PRIYADARSHINI PAITANDY takes in the sights of Penang during Songkran, the Thai New Year, and returns with tales of temples, festivities, water sports and bargain shopping
Penang is like a super market — it has everything…well, almost. You get the hills, the sea and beach, mist and sunshine, temples, the hustle bustle of a touristy place as well as calm.
The drive from Kuala Lumpur to Penang takes around five hours. And, it's a pleasure to zip through the Jambatan Pulau Pinang that connects mainland Malaysia to the island of Penang.
With a length of 13.5 km, it is one of the world's longest bridges and offers a splendid view of the sapphire water and magnificent buildings on either side.
My first stop is a temple. I smile and pose for the camera, before I see vipers perched languidly on stands by the altar. This is the Chinese Snake Temple. “Carry this old snake around your neck. It's said to bring good luck,” says a man with a python. It looks at me with a deadpan expression and forks out its tongue as if to mock me.
Further inside is an area with numerous trees with more snakes coiled on the branches. The smoke from the incense sticks keeps them in a stupor and, therefore, harmless. But, boards reading, ‘Don't let the pit vipers kiss your fingers', aren't very comforting, so I leap out of the temple and head to my next destination.
An uphill drive leads me to Kek Lok Si, the biggest Buddhist temple in South-East Asia. Painted in vivid hues of red, green and white, with golden statues inside, the space leaves you blissful. I drive further up from here. Winding roads and valleys lead to a clearing, and the sunny, muggy island suddenly seems to have transformed into a hill station — it's cloudy here, tranquil and much cooler. And, in the middle of it lies a glistening green water body, lapping up attention.
Many locals apparently walk up to this point and back to keep themselves fit. Neither health conscious nor active, I slide into the car and drive down to yet another temple — Chayamangkalaram. This Thai Buddhist temple houses a 33-metre-long, gold-leafed statue of the reclining Buddha.
The atmosphere is festive and as I enter, a group of pint-sized kids armed with water guns, containers, bottles and hoses sprays us. Before I can recover, a burly man splashes some more water on me.
And, I can't take offence because it's Songkran, the Thai New Year — commonly celebrated by splashing water over each other, in the belief that water washes away evils. I join in the fun and then cool off with ice kachang at a nearby joint.
Beneath the scoops of ice cream and crushed ice lie boiled sweet corn, red bean, jelly, oh, and even palm fruit. Digging into it is like opening a box of surprises; you never know what you're going to get!
Locked by water on either side, this State has a range of exciting water sports. Soar up as you para sail, enjoy a bumpy banana boat ride and squeal in delight as you topple into the water, zoom across the sea on a jet scooter… or just plunge into the sea. But, the intense sun makes me cringe, even at 6.30 in the evening.
Finally, when it does go down, I gleefully wade into the cool waters of the sea, but not for too long. Because, there's so much happening around here, and you don't want to miss a thing. The night market is being set up now. Stalls with mounds of reasonably-priced bags, souvenirs, clothes, toys, gadgets, belts and copies of well-known brands beckon.
And, your haggling skills can get you great deals. “150 Ringgit,” calls out a lady holding up a peppy yellow beach gown. “100 Ringgit,” I bargain. “Yours for 100 Miss,” she smiles.
The only thing that can distract you from shopping is the appetising whiff from the eateries and restaurants on the other side of the road. The blurring variety of street food can make choosing an exhausting task. Char Koay Teow, Roti Canai, Hokkien Mee, Tok Tok Mee, Nasi Kandar…
Now, with my stomach full and happy, all I can do is laze by the beach and doze off to the tune of the whistling wind and foamy waves racing against an ink blue sky.