Frances Wilks explores the renovations and new attractions of the highest place in George Town – the iconic Komtar building.
I first visited Komtar back in the late 1980s when it was the tallest building in Malaysia and, briefly, one of the tallest in Asia. Its 65-storey neo-Brutalist edifice rose loftily over the serene and shabby shop houses of George Town. It was the only tower block on the island and it did seem a little out of proportion.
Conceived in the ’60s, designed in the ’70s, and completed in the ’80s, it was a visionary building meant to herald the urban renewal of Penang that has never quite found its place in life.
Even its name, an awkward acronym for Kompleks Tun Abdul Razak, a nod to a former prime minister of Malaysia, didn’t exactly trip off the tongue. I must admit I have always found its dimly lit lower levels, occupied by strange, bleak shops and a totally disorienting layout, to be rather how I imagined the underworld.
But perhaps all that is set to change with the opening of The [email protected], an ambitious refurbishment of the upper floors and the creation of a new indoor theme park on its lower floors. Komtar has in fact increased its height by an additional three storeys and the restaurants and bars at this altitude offer a matchless 360-degree view of the changing face of Penang.
You can see not only of the rooftops of the heritage zone but the land beyond from Pearl Hill in the north to Pulau Jerejak in the south. In the west the buildings of the Kek Lok Si complex against the majestic form of Penang Hill are visible and the view of the dawn over the mountains of peninsular Malaysia in the east is stunning. It’s also a great place to see the changing coastline of Penang, as the new islands emerge from the sea near Straits Quay and Gurney Drive gradually becomes a landlocked road.
You can even walk on a glass-bottomed rainbow skybridge that gives you a straight down view of the town. It takes a bit of courage to step out onto it, as there’s nothing but a sheet of glass and fresh air beneath you. Definitely not for the faint-hearted, nor indeed for those watching their pennies, it costs RM88 for locals and RM118 for non-locals.
The lower floors of The Top (actually levels 3 and 4) are an ambitious indoor theme park, conceived on an epic scale with 40,000 square feet of display and interactive galleries. It will probably become a popular destination for
families, as there are a lot of activities aimed at children. Dinosaurs are always a crowd puller and the Jurassic Research Centre brings over 200 of these terrible prehistoric lizards back to life.
Although they are clearly made of plastic, they move in a fairly convincing way, with the help of the latest animatronic technology. Immersive experience is on offer in the 7D Discovery Motion theatre (a first for Asia) where virtual reality and simulators create new dimensions and perspectives.
So much so that you almost feel that you’re a part of the movie, rather than just merely its spectator.
Indeed, the sensation of novel experiences without the actual inconvenience of them could be the hallmark of this new theme park. Using high-resolution projectors, the Ocean Explorer allows you to experience life in the ocean without getting wet. You can meander about pristine coral reefs in a virtual submarine and meet marine life such as sharks, whales and dolphins, all without getting drenched.
A further six galleries cover important educational topics such as: Information Technology, Life Tech, Robotics, Optics, and Force and Motion. A Children’s Exploration Zone for preschoolers aims to educate and entertain simultaneously.
As well as looking to the future, several attractions also pay homage to Penang’s heritage and culture as well. The Penang State Gallery has an exhibit there, which details the history of the island from the time of Francis Light while the Tongkat Ali King Centre displays the culture orang asli people and their knowledge of healing herbals.
And lest you should think that it’s all rather passive, some of the exhibits challenge you physically. There’s a dino gym where kids can swing from ropes, climb walls, and generally burn off their excess energy. A dance simulator, Danceoki, incorporates cutting-edge 3D motion tracking technology to give you instant feedback on your moves.
After all that you will definitely be ready for some sustenance and there are a variety of popular outlets on hand. At the top itself you are spoiled for choice with the Coco Cabana Bar and Bistro on the rooftop itself, the Grand Imperial Restaurant serving Chinese food, the Umi Restaurant offering authentic Malay cuisine, and Japan Food Street providing a variety of authentic Japanese dishes.
Whether or not this bold, crowd-pulling vision will be enough to banish the ghosts of the past and set Komtar on a new future remains to be seen but the view from The Top is nothing short of truly spectacular.