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Penang’s surprising side

This Malaysian state offers everything from classical architecture to a viper sanctuary

Pigeons taking to the air outside the Kuan Yin Teng temple in Penang. Photo: Alamy
Pigeons taking to the air outside the Kuan Yin Teng temple in Penang. Photo: Alamy

Located on the north-west coast of peninsular Malaysia, Penang was one of the very first possessions of the British in South-East Asia. Today, it’s an economic powerhouse, rich in natural beauty and cultural heritage.

Travellers come here for the calm waters around Batu Ferringhi, a suburb in the south of Penang, surrounded by a stunning view of emerald hills. It’s filled with luxury resorts, and adventure sports are as popular as swimming, lounging by the pool, or walking on the shore, feet sinking into soft white sand. It was here that I had my first parasailing experience. I felt I was flying, gliding over an exquisite coastline studded with ships and schooners. For much of our stay, colourful parasails bearing one squealing passenger after another were an enduring part of the skyline. But what made Penang truly stand out for me from other beach vacations were my encounters with its culture and history.

To explore Penang’s colonial footprint, start at George Town, a Unesco World Heritage site named after King George II. St George’s Church is the oldest landmark on the island, built in the 19th century by Indian convicts. I loved the sweeping rows of Doric columns—sculpted, ornamental pillars with circular canopies—influenced by Greek and Roman architecture.

Several ageing cannons stand on the ramparts of Fort Cornwallis, a 3-minute drive away. The most famous among them is Sri Rembau, a gift from the Dutch to the Sultan of Johor that eventually found its way to Penang.

On Cannon Street, I saw breathtaking graffiti, like the lifelike mural of a young boy by the well-known Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic. Reaching into a tiny window with an outstretched arm, he appears to be standing on a chair that is propped against the wall, creating a startling 3D effect.

At Kuan Yin temple, I was mesmerized by the carvings of lions and dragons. The early 19th century Chinese temple is dedicated to the goddess of mercy. Her birthday is celebrated with puppet shows in March and October.

At the Snake Temple in Sungai Kluang, a sanctuary for pit vipers, there are snakes coiled around pillars and branches inside the temple. I thought it would be creepy, but the snakes seemed to be happy minding their own business. It’s further evidence of how Penang can offer astonishing surprises at every turn.

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