Malaysia’s Penang charms with its blend of urban heritage and tranquil beaches
Penang’s George Town became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 and has been rapidly reinventing itself as a tourist destination ever since. It now showcases its unique heritage and culture along with arts, beaches, food and nature. The 109-hectare heritage zone takes in many exceptional old shops and townhouses which are being converted into chic cafés, smart restaurants, trendy bars and stylish shops as well as boutique hotels. Still a work in progress, Penang combines its past with the vibrancy of contemporary Malaysia.
In an effort to populate the island initially named Prince of Wales Island, Captain Francis Light, on behalf of the British East India Company, encouraged settlement by giving land to attract settlers from around the region. He built Fort Cornwallis to protect the settlement.
STREET ART vs GRAFFITI
Interactive street art has injected life into George Town with the installation of informative wrought-iron signs. Lithuanian-born artist Ernest Zacharevic has used the walls of old buildings as a canvas for his art and social commentary
Armenian Street is an exhilarating place to explore and to gain an insight into early Penang. Larger-than-life artworks attract the crowds while history hounds can inspect the home where the father of Chinese nationalism, Dr Sun Yat Sen stayed when he lived in Penang (120 Armenian St).
LET ‘EM EAT CAKE
ChinaHouse serves over 30 delicious cakes like Mango Upside Down and a wicked Salted Caramel Cheesecake from morning tea to late supper. Locally made biscuits and pastries are keenly sought, with Ghee Hiang selling the famous tau sar pheah and beh teh saw.
TAKING IT TO THE STREETS
Hawker food, especially nasi kandar served in venues like Gurney Drive, has led global scribes to recognise Penang as having some of the world’s best street food. Head to Sri Weld Food Court for dishes like nasi lemak and beef noodles. Nyonya cuisine (a Chinese/Malay hybrid style) is served in places like Mum’s Nyonya Cuisine. Other popular dishes include asam laksa, rojak, roti jala and popiah.
After dark, head to quirky bars like Patio Bar de Tapas, Baba Bar and Mish Mash. Chill and admire the Batu Ferringhi sunset at Uncle Zack’s at Parkroyal Hotel or Sand Bar at Hard Rock Hotel. Relive the colonial era while sipping on a whisky stengah (whisky and soda) in Farquhar’s Bar at Eastern and Oriental Hotel.
Plan to be in Penang from 29 July to 28 August for the George Town Festival, when inspiring performances of dance, opera, theatre and music will be staged in intriguing heritage locations. Penang’s multiculturalism is celebrated on 16 July at the Bon Odori Festival when the Japanese community celebrates along The Esplanade with entertainment, food, games and displays. On 20 November, the acclaimed Penang Bridge International Marathon is staged on the first Penang bridge with full, half, 10km and fun run categories.
BREWS, BEANS and LEAVES
While international coffee/tea concepts have established a foothold in the shopping malls; atmospheric coffee shops are found in Penang’s heritage buildings. These complement the traditional coffee shops where thick dark local brews are the beverage of choice for many locals. Young hipsters prefer their espresso in places like Coffee Junkie @ Junk, Monkeycup Café and Mugshot Café.
While the beach resorts of Batu Ferringhi are popular, the boutique heritage hotels in George Town are the most unique. At the 45-room Hotel Penaga, room layouts vary as they’re located in 15 old shop-houses and terraces that have been converted and refurbished with an eclectic combination of antique and contemporary materials. The Eastern and Oriental Hotel is Malaysia’s grandest heritage hotel with a tradition dating back to 1885.
HITTING THE HIGH NOTES
Penang rocks with venues including Canteen, where indie to individual-styled performers take the stage nightly with music from jazz to rock at the weekends, while live bands are the heart and soul of Hard Rock Café. Plan to visit Penang on 1-4 December for the Penang Jazz Festival at the Bayview Beach Resort.
WALK INTO THE PAST
Penang Heritage Trust provides an insight into the island’s heritage as well as organised walks and site inspections. Trail brochures have been developed by various organisations, with one of the more unusual being on the German Heritage Trail.
Many religions are practised in Penang. Impressive places of worship include Kapitan Keling Mosque, St George’s Church, Dhammikarama Burmese Buddhist Temple, and Sri Mahamariamman Hindu Temple.
Many Chinese immigrants sought refuge with friends and relatives in clan or family houses called kongsi when they migrated to Penang. Part cultural and part defence, these enclaves evolved to incorporate housing, a main square and a temple. Khoo Kongsi is the best preserved clan house open for public inspection.
The railway never made it across the Straits of Malacca, but a grand railway station was built on the island. Federated Malay States Railway erected an impressive building on China Street Ghaut for passengers to obtain all-inclusive tickets on the railway steamer to Butterworth, then by train to Kuala Lumpur. This stately building is now Wisma Kastam. Penang’s only railway is the funicular service from Air Itam to Penang Hill (Bukit Bendera) which operates from 6.30 am to 11 pm.
Tranquil Batu Ferringhi is lined with shady casuarina trees and resorts like the Parkroyal Penang and Lone Pine that maximise their beachfront location.
Visitors need to respect worshippers when they visit Penang’s religious sites. Often, there are signs informing visitors on the expected behaviour but if in doubt, ask somebody. While swimwear is fine for swimming, away from the beach, bathers are expected to dress more modestly. It’s worth bargaining in the markets but don’t get upset if traders don’t want to play ball.
Don’t leave the island without stocking up on unique local products. Head to Bon Ton The Shop for excellent local and regional textiles, jewellery and lifestyle books. Studio Howard is where the keen eye of local photographer Howard Tan is immortalised on every conceivable souvenir, from photos to books.