabe foodies where our most important ingredients originate. Throughout the walk, the former NATO soldier-turned garden expert offers various historical anecdotes of deadly plants and how they’ve affected the turnouts of wars, some he participated in and others fought in nearby theaters (i.e. Vietnam). Rajah introduces each spice with a story and by the end of the tour, my hands smell like a mixture of ginger, cinnamon, and other spices balled up in my fists.
Malaysia is yet another country associated with poverty and decline but those generalizations are terribly inaccurate. It’s booming continues to develop even though a fair share of problems still exist. Capitalism is running amok there and exploitation is inevitable in that system. “Before all the development, life here was simple,” the taxi driver explains as he drives to the airport.
The stresses of busy days at the office follow the emerging workforce to their homes, where bills and other problems leave people unhappy and wanting a way out from under their hectic lives. But like many of the people I met along the way here, there’s always this feeling of “why leave?” and “this place is home.” Sure, there’s stress in Penang but one can find that everywhere. It’s not like tons of people leave Penang to go elsewhere. They want to see what the island has to offer. People like me. You. And just like those other visitors, I want to go back.
Our travels don’t normally include repeat destinations. Maybe someday places like Penang will get a second visit, much like I’d want to go back to Angkor Wat and Ko Chang. It’d be worth another glance at those beautiful sights but deliberations usually cancel out a revisit. See more. The question that gets floated around at the end of every trip is “What’s next?” Vacations don’t pop up out of thin air. There’s planning to be done, more places to investigate. Always more.
See why I love Penang? Would you visit? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments section!