Chauffered around in Penang

Pinang trees that gave Penang its name, Pulau Pinang
I SANK back into the rear seat of the Perdana V6, enjoying the pleasure of being chauffeured.
“It’s a 45-minute drive to the hotel,” the driver, Mark Mahamteren, told me, pointing out interesting landmarks as we headed for the Hydro Majestic Hotel in Batu Ferringhi.
Since I was travelling alone, I decided to book the car with the hotel’s Tour Desk. With the car and driver at my disposal, I was ready for a real holiday on my own and this time, I was determined not to let Penang’s yummy hawker food and superb shopping distract me from doing so much more!

Warm Welcome

If there’s one thing I appreciate in a hotel, it would be attentive yet unobtrusive service. It struck me that the staff had a genuine interest in guests and enjoyed providing service with a smile.  As I wandered about, admiring the chic and contemporary design of the hotel, the staff there was never too busy to pause and offer a friendly smile. Even the gardener, who was busy watering plants, paused and greeted me with a cheerful “good evening!”

Local items in welcome gift box at Hydro Majestic Hotel
In my room, I was delighted when I opened the little welcome gift box. Forget chocolates – they’ve “gone local!”  I was impressed to see three items that reflected a truly Malaysian identity – tiny pyramids of kuih dodol, crispy curls of muruku and Penang’s own preserved nutmeg! Happily munching muruku, I sat in the balcony with a book, enjoying the cool breeze blowing in from the Andaman Sea.
It was a nice, slow start to my holiday at the Hydro Majestic Hotel, tucked in a quiet slope along Penang’s famous tourist belt of Batu Ferringhi.  I noticed an overhead bridge linking the hotel building to the beach that allowed guests access to the beach without hassle. As evening drew close, I relaxed in a gazebo by the pool where Ooi Ah San (a.k.a. Mr Sun or Sunny) pampered my feet with therapeutic reflexology.
Next morning, at the buffet breakfast in Palms Café, general manager B.B. Khoo, stopped by to say hello. When I commended his staff for such good attitude, he smiled broadly and replied: “Everything matters to us! We just do our best!”

Culture Heritage

The sun was bright in the blue sky when Mark and I set out for Georgetown.  We stopped at the star-shaped Fort Cornwallis. Built by Sir Francis Light in 1786, it was re-built three years later as the first military and administrative base of the East India Company.  I looked at the galleries, cells and the charming chapel, the first to be built in Penang, but the history of the Seri Rambai cannon was particularly fascinating.  The Dutch presented the cannon to the Sultan of Johor but it was given to Acheh, Indonesia, and installed at Kuala Selangor!

Freshly baked Chinese pastries at Ghee Hiang
In 1871, the British seized and installed it in Fort Cornwallis where it remains to this day. When his phone rang, Mark answered in fluent Hokkien dialect. In fact, he was multi-lingual and was married to a Chinese woman. He definitely knew where Ghee Hiang was.
This biscuit and sesame oil producer, with more than 150 years of history and its popular Hokkien pneah or Chinese pastries, is synonymous with Penang.  So he braved the heavy lunch-hour traffic in the heart of the city to drop me at its Beach Street outlet.
There, I met the company director, H.T. Ch’ng, who told me that very soon, visitors would be able to enjoy watching how their favourite pastries were traditionally handmade, from a mezzanine level built above the production floor. Another outlet and museum would be built in Juru.  This would really something to look forward to as I saw trays and trays of fragrant pastries, baked to golden brown perfection, being pulled out of the oven.

'Floating homes' at Chew Jetty
Another heritage site I had to see was the “floating” homes, so we went to Chew Jetty, the largest in the cluster. Together with Lee, Tan and Yeoh jetty settlements, these villages built on stilts over the sea had always been known by their clan names.
Mark led the way, introducing me to a fascinating lifestyle that had existed since the 19th Century. My heels clattered noisily as we made our way along the wooden walkway lined with plank houses on either side and, through gaps between closely packed structures, I could see the sea water lapping at the stilts.
The houses were first erected in the 1860s when young men from China’s Fujian province arrived to work as coolies and boatmen in the bustling port. A balmy breeze whipped around us as we enjoyed the panoramic view at the end of the jetty and in the distance, ferries and ships cruised slowly across the horizon.

Spice & Everything Nice

A collection of spices at the Spice Garden
The next day, I was off for an island drive. Penang was part of the Straits Settlements as well as on the spice trade route, so I was keen to explore the Tropical Spice Garden in Teluk Bahang.
I had put on comfortable walking shoes, ready to trek along the various trails that led to Lone Craig Villa and the Spice Museum on top of a hill.  Coated in a few squirts of fragrant citronella to ward off any unwelcome insects, I walked through the rainforest and spent several interesting hours learning about roots and shoots, flowers and ferns, and spices.
I took a rest at the shady Spice Café with a refreshing drink and enjoyed spectacular views of the sea.

Fleshly and fragrant organic 604 durian

Mark was waiting when I left the garden and we continued our drive to Balik Pulau, through hills dotted with durian trees that were heavy with fruit. The season had started early this year and many durian stalls displayed signs with numbers like 118, 178, 208, 218 and 808.

Curious about the different varieties of the King of Fruits, we stopped at a stall near Titi Kelewang for Red Prawn and Hor Lor hybrids and met Wong Kee Hock, 68, a durian seller for almost 40 years.

He has 19 acres of fruit farm. Expertly, he chose an organic 604 for me. Its plump, yellow flesh looked juicy and when I tasted the sweet, creamy pulp, I could not help but let out a blissful sigh!

Mark suggested that we visit a snake farm near the Snake Temple in Bayan Lepas.  Despite my fear of snakes, I plucked up enough courage to go. The family-owned farm has over 50 species and at 3.30pm every Saturday, puts on a show featuring a snake charmer playing with deadly king cobras of various lengths — X, XL and XXL! I was privately glad that I happened to arrive on a weekday.

Farm guide Lilian Chew is full of information about the various types of snakes and invited me to hold a three-week-old Temple Viper, assuring me with “don’t worry, it has no fangs!”. Immediately I volunteered Mark to hold it!

Touch Of Pampering

Pampering begins at Danai Spa
Back in Batu Ferringhi, I was ready to relax after all the activity and excitement.

Stepping into Danai Spa, I embraced the sight, sounds and scents of the tastefully designed spa and surrendered to the skilful hands of a professional therapist.  Return transport to the Hydro Majestic Hotel was provided for in the package and soon, I was back in my room to catch some shut-eye, cocooned in the luxury of soft, smooth sheets.

For reservations at Hydro Majestic Hotel Penang, call 04-890 5999, fax 04-899 4091 or email: or visit

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Travel Times on 25 May 2008

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