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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.

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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 larger 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. If you could imagine Laos’ Luang Prabang, but three times the size, with traffic lights, busy morning commuters and car ferries crossing the Mekong between oil tankers and fishing boats, then you’re heading in the right direction.

The inner city is a fascinating place to wander about, with plenty of tree-lined streets and tiny little crisscrossing lanes. Historical buildings, 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 Georgetown -- around Lebuh Aceh and Lebuh Armenian for example is an old Indonesian mosque, yet in the same street a couple of houses down you can find old Chinese clan houses like Choo Kongsii and other temples. Every area has its own mood yet everything is neatly linked together.

When it comes to history, some of the must-see sights include Fort Cornwallis, Town Hall with its accompanying cricket field and the very informative Penang State Museum. On Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling -- ’The road of four religions’ -- 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. Whole villages built on stilts called Clan Jetties jut out into the sea -- each jetty belongs to a different clan. On the outer edges of town are some larger temples and sights like Penang Hill Funicular Railway, the Botanical Gardens and the impressive Wat Chaiya Mangalaram, a Thai Buddhist temple.

Penang’s main beach strip -- Batu Feringghi, or Foreigners Rock, is arguably the island’s most swim-friendly beach and one of Malaysia’s bigger holiday resorts, located about 15 km 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.

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. Take a ride on a jet ski, go banana boat riding, try paragliding -- 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.

You can rent a motorbike or hop on one of the frequently running buses to one of the more peaceful spots, such as Shamrock, Moonlight or Miami beaches, some of Penang’s better coastal spots. Moonlight for instance stretches some 10m below road level, and boulders litter the fine-grained sand. The beach takes its name from the lovers who have long taken night walks here. These quieter beaches typically have a few cafes or Malay restaurants set up and are a pleasant retreat from Batu Feringghi’s madness.

Just 5 km west of crowded Batu Feringghi, Teluk Bahang is a quaint little village populated mostly by Muslim fishing families, wedged between a small strip of beach and pristine jungle. A stop here is an easy way to escape the bustle of Georgetown and the usual Penang beaches and lets travellers enjoy a glimpse of old-style Malay living.

Life here seems to pretty much go on in the same way it always has. The old cafe and bungalows from the hippy years have disappeared, with only a trickle of backpackers generally making it here these days, staying in one of just a few places left. The best of an average bunch is the Hotbay Motel (Lot 358 Jalan Teluk Bahang, T: (04) 881 9555 F: (04) 881 9559) -- while the staff might prefer to have a snooze than check you in, Hotbay is a good hideaway spot for those looking for some down time. Rooms are reasonably priced, but small. They are equipped with big sturdy beds, a micro TV that shows Malay channels only, together with attached, slightly damp, Asian-style bathrooms, where the sink, toilet and hot shower combination couldn’t have been put together in a worse way. Staff are friendly. Standard rooms go for 90 ringgit, family ones for 120 ringgit. The big, ghostly Mutiara Hotel up the road heading back towards Batu Feringghi is another option, but much pricier.

If you happen to find yourself here on a Monday night, don’t miss the night market which is packed with locals and will tickle your taste buds. Try the fried crab Thai curry or the seafood steamboat at Tai Thong Seafood, some 100m up the main road from the pier. The Chinese couple that owns it may appear pushy but prices are reasonable. If you’d rather try some local Malay dishes, Kedai Melati is a good choice, located just past the seafood place around the bend. They serve mainly pre-cooked, help-yourself dishes for lunch on plastic chairs and simple tables painted with fruits and vegetables.

On the right side of the roundabout you’ll find a small road next to a newish restaurant called End Of the World -- this is not the much-romanticised original of the same name. Follow that road and it will lead you towards the beach, passing by the police station. Once there you can easily cross somebody’s backyard to get right to the beach.

Continuing up the road you’ll see a row of Chinese and Malay coffee shops, then you’ll hit a bridge over an inlet where fishing boats take shelter. Passing the bridge north follow the road until the end -- this is the end of the world for most people around here and where the old restaurant stood until it was demolished a few years ago to give way to the Penang State Park Headquarters.

At the end of the car park by the park headquarters a fishing pier juts out on wooden stilts for nearly 100m over the water. On a good day you can enjoy a rather beautiful view out to sea. Apart from taking a trek through the park there’s really not much to do in the village centre other than bumming around the beach or having a chat with the fishermen as they come in with their catch.

Aside from just hanging out, a few minor points of interest are worth checking out. About 300m up the road from the roundabout is the well-signposted Penang Butterfly Farm. Another popular spot for tour groups are the two batik factories, open 09:00-17:30. Admission is free.

What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Penang.
 Check prices, availability & reviews on Agoda or Booking
 Read up on where to eat on Penang.
 Check out our listings of things to do in and around Penang.
 Read up on how to get to Penang.
 Do you have travel insurance yet? If not, find out why you need it.
 Planning on riding a scooter in Penang? Please read this.

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