It's the only way to fly

The new one-way flights from Heathrow to Malaysia's tropical isles are a great idea, says David Orkin, because once there you won't be in a big hurry to come home

Terminal three at Heathrow gains two new and intriguing destinations this week. Two Indian Ocean islands get connected with Britain. Starting tomorrow, travellers can fly non-stop from to the UK's biggest airport to Malaysia's tropical isles of Penang and Langkawi in 12 hours.

Terminal three at Heathrow gains two new and intriguing destinations this week. Two Indian Ocean islands get connected with Britain. Starting tomorrow, travellers can fly non-stop from to the UK's biggest airport to Malaysia's tropical isles of Penang and Langkawi in 12 hours.

The move by Malaysia Airlines is seen as an experimental toe in the warm ocean water. Insiders believe that the carrier will see which of the routes performs better and then concentrate its efforts on that island. I expect it will be Penang, which boasts a fascinating history and a profound culture, as well as superb beaches.

In the Seventies, the journey took some people more like 12 weeks, with the final days spent on a steamer-crossing from Madras (now Chennai). Once in Penang, upmarket backpackers patronised the Swiss Hotel in Georgetown, forking out over a pound for a double room. Real shoestringers headed for the north coast of the island and the Batu Ferringhi area. At nearby Teluk Bahang, a bed in a private house such as Mrs Lee's or Mrs Low's could be had for a few pence.

Today's visitor to Penang will find it highly developed, an important commercial hub and one of the country's major ports, but one which has remarkably retained the feeling of small-town friendliness and charm.

Penang was named after the nut of the betel palm, a tree commonly found on the island. When the British came along in 1786, they renamed it Prince of Wales Island. It was developed as a trading post by the East India Company and remained a British dominion until the independence of Malaya in 1957 (it didn't become Malaysia until 1963).

The old colonial capital is Georgetown. Plenty of historic buildings still survive, such as the Anglican St George's Church (1818), the fascinating Fort Cornwallis complex, and the Malayan Railway Building, and brightly coloured trishaws weave between cars, trucks, cycles and motorbikes. To soak up the atmosphere and elegance of old Georgetown, book into the splendid (and entirely refurbished) Eastern & Oriental Hotel (00 604 222 2000, www.e-o-hotel.com).

Most resort hotels are located on or around the two miles of beach at Batu Ferringhi, where you'll find plenty of watersports, restaurants and good nightlife. Though not as cheap as a bunk at Mrs Lee's or Mrs Low's in the 1970s, the Casuarina Beach (00 604 881 1711, www.casuarina.com.my) and the Copthorne Orchid (00 604 890 3333) are affordable options. If you want to push the boat out, one of the best hotels here is the Rasa Sayang (00 604 881 1811, www.shangri-la.com).

Foodies should be sure to try Nyonya cuisine, something of a spicy Chinese-Malay-Thai hybrid. Even the most timid should sample the wares of the hawkers serving cheap and delicious hot food every evening from the street carts along Georgetown's Gurney Drive and in many other parts of the island. Shoppers meanwhile can browse in modern malls or hone their bargaining skills in backstreet bazaars and bustling night markets.

The island's official religion is Islam, but three out of five of the population are of Chinese origin, and around this cultural melting pot you'll see churches and Buddhist and Hindu temples as well as mosques.

A long list of must-sees includes Penang's oldest temple, Kwan Yin Teng, dedicated to the Chinese goddess of mercy. Georgetown's most picturesque building is Khoo Kongsi, which was built by Chinese master craftsmen to a design based on the Chinese imperial palace. It consists of an ancestral temple and a stage for plays and operas. Wat Chalya Mangkalaram is a Thai Buddhist temple and monastery home to a 32m gold-plated reclining Buddha.

Further out of town, see the turtles at Kek Lok Si, which is Malaysia's largest Buddhist temple and is also known as the "Pagoda of a Million Buddhas". After the amphibians, don't be afraid to visit the Temple of the Azure Cloud, better known as "The Snake Temple". Poisonous snakes slither slowly around the inside of the building - but have yet to bite anyone. Many visitors pay a pound or two to have their photo taken draped in serpents, and you can decide for yourself whether you believe that the serpents' lack of aggressive instincts is due to their friendly natures, or to the tranquillizing effects of inhaling incense smoke.

The air is clear, the temperature cooler and the panorama magnificent if you take a half-hour ride on the funicular railway up 800m-high Penang Hill, Malaysia's first hill resort, which dates from 1800. Penang also has museums, galleries, a zoo, a bird park, a butterfly park and botanical gardens. And those who enjoy swinging clubs need not miss out, either - of the island's four international-standard golf courses, one was designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr, and one by Graham Marsh, both of whom are highly acclaimed golf course architects.

The really interesting thing about the new flights is that they go only one way. Returning travellers must fly first to Kuala Lumpur and then back to London (flying over Penang in the process). Perhaps the airline concluded that, while British visitors were keen to reach Penang in 12 hours, there was no such pent-up demand among islanders anxious to get to London.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

How to get there: Malaysia Airlines (0870 607 9090, www.malaysiaairlines.com) begins flights from London Heathrow to Penang on 21 October and to Langkawi on 19 October. You may get a better deal by booking flights and accommodation together through a specialist agent such as Travelmood (0870 444 9820, www.travelmood.com/malaysia) or Magic of the Orient (01293 537700, www.magicoftheorient.com).

When to go: The climate on both islands is tropical, with temperatures hovering between 22C and 32C, and humidity is relatively high. December to March are the best months to visit, with May to late October tending to be wet, but rainfall occurs throughout the year.

More information: Malaysian Tourist Office, 57 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DU (020-7930 7932, www.malaysiatrulyasia.co.uk).

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