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Penang, The Island Paradise

I like to share information that makes life more joyful and meaningful. My main interests are health and general wellness in body and mind.

The Kek Lok Si Temple, Penang

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Penang, the Pearl of the Orient

The island of Penang; the island where I was born and bred. What a more appropriate place for me to write about than Penang, lovingly revered as "the Pearl Of the Orient". If you are a seasoned traveler, Penang needs no introduction. For others they may heard of Bali and Phuket. But Penang Island? In fact the island of Penang is more interesting than the two islands mentioned. Penang has a very rich heritage in its history, its peoples and their cross-cultures, and its fascinating architectural and engineering marvels. Befitting its unique stature, UNESCO on July 7, 2008 declared George Town as one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites. George Town is the town center of the island of Penang.

I am proud to regard myself as an authentic and vintage veteran to write about Penang, "the Pearl of the Orient". I was born on the island and have been living here all my life for more than 60 years! Who else is more qualified than me to write about this island paradise under the sun? It will be quite a long educational tour with a number of youtube videos and my personal collection of past photos. So sit back and enjoy your interesting tour of Penang with me.

UNESCO describes George Town as “… A unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia.”

Each year on July 7, Penang celebrates its George Town World Heritage Day with many cultural and traditional events.

George Town had been a very important and developed trading port that way back on 1 January, 1957, Queen Elizabeth II accorded it a “city” status.

George Town started as a trading port in the 15th century serving traders from east and west, stretching from China, India, the Middle East and to Europe. From this commercial development, George Town became a melting pot for the diverse cultures and beliefs of the world’s major populations. Even the two main local dialects spoken, Malay and Hokkien have their unique accents and terminologies not found anywhere in the world. From this melting pot, there arose two “hybrid” communities who called themselves Eurasians and Nyonya (or Peranakan). Eurasians as the term indicates was the result of the fusions between intermarriages of Asians and Europeans. Nyonya is a very unique blend of a special group of Chinese community who were very much influenced by the local Malay culture and language. Even their dresses and ornaments were unique and different from the others. For a certain period, their only known dialect was their unique blend of the Malay language (a sort of creole dialect).

I should not digress too far from this topic, the island of Penang. Perhaps in another future article I shall write more on the subject of the Nyonyas (or Peranakans) and the Eurasians. For now it is about the beauty of the island of Penang.

A few photos in this article belong to the indefatigable brilliant web-master of penang-traveltips.com of which kind permission has been granted by him to be shown here. Thank you, my friend, Tim.

Maps of Penang Island

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Where is Penang

Penang is a state of Malaysia. Actually the state of Penang consists of the island of Penang and a strip of rectangular land, called Seberang Perai (formerly Province Wellesley) on mainland Malaysia. For this article, we shall concentrate on the beautiful island of Penang. The island is shaped like a tortoise. Surprisingly it was never called Tortoise or Turtle Island, but instead Pulau Pinang, which is the official name of Penang. Pulau means island, and pinang is the tropical betel nut palm or more correctly the areca nut palm. It was given the colonial name Prince of Wales Island in 1786 after the heir to the British throne, George IV. Official historical records stated that in 1786, the island of Penang was ceded by the local sultan (ruler) to Captain Francis Light, an English trader of the British East India Company. From then on Penang has evolved to what it is today, a shiny pearl in the Straits of Malacca, very fondly nicknamed “The Pearl of the Orient”. That is the Island of Penang, with a total land area of only 293 km2 (113.1 sq mi), with highest point at 735 m (2,411 ft) in Penang Hill (Bukit Bendera)

In Penang, wherever you go you will see people of various races, mainly the three ethnic groups, Chinese, Indians and Malays. Don’t worry about communication. The people there can speak English; well most of them. See, I can speak and write English!! And pretty good at it too!! LOL!! The three main languages spoken are the local Hokkien by the Chinese community including me, Tamil by the Indian community, and Malay by the Malay community and all the locals. I too can speak Malay, apart from the unique Penang Hokkien dialect that you can’t find even in China. However, nowadays, if you ever meet with “blank faces”, then these people must be the foreign workers from neighboring countries. I know we all look the same to you! LOL!!

