By Nina Karnikowski
CLOSE your eyes, take a deep breath, and let your mind drift to your ideal holiday destination. You see picturesque beaches, right? Rich culture, beautiful architecture, abundant wildlife and drool-worthy food? Well, Peninsular Malaysia just might be your travel dream come true. Start in Penang’s capital Georgetown for a taste of old-world Asia, complete with temples, trishaws, colonial bungalows and food that’s tasty enough to have earned Penang the title of food capital of the world. Once you’ve had your cultural fill, head to the 104-island archipelago of Langkawi for deserted beaches, lush wildlife-filled mangrove forests, waterfalls and jaw-dropping vistas.
The best place to begin your wanderings in UNESCO World Heritage-listed George Town is on the Street of Harmony, where you’ll get a taste of the town’s four main cultural influences — European, Chinese, Indian and Malaysian.
The stunning white St George’s Anglican Church can be your launch pad, a testament to George Town’s colonial roots which holds a memorial to the town’s 1786 founder, Captain Francis Light. A five-minute walk away you’ll find the Goddess of Mercy Chinese Buddhist temple, its roof and stone pillars carved with dragons and its courtyard filled with oversized smoking incense sticks. Inside locals pray, offer candles for the wellbeing of their loved ones, read oracle sticks, and take a moment of solitude.
Next up is Little India, where you’ll be immediately transported by sari-clad women, stalls selling marigold garlands and spices, and Bollywood music. You’ll want to snap a picture of the Sri Maha Mariamman Kovil temple, covered in brightly coloured statues of Hindu gods, then of the 19th century Kapitan Keling Mosque with its Moorish arches, minarets and domes, just a few minutes down the road.
Armenian Street is also worth a visit, to check out the narrow Chinese shophouses and mansions that line the street. Speaking of mansions, don’t miss the exquisite indigo-washed 1880s Blue Mansion, with its beautiful antique floor tiles, tropical potted plants, and open-air courtyards.
EAT, DRINK, REPEAT
Eating is a national pastime in Malaysia. Get involved at the nearest hawker market (Sri Weld Food Court is a great one), where you can peruse myriad stalls that each have their own specialty. Choose between char kway teow, nasi lemak (coconut rice wrapped in pandan leaf with a scoop of sambal sauce), asam laksa and more, washed down with a sugary iced milk tea or kopi beng, iced coffee. Oh, and the Ming Xiang Tai pastry shop is the place to go for a dessert of egg tart and chrysanthemum and goji berry tea.
Take a postprandial stroll down the Chew Clan Jetty, built over the sea in the late 18th century when George Town was one of the world’s most thriving ports. Here, stilt houses built along the rickety docks have been home to members of the Chew clan for more than a century. Continue meandering through the streets to check out Penang’s famous street art, including 52 steel rod caricatures that retell bits of George Town’s history, and colourful murals like the famous “Little Children on a Bicycle”.
There’s simply no better way to end a day in this vibrant city than by taking the funicular up to Penang Hill lookout for panoramic city views, and perhaps a cheeky drink at the bar. Then, it’ll be time to pack your bags and head to the beach for part two of your Malaysian adventure.
A NATURAL BEAUTY
If you want to feel as though you have the entire Andaman Sea to yourself, Sandy Skulls beach is an arc of sugary sand and turquoise water that’s all but deserted. Another option is Pantai Cenang beach, where you’ll find waves and water sports aplenty including surfing, stand-up paddle boarding and jet skiing.
More pristine beauty awaits at Seven Wells Waterfall, a series of seven connected pools fed by waterfalls on Mount Mat Cincang, where you can paddle or simply while away an afternoon picnicking and soaking up the serenity. And for the very best views of the archipelago, take a ‘Sky Cab’ up to the Langkawi Sky Bridge. At 708 metres above the ground, it gives visitors 360-degree views of the outlying forest-encrusted Malaysian and Thai islands, and the 550 million-year-old limestone karst mountains that rise majestically around Langkawi.
These karst formations have, along with Langkawi’s tangled mangrove forest, gained Langkawi South East Asia’s first UNESCO Geopark listing. For the second piece of the puzzle, take a cruise through the mangrove forest along Langkawi’s Kilim River, where you’ll spy cheeky rhesus macaque monkeys, swooping rusty brahminy kite eagles, vipers, mud skippers and cave-dwelling bats.
The perfect Malaysia farewell, however, just might be a sunset dinner cruise with local water sports company Naam. After weaving through Langkawi’s outlying forest-encrusted islands as the sun dips below the horizon, you can head home content in the knowledge that your ideal holiday wish-list is complete.