In a nutshell
Check out the amazing meld of architecture in World Heritage-listed Georgetown. Enjoy the fantastic street cuisine. Meander along the nature trails that crisscross the jungle-clad interior. Hit the beaches, which may not be quite world class but still do the trick.
Malaysia's second largest island, Penang is also its most developed, with the eastern coast dotted with high-rises and crammed with holiday resorts. Travellers who have experienced beaches elsewhere in Asia will probably be unimpressed with the most popular beach spots, but the island's real attraction lies in its culture, history and cuisine.
The main city of Georgetown boasts a meld of interesting architecture stretching from the British colonial era to the colourful multicultural present, as well as fascinating museums and places of worship. And the food is a fabulous blend of cuisines from around the world, spiced with plenty of local specialities.
The bustling Penang of today is a far cry from that of yesteryear. Ruled by the fractious Sultans of Kedah until the late 18th century, Penang's strategic location by the northern entrance of the Straits of Melaka made it a beacon for seafarers crossing the Bay of Bengal -- and for the pirates that sought their wares.
Dutch, Portuguese, French and British traders vied for influence in the region, and the 17th and 18th centuries were periods of wheeling and dealing as the colonialists -- often trading opium and Indian textiles in return for minerals and spice -- sought to gain as much influence as possible, often at the end of a cannon.
While the Dutch held sway in Melaka at the southern end of the Straits, it was the British, or more particularly the British East India Company (EIC), that garnered control over Penang. Following the colonial practices typical of the time, the British merchant Francis Light (later Sir) used cunning, deception and outright lies to take advantage of a fragile political situation in Kedah and on 11 August 1786 he took formal possession of Penang, naming it Prince Wales Island.
In return the Sultan of Kedah was to be paid 30,000 ringgit per annum along with the promise of protection from marauding Siamese -- neither eventuated. Five years into the deal, the Sultan suffered a severe case of seller's remorse and tried to force the British from the island. He was rebuffed, with the end result being a lease payment reduced by 80% and still no protection from those tricky Siamese north of the border.
During those first five years, Light established a settlement on the island's easternmost point at Fort Cornwallis and the settlement grew quickly with the main area being named Georgetown, after the then-ruling King of England, George III. The original four streets of Georgetown were Beach, Chulia, Light and Pitt (now Masjid Kapitan Keling).
In the early days, Light is said to have filled his cannons with silver coins and fired them into Penang's dense forests. He armed his crew and native islanders with axes and had them clear the land -- any coins they found, they kept. This freewheeling style came to characterise Penang. In order to attract business away from his colonial rivals (primarily the Dutch), Light declared the island a Free Port, sparking a rapid influx of immigrants, especially Chinese, who were attracted by both the promise of new opportunities and Light's policy of allowing new arrivals to claim as much land as they were able to clear.
Light died of malaria in 1794 and the population of Penang continued to grow, reaching more than 10,000 people by the turn of the century. Old customs records show that together with the colonials, Indians, Chinese, Burmese, Thais, Sumatrans, Arabs, Armenians, Persians and dozens of other nationalities passed through Penang's port. Walking around Georgetown today you'll notice that many street names are named after the peoples that once lived there. Lebuh Acheh, Lebuh China and Lebuh Armenian to name just three.
Simultaneously the island had developed into a substantial hub within the opium trade between China and India -- with the EIC being the main facilitator. Licences for gambling dens and the brothels and opium traders that came with them eventually grew to account for almost 60% of Penang's revenue. While this trade was ostensibly administered by the EIC, behind the scenes it was really run by Chinese secret societies -- a state of affairs that eventually descended into violence.
Penang's star rose through the 19th century, with its apex arguably in 1826, when it was made capital of the Straits Settlements, which at the time also included Melaka and Singapore. It was the latter though that outpaced Penang in the longer term, with Singapore becoming the capital just six years later.
