Letter from Penang


Penang – I’m writing this while sitting on a reclining bed facing the ocean at the Hard Rock Hotel’s spa in Penang, Malaysia. It’s our last afternoon in Malaysia and I booked a “hard rock massage” to celebrate the end of a wonderful and interesting week-long trip for the Travelife editorial team that was productive and educational at the same time.

UNESCO World Heritage Site

Our trip ends in Penang, Malaysia’s Old World town and UNESCO World Heritage Site that is full of graceful old homes, quirky little shop houses, and all kinds of stalls selling everything from Indian nan and air batu campur (popularly called ABC or aisu kacan– Malaysia’s version of the halo-halo) to fake watches and designer bags. It also has a beautiful coastline lined with hotels and glitzy condominiums.

One of Penang’s major coastal areas is along Gurney Drive, a wide tree-lined boulevard that has become synonymous with delicious food stalls and hotels. Another coastal area runs the length of one side of the island, from Gurney drive to past the community of Batu Ferringi; and it’s lined with apartments and mansions that remind me somewhat of parts of Hawaii.

Hip and trendy accommodations

For this trip, we decided to stay at the newly-opened Hard Rock Hotel in Batu Ferringi. It’s a real eclectic boutique hotel full of conversation pieces and memorabilia guaranteed to inspire rock music lovers. I’m not particularly into rock music but some of my team were, and they spent much of their free time exploring the hotel in search of rock music memorabilia like Elvis’ platinum record or a guitar owned by someone in Deep Purple.

As for lovers of the luxe life — and I confess that I probably fall more into this category — the Hard Rock Hotel doesn’t disappoint either. It’s a hip and fun hotel full of pop art and tasteful kitsch, but where comfort is concerned, nothing is left wanting. We had incredibly spacious rooms facing the sea, great beds and state-of-the-art entertainment equipment. If we had just one more day here, I would’ve spent most of it lounging around the pool, which had a sunken bar, a sand bottom, and all sorts of nooks and crannies to explore.

Or perhaps I would just have stayed in bed watching movies with a view of the sea in front of me. The only time I ever get to watch movies these days is on the airplane, so it would’ve been a real treat to actually watch an entire movie in bed like normal people. More on the Hard Rock Hotel Penang in a future issue of Travelife.

I think it’s safe to say that the Travelife editorial team fell in love with Penang. We’re all big fans of Malaysia, but Penang is quite special because of its combination of history, beauty, culture and design. Much of it is quite rundown, mind you, so you’ll have to look at things through rose-colored glasses. But if you get past the dust and grime of age, you’ll find yourself appreciating the gracefulness of a beautiful old town with, literally, a million stories to tell.

The Blue Mansion

My managing editor and I both agree that Penang’s grand Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, more popularly known as the Blue Mansion, made our hearts skip a beat or two. From the outset, it already called out to us with its striking blue facade and intricate designs. Inside, it was a specter of beauty because of the balance of its design — it’s perfectly created according to the principles of feng-shui — and also a testament to a grand and charmed life from an era long gone. The owner had eight wives in that house and a couple of concubines to boot, so you can just imagine how charmed — or charming — he must have been. Again, more on this is in a future issue of Travelife.

Gourmet Paradise

Food was another joy in Penang. We tasted all kinds of food in all sorts of restaurants, including some places I would ordinarily never have gone to. One of them was a hot and messy affair with a tiled kitchen on the 1st floor and a linoleum-lined room with the grimy tables on the second floor that served a type of local food called nasi kandar. Huge vats of curries were lined up against a very oily wall, along with table-high pots of rice. By the entrance, several cooks were quickly churning out flat breads.

“This is where we’re eating?” I asked the guide incredulously. My one request from the outset, after all, was to be taken to the best food places in Penang. And this was not exactly what I was expecting.

“This is one of the best places for nasi kandar in Penang,” our guide, Corinne, confirmed. “It may not look like much, but I can guarantee you that the food is good.”

With not a bit of trepidation, I made my way up the narrow, slippery staircase to the 2nd floor dining room. The room was filled with diners digging into heaping plates of curries and heavy with the smoke of cooking; and I could immediately feel the smoke as my eyes began to hurt before the minute was over. Our table at the end of the room, too, could’ve used a major alcohol rub. But I just gritted my teeth and sat down.

Thankfully, the tasty food was so worth the wade through the mess and the dirty table that would’ve probably made even germs sick. It was indeed the best nasi kandar we had in Penang, and the colorful atmosphere just gave everything we ate more flavor. Nasi kandar, original to Penang, is Indian food with a Malay twist — or Indian-inspired Malay food, as more nationalistic Malaysians will tell you. Basically, we were given a choice of white rice or tomato rice and an assortment of curries from chicken, squid or beef (no pork here) was placed in front of us to share.

Being Filipinos, most of my team opted for white rice. I was just about to get the same when Corinne whispered to me, “This restaurant is famous for its tomato rice.”

How could I then not get the tomato rice? Again, it turned out to be an excellent choice.

Most of the curries are heavy on sauce and spice, so you’re going to need a good dose of aisu kacan or cendol (another Malaysian dessert made of coconut milk, crushed ice, pandan-flavored jelly and red beans) afterwards. And the best place to get ice kacan or cendol is at a little hawker stall along Penang Road, a major thoroughfare. You won’t miss it because there’s always a line of people waiting for their sweet tooth fix.

Tale of too many sarongs

Another thing I went slightly overboard on were sarongs. After seeing how the Malaysian women wore them so gracefully, I decided to pick up a few for myself. None of the touristy stuff that were selling by the dozens in the nightmarkets, though, but the less loud batik sarongs that could be worn outside of Penang’s beaches and even to a cocktail party in Manila. (In fact, I’m thinking of wearing one to a wine-tasting event on Friday night in Manila…)

Corinne took us to a small workshop at the other end of the island with ongoing batik-painting demonstrations and a nice selection of batik designs that didn’t scream out “Tourist in Penang.” When I did my ringgit-peso conversions, the good stuff was not exactly cheap, but I decided to buy a couple of silk and silk-cotton sarong knowing I would regret it later if I didn’t.

All in all, a wonderful week spent in Malaysia, our progressive neighbor only three hours away and a country and culture both so similar and also so different from us. Read more about our adventures in the August-September issue of Travelife Magazine.




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