My train didn’t arrive into Butterworth (mainland gateway to Penang) until 8 am, a 1.5 hrs delay. After getting off the train, I walked across a parking lot and a small bridge that led to the Ferry dock. The Ferry cost us RM2, and the return trip from Penang to mainland is free. The ferry was big, fitting 15-20 cars and 100+ people. It took about half hour for the Ferry to arrive to Penang, a food paradise. I took a taxi from the Jetty to my hotel (Tune Hotel, great option to stay in Penang). The taxi driver refused to use a meter, instead he asked for a flat rate of RM15 (I later learned that it should have only cost RM8-RM10). Sometime getting ripped off is part of traveling, and since it was only $5, I didn’t sweat it. It was too early to check in to the hotel when I arrived, so I left my luggage at the counter and left to explore the town.
Tune’s staffs were great as they gave me all the scopes on how to get around town and a map. I took a short 10 minutes walk from the Tune hotel to Komtar and got some iced Kopi (local coffee) along the way. Komtar is the tallest building on the island and one cannot miss it. It is basically the shopping, business, bus terminal complex. There were many currency exchanges around Komtar and I decided to get myself some Thai Baht since I was heading into Koh Lipe through Langkawi in a few days. There are no ATM on Lipe and Langkawi’s rates would be horrible.
Kek Lok Si, Buddhist Temple in Air Itam
I took RapidPenang bus # 203 from Komtar to Kek Lok Si, the biggest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia. Bus #201, 203, 204, 206, 306, or 502 will also go from Komtar to Kek Lok Si. Surprisingly there is a free WI-FI on this bus! I later learned that Penang is trying to be the first state in Malaysia to provide residents with free internet connection. The bus cost RM2 each. Just tell the bus driver that you want to go to Kek Lok Si and he will tell you when you need to get off. The bus took 20 mins to get to Kek Lok Si area, and I was able to take advantage of the free WI-FI to skype home (I even ran alongside the bus trying to finish up my call after getting off it). Once I got off the bus, I looked for a sign that says Kek Lok Si and just followed it. It was about a 200m walk before I saw a small tunnel with a bunch of souvenir stalls along the way. I kept walking through the souvenir stall, which took me up a hill, pass a pond of turtles, and to the base of the temple. It was about 10-15 mins walk from the bus stop.
The huge temple was stunning, peaceful, and impressive. The complex was very colorful, artistic, and a great spot to take some photos. It was said that there are 10,000 Buddha here, and from the numerous Buddha around, that is probably true. I got myself some incense, prayed, made a donation, and put my wish on the wishing tree. I then took an incline lift (RM4 return per adult) up to see the massive Kuan Yin, or Goddess of Mercy statue (Mahayana Buddhism). From the top of this hill, one can see all of Georgetown.
It took me about 2 hours to see the whole complex. After this, I went down and grabbed lunch at the food stall down the road, right where the bus originally dropped me off. I had Laksa, at a stall that was packed with Malaysian/local tourists. The stall’s sanitary condition wasn’t great, and even though I grew up in Thailand and ate street food daily, I know that my now U.S. stomach isn’t as strong. I decided to brave it anyway. I then washed it down with fresh sugarcane juice from a nearby stall. I enjoyed the lunch so much but ended up with a stomach upset later that day. I was not sure if it was from the Laksa or not, but I still love the food! Kek Lok Si, is a must visit in Penang.
Not too far from Kek Lok Si (2.5 Km), is located the Penang hill. You can either hike the 5.1 km (I did not see anyone who is crazy enough to do) or take a cogwheel train (Penang Hill Railway). I took bus# 204 from Kek Lok Si to Penang Hill. I did not see any bus stop sign around the Kek Lok Si market area, but did notice a group of school girls waiting in front of a store, and I figured that it must be a bus stop. The railway to go up the hill costs RM30/person for foreigners, RM8/person for Malaysian, opens 6:30 – 9:00pm daily. I got there in the afternoon, and the line for the ticket and the separate line for the train were massive. I suggested that if you have more than one person, 1 person should go get the tickets while another person gets in line for the train line. This will save you a lot of time. The weather was so hot and humid even in December, but it will be cool down when you get up there. There were a lot of babies crying as they cannot stand the heat while waiting in line. I felt really bad for them and their parents are insane! Don’t dare bringing your less than 3 years old kid here.
After the 1.5 hours ticket/line process, the ride to the top took 15 mins. The view from the top of the hill was beautiful and one could see the whole city. There were also shops, food stalls, and a nice restaurant on top of Penang Hill. I treated myself to a local shaved ice to cool myself down. Riding the cable down was fun especially if you sit in the front (felt like riding a roller coaster). I took bus #204 back to Komtar to see the rest of Georgetown.
I thought Penang Hill was a waste of time as there was nothing special about it other than a chance to ride the cogwheel train and see a nice view of the city. It was no comparison to the Victoria Peak in Hong Kong. It was one of those hyped up by the guide book places. Given the long line, long wait time, one may be better off seeing the Island’s beaches or town.