Penang | The island of cultural colours

02 Mar 2016
5 min read
Penang Island is the ideal destination for every kind of hedonistic traveller, with its spectacular sceneries, a history like no other, world-renowned cuisine and culturally diverse capital city George Town, Sophie Cater writes…

Between the calm blue Straits of Malacca and Penang’s cloud-topped inland mountains, the high rises and skyscrapers of George Town–Penang’s capital city–interject grand, colonial buildings, ornate mosques, temples, mosques and clan houses. Since UNESCO deemed George Town a World Heritage Site in 2008, the island has been rising as a cultural metropolis, with a polished foodie scene, rich culture and superb architecture.

Standing at the crossroads of Asia’s major civilisations, Penang is a multicultural haven with a complex history. Under Britain’s colonial rule from 1786 to 1957, the island is still influenced by its large amount of immigration from mainland Malaysia, China, India and Europe. Today, the island stands as a centre of trade and a hedonistic magnet for national and international visitors.

While visiting George Town, the coast-front Eastern & Oriental Hotel (E&O) was a perfect resting point. The hotel captures Penang’s diverse heritage and cosmopolitan future, with its colonial architecture that dates back to 1884, and modern luxury amenities. The suites, which either give onto the city or the Straits of Malacca, are spacious with large beds, balconies, stand-alone baths, waterfall showers and round-the-clock butler service.

However, if you fancy a more city-centre stay, the heritage boutique Seven Terraces hotel or the modern and stylish G Hotel Kelawai are ideal. Boasting 18 suites with bespoke décor, the beauty of Seven Terraces lies in the details. Once a row of seven 19th century Anglo-Chinese terraces, the hotel’s gilded doors, open-air granite courtyard and tessellated walkways are a wink to traditional Chinese design. Contrastingly, G Hotel reflects the modern architecture and design that is prevailing in Penang. The exterior boasts a rainbow-coloured LED façade, while the interior’s chic décor combines bespoke furniture with contemporary architecture. The choice of 208 rooms range from Deluxe rooms to Premier Suites, all of which have unique features and fantastic views.

Embarking on the first of a never-ending amount of meals in Penang, I headed to E&O’s Sarkies buffet. “We Malaysians like to eat. We are never full,” my tour guide from Discovery Overland Holiday tour told me with an expectant smile. What began as a small post-flight bite quickly escalated into an hour-long culinary delight: this became the underlying story of the trip. With a loosened belt, I pressed on into George Town’s World Heritage Site.

From E&O, I wandered around the waterfront and into the capital’s fascinating historical centre. Heading east along the coast became a where’s where of the Penang’s colonial history, passing the whitewashed grandiose Town and City Halls, the Fort Cornwallis, the Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower–tilted as a consequence of bombing in WWII–and the Boustead and German merchant houses. Weaving through the city’s perma traffic jam, the Clan Jetties emerged. Dominated by the most populated Chew Jetty–alive with over 200 families and 70 houses, food and bric-a-brac stalls, tourists and traders–each Jetty is occupied by the descendants of Chinese settlers who separated their communities according to their surnames. Today, the property prices are rising at a huge rate because of the Jetties’ great city-centre location.

Heading away from the sea and into the charming maze of George Town’s heritage streets, an array of multi-cultural sites pop up at every turn, from St. George’s Church–the first Anglican Church in Southeast Asia–to beautifully adorned mosques and temples, and ancient homes like The Blue Mansion. Despite the locals wearing their pride for their traditional culture on their sleeves, olden buildings are adorned with beautiful graffiti; trendy cafés like The Alley boast western coffees, artsy magazines and quick Wi-fi. Modern features pepper the heritage city.

