By JJ Fox
As the rush hour traffic dies down and the city starts to cool off, an aromatic blend of garlic and spices starts to fill the air. Local food stall owners fire up huge woks and chop away at mountains of fresh vegetables while customers take a seat in plastic chairs at their roadside table. Dinnertime in Penang is about to begin. Hungry locals, expats and tourists exchange tales of travel and culture while they devour steaming bowls of noodles and rice.Street dining is just one of the myriad of things that this city has to offer.
Three hundred and fifty kilometres north of the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur, peaceful Penang lies on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula – an ideal destination with a similar vibrancy and calm of that of Chiang Mai. Forget the suffocating dirt roads of Phnom Penh and the chaos of Bangkok and look forward to a charming destination where culture and comfort are delicately intermingled.
Make the most of an efficient bus system and take the 101 up the mountain (try and ignore the sheer drop on the other side of you as the bus hurtles round corners) and visit the Butterfly Farm. This vast, humid indoor garden contains some of the most beautiful butterflies from around the world in an effort to promote conservation by removing the creatures from known threats and studying new breeding methods. In addition to their insect collection, the farm also boasts a variety of different fish, lizards and turtles. Information checkpoints are found throughout the enclosure,, offering visitors the opportunity to learn about various butterfly species and the conservation efforts being made to secure survival
In the same nature-loving vein as the Butterfly Farm, Penang’s Fruit Farm is a flourishing hotspot in Malaysia’s ecotourism scene, worlds away from the hyper-commercial concrete jungle that is the Genting Highlands. Once again, this is an endeavour by conservationists to protect rare and exotic fruit trees. Guides offer tours of the farm and provide guests with insightful information about the origin of the fruit, some of which have come as far as South America. After you’ve worked up an appetite wandering through the shady, heavily scented orchards, the final stop on the tour is the produce market. Ever wanted to try what Mark Twain once dubbed “the most delicious fruit known to men”? Cherimoya, a fruit native to South America, is in abundance here. It is one of over 250 different tropical fruits on offer at the farm.
Need even more tranquillity than a farm could offer? The top of Penang Hill is the perfect escape from the city grind. Take the funicular train or, if you’re feeling energetic, challenge yourself to the two-hour hike to the top of the hill and reap the rewards for your efforts with a view that will steal your breath away. If you go on a clear day, the panorama is endless and in the late evening you can watch as the sun melts away into the streetlights below, staining everything in its wake a dusky pink.
Save the adrenaline adventures for Taman Neggara and take advantage of the chilled out vibe in Penang to unwind. Stroll along the Esplanade and take a look around Fort Cornwallis or get lost in the colours and smells of Little India, making the most of this little pocket of calm in the whirlwind of Southeast Asia.
Long Fishing Pier Penang photo via Shutterstock