Written by Bronwen Gora
Photography by Unsplash
01 December 2022
From beaches to fabulous food and must-see sights, Malaysia offers travellers a rich tapestry of experiences during a whirlwind tour through the island of Penang and its capital city Kuala Lumpur.
The Malaysian island of Penang might be pocket-sized but it packs a powerhouse of attractions. Within its 1048 square kilometres lies some of Asia’s best food, not one but two UNESCO heritage sites, an array of theme parks to delight children and adults alike and many other compelling places to visit.
High among them is Penang’s Tropical Spice Garden. This 2.5-hectare portion of expertly landscaped jungle located on Penang’s northern coast offers a fascinating slice of nature and is a must-see for anyone even remotely interested in plants.
Hire a guide to make the most of it as this is how you will learn all sorts of interesting snippets about the plant world, like how ridged palm leaves inspired the creation of corrugated iron roofing, how nutmeg gained folkloric status as a weapon against bubonic plague, and that the delicate yellow dwarf ylang ylang flower is a chief ingredient in Chanel No.5 perfume.
The Tropical Spice Garden is home to the rarest forest palm collection in the world, including the Madagascar palm, contains more than 50 species of ginger (almost half of which are utilised in Malay and Chinese dishes) and features a section dedicated to virtually every type of bamboo.
The adventurous can take a seat on a bench designed to swing out over the jungle garden and children (who weigh under 60kg that is) can burn off energy zipping down any of the seven slides they will find placed aside the paths. Handy tip: Watch out for the garden’s pet goose Mr G. as you make your way inside and hit the well-stocked gift store for spices and plant potions on the way out.
Penang owes much of its magnetism for travellers – it’s actually Malaysia’s most visited location – to its history as a key outpost for the spice trade.
George Town was established by the British in the 18th century who created a settlement filled with charming colonial buildings exhibiting both eastern and western architectural styles.
In 2008 the town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site guaranteeing the town’s preservation. Many of the colourful well-maintained buildings house lively bars and excellent restaurants offering Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine.
Street food is another major attraction of the island, and it is at markets such as those on Gurney Drive where you will find authentic Malay treats such as char keow teow, tasty stir-fried noodles, teh Tarik, a luscious drink of strong ‘pulled’ tea made with condensed milk, and the most famous Malay dish of nasi lemak, rice cooked in coconut milk with many vegan options.
For authentic Indian food, seek out the Banana Leaf restaurant in Arati Villas in Tanjung Bungah. It is well-patronised by ex-pats a good proportion of whom visit daily for lunch, so good is the food.
There’s no better way to get your bearings on this island than by heading for the top of its highest structure, the Penang Tower. After making your way through the theme-park-style entry on the ground floor, complete with videos of dinosaurs charging along the ceiling, arcade-style games and a replica of the world’s tallest man, take the lift up to the 68th floor.
Here, you’ll find the Rainbow Skywalk, a glass-bottomed arc sweeping out 248 metres above sea level, where you can see across to the mainland, drinking in panoramic views of George Town, the hinterland jungle and the coastline.
Other must-dos on this compact island are Entopia, the Penang Butterfly Farm where more than 120 species of delightful creatures flutter around your head as you walk winding paths beside colourful foliage and flowers.
Check out Craft Batik for genuine prints, which you can see being handmade in the factory behind the store and, closer to George Town, the Peranakan Mansion museum filled with elaborate Chinese antique décor and furnishings.
This green-hued two-storey mansion once served as a residence for a 19th-century Chinese tycoon and on any given day is teeming with tourists awestruck by the true marvels within.
Penang is not short on luxury accommodation.
One of its newest establishments is Angsana by Banyan Tree. This striking hotel perches on Penang’s northern coast with all rooms facing the azure waters of the Malacca Strait.
It offers ultra-luxe suites with private pools on the ground floor, along with two pools – one for adults and another for children complete with a waterfall and slide – plus several dining options and a spa offering signature Banyan Tree treatments and massages.
Closer to George Town is one of Penang’s finest dining restaurants, Tamarra, where vegan modern Malay gastronomy can be found along with other delicious meals.
Travellers would be doing a disservice if, once back in Kuala Lumpur, they did not stay for at least a day or two to fit in trips to the Petronas Towers, currently the world’s tallest twin towers, the KL Bird Park and Malaysia’s main aquarium, Aquaria.
The Petronas Towers are an architectural marvel with all their fascinating facts and figures available to read on the 88th floor-observation deck. The towers’ jewel-like design is based on simple Islamic geometric forms.
Each pinnacle features a spire with 23 segments, and it would take at least two months to clean the exterior of the glass panels on each. Comfortingly, the towers can withstand wind speeds of up to 105 kilometres an hour – about one-third of the wind speed of Hurricane Katrina.
Before hitting the heights, however, tourists must travel first to the double-decker skybridge connecting the two towers on the 41st and 42nd floor. It is the highest two-storey bridge in the world and is not attached to the main structure but slides in and out of the towers to prevent it from breaking in strong winds.
Stand with your eyes closed and it is said you can feel it sway!
Before flying back home be sure to spend at least one night perusing the dining options at Jalan Alor, Kuala Lumpur’s most famous street food strip where every evening the freshest produce is used in sensational cuisine to be enjoyed by people from all corners of the earth.