With food forever on my mind, I am given good news: locals deem five meals a day the norm. It’s no wonder the island has been deemed to have the finest street food in Asia. George Town is flooded with food stalls that line nearly every city-centre street. The steam from Penang Assam Laksa billows above a crowd’s head, hungry locals crouch on stalls next to the quickest noodle-maker in the city, the smell of Nasi Kandar curries lingers on a street corner, a food hall buzzes with busy locals and waiters carrying platters of fresh seafood. And I salivate, slurp and chomp with each and every one of them. With Penang’s vibrant mix of cultures, the local cuisine is hard to unify under one umbrella. Rather, it is an eclectic mix of Thai, Indian and Chinese flavours, which, when combined offers nyonya cuisine.

In the mornings from 6-10am, Chowrasta Market (also called the Wet Market), which dates back to the 1800s, displays fresh produce, traditional sweets and goods in the market building and the surrounding roads. Bustling with locals and tourists, it’s recommended to arrive earlier and eat some breakfast with the locals, including laksa, soft boiled eggs (which aren’t boiled and rather raw and gloopy) and a rock-fuel strong coffee. During the day, Georgetown’s China Town and Little India dominate the areas around Lebuh Chulia, Lebuh Stewart, Lebuh Campbell and Market Street in the heart of the city. They stand firm to George Town’s reputation as the most diverse city in Malaysia, and offer a spectacular array of food at low prices.

Evenings call for more refined dining, with the options of traditional cuisine or contemporary food. Perut Rumah restaurant, which is adorned with authentic decoration, is well known for its nyonya dishes like kari kapitan chicken curry, ju hu char vegetable lettuce rolls, or gandum sweet wheat porridge. Alternatively, if you are looking for something more contemporary and chic, head to Seven Terraces’ restaurant, Kebaya where classic Indo-Chinese dishes are executed with contemporary technique. Or the Macalister Masion’s Dining Room presents French cuisine with artful execution and modern finesse, and a wonderful bar where you can enjoy over 300 wines. The G Hotel Kelawai’s rooftop bar, Gravity offers a trendy scene, a spectacular view over the city and a range of cocktails. With such a dynamic and exciting foodie scene, it’s no wonder Penang’s cuisine is gaining exceptional momentum around the world.

Although Georgetown’s historical potency and hedonistic lifestyle offers a wonderful getaway, the island’s less-populated areas are not to be missed. Penang Hill, for example can be visited for the day from Georgetown. Head up the 833m-high hill by funicular (be warned: the hill is steep and the sometimes the ride looks a little hairy, but rest assured, the entire system was renovated in 2010). Once you reach the top, you’ll have the opportunity to wander around the hilltop and enjoy the beautiful panorama over the city and the Straits, or to take a nature tour through the dense and wildlife-rich jungle.

With the swelteringly dynamic activities over, catch a private yacht from E&O’s jetty to the island’s popular beachside resort at Batu Ferringhi. Lone Pine Hotel offers a perfect stay with 5-star rooms, wonderful restaurant and a private pool. With a long stretch of soft, white sand, enjoy some water sports or beach walks. The Tropical Spice Garden–just a 10-minute drive away–is worth visiting to learn about how the locals use local ingredients in their cuisine and medicine. Top it off with a cooking course where you will be taught to create local dishes.

With the dramatic sunsets on display, Batu Ferringhi’s market comes alive with knock-off goods and the beach bars begin their enthusiastic revering of very loud pop music. As Penang’s second most popular tourist destination, you may have to travel a little further afield (and get your camping hat on) to reach the secluded paradise you may be after.

Time permitting, head north to Penang’s National Park where, at just an hour and a half guided hike through the jungle or a boat ride away, a secluded beach called Pantai Kerachut is home to a turtle sanctuary. While exploring the national park, keep your eyes peeled for the beautiful and diverse ecology, including wildlife like monkeys, dolphins, eagles, wild cats and lizards.

Alternatively, head to Penang’s west coast to the beautiful beaches and small fishing communities. Or indulge in the island’s lush Botanic Gardens, butterfly farm, or its huge, well-kempt golf courses. Penang is on a tourism roll, and you should jump on board!

Black Book

Malaysia Airlines |

E&O |

Seven Terraces |

G Hotel Kelawai |

Lonepine Hotel |

Tropical Spice Gardens |