"Have you ever been to Penang?" one of the office staff suggested politely. Intrigued and quickly informed I found myself on the way to the airport to catch Malaysia Airlines' evening nonstop service to Penang, a popular island resort off the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia and close to the southern Thailand border in the Strait of Malacca at the southern end of the Andaman Sea. I had never been to this corner of the world which includes the more well known Thai playground of Phuket a bit farther to the north.
It made no sense to fly me home to Chicago only to send me all the way back to Hong Kong where I was working so this was a rare opportunity to stay through the weekend. Still managing to stay within policy for hotels I cancelled my hotel in Hong Kong and picked up two nights in Penang at the same rate. And my new hotel, being a resort, automatically came with a beach. Sweet!
All kinds of thrills and jitters filled me as the 747 winged southwest over the South China Sea to break land over Vietnam and Cambodia, two mysterious countries whose images in my mind still smacked of nightly updates on the war followed by the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. Over the Gulf of Thailand and across the peninsula, we landed in the evening at a quiet airport on the south end of the island which set up the hour long shuttle ride to the north end where the main resort areas were clustered.
The Shangri-La chain was an accepted set of hotels by the company and they did not disappoint. Not quite as loaded with features and fine touches as the signature Kowloon property back in Hong Kong, I had a large room, very comfortable bed and private balcony overlooking the pool are and the sea. The pool had an aquatic bar, there was a broad stretch of white sand in front of us and the setting was like something straight out of James Bond and Scaramanga's hide out, exotic, otherworldly and beautiful.
For a weekend away from the hustle of Hong Kong and the worries of work, I couldn't have had better luck and assistance in discovering this little hideaway. My one and only culture shock in this devout Muslim nation was turkey bacon for breakfast in the morning.
It was only a weekend but the food was good, especially the authentic satay as prepared by the culture that invented the dish. There wasn't a false note to be heard or found; everything else in Malaysia was served just as warm and always with a smile.