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     Volume 7 Issue 11 | March 14, 2008 |

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The Pearl of the Orient

Batu Ferringhee

Tranquil beaches and tender nights will invite you to this turtle-shaped port city of Malaysian peninsula. Penang is called by the natives as 'Pulau Pinang' ('the Betel Nut Island'). During the colonial era it was rightly described as the 'Pearl of the Orient' because of its wonderful natural beauty including fabulous beaches and soothing hills. Though it is the second smallest city in Malaysia, Penang is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the region. Its unique culture is a confluence of east and west.

The British founder Francis Light established Penang in 1786 as a safe stopover for plying British ships. Day by day, it became a major trading port for tea, spices and clothes. Within a few decades, Penang had attracted more than 10,000 settlers and traders including Malays, Sumatrans, Indians and especially Chinese.

We were waiting eagerly at the bottom of Penang Hill railway station, Air Itam (locally knowned as Bukit Bendera), for cable car, which came down from the hilltop. This funicular railway was established in 1923 and its construction costs were 1.5 million Ringgit. We saw some squirrels, dusky leaf monkeys and bats and heard characteristic calls of crickets on the way to hilltop. Penang Hill has a rich bird fauna -- from common garden species to rare deep forest inhabitants. We had to change cars at the mid-point station. There were oak-laurels as well as coniferous trees at the both side of the path. It took 30 minutes to reach the hilltop, the highest peak of Penang.

It has an average temperature ranging at 20°C to 27°C, a bit cooler than sea level temperature. Generally, it rains in Malaysia round the year and hilltops are always covered with clouds. However, we were lucky to get the sky and the hilltop clear. We were in the 830 km above sea level. From the hilltop, we saw the panoramic landscape of Penang City with the South China Sea behind, the Penang Bridge, which connects the island with the mainland and George Town, the capital of Penang state. The cool, gentle breeze refreshed us. We found a Hindu Shrine (Lord Murugan Temple) and a Muslim Mosque staying at a very close distance. We were fascinated to see the beautiful Dravidian architecture of the temple.

Penang is a place of mysterious temples and palm shrouded beaches. One of the outstanding beaches of Penang is Batu Ferringhee or the Foreigners Rocks. This is a beach for lovers and dreamers. Giant basalt rocks guard each end of the beach. It used to be a port for Portuguese traders who came from India in the14th century. Lying on the north coast of Penang, this yellow- brown sandy beach is now a developed and most visited tourist spot in Penang. Luxurious resorts, restaurants and shops are everywhere. At night, the whole area along with the beach transforms into a traditional night market where one can find wide variety of goods including traditional foods and souvenirs.

One cloudy evening we went to the Snake Temple, probably the only temple of its kind in the world. The green Vipers coiled here and there, as well as on the altar of the temple. Visitors took pictures with the snakes, wearing them like crowns or garlands in their neck.

George Town is the capital of the state of Penang. There are the crowds, the street vendors, and Indian music in loud speakers, especially in the Indian markets. It is truly a melting pot of all the cultures in Asia. It has the largest collection of historic buildings of 19th and 20th century buildings in Southeast Asia. Only here, one can find a century-old Church, a Chinese temple, a Hindu temple and a Muslim mosque all within five minutes walking distance. It is like an open museum of cultural history with so many houses of worship, mosques, temples, clan houses, district associations.

Some other sites like City Hall, Esplanade, Court House, St. George's Church and other historic buildings are situated at the Fort Cornwallis area. One or two cruise ships are always seen floating on the sea, decorated with lights. These ships look fantastic in the dark of the night.

Another breathtaking site of Penang is Air Itam Dam, which is located over 700 feet above sea level and is set among the hills, serving as a water catchments area. It can hold 550 million gallons of water and is one of the two dams on the island, the other being the Teluk Bahang dam in the north. The day we visited the dam we noticed that the clouds were about to touch the surface water. It was an amazing view, seeing clouds from such a close distance, on one side an almost virgin jungle, on another a wide expanse of water. It was simply unforgettable.


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