Another uniqueness on this island are the street names. Apart from the officially displayed street name signs, the local Chinese have their own names for the various streets, in Hokkien. As the Chinese were the pioneers in the town center, they gave names to the streets in their Hokkien dialect, while the British colonial rulers gave them their official street names.. I don't think you can find this unique feature anywhere in the world. To add to variety, after the Colonial masters left the country in 1957, many official street names had been changed. On the subject of street names, for your information, The terms "lebuh", "jalan" and "lorong" respectively mean "street", "road" and "lane".

Penang (Pulau Pinang), Malaysia

Streets of George Town, Penang

George Town, Penang, In The Evening

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Fort Cornwallis & Esplanade

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Penang Museum (The upstairs in front was my classroom in 1960)

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St George’s Church

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Goddess of Mercy Temple (Kuan Yin Teng)

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Sri Mahamariamman Temple

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Kapitan Keling Mosque

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The Chew Clan Jetty (houses on stilts)

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Penang Ferry

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The Heritage Walk

Walk around the heritage George Town, enjoy the smells of local exotic aroma, the sight of old Colonial architectural charm, and meet the friendly local people. Explore the narrow lanes and hidden corners, the old quaint residential houses of all shapes and sizes, and be lost in the countless old clan houses, traders' associations, old mosques, ancient temples, and Gothic churches. If you are too tired to walk, then take the local tourist trishaws (pedicab tricycles), where you just sit, relax and enjoy, the leisurely ride around George Town. These trishaws were once “kings of the road” as they were the main mode of transport around town. But today, they are merely tourist trishaws. Even the type of the Penang trishaw can be found only on the island itself. Nowhere else in the world. Such is the uniqueness of the island of Penang.

Let’s start with the spot where Captain Francis Light landed on the island. A fort was built to protect possible attacks from, believe it not, the French. This fort is called Fort Cornwallis, after the then Governor General of British India. When visiting the fort, don’t forget to take a picture with the famous canon, nicknamed Seri Rambai. In front of the fort is the Espanade with the Penang City Hall building facing an open field and a War Memorial and Cenotaph.

After Fort Cornwallis and the Esplanade, walk over to the Penang Museum at Farquhar Street. Nothing to shout about considering the contents inside, but the building itself is of historical interesting. This building was built in 1821, was originally the Penang Free School, the oldest premium English medium school in Southeast Asia having established itself in 1816, of which I am proud to be one of its former students. Later it was home to Hutchings School. The first floor (upstairs) in front, used to be my classroom when I was a small boy in my fourth year in the school, way back in 1960! How time flies. You will note that this building and the City Hall building are quite similar in design, in that they were based on the then popular Victorian-style public building architecture.

The St George’s Church is next to the museum on the left. Built in 1818, the St. George's Church is the oldest Anglican church in Southeast Asia. The most striking feature of the church is its architecture. Designed by a British engineer artist, the building is described as a hybrid “Georgian Palladium” style. “Georgian” being the architectural style characteristic during that period (1714-1830); and “Paladium” named after the Grecian-style architectural works of the Roman named Palladius.

You will notice two outstanding structures of the Church. The first are the huge white Grecian columns in front of the Church. The other striking feature is a stand-alone pavilion located a few meters in front of the Church. It was built later in 1886 to commemorate Captain Francis Light, the man who convinced the local sultan (ruler) to cede Penang to his company.

Further back of the St George’s Church stands the Goddess of Mercy Temple (Kuan Yin Teng), at Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling. This temple is the oldest Chinese temple in Penang, built in 1728.

