Malaysia’s vibrant island, Penang, has just about everything a sophisticated traveller could wish for.
You can wander along stretches of remote beach, discover the rich cultural heritage, enjoy ethnic diversity, taste delicious world cuisine, and take in beautiful old buildings. The island also has a vibrant arts and festival scene and a long history as one of Asia’s biggest melting pots.
Penang is often referred to as the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ or ‘Garden of the East’, both phrases coined by the British, who have had a significant influence on the island over the centuries.
But the British are not the only world power to have left their mark. Due to its location on the major trade route in the Straits of Malacca, Penang island has been influenced by a wide variety of cultures over the years, from now-extinct, prehistoric cultures to Chinese and British seafarers during the 15th and 16th centuries.
In the late 18th century, the Sultan of Penang agreed to lease the island to Francis Light of the British East India Company and the island became the first British settlement in Southeast Asia, marking the beginning of British colonisation of Malaysia. Over the next couple of centuries Penang became an important trading hub for spices, tea, porcelain, tin, opium, rice and cloth, attracting a mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Siamese cultures.That diversity is still evident today, and Penang remains one of the most heterogeneous states of Malaysia and also one of the most economically thriving.
The rich culture of Penang is evident in everything from the landmarks and street names to the food and the architecture, which means a trip to this fascinating Southeast Asian island rarely disappoints.
George Town Treasures
George Town is without a doubt one of the biggest attractions on Penang island. Named after King George III, the city has been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008 for its multicultural living heritage and historic significance. Wandering through the city you can’t miss the many stunning buildings and landmarks on display, even if exploring on your own. You can also join one of the walking tours arranged by the Penang Heritage Trust. There are three tours, each taking you to a different part of the city and each one lasts around three hours.
Sights to See
If you go on your own, make sure not to miss the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, an eye catching, indigo-blue Chinese courtyard house that was built in the 1880s as the residence of a prominent businessman and politician. Craftsmen were brought in from China to create elaborate timber carvings and design the house according to Feng Shui principles. Today it features Stoke-on-Trent floor tiles, russet brick walls and art nouveau stained glass panels.
You should also make a stop at Joo Hooi Cafe on Penang Road for their famous Assam Laksa, one of the Malaysian national dishes and a specialty at this Penang institution. The soup is rich, savoury and slightly sour and the noodles are tender yet with just the right amount of bite. Outside the restaurant is another local favourite, the Teochew Cendol stand, serving what is commonly agreed upon to be the best cendol on the island. You can also tuck into a bowl of the sweet, refreshing traditional dessert while watching the world go by.
We spent an entire afternoon walking around George Town at a leisurely pace and without an aim. The diversity was particularly fascinating; from the Kapitan Keling Mosque, built in the beginning of the 19h century by Indian Muslim traders, to the Kuan Yin Temple, the first temple on Penang, built by early Chinese settlers, to Kek Lok Si, said to be the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia.
In the evening, you can walk along the Esplanade, which is where Francis Light first disembarked. Today, the area has been developed into a beautiful waterfront promenade, featuring the Padang, a small park, and the City Hall, which is one of the most well kept colonial buildings in Penang.
It’s worth getting up early during your stay and heading to Penang Hill, which is located around six kilometres from George Town. The area is made up of several hills and it offers great views over the island from the highest point at 833 metres above sea level. The summit can be reached by funicular and tickets are available at the station.
At the bottom of the hill it’s also worth visiting the Penang Botanical Gardens. The 30-hectare reserve contains a plethora of flowers and plants, including collections of rare species. The Garden’s most famous feature is a waterfall that’s more than 100 metres tall, but it’s closed off to the public and hidden behind dense foliage.
After a morning of walking around, a nice contrast is offered if you head further out to the beaches around the northwestern tip of the island. These include Teluk Bahang Beach, where you can witness life in traditional fishing villages and enjoy the laid back beach culture. There are also some beautiful less visited beaches such as Teluk Duyung, Monkey Beach, Pantai Kerachut and Pantai Mas.
In the evening, head to Little India to soak up the best George Town has to offer in terms of charm and food. In the centre of the heritage zone along Lebuh Chulia, Lebuh Queen and Jalan Pasarand the streets are lined with old shop houses which today sell fabrics and spices, with restaurants serving delicious Indian food such as roti, briyani rice and tandoori chicken.
Get some Tips on Penang
Penang is a very easy going place to visit and the local people are generally warm and welcoming. They are also proud of their diverse culture, so it is a good idea to investigate the options and learn more before you go. Below are some windows on Penang:
- George Town Festival lasts for the entire month of August and is a highlight on Penang’s cultural calendar. Since the inaugural event in 2008, the festival has hosted various special displays, including everything from world-class productions to experimental art, traditional and contemporary performing arts, exhibitions and more. http://georgetownfestival.com
- Penang Heritage Trust is a useful place to start your research on the island’s fascinating history. http://www.pht.org.my
- Penang Hill also known by its Malay name, Bukit Bendera, enjoys a cooler climate than George Town and offers a pleasant respite from the tropical heat. http://penanghill.gov.my
- Penang Botanical Garden is a must for nature lovers who also appreciate a little eco-education. http://www.visitpenang.gov.my/portal3/what-to-see.html
- Tourism Penang is the island’s sophisticated visitor website describing the full range of island highlights in detail. http://www.tourismpenang.net.my