The Tale of Betel Nut Island

This morning has shown me one of the most beautiful skies I’ve ever seen in flight  Beautifully clear, slowly leaving Perth behind, the sun is just rising in a vibrant wash of red, orange and pink.  And then climbing into a landscape of clouds.  I’ve never seen anything like it – they weren’t just clouds – there were lakes and mountains and waterfalls hanging in the clouds.  And no, I haven’t started drinking yet.

See! Those are mountains for sure!

I start off my flight movie marathon by choosing 47 Ronin, cause let’s face it – it’s been a while since I’ve seen Keanu Reeves in anything.  It’s a Japanese period drama, a tale of love and courage, about a half caste boy who grows up among samurai in Ako.  The Lord of Ako dies, leaving his samurai leaderless, or ronin, and they join forces to seek revenge for the death of their master.  The costumes and scenery are just amazing and I quite enjoy the movie, except for the animated bits about demons and make believe jungle creatures (but I’m not a computer generated graphics fan in any case), but poor Keanu just looks so sad throughout the whole movie.  It was hard to tell whether he was acting or is just that miserable in his real life.  Come here Keanu – I’ll give you hug, cheer you up a bit!

For movie number two, I flit around a bit from channel to channel, instead of doing what I just should have done straight away – and that’s choose Dallas Buyers Club.  As a result I don’t get to see the ending before we land at Changi Airport, but what I did see was really good.  Matthew McConnaughy’s skeletal frame is terrifying.

We only have about an hour until our transit flight to Penang takes off, so its not long til we are on our way again.  The flight is full of bumpy moments and we land with such a thud that I’m sure our plane has bounced off the tarmac and is going to have to try again, but we have made it.  Coming into the airport you can straight away seen the lush greenery of the island.

Coming in to and from the south of the island.
Coming in to and from the south of the island.

Our luggage arrives with us (yay!  Always a good thing!) and our transfer from Tour & Incentive Travel is waiting for us.  He’s a very friendly guy and he uses my name whenever he speaks to me.  As we drive to the north east point of the island, he tells us bits and pieces about the island.

Penang was originally called Pulau Pinang, loosely translated as Betel Nut Island – the name coming from the abundance of betel nut palms scattered across the sandy beaches.  Penang was born when English captain Francis Light persuaded the Sultan of Kedah to cede Pulau Pinang to the British East India Company.  In 1786, he landed on what is known today as the Esplanade and fired gold coins into the surrounding jungle to induce his men to clear the area.

In 1832, Penang formed part of the Straits Settlement with Malacca and Singapore.  The Penang maritime port was among the busiest in the region, attracting rich merchants involved in the lucrative trade of tea, spices, porcelain and cloth.  Settlers and fortune-seekers from the all over called Penang home and it was from this interesting mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Siamese cultures that Penang became a melting pot for hybrid communities – the most famous being the Baba Nyonya, Jawi Peranakan and Eurasians.

It remained under British colonial rule for more than a century until Malaysia gained independence. George Town was accorded city status by Queen Elizabeth II in 1957, becoming the first town in the Federation of Malay – after Singapore – to become a city.  Georgetown was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.

Streets of Penang
Streets of Penang

Before we know it (about half an hour though), we are pulling up to the imposing white façade of the Eastern and Oriental Hotel – our home for the next four nights.  We are staying in Georgetown, because to me, why would you stay anywhere else but at the iconic E&O?  Well anyway, I had always imagined the E&O hotel when I thought of Penang, so we are here.  She’s a grand old colonial dame, a flashback to British stuffiness, garden parties, elegant marble and stunning architectural features.  Part of our amazing accommodation deal is the lure of complimentary evening drinks and snacks in the Planters Lounge, fresh fruit, breakfast, complimentary water and softdrink and free wifi (in ALL areas of the hotel).

The E&O
The E&O

The hotel lobby is extravagant.  The wide hallway corridors of the hotel are lined with prints of Georgetown’s heritage and the wooden floors – well, they make me sound like a pony!  (cue coconuts banging together to produce hoof sound).

Our room, sorry – miniature apartment – is 55 square meters of colonial luxury.  A marble bathroom housing a claw foot bath, flanked by a massive shower with the most awesome shower head I’ve ever seen, beautiful furnishings – a reading chair, a good sized writing desk, a balcony with two wicker seats and views to the Malacca Strait, across past Gurney drive and then glimpses of Georgetown.

View of Georgetown behind the hotel
View of Georgetown behind the hotel
The view from our balcony.
The view from our balcony.

After unpacking though, its time for our daily drinks, so on the way to the Planters Lounge, we stop in to check out the gym, with its horrible view of the ocean, and the infinity pool.  The daily drinks session incudes red or white wine, local beer, vodka, gin, whisky or Bacardi, soft drink, tea, coffee, juice or water washed down with cold meats, cheese, crackers, bread, fruit and a different array of little local snacks – quite a good spread for free.

Given its been such a long day, we opt for a quiet night and decide to walk down the road to see if we can locate a place called Beach Blanket Babylon that I read about.  Its supposed to be right around the corner, but the door men have never heard of it.  We decide to try our luck anyway and are rewarded when we walk right around the corner and there it is.  Just like it was supposed to be.  It’s amazing how advertising can give you a different picture and vibe of the place you are looking at.  BBB is a lot more rustic than the world wide web showed it to be.  But its quaint, the staff are friendly, and the views across the Malacca Strait are gorgeous as the sun goes down.

Taking a table on a little deck overlooking the water, we peruse the menu with its array of local and western dishes and happy hour from 11am to 8pm.  Good opportunity to try out a few of their cocktails I reckon.  We order a couple of dishes to share – char kuey tow and something else I’m sorry to say I can’t remember the name of!  But they are both really good, but really, really spicy.  Its nice to sit here with the breeze blowing against our faces, watching the sunset.  After a quick walk around the streets, we are now good and ready for bed so we can start exploring Penang tomorrow.

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