Further down the road on the left is the Sri Mahamariamman Temple: This temple is at Penang’s “Little India”. This is an Indian temple for people of the Hindu faith. During those early years, streets were pretty quiet. I think it didn’t matter on which street to locate any building. This temple was built facing a narrower street on Lebuh Queen with its back facing the busy Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling. By the way “Lebuh” means “street” and “Jalan” is “road”. This is a typical south Indian style temple with a front-facing tall tower or “gopuram”. This is the oldest Hindu temple in Penang, built in 1833.

A short walking distance from across the Indian temple is the Kapitan Keling Mosque which was built in 1801 for the Muslim community from South India. Hence the name Keling, meaning people of the Indian origin. Kapitan means captain. Kapitan kelings were those people from Southern India who were appointed as leaders of their community by the then British government.

The mosque features Mughal-style domes and Moorish arches. A sight to behold.

At the end of Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, is Armenian Street (Lebuh Armenian). Do you know that the Chinese Revolution had its beginning inside a house in this street? It’s not a joke. It was in this unassuming indigo-blue terrace house at number 120 Armenian Street (Lebuh Armenian), that the Chinese revolutionary Dr Sun Yat Sen (1866-1925), the first President of the Republic of China, began his vision of a new China. Dr Sun had spent a significant period in Penang. Penang was his revolutionary base, where he planned his strategies to overthrow the Ching dynasty of China. The Chinese people of Penang had played a very significant role in this great historical revolution of China in terms of finance and manpower. So you might like to take a look at this important historical house and be a part of the great histories of China and Penang.

From Armenian Street, just walk around the area to see a number of temples and clan buildings like the famous Khoo Kongsi clan temple and another old mosque at Acheen Street. After that, just ask around for direction to Weld Quay. It's about 10 minutes walk. Along Weld Quay, you will find two interesting sites. The first are the Chinese clan jetties, where houses are built on stilts along the shallow shore of the island. Each clan jetty houses people of similar surname. So we have the five jetties by the surnames, Chew, Tan, Lim, Lee and Yeoh, although the younger generations may have shifted to live elsewhere. There is a sixth jetty with mixed surnames. These jetties tell a story and is a testimony of the resilient pioneer spirit of the Chinese immigrants seeking a better future in the maritime activities in Penang more than two centuries ago. The communities are so closely knit and safe that they don’t have to lock their doors.

Adjacent to these clan jetties, is the ferry terminal, with ferries plying between the island and the mainland. These ferries have maintained an immaculate record of accident free service since its inception in 1920. It’s a 15-minute ferry ride, just like the famous Star Ferry service of Hong Kong. The Penang ferries carry both passengers and vehicles. They are very brightly painted and are definitely an outstanding icon of Penang. You must get on board one of these ferries. And they are free! Just walk up the ramp and go straight to the ferry. If the ferry hasn’t arrived yet, just wait a while and you will not be disappointed. Yes you get a free ride to the mainland, but the catch is you need to pay at the mainland terminal when returning! Breathe the sea air, enjoy the scenery on both sides of the island and the mainland, and the spectacular view of the Penang Bridge on the horizon.

After a full day’s outing, you can take a rest and freshen up. By then the sun will be setting, and it’s time you can head towards where the action is, for the evening. The area around Upper Penang Road, Chulia Street, LoveLane and Muntri Street comes alive when the sun sets. ( Please note the road signs will use the Malay terms “Jalan”, “Lebuh” and “Lorong” for road, street and lane.) Around this area, you will find pubs, eateries, karaoke lounges, and beer gardens with life bands, to quench your thirst. Take a leisurely stroll around this area to savour a wide variety of food which will satisfy every palate. And it is around this area where you get to rub shoulders with a kaleidoscope of tourists from all over the world, from backpackers to the well-heeled, for within this area, you will find the little budget guesthouses as well expensive hotels, notably the legendary 5-star E & O Hotel at Farquhar Street. The colonial-style E & O Hotel (or the Eastern and Oriental Hotel ) is a legend in itself, was established in 1885 and its famous and distinguished guests included Sir Noel Coward, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudyard Kipling, Hermann Hesse, Dr Sun Yat Sen, Somerset Maugham, and even Charlie Chaplin.

