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.
There is an international business side to Penang, although shipping no longer plays the leading role. Over the past four decades, the cargo trade slipped away to Singapore and Malaysia’s Port Kelang, but in its wake tourism flourished and high-tech production is on the rise. Penang’s Free Trade zones south of George Town toward the airport house the factories of many international cyber giants, including AMD, Dell, Intel, Motorola, Osram and Seagate.
Meanwhile, George Town prospers both from electronics manufacturing and tourism. It consistently ranks among the top 10 most livable cities in all of Asia. No doubt the beaches and lavish seaside resorts north of George Town, especially at Batu Ferringhi, fueled the livability factor, but so have the colonial charms of central George Town and the ethnic flavors (mainly Chinese, Indian and Malay) propagated by street vendors and chefs. Penang’s visitors are as often from the West as from Asia, so English speakers fare well in most precincts when it comes to communicating with shopkeepers and the drivers of buses, taxis and, in George Town, the ubiquitous human-powered trishaws.
To navigate George Town’s heritage zone, a fairly durable set of legs and a certain resistance to high humidity is often sufficient. One can make an initial survey of the inner city by hailing the Rapid Penang free shuttle bus that runs every 20 minutes daily through downtown George Town between the KOMTAR (Kompleks Tun Abdul Razak) skyscraper and the Pengkalan Weld ferry terminal, but a simple peregrination by foot or trishaw immediately puts one in the thick of things. It’s a delight to stroll George Town at random just to see what astonishing sight turns up on the next busy corner, but certain attractions stand out.
The northeast cape of George Town, for example, glitters with the grand public monuments from Penang’s colonial era, when George Town served as the first British Straits Settlement. The stately 60-foot Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower marks this end of town, erected in 1897 by a local (non-Western) millionaire. Fort Cornwall, next door to the timepiece, was erected shortly after Light first alighted on this shore on behalf of Britain and the East India Company. The cannons, fortifications and museum still ably attest to George Town’s origins. A series of ravishing neo-Palladian edifices along this stretch of the waterfront further define George Town’s historic status, including the Town Hall (1880), Court Building (1809) and City Hall (1903), as well as the stately white mansion of banking tycoon Yeap Chor Ee, now converted to a museum and restaurant. Other architectural monuments from colonial days clustered on George Town’s cape include the oldest Anglican church in Southeast Asia, St. George’s Church (1818), and the Penang State Museum, a former school dating back to 1816 that furnishes a fine formal introduction to the cultural legacies and multi-ethnic history of the island port.
Nearer the center of old George Town lies an impressive array of temples, mosques and mansions. Chief among these are the Goddess of Mercy Temple (1728), which predates the arrival of Western traders to Malaysia; the Sri Mahamariamman Temple (1801), decked with 38 statues of Hindi deities; and the majestic Kapitan Keling Mosque, anchored by a lofty minaret. The mosque welcomes visitors when prayers are not in session.
Another shrine that continues to shine brightly is Khoo Kongsi, Penang’s premier clan house, a lavishly embellished hall where members of one prosperous extended Chinese family convened. Even more striking, at least to the eye of this foreign visitor, is the century-old Pinang Peranakan Mansion, today a museum displaying the opulent treasures and customs of the Peranakan (Baba-Nyoyian) community.
As mansions go, and there are many to choose from in George Town, the single-most impressive is Cheong Fatt Tze, popularly known as The Blue Mansion. Consisting of 38 rooms, five courtyards, 220 windows, seven polished wooden stairways, swirling metal railings, a collection of antique rickshaws and furniture and gowns of an earlier age, it is the most elaborate such mansion outside China. The Blue Mansion emanates the spirit and times of its celebrated owner, a Mandarin Chinese who became one of China’s first overseas capitalists. Cheong Fatt Tze was dubbed the “Rockefeller of the East.” A century later, the fiery 1993 film Indochine made rich use of this mansion’s dazzling interiors.
Visitors who make it into the heart of old George Town, on the west side of the busy Little India district, will get a chance to rub shoulders with a score of artisans and cooks as they showcase the traditional trades and prepare the ethnic foods of Penang’s past. Joss-stick makers, flower-garland weavers, Indian goldsmiths, wooden signboard engravers, spice blenders, Muslim haberdashers, fortunetellers, seal engravers and cotton bedding makers, as well as vendors of Straits Chinese cakes, samosas, stringhoppers (noodles), pulled tea (the tarik), Indian pancakes (apom), coconut tarts and other street treats, all ply their venerable trades here.
The Weld Quay bounds George Town to the southeast and is the perfect place to poke around what remains of the clan jetties, those clusters of homes and shops built on wooden piers in the Penang Channel beginning in the 19th century. The Chew clan jetty is probably the most interesting of the eight original clan jetties, with its mix of houses on stilts, maand- pa shops, boat docks, fish vendors, tiny cafés and even a home-stay B&B.
