The island of Penang combines the diverse cultures of China, Malaysia and India with the history of the British Empire among beautiful architecture and sandy beaches.
By virtue of its status as a former major British trading port, Penang is a wonderful mix of faded colonial splendour, traditional Malay culture and a heady mix of traders from across South East Asia. Significant Chinese and Indian areas make it possible to sample several cultures, and foods, within a few miles, or even yards, of each other on this small island state. Penang has just been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status, and you’d do well to visit soon to catch a perfect mix of renewal and fading splendour.
The main town and capital, Georgetown, is definitely where you should spend most of your time. The city's colonial heart is where you’ll find beautifully renewed colonial mansions, and public buildings nestled alongside crumbling buildings crying out for some TLC. Fortunately, the World Heritage status has clearly brought some money into the town and the impact is clearly visible – get here quick before it becomes too much like Singapore!
The city has a very active tourist association that produces a number of great free walking guides which weave you around some of the best sites. Even with the popularity of these, though, you’ll often find yourself alone as a tourist, and the serenity of the back street Chinese temples is wonderful. Make sure you walk through Little India and Chinatown, both like stepping back 50 years or more in time and very authentic (but much cleaner!) snapshots of their respective home countries. Wandering around is a real treat, with plenty of places to get a cooling lassi or lime juice as you go. The only warning for the walks is that Penang can get very hot and humid, and whilst you may appreciate the quiet of the afternoon when the locals often take a nap, you’ll soon realise why they do.
The picturesque Khoo Khongsi temple, where the Chinese community celebrate the success of their families abroad, and the Burmese temple, so noticeably different from the rest, are key sights, as is Cornwallis fort, built by the British to defend their trading interests, and the Town Hall and Padang, which occasionally still hosts cricket matches. The traditional trading instincts of the ex-pat Chinese mean you can shop till you drop on Penang, but for the real bargains you have to brave the ludicrously ugly Komtar Komplex. It’s the biggest thing around – you won’t need directions! Fortunately the narrow streets mean you can usually wander around Georgetown pretending it doesn’t exist!
A short journey out of Georgetown is Penang Hill, where you can take the funicular railway up to the very British tea shop, serving cream teas, to make you feel like you’re wandering around the Lake District. The cool air and great views over the island make this well worth the trip. The Si Lok Temple, halfway up the hill, attracts many pilgrims and is well worth a look.
Where to stay
Hotels abound, but the best, by a long, long way, is the infamous Eastern and Oriental Hotel, (£100+/night)opened in 1885. It's now beautifully refurbished, and boasts no rooms – only suites, the longest sea front of any hotel in the world, 24 hour butler service, and a feeling of utter relaxation. There may be a limit to the number of their breakfasts you can eat though - the array of food is too tempting to exercise restraint.
If you really must stay somewhere else, due to the lack of a recent lottery win, a great new budget option is the Old Penang guesthouse (£10-£20/night) which is clean, comfortable, has free internet access and a friendly owner. It’s way above any of the other budget offerings around Love Lane.
A good mid-price option is the Bayview Hotel (£40-£60/night), which has standard international style rooms and facilities for good prices.
My final pick would be Cheong Fatt Tze mansion, an old Chinese traders house converted into a boutique hotel. Its over-priced, but then, there’s very little else like this place, and you are helping towards the restoration of this stunning landmark.
Food & drink
One of the best things about Penang is the food. Little India is clearly the place for a curry – chicken tikka is a local speciality and is great, tasty, and cheap. Yazeems, at the top of Lebuh Leith is great if you’re away from Little India and in need of a curry. The Red garden food market, just off Lebuh Leith comes alive at night, and is a good place to sample a range of Malay and Chinese staples and more local produce (and has cheap beer). The Nonya food market, by the sea, unsurprisingly, has plenty of sea food and some of the oddest desserts you’ll ever see or eat. For those in need of air-conditioning, the rotating restaurant at the top of the Bayview makes a nice event of a meal, as do the periodic ‘events’ at the E&O hotel. For a reasonable price a splendid, and far too extensive, buffet can be had, along with free-flowing wine and beer and a jazz band, as you sit by the sea on the terrace. This is also a good place to meet the (middle class) locals. The a la carte at the 1845 restaurant there is very good too, but probably a bit over-priced when so many eating options are much more economical.
Upper Penang Road is awash with modern bars, and 'The Garage' centre boasts a number of bars and Westernised restaurants. A more long standing and authentic experience can be had at the Soho pub (50-A Jalan Penang) just over towards the seafront. Beware of the local stouts, though - they pack a little more punch than your average Guinness. Many of the chain hotels have clubs in the basement which, after a beer or two, can seem oddly inviting. The 'ladies' are not all entirely female, however. Entirely up to you if that’s an issue!
Georgetown itself has no beach – for that you need to hop on a bus to Batu Ferringhi, just a few miles round the coast. There’s no denying this is very much a holiday town, for Malays and foreigners alike, and there’s certainly nothing much in the way of culture, but there’s plenty of water sports, good restaurants and a few bars to make this a pleasant rest. Good international hotels abound along the coast. The only one I would say is much different is the Lone Pine hotel. This is a wonderful art deco low rise structure on the edge of town. It was beautiful when I visited a few weeks before it closed for refurbishment (it re-opens late 2010), so goodness knows what they’re doing to it!
The only other place of real note on Penang is Teluk Bahang, a place that was on the hippy trail in the ‘70’s, but has long since dropped off it. There’s nowhere of note to stay here, but a frequent bus goes to this mix of Malay fishing village and modern dormitory town. It does, however, have the worlds smallest national park. You can easily walk for a few hours through the forests and along the beaches, mixing with monkeys and an array of birdlife, take a swim (jelly fish permitting), and make it back to Georgetown or Batu Ferringhi in a day. There’s a couple of small, cheap, and hospitable food stalls in town. They don't look too appealing, but the food is fresh, authentic, and pretty good.
Most people will fly directly to Penang airport, but you can also travel from Langkawi by boat, stopping off at the marine observation centre in the middle of the sea on the way, or cross over the straits of Penang by ferry or bridge from the mainland. If you really want to feel like you’re in the 1930s, the luxury E&O train (http://www.orient-express.com/web/eoe/eastern_and_oriental_express.jsp) from Kuala Lumpur or Singapore will easily relieve you of any spare change!