George Town, Penang, With Komtar Tower

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Penang Hill Cable Car Station

The old facade

The old facade

The new facade

The new facade

The Present Penang Hill Cable Car

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Penang Hill Cable Car (2nd generation)

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Penang Hill Cable Car (First generation wooden coach which I used to travel in as Manager of the Penang Hill Hotel in 1974)

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Nostalgia : Me (on the right) as a young manager of Penang Hill Hotel with my receptionist, Indian gardener, and postmaster of the Hill, at back garden of Hotel

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As a schoolboy with my 2 Malay friends in front garden of the Penang Hill Hotel (Christmas Day 1967)

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Moon Gate, near Botanic Gardens, starting point for hike to Penang Hill

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Other major places of interest

Penang Hill Cable Cars

For the next day, you can start the morning with a ride up Penang Hill (Bukit Bendera) by cable car. Head to the area called Ayer Itam and the Cable Car Station is at the end of the road by the hill slope. It is advisable that you go very early in the morning to avoid the long queue. The first service starts at 6.30 in the morning. The ride up Penang Hill is an exhilarating experience where you can feel the gradual change in temperature from the very hot and humid on ground level to a cool atmosphere of between 20 and 25 degrees Celsius, when you reach the top of the hill. Along the ride you will enjoy the panoramic view of the island especially George Town. Penang Hill is about 823 meters (2700 feet) above sea level.

The Penang Hill Railway is a cable system which we called the funicular railway. The construction started in 1906 and became operational in 1923, originally and specifically to take the Colonial Masters and their ladies up the hill to cooler climes so they could have their rest and recreation with high tea and scones. For their comfort and a little reminder of home, they built beautiful English cottages around the surrounding area on top of Penang Hill. Many of these cottages still stand today. Oh, those British of that era!! Well, all good things must come to an end, for them that is. Now they are gone, we locals get to enjoy their legacies! Ha! Ha!

While on the hill, you can still enjoy the English high tea and scones at the hill-top restaurant just like the early British. After that don’t forget to walk further up to the Belleview Hotel. Walk through the hotel to the back where the hotel restaurant is, and you can enjoy the panoramic view of George Town and the mainland. We used to call it "Horizon Unlimited".

I have a personal affection for Penang Hill. You see, way back in 1974 I was a young Manager of the one and only hotel on Penang Hill, aptly called the Penang Hill Hotel. It is still there and operating under a new name called Belleview Hotel. When I was in charge, it was already an old hotel, with only 12 rooms. A room for me as Manager, and that left only 11 rooms for the guests. During those days I would have the opportunity to enjoy the leisurely ride in the wooden cable car moving at snail speed. There were first class and second class seats. Being Manager I was privileged to enjoy first class seat! During those days, there were two separate cable tracks ending at the middle station. We would need to change cable cars at the middle station. The whole journey would take about 45 minutes. Those wooden cable cars were in service up till 1977.

Incidentally when I was a school boy, with two Malay friends, we hiked up Penang Hill from the Moon Gate at Waterfall Gardens, and as fate would have it, we took a picture in front of the Penang Hill Hotel which I would become its Manager, 7 years later! Take a look at the photo on the right.

The wooden coaches were subsequently replaced by a more modern version and faster cars which took 30 minutes to complete the journey. Then lately in 2011, a more advanced Swiss-made air-conditioned coaches began operation. The 2 cable lines were joined into a continuous track of 2,220 metres (7284 feet or 1.4 miles), and the whole journey now does not stop at the middle station, but instead the coaches take passengers straight up the hill in 10 minutes! That works out to be 8.4 mph. or 13.3 kph. That is pretty fast on elevated tracks. To me there is no more fun riding on these so-called modern coaches. But then again, what you don’t get to experience, you don’t miss the fun. These speedy modern machines are merely efficiently fast commuter coaches. Nothing more than that. There is only one advantage for the tired tourists, less waiting time, especially during peak holiday periods.

