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We hired a car for the day so that we could get out and about and explore Penang Island. We headed first to Penang Hill where a funicular railway takes you the seven hundred metres up to the top. The funicular was a really slow chugging affair that only runs every half an hour. Typically we had just missed one so we stood and waited for the next one to go. It takes you half way up then you have to change on to another one that goes up to the summit.

From the top you can get some pretty spectacular views down and across George Town and to Butterworth on the mainland. On a clear day you can see Langkawi Island further north but it was too hazy for us to do that today. The hill originally provided respite from the city heat for the British Governors and wealthy families of Penang. Some of the old colonial houses are still standing and on the way up more modest houses belonging to local people dot the paths and trails leading to the top.

The Bellevue Hotel, the only one on the hill, had a small aviary outside which Stef went to have a look at while I waited in the cool shade of a tree. Lonely Planet describes the hotel as a little frayed around the edges and overpriced and they were accurate on both counts. The buildings looked well and truly in need of a refurb and even the views out and across George Town from their patio at the back did not make the cost of the drinks worthwhile. Those in the know simply came in to take a photo and then left, much to the chagrin of the staff!

At the snake temple

We had thought the trip up the hill would be a relatively quick diversion but the slow progress of the funicular (half an hour each way without the time you have to wait for the next one) meant that it was over two hours before we were back on the road. We doubled back on ourselves turning right at the State Mosque to head down to the south of the island. The traffic was pretty busy, possibly because it’s the weekend and everyone was out and about. Although the cars were fairly disciplined the car rental agency’s warning about the scooters was spot on. They seemed to just appear out of nowhere zipping in front of you and alongside when you wanted to turn. It is incredible that there are not continual accidents.

Our next stop was the Snake Temple, so named because they have snakes draped on the incense burners inside the temple. The snakes are venomous pit vipers and signs are all over the place warning you not to aggravate or touch them. They looked pretty docile but even so I would have hated to see them move. As we walked around the temple Stef spied a stand with more snakes on. For a hefty fee you can have your photo taken with the snakes draped around your head and shoulders and he went for it. He looks decidedly uncomfortable in the photos and I think he was quite glad to get rid of them. They were also pit vipers but with their fangs removed.

Apparently the pit vipers make their own way to the temple. Not so the other snake that they have in a snake farm off to the side, for which you also have to pay. Here they had about thirty or so small cages with a variety of different snakes from around the world. Most were small and came in various different shades of brown, green, yellow, orange and black. In a large cage in the middle of the “farm” they had a python which was seven metres long and weighs sixty kilos. They feed it five chickens a month. In a smaller cage off to the side were two smaller pythons with their mouths tied shut. The man watching them took off his shoe and prodded one which quickly went on the attack and would have bitten him had it been able to. It was a strange stop but quirky to see.

The road continued down to the south of the island then turned to head inland and back up to the north. We soon left the flat and started to climb up through dense jungle which all along the side of the road is now populated. People here seem better off than those we have seen elsewhere in South East Asia. Their houses, while still simple, looked stronger and more sturdy and cars were in most driveways.

At the village of Balik Pulau we stopped for lunch to try the local speciality of laksa balik pulau. The village is pretty small and we had soon walked the length of the main street. At the end were a few hawker stalls selling street food, one of which had the local speciality, the only place in town where we had seen it. It was a bowl of rice noodles in a thick fishy soup with pineapple, chilli and onions. It was pretty tasty but also had a fiery kick to it. We were the only non-locals in the place and the two ladies sat at the table next to us seemed intrigued to see us there.

Does this need any explanation?!?

From Balik Pulau we continued north in search of the Tropical Fruit Farm. The directions in Lonely Planet are a bit wonky as it has the farm south of the Titi Kerawang waterfall when it is actually north. The waterfall itself was totally miscible as no water falls here now. It is something to do with a new dam that has been built further downstream but why that stops the waterfall is beyond me.

The fruit farm was definitely worth a visit. Your entrance fee gets you a guided tour and a free taster of various different fruits at the end. The farm was set up about ten years ago, opening to the public a few years later once the plants had become established. Privately owned but supported with government funding it is not a commercial operation. It has been set up for educational and research purposes and to help conserve rare and exotic fruit trees.

In the twenty five acres of the farm they grow over two hundred different types of fruit, including thirty different types of banana. The male banana plant has what looks like a large seed pod that grows on a stalk in the middle of the plant. It is in fact a flower with each leaf hiding a row of small pods which in turn become the bananas.

The varieties they have here include monkey bananas, tiny bananas the size of a little finger which are not for eating but produce really beautiful flowers. They have various different edible types all with a slightly different flavour, right through to large plantains used for cooking. It is the wrong season for most of the fruits but we saw quite a wide variety, albeit at different stages of growth. Among others we saw kaffir lime, lemongrass, avocado, betel nut, butter fruit (which had a fabulous scent), custard apples, dragon fruit (which are cactus flowers), the tree of the very smelly durian, Asian fig, mango, mangosteen, nutmeg, pineapple and rose apple.

At the end of the tour we also had the chance to sample some of the fruits. I had expected a few little tasters but we were each presented with a large plate of fruit – different melons, apples, guava, pineapple, mango, star fruit, mangosteen, bananas – and fresh fruit juices to wash it all down with. We certainly got a vitamin C boost today!

By the time we left the fruit farm it was already well past five and the swimming pool at our hotel was beckoning to both of us. We followed the road up to the north coast of the island and then headed east back to George Town. Pretty much the whole of this part of coastline has now been taken over by large hotels and apartment complexes. Where you could see the beach the sand looked lovely and soft but the beaches were narrow and the water did not really look inviting to swim in. Even the Penang Swimming Club must think so as their headquarters along the bay had a swimming pool on its terrace.

Back at our hotel we dropped off the car and headed into the pool to cool down. The water has felt pretty chilly both days but today it seemed even colder. By contrast the whirlpool felt almost too hot so it was a difficult choice of where to relax. Refreshed and showered we headed back to the Indian place we had trued on our first night here and had another really tasty dinner for the grand sum of £3. It goes to show what a big margin most places add to their costs when you can eat as well and as cheaply as this.