The colourful Kek Lok Si Buddhist temple near Georgetown
“Penang…” they’ll say, eyes taking on a dreamy, far-away quality, “…oh, the food!”
Even in a country that takes its scoff seriously – and boasts one of the most delicious and varied cuisines in South-East Asia – this little island off the north-west coast occupies a special place in their hearts, and stomachs.
Luckily, you don’t have to go far to find out why.
Just a 50-minute hop by air from KL, Penang has been called Malaysia in miniature.
In such surroundings, days on end can pass in blissful, pampered comfort without any effort whatsoever on your part
Rich in history and steeped in tradition, the island is lush and beautiful, its beaches stunning, the people warm and welcoming, and strollable capital Georgetown is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.
And, yes, there’s the food.
It is impossible to walk more than a few yards in any direction on Penang without coming across people eating: at roadside stalls, in aged eateries or smart new caf©s, at one of the island’s many food courts, or even while lounging on one of the island’s ubiquitous motor scooters.
When they’re not eating, it seems, they’re talking about eating.
The astonishing food is one of the best reasons to visit the island of Penang
Not that filling your face 24/7 is the only thing to do here, far from it.
While Georgetown’s charms are many and seductive, after a few days in bustling Kuala Lumpur I was looking forward to a relaxing few days at one of Penang’s popular beach resorts, of which Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa is the undisputed capo di tutti capi.
Many hotels strive to be a home away from home, but few succeed as comprehensively as the beautiful Rasa Sayang, occupying as it does prime position on the beachside of favourite tourist resort Batu Ferringhi.
Spend more than a couple of days here and you’ll become used to the sight of guests arriving and being greeted like the old friends they often are by the superlative staff, or bidding a near-tearful farewell to their hosts, invariably with the closing line: “See you next year.”
In an industry that thrives on repeat business, this Shangri-La does very well indeed, it appears.
Indeed, they tell of one regular who, now in her mid-80s, reckons she has spent a total of 12 years there since she retired.
Guests have a choice of accommodation.
The Garden Wing, while upscale, combines comfort and style with a family-friendly feeling, while the air in the Rasa Wing is one of languid sophistication and elegance. The rooms are vast, comfortable and sumptuously equipped, featuring balconies with tropical views and beds that invite a blissful night’s sleep.
Georgetown’s Street Art attracts visitors from around the world
It’s easier to list the facilities that aren’t on offer than those that are, ie: none.
In addition, Rasa Wing guests can enjoy an a la carte breakfast, complimentary soft drinks and refreshments, their own swimming pool, afternoon tea in the Rasa Lounge and – best of all – drinks and pre-dinner canapés in the evening.
So good are these that they prompt, while not an unseemly rush, early arrival and a distinct air of anticipation.
The restful surroundings are undoubtedly helped by the staff who have the mystical skill of being nigh-on invisible most of the time yet somehow immediately on hand should you even think about needing something.
In such surroundings, days on end can pass in blissful, pampered comfort without any effort whatsoever on your part.
Which is useful, because Batu Ferringhi is… well, let’s call it sleepy.
View of a Malaysian street market at night
True, you can make an expedition to nearby attractions such as the Butterfly Farm or Penang War Museum, take the hotel’s regular shuttle bus into Georgetown to do some sightseeing, or stroll along the town’s main drag; perhaps enjoying a relaxing foot massage or a splendid rendang curry at the popular and friendly Living Room Café & Restaurant.
Otherwise, there’s not a great deal to drag you from the side of the pool while smiling staff bring you a succession of ice-cold drinks.
By night, however, it’s a different matter entirely. As dusk falls, stallholders begin setting out their wares for a huge night market that stretches all the way from the Rasa Sayang to the Hard Rock, two kilometres down the road.
It’s the town’s main tourist attraction and, every night of the week, draws crowds eager to browse the selection of locally made crafts, souvenirs and, of course, the always popular “genuine fake” watches, handbags, sports shirts and a seemingly infinite choice of footwear.
This being Penang, they also come to eat. All the hotels and resorts that hug the coast have restaurants and bars open to the public but the locals – who know a thing or two about this stuff – head for the Long Beach Food Court.
