Going on vacation in a place where the State’s religion is Islam has always blocked me for various reasons. First, the security and fear of a terrorist attack, the freedom to drink a mojito on the beach when you want (a vacation isn’t vacation without alcohol!), the freedom to wear a bikini without feeling uncomfortable and finally, my ignorance on the subject. I admit I did not know the difference between a Hijab and a Chador, what they meant and in which states they are used.
If Malaysia is an Islamic State with all the pros and cons of the aforementioned, Penang Island is the exception. Here, despite a clear majority of the population being Muslim (45%), there are also Hinduist, Catholics, Buddhists and Chinese dragons all living together. It seems that the only ones to have trouble are the atheists (badly viewed by everyone …) Under a clear blue sky Buddha, Allah, Ganesh, Vishnu and Jesus go hand in hand filling the air of incense, scents, candles and different chants.
The main town is George Town. Walking through its streets you can see golden and shining Chinese dragons, mosques spreading Islamic prayers, Buddhist temples filling the air with incense, Catholic churches alongside Hindu statues with two heads and sixteen arms. At lunchtime, you can admire restaurant tables of office colleagues dining together, a mixture of races and ethnicities, veils on their heads, glamorous Indian dresses, dark skins, almond eyes, and occasionally some western ones as well.
But George Town is surprisingly beautiful even with its historical and architectural aspects. I say surprisingly because, unfortunately, all the Asian cities I’ve visited so far have disappointed me so much. They usually smash all that was before to build super-modern super-giant super-tall super-twisted skyscrapers. The historic or ancient parts of the city are left to die and fall apart, transforming itself from ancient and historical to dirty and crumbling. Penang is different. The colonial houses have been maintained and some restored, giving the city a fresh, colorful and cheerful appearance. I advise you to stroll through Art Street with your eyes upward, because in addition to the splendid murals here you can admire marvelous windows, colonnades, doors and balconies of the old Malay houses.
The Cheong Fatt Tze, also known as The Blue Mansion, was beautifully restored in 1995. Highlighting its magnificent and unique indigo color, astonishingly, it has been transformed not only into a museum but into a small hotel with a fine dining restaurant.
As for the food you can only imagine the variety of dishes you can find, obviously at ridiculous prices. The local restaurants are small open-air squares filled with tables and surrounded by shops that show off typical dishes one after the other. This is how it works: you make a round to see all the shops, you choose your food, you give your table’s number and you pay directly to the “chef” when he brings you the dish. The perfumes mix in the air and on the same evening you can enjoy Malay dishes, Arabic cuisine, Chinese cuisine, kebabs, spring rolls (the best ones I have ever eaten), Thai curry, Japanese teppanyaki and if you’re a geek, pizza. It was all exquisite and I ate more than once there without stomach cramps or spending overnight sitting on the toilet. That said, if your priorities in choosing a restaurant are on the list below, avoid “local” restaurants:
- Food traceability
- Ingredient list
- food glutamate free
- List of allergens
- Careful attention to details like plating
The only thing that isn’t beautiful in Penang is the sea, especially for us Italians accustomed to the wonder of the Mediterranean, Sardinian beaches, Sicilian coves, Apulian colors ….
This problem is easily resolved through the use of fast ferries, within a couple of hours you will find yourself in the islands near Langkawi, to be precise we went to Palau Payar. A paradise of white sand, emerald green sea and colorful fishes. Here you can relax, snorkel on the coral reef, swim with sharks, and if you’re lucky like me, be attacked by a bunch of rainbow fishes and find out that when they bite they do it fuckin bad.
The pictures below are not mine. Unfortunately, my phone was out of order, I took it online here and there, but I assure you that the sea is even greener and more transparent than it appears here. My only suggestion, be careful of the sun. Sunscreen 50+ to the equator is not enough.
If you’re still hesitant and unconvinced of taking a vacation here, remember that Sandokan was Malaysian. I do not add anything but you admit it, you are singing the Sandokan’s theme song… (you can hear it right HERE)