There are two videos on this cable car ride at the end of this article. Do take a look at them.

Fantastic Sunbeam Shining Over George Town

Photo taken from Penang Hill.

Photo taken from Penang Hill.

A very rare photo of the construction of the Penang Hill railway track

Photo taken in the early 1920s

Photo taken in the early 1920s

I love this one. The Penang Hill Hotel. I can recognize the front compound. Must have taken when I was in charge. From a postcard for sale in ebay.

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Forty-one Years Later! (13 Oct 2015)

Bellvue or the Penang Hill Hotel.  Old structure intact. (From left, my granddaughter, my wife and my son.)

Bellvue or the Penang Hill Hotel. Old structure intact. (From left, my granddaughter, my wife and my son.)

The first generation cable car to Penang Hill (The slow wooden coach I used to enjoy)

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Forty-one Years Later! (13 Oct 2015)

Nostalgic encounter. Author Good Guy with granddaughter standing inside the old timber coach on display at the top of Penang Hill.  The exact coach he used to travel in, 41 years ago!

Nostalgic encounter. Author Good Guy with granddaughter standing inside the old timber coach on display at the top of Penang Hill. The exact coach he used to travel in, 41 years ago!

The Jade Emperor Temple

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The Jade Emperor Temple

This is a Chinese Taoist temple next to the Penang Hill cable track. It’s a bit difficult to write the local name in English, but here it is..T’i Kong T’nua in Hokkien dialect. If you take the cable ride up Penang Hill, you will pass this temple on the right of the track, about 30 seconds from the bottom station. Loosely translated, the Jade Emperor is the Heavenly King regarded as the supreme deity within the Taoist pantheon of deities. The temple has recently in 2011 completed its major renovation and restoration by artisans from China. You need to climb the elevated steps to reach the temple.

Bats' Cave Temple

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Bats' Cave Temple

This is a very obscured little Chinese temple in honor of “Tua Pek Kong” or God of Prosperity. Actually it’s more like a local “Patron Saint”. I can vouch that not many locals know of this place. It is located past the Jade Emperor Temple. Don’t expect to see hundreds of bats, but you would not be disappointed to witness simple nature at its best. This is the place where I used to have my walking exercise a few years ago when I was living near the area. It is a very pleasant walk up the slightly elevated narrow winding road from the Penang Hill Cable Car Station. Take a look at the video at the end of this article.

Kek Lok Si Temple

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Kek Lok Si Temple

If you visit Penang Hill early in the morning, you should be back down from the hill by lunch time. You can choose to have a more relaxed but expensive lunch at the hill restaurants, or you can enjoy the local foods downhill at Ayer Itam; that’s where you will be heading to visit the spectacular Chinese temple, the Kek Lok Si Temple, one of its kind in the world. Set on an elevated hillslope at the end of Ayer Itam, construction of the temple began in 1890, and by 1930 the final structure of the seven-storey pagoda stood majestically on top of the hill overlooking the Ayer Itam village below. Many locals are not aware that the architecture of this pagoda is very unique and is the only one of its kind in the world. The base of the pagoda is of traditional Chinese design, the middle portion is based on Thai architecture, and the top crown is Burmese tradition. This reflects the harmony of the three main Buddhist communities and the two major schools of Buddhism, namely Theravada and Mahayana.

The latest “tourist” attraction of a 30.2 meters bronze statue of the Goddess of Mercy was built in 2002 further uphill. And in 2009, a huge octagonal granite roof shelter was completed to protect the statue, adding a majestic sight to the whole temple.There is a cable rail service to take visitors to the top from the highest temple building. It will take you a full afternoon visit to do justice to this imposing temple.

