There’s something cooking in Malaysia’s virgin paradise, better known as Penang Island.
|Start with Kek Lok Si Buddhist Temple and never look back.|
Interwoven between the cafés and coffee shops are amazing combinations of cultures, Buddhist temples and shopping that make for a fascinating side trip. Here nearly everything you can imagine is available for sale in what amounts to a negotiator’s dream: traditional lanterns, vintage British cigarette lighters, joss-sticks, Malay jewelry and local artisan crafts. And, no, you won’t find any of the opium that was once traded with India and China when this was a burgeoning port town in previous centuries. But you will find some soothing Malay teas and a friendly smile at every stop.
|All that's missing is the South Beach "talent."|
SLEEP: Flamingo Hotel by the Beach
Enjoy alfresco delights and a sweet Malay martini while dining in the oceanfront beach bar of this simplistic, yet oddly elegant hotel, just steps from the heart of Georgetown. www.penang.flamingo.com.my
|Malaysian river prawns vs. Louisiana craw fish: you make the call!|
Sneak away to the Khaleel Restaurant on Jalan Penang Street, the preeminent 24/7 Mamak (Tamil Muslim) eatery near the corner of touristy Lebuh Chulia. Don’t miss the fresh river prawns to satisfy your yearning for this delicacy and all other things crustacean.
Georgetown’s garish rickshaws or “trishaws,” as they are commonly known, are the best way to see the town as drivers pedal their passengers around in outlandishly garish vehicles. If you tip an extra dollar, they might change the bad karaoke, playing full blast on their hi-fi stereo systems.
RELAX: Spicy Garden
Most people don’t understand the importance of spices. At one time, the spice trade made merchants across the globe untold fortunes. They preserved meat and were the key ingredients in perfume making and embalming the dead. They were more valuable than gold. All told, they established immense empires, tipping the balance of world power at the dawn of the seventeenth century.
|Closest thing to the Garden of Eden you'll ever find.|
This bewitching jewel of a garden, established on an abandoned rubber plantation, opened in 2003 and, we’re told, never fails to amaze. The minute you stride up to the conservatory, your senses are treated to savory treats as a gust of flavors wafts over you.
The walking guided tour—one of the finest this side of a docent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art—meticulously takes you across three garden experiences:
- The Spice Trail with its 100 herbs and spices.
- The Ornamental Trail, highlighting never seen (by me, at least) palms, flora, gingers and ferns.
- The Jungle Trail, replete with wild orchids and other jungle species stretched across an elevated pathway.
This isn’t your typical hands-off walk around a national park. The English-speaking guide goes into great detail about the trees and plants, often plucking a leaf and rubbing a seed pod on your wrist to allow you to smell the sweet aromas. He will even direct you to a lily pond, where you can dip your feet for a brief respite to the often oppressive Malaysian humidity. There, the guppies nibble your toes as part of your organic pedi-spa treatment.
The highlight is when you reach the on-site Tree Monkey Restaurant, serving Asian fare prepared with many of the garden's own spices. The views overlooking the South China Sea and daunting rain forest is enchanting. As are the restaurant’s sticky rice, tom yum seafood soup and onion omelets.
Daily Admission with tour is approximately $8 USD. There are cooking classes too, but call ahead to make sure they are staffed for the day.
A trip to the Tropical Spice Garden is almost worth the 25 hours of flying from Los Angeles through Japan to Kuala Lumpur, plus a quick flight to Penang.
|Trishaws of Penang (above and below)|
|...the beer is pretty good too...|