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Life can be laid-back in Penang if you pedal your own bed

Visa Run: Penang Just a Short Flight Away

Monday, June 16, 2008
IT'S TRAVEL quiz time. Think of an island that begins with a P and has six letters, where the mix is cosmopolitan and international, and where travellers enjoy a variety of cultures, good food and the beaches.

Phuket, you say? Well, yes. But Penang, too. The similarities between the islands are surprising but there are also significant diferences.

Because of its geographical position, Chinese family traders and colonial background, Penang seems to have been on the fast-track compared to Phuket.

Penang is more grown up, in more ways than one. There's a touch of Hong Kong about the residential apartment blocks that doesn't yet apply to Phuket, and hopefully never will.

Low rise rules, ok?

Yet the pace of Penang seems slower, and it's a perfect alternative destination for visa-runners from Phuket who are seeking to avoid the concrete and testiness of big-city Singapore or Kuala Lumpur.

Although Penang does have a series of northern beaches that are pleasant yet don't quite match the beauty of those of Phuket, most of the interest of visitors centres on the historic quarters of Georgetown.

In the shophouse-lined streets, a different culture comes at you around almost every corner.

Little India offers spicy smells and tandoori taste, while roads in the Chinatown district twist and turn past markets and temples and thriving businesses.

Malays are there too, of course. So are tourists.

While there's no doubt that Penang is a go-ahead island benefitting from its own bustling energy, there are also plenty of trishaw riders who pedals their own portable beds and snooze where and when they can.

It has to be said that in the early morning, plenty of homeless families can be found sleeping on the streets, too.

If Malaysia after its golden anniversary celebrations in 2007 remains ''Truly Asia,'' then some poverty still comes with the connection.

Guesthouses galore line Love Lane and temples of all kinds offer passerby more variety than perhaps those on Phuket can offer.

The largest resorts are along the northern beaches but the stark white Eastern & Oriental Hotel is just a walk away for anyone staying in Georgetown.

The hotel has a checkered history but remains stately and exudes plenty of period romance.

Street hawkers abound and serve delicious food of all kinds. People here seem to enjoy eating all day long, every bit as much as Thais.

With Malaysia allowing foreign ownership of land under the My Second Home programme, Penang could even be a very competitive option for anyone looking to settle in the region.

Penang has an excellent airport, good educational facilities and hospitals and a similar climate to Phuket.

Besides, Phuket is just a short hop of little more than an hour away on a Firefly propeller-driven Fokker 50 which is ''bringing the fun back into flying.''

And just in case you're a quizaholic, the same Captain Francis Light who took possession of Penang in 1786 and became the ''founder'' of Georgetown, also played a key role in Phuket's modern life.

The previous year, he warned the Thais that the Burmese were about to attack the island.

Yes, he was the guy who gave the Heroine Sisters Thepkasattri and Srisontorn the tip-off they needed to beat back the Burmese.

Phuket and Penang have remained Andaman Sea island sisters throughout, despite their different rates of development.

Because of its head-start, Penang is now home to about 1.6 million people. Yet the more recent shift of the national economy to other parts of Malaysia has enabled its history to be preserved.

Just one word of warning . . . never try to cross back into Thailand from Malaysia during Hari Raya, the holiday that marks the end of Ramandan.

Three hours is a personal worst to complete a border crossing. Perhaps we should have just opted to stay in Penang for good.


Comments have been disabled for this article.


Wow, that's interesting. I didn't know that the names Thepkrasattri and Srisoontorn come from the Sisters/Heroines.


Posted by D on June 17, 2008 11:00

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