Malaysia’s penang island is no newcomer to international business. Claimed by traders from the British East India Company in 1786, the island soon became a thriving trading post whose free port status drew settlers from the West as well as from China and India. Overlooking the Straits of Malaca, the island’s prime location became even more valuable a century later when the Suez Canal was opened, creating a booming trade between Europe and Asia.
Penang — which eventually came to comprise the island of Penang (home of the state’s capital city of George Town) and a strip of mainland today connected by one of the world’s longest bridges — has weathered a series of economic ups and downs. Penang faced financial challenges after Japanese rule in World War II, and again when Malaysia gained independence in 1957 and when its free port status was revoked in 1969. Penang turned to electronics manufacturing to provide its next economic boom, creating the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone around the airport.
Today, manufacturing remains the cornerstone of Penang’s economy, which is the third largest among Malaysian states. The FIZ remains a vital asset and is home to many high-tech manufacturing operations including those of Dell, Intel, Motorola and Hitachi. Penang received Multimedia Super Corridor Cyber City status in 2005, part of a Malaysian program to bring more high-tech business to the region.
Along with manufacturing and high-tech, Penang’s top industries include healthcare, construction, warehousing, venture capital and property development. The state-run Penang Development Corporation (http://www.pdc.gov.my/) was created to plan, implement and promote development projects for Penang, functioning as the investment arm of the state government. Future areas for projected economic growth are aquaculture and farming, hotel management, biotech and telecommunication services.
EASTERN & ORIENTAL HOTEL
The venerable Eastern & Oriental Hotel, known locally as the E&O, is Penang’s best known hotel, dating to 1885. By the 1920s, it was billed as the “The Premier Hotel East of Suez,” attracting a who’s who of travelers including literary lights such as Rudyard Kipling, Noël Coward and Hermann Hesse. Today the 101- suite hotel continues its elite tradition with 24-hour butler service and elegant furnishings such as Persian rugs and Egyptian cotton linens, while adding 21st century technology including wireless Internet access. The hotel includes casual and fine dining restaurants, and a seaview swimming pool. 10 Lebuh Farquhar, tel 60 4 222 2000, http://www.e-o-hotel.com $$$
TRADERS HOTEL, PENANG
Operated by Shangri-La, this hotel in the heart of George Town is one of Penang’s top business hotels because of its on-site convention center and the city’s largest ballroom. The hotel’s 443 guestrooms offer wireless Internet access, 24-hour room service, and more; non-smoking rooms are available. On-site restaurants feature Cantonese and Continental cuisines. Guests also have access to Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa and Golden Sands Resort. Magazine Road, tel 60 4 262 2622, http://www.shangri-la.com $$$
GOLDEN SANDS RESORT BY SHANGRI-LA
Located on the Batu Feringgi beach, this 395-room hotel is 20 minutes from the city by complimentary shuttle. Guestrooms, many sporting a view of the sea, are modern resort-style accommodations with distinctly Malaysian touches such as furnishings made of local nyatoh wood. Rooms include dual-line phones and high-speed Internet access, of particular interest to the many convention travelers the hotel attracts with its extensive meeting facilities, including a 400-person ballroom. Batu Feringgi Beach, tel 60 4 886 1911, http://www.shangri-la.com $$$
As the fine dining restaurant of the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, this eatery is noted for its fusion dishes served in an elegant setting. Meals might begin with an appe-tizer of seared peppered manuro tuna, melding the flavors of tuna with avocado salsa, crab and sour plum. Entrees include offerings such as oven roasted Wagyu beef filet with potato and mushroom risotto, sautéed spinach and a Shiraz glaze. The restaurant features an extensive wine list from around the world. 10 Lebuh Farquhar, tel 60 4 222 2000 $$$
Nyonya cuisine, a combination of Malay and Chinese, is a favorite in Penang and is featured at this simple eatery open for lunch and dinner daily. Home recipes are spotlighted in a diner-like setting; look for hand-rolled lorbak and curry chicken. 99 Lebuh Bishop, tel 60 4 261 8035 $
EDEN SEAFOOD VILLAGE
With its island location, it’s no surprise that Penang is home to numerous excellent seafood restaurants. Eden Seafood Village, open for dinner daily, showcases fresh catches including eel, lobster, prawns and clams. 69-A Jalan Batu Feringgi, Batu.
