Photo: Shophouse scenes.

Introduction

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History runs deep in the veins of Penang, which once lay at the crossroads of the trade routes between East and West. The island remains a fascinating, cosmopolitan place thanks to its rich living tapestry of culture and history, and most famously, its cuisine, which is as diverse as its populace.



Named for the once-ubiquitous pinang tree, or the areca nut palm also known as betelnut, Penang today is the most urbanised of Malaysia’s islands, though it boasts a wealth of pretty scenery along its capes and interior. Its east coast is dotted with high-rises and crammed with holiday resorts, but travellers who have experienced beaches elsewhere in Asia will probably be underwhelmed with the most popular beach spots.

This is Penang. Photo taken in or around Penang, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

This is Penang. Photo: Sally Arnold

The capital, UNESCO World Heritage-listed Georgetown, offers a bountiful miscellany of fabulous architecture stretching from the British colonial era to the present, as well as its many varied living cultures. Experience the smells, sights and sounds of Chinese, Indian and Malay life. One of Penang’s greatest draws, is its rich blend of cuisines from around the world, spiced with plenty of local specialities: Penang is touted as the food capital of Malaysia, and in our option, deservedly so.

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.

Didn’t need much back in the day. Photo taken in or around Penang, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Didn’t need much back in the day. Photo: Sally Arnold

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).

Within Kapitan Keling Mosque. Photo taken in or around Penang, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Within Kapitan Keling Mosque. Photo: Sally Arnold

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 an 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.

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 streets are named after the people who once lived there: Lebuh Acheh, Lebuh China and Lebuh Armenian to name just three.

At Khoo Kongsi. Photo taken in or around Penang, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

At Khoo Kongsi. Photo: Sally Arnold

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.

Meet Kek Lok Si. Photo taken in or around Penang, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Meet Kek Lok Si. Photo: Sally Arnold

Penang’s star lost its lustre when in 1867 the Penang Riots occurred. These saw 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 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 larger hi-tech hubs in Southeast Asia. This industry—and tourism—are the mainstays of the Penang economy today.

Cool off at China House. Photo taken in or around Penang, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Cool off at China House. Photo: Sally Arnold

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.

Georgetown’s inner UNESCO Heritage Zone is a fascinating place to wander about, with plenty of tree-lined streets and tiny crisscrossing lanes. Historical buildings, museums, art galleries and a myriad of temples are among countless other attractions that share the space with good shopping, restaurants and people hanging up their laundry in front of their houses.

Religious diversity has played an important role in the development of Penang—around Lebuh Aceh and Lebuh Armenian for example is an old Malay mosque, yet in the same street a couple of houses down you can find Chinese clan houses like Khoo Kongsi and other temples. On Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling—“The street of harmony”—are St Georges Church, Maha Mariamman Hindu Temple, Kapitan Keling Mosque and the fascinating Goddess of Mercy Temple, one of the island’s oldest shrines.

On the wall at Maha Mariamman Hindu Temple. Photo taken in or around Penang, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

On the wall at Maha Mariamman Hindu Temple. Photo: Sally Arnold

Discover the way of life of some of South East Asia’s richest 19th century tycoons at Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion and the Pinang Peranakan Mansion and at the other end of the economic spectrum, visit the clan jetties with whole villages built on stilts jutting out into the sea, although these days seem more overrun with tourists than the original inhabitants. Every area has its own mood yet everything is neatly linked and within walking distance.

Alongside the historical, Penang harbours a burgeoning contemporary art scene, and the local street art has become an attraction in itself—pick up a map from the Penang Global Tourism for an art treasure hunt. Hin Bus Depot is the place to meet some of Penang’s upcoming young artists or join in one of the regular workshops at The Art Assembly based there. If contemporary theatre is more your bag, catch a show at Sinkeh performance space. The Georgetown Festival is worth putting in your diary, a month-long celebration of the arts both local and international; and for the bookish, there’s The George Town Literary Festival. Apart from seeing the sights, one of the delights of a stay in Georgetown, is the opportunity to sleep in some of the beautifully restored historical houses not to mention indulge in the city’s gastronomic pleasures.

On the outer edges of town lay some interesting temples and sights. Malaysia’s largest Buddhist Temple, Kek Lok Si and the colonial hill retreat, Penang Hill, with the excellent The Habitat complex are worth a day trip along with the Penang Botanic Gardens and impressive Burmese and Thai Buddhist temples.

At The Habitat. Photo taken in or around Penang, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

At The Habitat. Photo: Sally Arnold

Head to the south of the island to discover some fascinating war history at Penang War Museum and while you’re in the area, make a stop at Sam Poh Footprint Temple where the 13th century Chinese Admiral Chen Ho legendary left a giant footprint on the shores, or hang out with the serpents at the Snake Temple. For an escape into nature, the rainforest and beaches of Penang National Park in the north make a pleasant break from the busy city and nearby you may like to discover about the spice trade that put Penang on the map at Tropical Spice Garden or adventurous kids may enjoy the Escape Theme Park.

