Glittering Parties, Secret Islands & a White Christmas

Christmas is a special time of year in Penang and, even after all these years here, it still holds lots of delightful surprises for me. To be fair, Penang has been surprising me from the off.

My wife Lisa and I had been exploring countries in Southeast Asia for over 30 years, but the day we stepped off the plane here in Penang we knew it was right. Call it intuition, but everything just fell into place. We were home.

In our early days in Malaysia, I didn’t expect Christmas to be a big deal here. But every year the celebrations get bigger and better.

Christmas officially starts in Penang with the raising of the six-metre high, E&O Hotel Christmas tree on December 1st. For expats and locals alike that marks the start of a month of fun and festivities.

All through the month of December the various expat clubs and organisations hold year-end celebrations. The Australian Defense Forces throw their last fancy dress ball of the year—this year’s theme was the Roaring 20’s. Healy Mac’s Irish Pub at Straits Quay plays host to the Irish Association, the International Women’s Association enjoy their Christmas Charity lunch in fine style at the E&O Hotel and The Penang Swimming Club hit the beach for a barbecue. Then there’s Christmas drinks with Alliance Francaise and the German Association, the Penang Choir does the rounds and there’s a seemingly endless whirl of expat dinner parties to attend… It’s non-stop—finding a night in December to stay in is by far the biggest challenge.

And it’s not just at night that Penang is feeling festive. On a recent trip to the shops I found myself transported into a winter wonderland.

I was in Queensbay Mall, in Bayan Lapas. It’s one of the largest shopping centres on the island but doesn’t get a lot of expat visitors. It’s about a 20-minute drive from George Town, where I live, and, as we’ve plenty of shopping options there, not everyone makes the trip. For me, it’s more than worth it, I know I’ll always pick up a bargain and their Christmas display is really something to see.

A huge section of the shopping centre is given over to all things Christmas…with Santa on hand to dish out presents, performances by a snow ballerina, street theatre, train rides and most impressive of all…real snow! With an average year-round temperature here in Malaysia of 28 C this is quite the way to cool off.

As well as the impressive entertainment I also love that Queensbay seem to have sales that last the entire year. It’s probably one of the reasons it’s so popular with locals. I always pop into British India—one of my favourite shops—where I pick up shirts for half the price of what they cost in my local shopping centre, Gurney Plaza.

Another reason to make the trip out here is the amazing street food on offer in the nearby traditional Malay kampongs (villages). Here you can savour nasi kandar (steamed rice, fried chicken, curried beef and fried prawns covered in a rich curry sauce) for just 60 cents. Wash it down with a glass of fresh pineapple juice for 50 cents.

And this area has yet another secret in store… Directly opposite Queensbay Mall, glistening in the sunlight, is the tiny jungle clad island of Jerejak. This is one of Penang’s best-kept secrets—I’ve yet to meet any expat who’s been there. This tiny island (just 362 hectares), once a leper colony, is home to immaculate beaches and first-rate fishing. A sunken Japanese WWII wreck off the south side of the island attracts some very big fish.

This is certainly an island with secrets. A local fisherman told me about two graves, deep in the jungle. He gave me very precise directions and I found them relatively easily. I found a plaque there too. It’s dedicated to two Russian crewmembers of the Zhemchug who died after a German Navy ship sank their cruiser in 1914 just off George Town. Who knew!

What’s interesting about these finds is that unless you go off the grid and visit these places you’d never find out about them. But, when you do journey out there, you’ll find the locals are happy to chat and share their history and know-how with you—and it makes for some great adventures…

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