Finally, there’s the north side of George Town near the KOMTAR tower, which encompasses a shopping mall, tourist information center and observation deck on the 60th floor. This sector of old George Town is a hodgepodge of modern shops, offices and antiquities.
Every visitor should at least make a pass at Chowrasta Market, the main distributor of fresh foodstuffs in George Town since the 1890s. The market stalls are flooded with chow in the form of exotic spices and herbs, island garden produce and edible Penang specialties. The present wet market building opened its ample doors in 1981, although Chowrasta’s façade on Penang Road dates from the 1920s.
Also on the north side of George Town is another reminder of Penang’s ethnic diversity, the George Town Jewish Cemetery, located on Jalan Zainal Abidin off Jahudi Road. The metal gates at the groundskeeper’s house open onto a well-kept plot of 106 graves, beginning with that of Shoshan Levi, who died in George Town July 9, 1835, and concluding, it seems, with a marker inscribed some 143 years later.
Heading a bit north of historic George Town, the focus shifts to nature. Penang’s hills and beaches provide plenty of recreational opportunities, all within easy reach by bus or taxi. Penang Hill, a popular retreat once favored by George Town’s tycoons bent on escaping the city heat, is close by. A funicular railway (not always in operation) provides a quick ascent; otherwise, it’s a three-hour trek to the peak, where there are stately gardens; a Hindu temple; and, at the summit, the largest Buddhist shrine in Malaysia, Kek Lok Si. There, a seven-story pagoda, Ban Po Thar, combining Thai, Burmese and Chinese motifs, serves up a superb view of George Town and the Straits.
The coastal drive northward along Penang’s eastern shore leads to Batu Ferringhi and the island’s best beaches. The drive takes as little as half an hour, and beach resorts, condos and other concrete creations clutter much of the way. But halfway to Ferringhi Beach there’s an enticing break for lunch or coffee at a new upscale retail marina, Straits Quay, home of the Performing Arts Centre of Penang and a harborside promenade. Straits Quay hosts dozens of smart shops and a raft of restaurants ranging from Starbucks and Subway to a German bistro and several local seafood cafés. Some of the best pizza in Penang is baked in wood-fired ovens at Spasso Milano, where Chef Felice, hailing from Milan, presides.
At Ferringhi Beach itself, the wading and swimming pools on the grounds of Shangri-La’s Golden Sands Resort are irresistible. The sandy beach is lined with palm trees, police on horseback, watersports kiosks, ATVs, tour boats, jet skis and parasails sweeping across the sea and collapsing on the strand. Across the highway there’s a choice of smart new cafés and food stalls in the Gerai Makanan hawker center. A new favorite is Sigiâ’s Bar and Grill at the Golden Sands Resort, with wood-fired pizza ovens inside, barbecue pits outside and upper-deck seating beachside, making it an ideal spot for casual dining or an informal after-hours get-together with business associates.
If one has the time, Penang offers more adventurous excursions east of Batu Ferringhi. At the fishing village of Teluk Bahang and the entrance to Penang National Park, the crowds, condos and lavish resorts give way to deserted white-sand beaches just an hour’s ride — but two centuries removed — from the lively, compacted streets of colonial George Town.
Info To Go
Penang Bayan International Airport (PEN) lies south of George Town. Rapid Penang bus 401E departs from the airport every 30 minutes for the KOMTAR building downtown (one hour, about $1). If you hire an airport taxi, insist the driver use the meter, as required by law (45 minutes, about $15–20). Tour historic George Town by foot, bicycle or trishaw (about $10, negotiable). Taxis in and out of town should cost no more than around $5 per trip or $8 per hour. Rapid Penang buses are far less expensive (a seven-day unlimited Rapid Passport pass is about $10); cheaper still are several hotel shuttles, which venture out of George Town to sister resorts as far north as Batu Ferringhi Beach.
Built in 1885, this all-suite grand colonial hotel embodies the elegance of Penang’s past, while the new Victory Annexe serves modern business travelers. 10 Lebuh Farquhar, George Town $$$$
With 309 guestrooms and suites nestled among the palm trees and sandy shores of Batu Ferringhi Beach, ParkRoyal Penang Resort offers relaxing amenities and modern facilities perfect for kicking back or doing business. Batu Ferringhi Beach $$$$
At this top-notch international business hotel combining a fine location with savvy services, an upgrade to the well-run Traders Club level is money well spent. Magazine Road, George Town $$$
Famed for its Laotian laksa, Caveman Platter and fresh fish and chips, this is a longtime favorite of locals and expats, jam-packed on weekends. 98-1-26 Prima Tanjung, Tanjung Tokong $$$–$$$$
The Sire Museum Restaurant
This heritage mansion offers salads, lobster and Peranakan dishes, bolstered by an indoor garden and the antiques galleries of philanthropist Yeap Chor Ee. 4 King St., George Town $$–$$$
Pampered by the highly personalized service, upscale clients unwind at dinner here, mesmerized by gourmet wine-and-food pairings. 54 Jalan Chow Thye, George Town $$$$
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