Penang, a turtle-shaped island in the Straits of Malacca, is anchored by the provincial capital of George Town, Malaysia’s second-largest city (population 1.25 million). Founded in 1786 by Capt. Francis Light of the British East India Company, George Town is also one of Asia’s largest and bestpreserved colonial trading ports. George Town’s inner city of colorful shop houses, street markets, godowns, docks, churches, temples and mosques — a downtown of no fewer than 1,700 historic sites — has been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2008. When George Town’s multicultural treasures mix with Penang’s golden-sand beaches and the island’s reputation as Malaysia’s food paradise, any time off from business has to be filled with pleasurable pursuits.
In the dark, at 3:30 a.m., we have to remind ourselves this is Borneo. The island’s tropical vibrancy is absent in our flashlight beams; we are tramping through a colorless ghostscape of gnarled shrubs and dancing shadows. The heavy pungency of the rainforest has dissipated, and the humid heat of the lowlands is a vague memory from the previous day. The air is thin and searingly cold.