If you are lucky to be in Penang around February, come Chinese Lunar New Year period, you will not want to miss the spectacular night scene of the Kek Lok Si Temple. The whole temple area including the rooftops will be lit with thousands of colored light bulbs, revealing the splendor of the temple. The whole temple on top of the hill can be seen far away as you approach Ayer Itam township; especially spectacular during nighttime when it is fully lit during the Chinese Lunar New Year period.

This site is so beautiful and fascinating that I have imbedded 5 videos at the end of this article for your viewing pleasure.

Splendor of Kek Lok Si Temple at night

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Heaven On Earth, Simply Surreal!

The Kek Lok Si Temple at its supreme splendor at night, with another equally splendid temple down below.  Just like a classic Chinese painting.

The Kek Lok Si Temple at its supreme splendor at night, with another equally splendid temple down below. Just like a classic Chinese painting.

Full Moon At The Goddess Of Mercy Pavilion

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Fireworks At The Kek Lok Si Temple

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Fireworks Over Kek Lok Si (4 Feb 2016)

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Nattukottai Chettiar Temple, Waterfall

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New Hilltop Temple Opposite The Nattukottai Chettiar Temple

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The Waterfall Indian Temple

Another prominent Hindu temple worth visiting is the Nattukottai Chettiar Temple, or more commonly called The Waterfall Temple, as it is located near the waterfall gardens (Botanic Gardens as described further down this article). This is a very crowded place come Thaipusam, a popular Hindu festival which I shall describe later in this article. This year 2012 in June saw the grand consecration of a new additional temple on top of the hillock, opposite the Nattukottai Chettiar Temple.

Viper snake in the Snake Temple

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The Snake Temple

This is a Chinese temple built in 1850 in honor of a Chinese sage. It is located at Sungai Kluang, along the way to the Penang International Airport, Bayan Lepas. This temple can boast of being the only one of its kind in the world. It has life pit viper snakes curling around its pillars and surroundings! Worth visiting and to be friends with snakes. For the tourists, you can pay to take photos with pythons on your shoulders!

Monkeys siting on the "canon ball" at the Botanic Gardens

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The Botanic Gardens

The Botanic Gardens is the most favourite place of the local people, as this is where they can enjoy nature. It is the place where people go for exercise every morning and late afternoon. Set in a natural undulating 29-hactre site, the Gardens has a natural waterfall, a small reservoir, plenty of natural flora and fauna. That’s why it is also called the Waterfall Gardens, or even the Monkey Gardens. Unfortunately the waterfall and the adjacent reservoir are now a restricted area for security reasons.

The Botanic Gardens area is also a haven for local hikers as it has many jungle tracks leading to many remote parts of the island. The most famous being the Moon Gate which takes you up Penang Hill with a 3-hour hike.

Have you ever seen a canon-ball tree. If not this is your chance. On entering the main entrance, after the big tree on your right, you will see a row of short trees. Look carefully and you will see “canon balls” hanging below the branches! These canon balls are actually the fruits.

A most fascinating site at the Gardens is the ever present wild long-tailed monkeys. You will see them as you stroll along the winding paths along the Gardens.

Muka Head Light House

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The National Park and Light House

Although Penang is a very small island, it also has a National Park on the north-west side of the island, called Muka Head. In this park there is a meromictic lake at Pantai Kerachut, where the stream water meets the sea water but remain separate. And believe it or not, there is even an old lighthouse built in 1883 still in operation.

Meromictic lake at Pantai Kerachut

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A butterfly in the Butterfly Farm

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The Butterfly Farm

This farm is for tourists to get acquainted up-close with the many species of exotic life butterflies. They are bred in a huge enclosure where they are free to roam around with humans. Apart from butterflies, there are also other tropical insects on display.

Guillemard Reservoir

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The Aqueduct and the Guillemard Reservoir

The aqueduct is a hidden gem, even most locals don’t even know that there is such an engineering marvel up the hills running down the valle