Malacca & Penang: Exotic Delights

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A descendant of the lord who built it, an old woman who lives there in exchange for serving as its caretaker, will show you around for free while chattering away in Malay, even pointing out a hidden space in the attic where the head of the household would banish his wives and daughters to keep them from prying male eyes.

The best way to reach Malacca is by bus (from about $5 to $15, depending on the amenities of the bus) from Kuala Lumpur, or Kay-El, as it’s affectionately called. Many prefer a 2-hour taxi ride (about $50) through illusory tropical countryside and past sleepy villages where a bucolic lifestyle plays out in sun-drenched, brightly painted wooden stilt houses half hidden amid lush gardens where unfamiliar flowers bloom.

Well-appointed accommodations in Malacca are relatively inexpensive. The Hotel Equatorial Melaka, for example, is a modern 496-room property within walking distance to the city’s historical sites, museums, nightspots and the shopping district. Rates begin at about $100 pp dbl and jump to about $500 for suites. It has panoramic views of the Strait of Malacca and Portuguese landmarks.

Majestic Hotel, a 54-room property on the banks of the Malacca River (from about $250 per night dbl) was in its former life a princely mansion. Today, it is Malacca’s most elegant hotel, managing to reflect the past with heavy doses of the present. The rooms all have poster beds, teak floors and chaise longues by the windows, from where guests can watch boats trudge into the Strait of Malacca. The spa is among the best in the country, offering such exotic treatments as a Purifying Bath using a blend of cedarwood, juniper and geranium, essential oils that rejuvenates body and mind.

After such pampering, visitors will be ready to venture into the most colorful Chinatown in Southeast Asia—a marvelous, peeling relic lining Jonker Street (Jaian Hang Jebat), the most intriguing street in the country.

Here are rare items sure to turn heads back home—teak furniture, oil lamps from the British period, Chinese wedding beds and U.S. Far East Trade Dollars lie next to genuine-looking Ming Dynasty trinkets in musty old shops run by Chinese merchants who give new meaning to the word “bartering.”

One of the most bizarre items is a pair of shoes worn by women whose feet had been bound and deformed in infancy because the Chinese judged a woman’s sexuality by the smallness of her feet. Travelers can pick those up for about $15.

Across the Malacca River, there’s a distinctly Dutch park dominated by the blood red Christ Church and the Stadthuys (Town Hall), a salmon pink building with trishaw drivers hanging out in front. It looks like it was conveyed by some bizarre science fiction method from Holland to south Asia.

There are dozens of places to explore, like the Porta de Santiago (St. James Gate), the remains of the fortress from where the Portuguese once flexed their expansionist muscles.

Malacca is unlike any place on earth, where superstitions live comfortably side-by-side with the modern world in a town as old as history. Pregnant women think it’s bad luck to be photographed, fishermen will not curse at sea or allow women on board and—legend has it—if you eat pork within 48 hours from setting sail, the boat will sink.

penang island

By contrast, way up north, where Malaysia (an Islamic republic) shares a border with Thailand (a kingdom), Penang Island and George Town—the capital of the state of Penang located on the island—reflect a rich British colonial past that exemplifies the Malaysian experience.

In the ‘60s, Penang Island was an obligatory stop on the celebrated “hippie trail” in Asia because of its beaches, fantastic people and a distinct allure. It still has all that. George Town, in fact, offers extraordinary local color, nowhere as evident as in the Chinese Clan Piers, where families have lived for centuries on their own personal quays.

This area is fascinating, even for experienced Asia travelers. Ornate colonial buildings stand next to Asian temples and pagodas, and not to be missed is the Temple of the Azure Cloud, better known as The Snake Temple, a house of worship where venomous green and gold Wagler’s pit vipers are coiled around the altars. They’re not as numerous as they once were, but they’re still around, languishing and dazed into harmlessness by the pungent incense smoke. The followers of the god Chor Soo Kong swear the creatures are docile and will drape one around visitors’ necks.

Penang Island, too, has the largest butterfly farm in Asia, and a trip to the waterfalls at Titi Kerawang, over a trail meandering through coconut and clove plantations, should not be missed.

But the best experience is at sunrise in Teluk Kambar, on the south side of the island, to watch fishermen returning from a night’s work. Their catches are sorted by wives who have waited for the boats all night and who do the heavy lifting while the men nap.

Restaurants here specialize in mee udang—gigantic Malaysian tiger prawns served in a bed of crispy noodles—that just might be one of the great culinary delights anywhere. A visit to the Pesarian Gurney, a funky night food market is also worthwhile. On the George Town waterfront one can sample a variety of Malay, Indian and Chinese dishes for practically pennies. Locals normally urge you to try ais kacang, a concoction of shaved ice smothered with fruit juices and baked beans. It’s delicious.

In fact, food here is a way of life. Roadside food stalls, known as “hawker stands,” run by renowned Malaysian chefs, serve some of the most scrumptious food in Asia for as little as $1. It’s almost as if Wolfgang Puck ran a hotdog stand.

Other nearby attractions that offer outstanding experiences include the Cehong Fatt Tze Mansion, an indigo-colored 19th century masterpiece built in the Chinese Courtyard style. It features seven staircases, 220 windows and is one of Asia’s architectural gems.

Batu Ferringhi, Penang’s most popular beach, is a typical resort in the daytime with parasailing, kayaking or just downtime on the sand. At night, however, it comes alive with a vibrant carnival atmosphere. Batik artists demonstrate their skill in front of open-air shops selling intriguing handcrafted goods.

The Straits Collection in George Town, consistently listed as one of the most romantic hotels in the world, sits in the heart of a UNESCO Heritage zone made up of rows of old Chinese shops and houses dating back more than a century where one finds shops, cafes, restaurants, galleries and even a theater. It’s a hotel unlike any other in Malaysia and definitely worth a visit if only to bask in its colonial splendor. Rates start at about $150 per night dbl.

While Malaysia Airlines offers direct service from Kuala Lumpur (from approximately $250 one way), more adventurous travelers might opt to reach the destination on the wonderful and efficient railroad that makes its way up the peninsula to Butterworth, from where ferries cross the strait to Penang. The ride on Malaysia’s exquisite railroad, Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTMB), takes less than one day and costs about $125 for first-class. It’s more convenient and effective if travelers make reservations and book seats while in Malaysia because of the vagaries of the Malaysian system.