A guide points to a palm tree with leaves the size of a compact car. For the past 15 minutes, he has directed our attention to different spice plants as my fellow tour members and I follow close by, walking along paths cut through the jungle. I’m not much of a cook. I feel like a deer-in-the-headlight as he passes around samples of leaves and nuts and invites us to smell them. There are more than 100 varieties of tropical spices and herbs used as flavorings, medicines, dyes and perfumes in the Tropical Spice Garden, situated along Penang’s north-western shores. So I sniff the cinnamon, clove and nutmeg with everyone else.
But then he points to this massive palm tree. I am transfixed. I tune him out a little and start tuning in my surroundings a lot – the heavenly scent of flowers and spice, and plants a hundred different shades of green. Waterfalls, ferns, palms of every description line the paths; flowers including wild orchids splash color onto the green canvas.
Penang is like this: A kaleidoscope of color, jungles, resorts and sandy beaches in the shadow of a sprawling metropolitan area.
Modern day Penang, along the far western shore of Malaysia, was “born” in the late 18th century when English Captain Francis Light convinced the Sultan of Kedah to relinquish Pulau Pinang to the British East India Co. Penang soon became one of the busiest ports in the region, attracting rich merchants involved in the trade of tea, spices, porcelain and cloth. Settlers and fortune-seekers arrived – Chinese, Malay, Indian and Siamese – creating a melting pot of different cultures. Penang remained under British colonial rule until 1957.
To understand the wealth of the merchants, visit Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in George Town. It is the only stately Chinese-type dwelling representing the best of 18th- and 19th-century Chinese architecture in Penang and one of only three outside China.
Cheong Fatt Tze moved his business operations to George Town in the early 1890s. The bright blue house is decorated with intricate carvings. The entryway is filled with ornate furnishings; the windows radiate color from stained-glass. Built from 1896 to 1904 by Chinese master craftsmen, it is obvious no expense was spared.
The tour guide is very knowledgeable as she describes 19th-century George Town, Cheong Fatt Tze’s legacy and construction of the house. She leads the group into an indoor courtyard and then upstairs for further exploration.
The mansion and other architectural treasures in George Town, the history of trading and cultural exchanges between East and West in the Straits of Malacca, and Asian and European influences all led to the city being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.
Nighttime is another good time to explore the city with its trishaw (tricycle rickshaw) tours and famous hawker food stalls featuring a mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine.
Another reason to visit Penang is the beautiful and luxurious resorts along the water’s edge.
Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa is a gloriously beautiful monument to luxury. Inspired by the Shangri-La legend, the setting is one of lush foliage and exotic flowers; a place of personal peace, enchantment and well-being.
Guests can meander through the gardens or walk along the beach.
Also featured here is the CHI, the Spa. Spa programs are tailored for guests to meet individual wants and needs. Decorated in distinctive CHI style, the spa design incorporates Malay and Peranakan influences in its timber wood flooring and stone walls. The spa menu includes Chinese and Malay treatments.
Guest rooms are luxurious and, in some cases, include a balcony bathtub that will be prepared for you by a staff member using exotic oils and flower petals.
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