Holy hell it was hot in Penang. We’d been away for some time by now and the heat had never really got to us. This place was in a sweat league all of its own, and on occasion knocked the wind right out of us leaving us gasping on the sidewalk like beached Guppies.
My only previous knowledge of Penang was from a friend who went to film a documentary there years ago, as it was then the home of top quality plastic surgery. Great for boob jobs and sex changes. But when a quick bit of research revealed place names such as Monkey Beach and Orangutang Island, my interest was revived and my thoughts of getting some “work done” were distracted by the possibility of seeing lots of monkeys.
We were staying in Georgetown, a UNESCO heritage town, a living breathing museum the like of which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. The style of the place is so unique it’s hard to compare it with anywhere else. With the surrounding approaches to Georgetown being rather drab, built up, modern and pretty unexciting, once within the boundaries of the town it proves to be constant feast for the eyes.
Traditional “live work units” with garage style, cloistered lower floors and shuttered upper windows line the streets. Those cloisters are crucial to hide from that intense heat, and provide sheltered walkways throughout the town. It’s very Chinese in the style of architecture, the colours and paraphernalia adorning the properties made it all look very oriental. Then in contrast to these low rise units, the inevitable British footprint makes its presence known, all interspersed with 1950s industrial brutalism. It’s a great architectural hotchpotch of styles, colours and usage, we just couldn’t stop eyeballing the place.
And then there’s the street art. Just to add to the cacophony of colours and textures that naturally exist amongst the wood and weather worn plaster, so many walls have been adorned with commissioned street art, some interactive sculptures, others with just really good paintings that decorate the town with humour and creativity. There’s a great energy to the place and it’s really fun just to wander around and discover the various areas. There’s always a Chinatown, and a Little India, and over all our first experience of the Malay people was how blooming lovely they are! Everyone had a generous smile and a helpful word to offer, from the lowliest kitchen porter in the food halls to strangers giving us directions to the nearest laundry! (Travel essentials)
Predominantly a Muslim country, Malaysia has a very accepting and relaxed attitude towards other cultures and religions so none of those restrictive and frankly annoying no drinking laws that we experienced in UAE earlier in the year.
We had a few days in Penang so we took a leisurely couple of days to wander aimlessly around the town, visiting outside art galleries, ticking foodie boxes, and generally getting a feel of the place. Although the heat was sometimes too much to bearand we had to haul ourselves home for an air conditioned nap. (We’re older than we like to admit). Apart from the usual extensive food list to work through, we were also keen to see what all this talk of monkeys was about.
It’s so cheap to get taxis around the island it made more sense than hiring a car or bikes, plus our Uber App worked there which was another revelation! So we took a private car out to Orangutan Island for half a day. We’d read that it was weirdly located in the same spot as a theme park, but had also seen many reassurances that it was not a zoo. On the contrary it is a rehabilitation and rehoming sanctuary that aims to return these great primates back to their natural habitat in Borneo.
We were indeed driven to the entrance of a theme park which had the atmosphere of a tired 1980’s seaside attraction, like Margate or Scarborough (no offence to either of these great British destinations but you know what I mean). Putting the immediate environment to one side, we bought our tickets for the sanctuary and were taken by ferry for a ten minute ride across a perfectly still lake to the Orangutan Island. We’d read that sometimes you may not get to see any of the animals as there is no control over where they roam on the island, so we were prepared for disappointment. But as the boat pulled up I could already see a little fellow hanging around on the other side of the jetty.
We went at the right time of day, before it gets too hot and they all go and hide in the shade. We were led through a “caged tunnel” that kept us protected from them and allows the Orang-utans to roam freely. The worm has turned.
Within the first minute of entering the cage, our guide announced that we were very lucky as VJ, the oldest male on the island, was coming over to meet us. He was huge, and crouched over like a Jim Henson creature, with a dreadlocked curtain of ginger hair that encircled his old but strong body. His huge wide faced cheeks indicate his dominant role in the group. We were surprised to hear that the males fight to the death to gain control of the group, and that they allow this to happen in the sanctuary. The next male in line was currently separated from VJ until he is old enough, but there will come a day when the keepers will have to let them fight in order to maintain their natural instinct and habitat. That must be a tough fight to watch.