INFO TO GO
Air service is available through the Penang International Airport (PEN), located about 12 miles from the city. The island of Penang is connected to the mainland by the Penang Bridge, opened in 1985. Its two pillars stand as symbols for the economic policy of the island: eradication of poverty and the restructuring of society. Rail service is available into Butterworth Station (tel 60 4 331 2796), located on the north-south route between Bangkok and Singapore. The train trip from Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth takes approximately six hours; first and second class cars are air-conditioned. The ferry terminal is within walking distance of Butterworth. Car and passenger ferry service provides transportation to the island at Pengkalan Weld (tel 60 4 261 0290). The ferry journey takes approximately 20 minutes.
Like Penang itself, public transportation is a blend of the old and the new. In 2006, approval was given for the construction of a second bridge to be completed by 2011, as part of the Ninth Malaysian Plan (9MP). The plan also calls for the construction of a monorail system. At present, George Town has extensive, unmetered taxi service, a bus network with a hub at the Pengkalan Weld ferry terminal, and a free shuttle bus with pickup every 12 minutes at the ferry terminal to major stops in the city. The most unusual way of getting around town is aboard a trishaw, a traditional pedal-powered taxi.
George Town’s city center is an attraction in itself thanks to one of Southeast Asia’s largest collections of 19th and early 20th century historic buildings. Streets are lined with 19th century Chinese shophouses, colonial buildings, Chinese and Indian temples, and mosques. Guided walking tours take travelers through the streets while other visitors opt to explore on their own or by trishaw.
The influence of the Chinese population, which outnumbers Malaysians in Penang, is evidenced throughout the historic district. The Khoo Kongsi Chinese clanhouse (Cannon Square) is a favorite photo stop because of its ornamental architecture. The clanhouse is surrounded by 12,000 pre-World War II houses, easily identified by their terra-cotta roofs.
Another easily recognized attraction thanks to its blue exterior, the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (14 Leith St., tel 60 4 262 0006, http://www.cheongfatttzemansion.com ) won the UNESCO Conservation Award for architecture. The former home of the man called “China’s last mandarin and first capitalist,” Cheong Fatt’s mansion, built in the mid 19th century, today serves as a luxury hotel with 16 apartments, each with personal valet service. Guided tours of the house, which was used as the setting for the Catherine Deneuve film Indochine, are available.
One of the oldest attractions in Penang is Fort Cornwallis (Padang Kota Lama), built on the site where Captain Francis Light landed on the island in 1786. Considered the best preserved fort in Malaysia and one of the region’s last remaining British fortifications, the facility is most noted for Seri Rambai, a cannon believed to hold special fertility powers. Its barrel is often stuffed full of flowers by women who come to the site to pray. Adjacent to the fort stands the Victorian style City Hall, built in 1903 and still in use today.
George Town is home to many historic temples and sacred sites; the most distinctive is the Snake Temple (Bayan Lepas), where serpents, including poisonous vipers, are spotted coiling in corners and draped from the ceiling trusses. Chinese priests at the temple believe that the smoke from the incense makes the snakes sleepy and docile. Other historic places of worship include the yellow-domed Kapitan Keling Mosque, built in the 18th century, and the 1818 St. George’s Church, which contains a monument to Captain Francis Light.
Beyond the city limits, beaches and forests attract visitors to the northern parts of the island. On the northwest tip lies the National Park of Penang, the world’s smallest national park, but home to 104 species of birds and 140 species of mammals and reptiles. The Penang Butterfly Farm (830 Jalan Teluk Bahang, tel 60 4 885 1253, http://www.butterfly-insect.com), one of Asia’s largest, showcases butterflies in a free-flying environment. At any one time, look for about 4,000 colorful Malaysian butterflies flitting throughout the complex. The Butterfly Farm is located near the beaches of Batu Feringgi.
The countryside surrounding George Town also boasts five golf courses. Two of the most convenient for business travelers are the Bukit Jambul Country Club (2 Jalan Bukit Jambul, 11900 Bayan Lepas, tel 60 4 644 2255, http://www.bjcc.com.my), and the new Pearl Island Country Club (8 Persiaran Kelicap, 11900 Bayan Lepas, tel 60 4 642 7888, http://www.pearlislandpg.com.my); both courses are located about five minutes from the airport.
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