Hangin’ in Penang

Tourists goofing around with a piece of street art. (The bicycle is an actual bicycle, but everything else is painted on the side of the building.) Photograph by Eleen Holland.

Written by Cynthia Catterson

Once considered the Pearl of the Orient, the Malaysian island of Penang remains a gem of architectural, cultural and ethnic diversity.   

Whether you select it as your vacation destination or hop over for a long weekend while elsewhere in Southeast Asia — it’s a quick hour flight from Singapore, three from Hong Kong and an hour’s drive from the southern border of Thailand — Penang offers the opportunity to explore and experience a rich heritage whose colonial chapter dates from more than 500 years ago, when it was one of the main trading posts linking East and West. 

It was Capt. Francis Light of the British East India Company who colonized the island in 1786. It became part of a British Crown colony some 90 years later and remained as such, except for the brief period of Japanese occupation during World War II, until Malaysia gained its independence in 1957. As the center of spice production for Southeast Asia, the island’s bustling commerce has attracted people of various religions and ethnicities from across the region. Today, roughly 60 percent of the population is Chinese Malay followed by mainland Malay, Indian, Thai and Eurasian.  

For Western travelers, this translates into an exotic, yet still English-speaking locale at an affordable price. At current exchange rates for the local currency, the ringgit, it is possible to stay at the Shangri-La’s five-star Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa, in a king-size room with a veranda overlooking the pools and sea beyond and fantastic multicultural breakfasts included, for $125 a night off-season. 

If you enjoy lounging under palm trees by the pool, the Rasa Sayang does the trick. If you’re after a fabled beach experience, though, you are better off at the pristine beaches of Bali or Phuket, Thailand. The sand at the Rasa Sayang beach is a bit gravelly and, with the large shipping traffic, a fair amount of debris is washed up on the shore. That being said, CHI, The Spa, with its assortment of Chinese and Malay treatments, delivered some of the best massages I’ve had at a resort in a long time.

To me, however, you don’t want to waste an entire trip to Penang Island lounging around. Instead, you’ll want to explore the capital, George Town, which is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are a number of hotels in the center of the city where you can pick up Heritage Trail maps to guide you through several days of exploration.  

The Eastern & Oriental Hotel, established in 1885, is a must, whether you stay in its stately rooms or just stop by for a drink in the old English-style Farquhar’s Bar. The colonnaded colonial architecture will likely remind you of the hotel’s more famous, younger sister, Raffles in Singapore. 

The historic downtown of George Town is small enough to be a walker’s delight, but you can hire a trishaw or a tour guide to get you around.  It is a working city where you’ll find the many historical points of interest in the middle of a street or around a corner, surrounded by cafés, temples, mosques, ancient Chinese shop houses and other businesses. 

Plan plenty of time, and make note of the visiting hours for the colorful, ornate 19th-century mansions of the wealthy Straits Chinese. There you’ll find examples of the richly carved furnishings, finely detailed carpets and wall art of the period. Also of note are exhibitions of dishes, period clothing and jewelry worn by the upper-class Chinese. 

Elsewhere in the city, you can appreciate the colonial great houses of the British Raj, the still-operational government buildings and the Church of the Assumption, founded in 1786. You can buy colorful flowered garlands and sarongs in Little India, and find all manner of souvenirs among the ramshackle huts on stilts that line the historic Clan Jetties. Some of those huts still house the descendants of the original Chinese Clan settlers.

Other treats that await the intrepid traveler are the occasional modern and whimsical mixed media murals and sculptures that adorn otherwise nondescript sides of buildings. One of the twisted ironworks designates the shoe shop where Penang’s most successful son, Jimmy Choo, first learned his trade.

Penang is also known as the food capital of Malaysia because of the multiethnic influences that make up its cuisine, most notably Chinese, Thai and Indian. There are so many opportunities to indulge in the flavorful dishes and, here again, the ringgit-to-dollar exchange rate works in your favor. 

A four-course meal at Kebaya Restaurant, considered one of the best restaurants on the island, runs about $30 a head, not including alcohol. The more adventurous can eat with the locals at a wet market, an area crammed with hawker stalls, where fresh food is dished out daily for about $1 a plate.  

When packing for your trip, leave your jewelry at home. Gruesome tales of pickpockets and worse are a topic of conversation among the British ex-pats. Also, while Malaysia is constitutionally a secular society, Islam is the state religion. It is common to see women in hijabs and full black burkas. Out of respect, it’s better to give the tight and skimpy outfits a pass. Plus, Penang has the same hot, tropical climate found elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Lightweight, flowing fabrics are the only way to go if you want to survive the at-times overwhelming heat and humidity. 

If you can take the heat, however, this is one truly hot vacation.

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