Cosy and romantic pedicabs can be find easily in Georgetown
It’s a typically simple affair but for both the variety on offer, and the quality of the food, it is a must-visit in Batu Ferringhi.
Just pick a table, browse the many stalls, pick out what you want and tell them your table number.
Soon you could enjoying delicious wontons, noodles, curry – Indian and Thai – and the local speciality, chee cheong fun, while roaming waitresses take your order for a large, cold Tiger Beer.
Press on, and you’ll find doorways and alleys that seemed entirely anonymous by day now lead to a succession of bars and cafés catering to every taste, such as the laid back and friendly Bora Bora by Sunset.
Stroll, browse, eat and drink then stroll, bargain and buy… maybe eat and drink some more – It’s the perfect end to a glorious day in Batu Ferringhi.
Combine your stay in Penang with a city break in Kuala Lumpur
Back at the resort, there’s plenty to keep you occupied until night falls.
As well as the stunning CHI Spa, there’s a nine-hole, Par-3 pitch-and-putt golf course, tennis courts, table tennis, Tai Chi and beach volleyball.
If all that sounds a little too energetic then you can simply loll by the pool or in the manicured gardens, or take the gentlest of ambles along the golden beach.
However, you can’t visit Penang without seeing Georgetown, and the simplest way is to board the hotel’s luxurious, air-conditioned shuttle bus which drops you off at sister hotel, the Jen, in the heart of the capital.
From here, it’s just a short walk to one of the city’s most popular attractions, the street art.
These sculptures and paintings have turned the streets of the Old Town into a living gallery.
The best known are the personal, sometimes odd, but always affecting, murals by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, whose work – centred around Armenia Street – is guaranteed to make you smile.
Georgetown is, simply, a delightful city in which to wander around.
View of the harbour of Georgetown
The air is distinctly one of shabby chic, but it has a style and vitality all of its own, from the colourful stores of Little India to the colourful Kek Lok Si Temple and historic Fort Cornwallis.
It’s a joy to stroll the narrow streets – or, if you get weary, hire a rickshaw for a more leisurely tour – and while away some time in a local coffee shop or café.
There’s no shortage of quality restaurants in the capital but the local cuisine is best experienced through the street food.
New Lane Hawker Centre on Lorong Baru has many fans.
Take it easy with a scenic trickshaw ride through the streets of Old Georgetown
Closed to traffic in the evenings, it soon fills ups with locals eating at plastic tables and chairs in front of their favourite stalls, selling delights such as the famous char kway teow, or stir-fried flat rice noodles.
Slap in the centre of town you’ll find Red Garden Food Paradise and an astonishing choice of Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and even Japanese and Korean Food.
Always bustling it still manages to find room for all comers who tuck into tender and tasty satay, roast duck or Mee Goreng, enjoying the occasional live acts as the beer girls circulate with their icy buckets of Tiger and Asahi.
Just to add further to the enjoyment, it won’t cost you much either.
Georgetown enjoys a lively bar scene so, afterwards, head for Jalan Penang and enjoy a cocktail or a cold one in a lively atmosphere before hailing a cab back to Batu Ferringhi.
While you could easily spend a whole, delightful fortnight on Penang, it’s best combined with a stay in Kuala Lumpur – to which most long-haul flights from the UK connect – and where the same hotel group have two further quality properties: the Shangri-La and Traders, both ideally situated in the commercial and tourist centre of the Golden Triangle.
Malaysia has so much to offer: it’s culturally fascinating, English is widely spoken, it’s extraordinarily good value, the people are warm and welcoming, the history fascinating and… oh, yes – the food isn’t half bad.
Rooms at the Rasa Sayang Resort are spacious, well equipped and comfortable
Graham stayed as a guest of Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa, Batu Feringgi Beach, 11100 Penang, Malaysia.
Right now, deals start at MYR 550 (£99) for a Deluxe Garden View Room, including free wi-fi and complimentary buffet breakfast for two adults and one child at Spice Market Cafe.
For details of this and other offers see www.shangri-la.com/penang/or firstname.lastname@example.org for email inquiries.