Penang's star soon lost its lustre when in 1867 the Penang Riots occurred, nine days of violence between two Chinese secret societies that had to be quelled by reinforcements sent from Singapore. Modern-day Lebuh Cannon is named after either cannon placements or cannon damage (depending on the story you prefer) related to the riots.
Through the remainder of the 19th and into the 20th century, Penang thrived on the back of its tin and rubber industries and also attracted some famous visitors, including Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham.
Penang fell to the Japanese on 19 December 1941, and they remained in charge till they surrendered to the British on 6 September, 1945. While the Japanese occupation resulted in the local population enduring brutal conditions, one bright mark was that the island suffered almost no damage from aerial bombing -- something that greatly worked in the favour of protecting the historic character of Georgetown.
Penang's lost its Free Port status to Langkawi in 1969 and after a period of stagnating development and high unemployment, the island re-invented itself as a centre for electronics manufacturing -- eventually developing into one of the largest hi-tech hubs in Southeast Asia. This industry -- and tourism -- are the mainstays of the Penang economy today.
From a tourist's perspective, the pirates and many of the trees have gone, but there's still no shortage of shiny coins worth digging up during a stay. Penang is wrapped in a rich tapestry of history and culture with a wealth of scenery along its beaches and capes. It's famous for its cuisine, which is as diverse as its populace, and while the beaches are not world class, they're not half bad either. And then there is the interior, boasting nature trails, waterfalls and viewpoints to boot.
The capital, World Heritage-listed Georgetown, is Penang's main attraction -- a bountiful blend of interesting architecture, intriguing people, eclectic shopping and cuisines. But the island still has plenty of secrets to unearth, so get out and explore. Penang's new bus system, the Penang Rapid, makes it easy to snoop around vibrant markets at local fishing villages or nose around the more remote beaches.
Most development has occurred along the island's east, stretching along the channel dividing the island from the mainland. Georgetown sits at Penang's northeast shoulder, with Bayan Lepas International Airport and Free-Trade Zone some 30km to the south.
To the northwest of Georgetown are Penang's sandy but far from deserted beaches -- often backing onto high-rises. Locals cite Batu Feringgi as Penang's biggest, most popular beach and Malaysia's prime holiday resort, but it's not nearly as nice a beach as it once was, and while efforts are underway to restore its erstwhile glamour, for now we'd suggest heading elsewhere.
Further to the west, beyond Feringgi, you'll find the quaint little fishing village of Teluk Bahang and further afield still, halfway down the island's west coast, the more rural area of Balik Pulau, where mangrove swamps are battered by the open seas. Eventually, this coastal road loops back around, completing the circuit at the airport and Penang Bridge.
The central area of the island, referred to as Penang Hill, remains reasonably well forested (perhaps Light's cannons couldn't reach that far), but developers are staking their territory here, with apartments growing like mushrooms in the wet season.
Georgetown is where it's at facilities-wise. Banks and ATMs are dotted around the island but are most concentrated here. Bigger banks like Maybank, Hong Leong and CIMB Bank accept foreign currency as well as travellers cheques and banking hours are usually Mon-Fri, 09:15-16:30 and Sat 09:15-12:15. Outside these times you will find many licensed money changers, dealing in cash, along Lebuh Chulia.
Internet cafes are both affordable and all over the shop. Rates start at 1-2 ringgit per half hour and many places offer free WiFi.
Penang has quite reasonable medical care, with Gleaneagles Medical Centre (1 Jalan Pankor, Penang. T: (04) 227 6111) being the first recommended choice, and Island Hospital (308 Jalan Macalister, Penang. T: (04) 226 8527) being a good second option. Numerous clinics around town are fine for minor medical issues.
Penang is well known for its shopping, both at smaller markets and handicraft shops as well as in large malls. Prangin Mall is packed with clothes stores, electronic shops and fast food restaurants, while Gurney Plaza is slightly more upmarket. Both have cinemas showing the latest releases in English. Malls are open daily 10:00-22:00.
Text and/or map last updated on 30th October, 2013.
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