From Algarve to Penang: A Trip Report


Ok, here’s the deal on Penang (or Pinang). It took us awhile to get there (17 hr flight to Hong Kong, a 5 hr flight to Singapore, and an hour-plus puddle-jump to the island) but when we finally did arrive, we knew that the adventure would be worth the effort. My brother Jake and I made the decision to go to Penang over a beer in the Singapore airport, really. We had a couple of days to kill – so why not go to Penang?



Penang Is Here


As soon as the airplane door opened in Penang, we were overwhelmed by a wave of heat and humidity. It’s the first thing you notice about this smallish island off the coast of mainland Malaysia. Moving a bit slower now that the bulk of the traveling had concluded, we gathered our luggage and headed to the information booth to thumb through a well-worn photo book of local hotels. We decided on the Shangri-La Hotel in George Town, the main city of Penang, which turned out to be a pretty good deal. I think the room cost us about $60 USD. It was about two thirty or three in the afternoon when we finally popped out of the cab in front of hotel – and after quick showers all around to wash off 24 hours of travel residue, Jake and I hit the streets for our first taste of Malaysia (and, needless to say, Malaysian beer).

We didn’t really have any idea what to expect from Penang. The only preconceived notions that I had came from Hollywood’s version of the city in the 1998 remake of “Return to Paradise,” starring Vince Vaughn. So on the plane ride in from Singapore, all that I could picture was a sea of people pushing and pulling tattered mules overburdened with bizarre and exotic fruits and vegetables through muddy streets as chickens screeched from under rickety wooden wheels. I expected the sound of distant music rising with the steam above the bustling din of the market. I imagined a few moist, paunchy European men dressed in white three-piece suits and matching fedoras conducting their sordid afternoon affairs over small glasses of clear liquor in the street-side cafes – and a handful of dirty, charming and colorfully savvy children hawking their goods at our feet using well-worn snippets of near-perfect English. That’s what I expected, not what I got.


Typical Street

As you can see, Penang looks like a modest Asian city – it’s got mopeds, shops, hotels and KFCs. Nothing too remarkable at first glance. But we were eager to see what this funny-sounding distant little island had to offer – so we set out in the afternoon heat. As we planned only a brief (1D1N) stay in Penang, we knew our self guided tour would have to be expeditious. We straggled by the old cannons of Fort Cornwallis, a meandering seaside park, the government building district, and the touristed shopping area. After moving through the city at a pretty good clip, the heat dictated a rest.  So we settled into a nearly empty street-side café.


Just as we collapsed into the pink and green plastic lawn chairs, a rather dodgy looking barkeep extended his hand and introduced himself as Danny.  Danny was a little low on teeth – to the tune of, say, 25.  Sizing us up as thirsty (I wonder if my now see-through sweat-soaked shirt was a giveaway?), Danny offered the daily special: six locally brewed Carlsberg-Malaysia beers in a slushy bucket of ice – all for the very reasonable price of about 15 Malaysian Ringgits (approx. $4 at the time).  What a bargain.  In this heat, it’s a deal at 150 Ringgits, so we gladly accepted and set to work.  As we were finding our centers in the Carlsberg, Danny sidled up to our table and entertained us with rather incredible banter.