We spent a good 40minutes moving slowly through the cage and met at least ten orang-utans of varying ages. The keepers encouraged them with treats of bananas so we were lucky enough to see them really close up. So human, and with only 3% difference in our DNA it’s a very small genetic leap! This was such privileged experience and a reasonably unchartered tourist attraction that made it a really simple trip to navigate, and with every penny going back into the sanctuary and the protection of these fabulous beasts, it proved to be one of the many highlights of our trip.
Our next monkey based adventure was a trip to Monkey Beach, a pretty self explanatory location in Penang National Park. We took a bus to the north of the island, and then a short boat ride to the beach, which we were surprised to see was really rather scruffy and unloved. Considering it is a listed tourist attraction it is a missing an opportunity as it could be really lovely. However we were only there to see those cheeky monkeys and weren’t planning on hanging around.
Within minutes of landing on the beach we’d spotted a family of Macaques and scrambled into the woods to follow them through the trees. There were loads of them, babies, and fully grown adults alike, hanging about in the branches like monkeys do. However our attention was soon bought back down the earth by the swarm of Jurassic size mosquitoes that were quietly munching on our unprotected ankles. We were virtually standing in swamp, probably time to get the hell away from there!
Instead of getting the boat back to the entrance of the National park, we opted to take the 90minute trek back along the jungle coast path. As is our usual status, unprepared with inappropriate footwear, limited water supplies and with the mosquito repellent still safety packed in our bags back at the hotel, we merrily made our way along the narrow foot worn path. It wound between vines and tree roots and hugged the coast to our left with thick jungle to our right, clambering over fallen stumps and over ravines, it wasn’t long before we were dripping with sweat.
The walk was really lovely, scenic, energetic and the right length, but the sweating! We’d never seen anything like it, where does it all come from?! By the time we were back at the National park entrance, our clothes were so soaked through we had to buy new t-shirts from the local tourist shop as we were too wet to stand next to people on the bus!
Freshly clad with new shirts covering our steaming torsos, we headed by bus a few miles down the coast to The Spice Gardens. A beautifully designed walk through garden demonstrating all kinds of uses for plants, teas and tinctures. To be honest I was at this point desperately in need of slightly more than a tincture if not an entire waterfall of fresh water, as I had lost most of my body’s required water content and was starting to feel a little woozy, so struggled to concentrate on the botanicals!
Fortunately, adjacent to the gardens is The Tree Monkey restaurant, which was obviously our truly intended destination, and where we could replenish our depleted natural resources with an ice cold beer and a welcome sit down.
The restaurant is perched high up on a rock face with the gardens set behind, and over looking the sea. At around 5.30pm as the sun sets, the surrounding trees start to rustle as the branches come alive with a family of Dusky Monkeys. Possibly the cutest monkeys of all. Black fluffy fur with white rings around their eyes and mouths. They couldn’t look more like a very non PC cabaret act from the 1950s if they tried! They hang around for about half an hour to see if there’s any grub going spare and then scoot off into the woods again.
Our primate hat trick was complete and my monkey based needs fully satisfied.
Georgetown being the visual feast that it is I therefore took so many photos, more than anywhere else. So here’s an additional gallery and a summary of what we ate and where:
Eating in Penang
One of our favourite finds was Hock Poh Lye Cafe, famous for its Char Kway Teow, a stir fried noodle dish, signature of Malaysia. A family run cafe since the 40’s, known for its “Strong Woman,” Mrs Tan who works the wok day after day. Have a look at this lovely video about Mrs Tan and how hard she works! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AhiO1coKby8
Little India – Sri Ananda Bahwan ☑
Lebuh Keng Kwee ☑ Small, hectic with a system of its own, but worth braving it for a true local experience!
Red Garden Food Centre☑ Go for the Chicken Rice as recommended by Anthony Bourdain
Gurney Drive Food Centre Amazing Satay!