Kuala Lumpur and Penang
Malaysia really surprised me. I’ve always had a pretty foggy idea of what it would be like that involved orangutans and satay skewers but Malaysia – or at least Kuala Lumpur (KL) and Penang – are completely different to what I thought they would be.
KL is completely modern. Unlike many Asian cities, it doesn’t smell like an open drain, the infrastructure is efficient and it seems well-serviced. I went to a conference at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre and stayed at Traders Hotel, the 4-star child of the Shangri-La brand and it was, without doubt, the best business hotel I have ever stayed in.
The level of detail – from the international charge bar for all types of plugs and voltages, to the alarm clock that lit up when you touched it (not blinding you for an entire night with a ghoulish green glow) to the free, fast WiFi – made working from this property a complete pleasure.
Penang, on the other hand, is delightfully old. I stayed in Georgetown at the E&O Hotel, one of the British colonial remnants built by the Sarkies brothers who also built the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
I loved Penang, especially the UNESCO-protected heritage zone that is home to Little India, a mass of Chinese shophouses, temples and mansions, as well as churches and schools built by the Catholic Fathers.The immigrant and colonial history of the island is reflected in the architecture, food and the general level of religious tolerance that Penang-ites display towards each other.
Our tour host described Penang as the ‘Hawaii of the East’ and I can really see why. The people have the laidback charm, anti-establishment sentiment and general love of living a cruisy life that characterises Hawaiians.
If you visit the island, make sure you do the following:
- Dinner at Seven Terraces restaurant for high-end nyonya fusion
- Lunch at China House cafe for a chilled out, quirky experience
- Stay at The Eastern and Oriental Hotel for enormous rooms with a view
- Do a cooking class and garden tour at Tropical Spice Garden to learn about native ingredients
- Go for a heritage walk around Georgetown to understand the rich history of the island
- Try the street food snacks in Little India – safe, delicious and fabulously fun
- Eat roti canai, asam laksa and char kway teow because the Penang versions are off the hook
To get there from Australia, Air Asia X has crazy cheap flights to KL and Malaysian Airlines flies many times a day to Penang. Taxis are metered, reliable and plentiful so there’s no need to organise transfers. Pro tip: book the day flights on Air Asia X as it’s a budget carrier and sleeping onboard is pretty tricky.