Penang’s main beach strip is Batu Feringghi, or Foreigners Rock, and this is arguably the island’s most swim-friendly beach (except for the occasional jellyfish). It’s one of Malaysia’s bigger holiday resorts, and is located about 15 kilometres west of Georgetown along a winding coastal road. This once-sleepy beach village didn’t see much change until the 1970s, when locals started to rent out their bungalow homes to a few wandering hippies for next to nothing. During the economic boom of the 1980s, hotels and resorts started to appear and it’s been more or less downhill from there.

Explore the beaches at Penang National Park. Photo taken in or around Penang, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Explore the beaches at Penang National Park. Photo: Sally Arnold

Today, especially during high season from December to September, hordes of tourists converge here, filling the high-rise hotel chains and resorts that jostle for space among the too-many seafood restaurants and trinket shops. This is not the spot for a quiet beach holiday, though the long yellow sand beach stretching along the bay affords an impressive view over the mainland coastline and you could choose to just absorb yourself in a few good books in a deckchair.

Popular attractions in Penang

A selection of some of our favourite sights and activities around Penang.





Best places to stay in Penang

A selection of some of our favourite places to stay in Penang.


Orientation
The island of Penang sits in the Strait of Melaka, divided from the mainland part of the state by Penang Strait. Two road bridges link to the mainland, and regular car ferry service connects Georgetown to Butterworth. Although Georgetown is a sprawling urban centre, the area with the most interest to tourists designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2008, shared with her sister city Melaka, is compact and easily walkable. Here, many of the street names have been changed form their colonial appellations to Malay, but most locals still refer to to them by the former. Handy blue signage throughout the city on most street corners lists all older names.

You don’t have to venture far for tourist information with four tourist bodies to point you in the right direction: Penang Global Tourism on Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street) is the place for local maps and general information. They offer free guided tours every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 10:00. Register from 10:00 on the day. If you plan on seeing other areas in Malaysia, a branch of Tourism Malaysia is further down the same street opposite Fort Cornwallis.

Both Penang Heritage Trust and George Town World Heritage Incorporated provide tours and information on the history and culture of Penang along with some interesting publications. For general info on what’s on in Penang pick up a Penang Free Sheet, a weekly publication updated every Friday, and if you’re in town over the last weekend of the month, LFSS (Last Friday Saturday Sunday) offer free tours and events—check their FaceBook page.

Guests staying within the UNESCO area are required to pay a two ringgit heritage tax per night and the whole zone is designated smoke free.

ATMs are throughout the city with a particular concentration in the financial centre at the northern end of Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street).

Free WiFi is offered in most hotels, guesthouses and cafes, but is sketchy at best and even with a local SIM installed in your phone, 4G signal is not great, particularly when the city fills up on weekends.

Police Headquarters is on Jalan Penang in front of Chowrasta Market.

Handy post office branches are on Jalan Buckingham opposite Kapitan Kling Mosque and in KOMTAR, with the GPO on Lebuh Downing.

Penang is a popular medical tourism destination with many hospitals of international standard: Island Hospital, Gleneagles Medical Centre and Penang Adventist Hospital are but three.

George Town World Heritage Incorporated: 116-118 Lebuh Acheh, Georgetown; T: (0426) 16 606; http://gtwhi.com.my; Open Mo–Fr: 08:00–13:00, 14:00–17:00; Fr: 08:00–12:15, 14:45–17:00
Gleneagles Medical Centre: 1 Jalan Pangkor, Pulau Tikus; T: (0422) 79 111; Ambulance: (0422) 29 199; http://www.gleneagles-penang.com
Island Hospital: 308 Jalan Macalister, Georgetown; T: (0422) 88 222; https://islandhospital.com
Penang Adventist Hospital: 465 Jalan Burma, Penang; T: (0422) 27 200; http://www.pah.com.my
Penang Global Tourism: 8B The Whiteaways Arcade, Lebuh Pantai, Georgetown; T: (0426) 31 166; (0426) 0 43 456; http://www.mypenang.gov.my; Open Mo–Fr: 09:00–17:00, Sa: 09:00–15:00, Su and holidays: 09:00–13:00
Penang Heritage Trust: 26 Lebuh Gereja, Georgetown; T: (0426) 42 631; http://www.pht.org.my; Open Mo–Fr: 08:30–17:30
Tourism Malaysia: 11 Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street), Georgetown; T: (0426) 22 093; http://www.tourism.gov.my;

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 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Penang.
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 Planning on riding a scooter in Penang? Please read this.





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