When I toured Malaysia back in 2005, I had to choose between travelling down either the east or west coast of the peninsula. I opted for the east coast and ended up learning to dive in Redang island, so it was the right choice. I was however really disappointed I couldn’t get to Penang. My recent visit to KL gave me the perfect opportunity to head up there one weekend, make amends and tick Penang off my bucket list.
Located off the north-west coast of peninsula Malaysia, Penang is a one hour flight or 4 – 5 hour train/road journey from KL. The island has deep historical roots involving not just Malays, but also Chinese, Indian, Tamil, Armenian, Portuguese, French, Dutch and of course British explorers and traders. Penang is overflowing with history and its significance in opening up SE Asia’s trade routes to the emerging global marketplace of the 19th century cannot be underestimated. It all started in Penang, and when you wander around the older part of its capital George Town, it is easy to see why it was declared a UNESCO world Heritage site. As I began to explore, I initially gravitated towards the port area of this historic town. Must be the salt in my veins. First stop was the Chew jetty, which was in fact more than a jetty – it is an old stilted village that comprises eight jetties in total and is still a fully functioning community with homes, business and even a temple. The jetties were built in the 19th century by immigrants from the Fujian Province on the south-eastern coast of China, and Chew was the most common name. I then followed the road round passing Church Street Pier, the former base for the ferry service running to Butterworth on the mainland. It is opposite Wisma Katam, the former Malaysian railways station on the island and famous for being the only railway station that didn’t have a railway.. Further along is Sweetenham Pier, and although historic, it has been modernised and now accommodates modern passenger liners on a daily basis. A well as mini cruises to Phuket, there is an overnight cruise, where those that fancy a flutter and a night away can board the party ship “Amusement”…
Betting aside, a short walk from here is where the real history of the island started when Captain Francis Light established Fort Cornwallis. He arrived in 1786 after what is diplomatically referred to as “a break down in talks” with the Sultan of Kedah, ruler of the mainland opposite. Although the history boards at the fort were all out-of-order and very badly faded, but from theses, the dates on the cannons (1798) and wikipedia, construction was completed at the end of the century. George Town was also established by Francis for the East India Company, with Fort Cornwallis being the British military fortification and administration centre. As well as a trading post, Penang was a protectorate for the mainland against what was then Siam aggressors to the north – the direction of the cannons.
A short walk over “speakers corner” took me to George Town Hall – another example of British colonial architecture, this time from the early 20th century.
Away from the waterfront and prime site administrative buildings, George Town’s UNESCO site is a labyrinth of narrow streets with both Victorian and post WW1 buildings. In fact the are some fine examples of Art Deco architecture throughout George Town. Many of them are still regular business just going about their day-to-day life. After nearly seven years in the Middle East, this one especially caught my eye….
Plus a few others…
There was also cute and an absolutely stunning art deco mosque at the top of Chulia Street, but sadly my iPhone went on the blink with a flashing blue screen of death, so I lost the picture. If you are in Penang though, have a look for it as it really is a rare and beautiful design.
Of course I visited most of the famous buildings listed on all the tourist bunff and official tourism websites here and here. One of the most popular buildings is the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. The entrance fee is RM30 and the staff are very friendly and knowledgeable. It was a gorgeous house but I was astonished to learn most of what I saw wasn’t original – salvaged fittings from other houses and the furnishings were not originals either. In fact the only original features were some of the tiled and wooden floors and the ironwork, which was made in Glasgow! Of all the buildings I visited, the one I found most interesting was the home of Dr Sun Yat Sen. He is accredited in history as being the first President and founding father of China. The building is now a very original museum and a genuinely historic building that has not been neglected, adversely effected by the harsh tropical climate, not been refurbished and not been reinvented.
The resident manager, Mr Alvin Wong was extremely knowledgeable and keen to tell me all about this home, political and business empire HQ for Dr Sun Yat Sen. Here he is talking to some other visitors – this was the board room for Dr Sun Yat Sen and a historically significant table – from here the 1910 Penang conference was held, leading to the 1911 uprising, which led to the revolution in China a year later.
This was a very cool place to visit, so found it odd that it doesn’t appear on the tourism map. The entrance fee is only RM5 and you also get a nice cup of tea – China tea of course!
After “doing George Town”, I decided I deserved to follow a quintessentially British colonial tradition in the tropics – to have afternoon tea, and there is only one place in George Town to do this – the iconic Eastern & Oriental Hotel. The romantic vision…..
The modern reality….
The best part of the tea was the view – it was right on the waterfront and for a 5 star hotel,was extremely good value at RM68 (£13 or $21). The scones wouldn’t have won any SWRI baking competitions though and the sandwiches were a bit dry. But as a bonus extra, I learnt more history. The hotel, like many of the older buildings, has pretty much been rebuilt and extended. Very little of the original building remains, although the developers and owners are forgiven in this case as the original Eastern & Oriental was opened in 1885 by the Armenian Starkie brothers. Two years later in 1887 they opened Raffles in Singapore, then The Strand in Yangon in 1901. These hotels really are historic institutions.
The next day I headed out-of-town to Penang Hill in search of the best island views and later, the best Assam Laksa on the island. This was “must do” advice from my KL residing friend Rebecca’s son Elliot. It was good advice – here one of the views at the top…
plus a few temples and a genuine holy cow…
To get to the 712m summit at the top, it is a 5 km hike though the jungle, or by road via Penang Hill residents association car pool or by funicular railway, which is what most do. The day I went it was also a local holiday, so unfortunately just about everyone else had the same idea….
To get to the railway, the 204 public bus service runs from George Town to Penang Hill station every 15-20 minutes and the fare is RM2. The train fares for foreigners are RM15 single and RM30 return. You can also get a 4×4 back down for RM15. I wish I had known before, as that looked like a great drive.
On the way back to George Town, I got off the bus to check out Kek Lok Si temple, the largest in SE Asia. It was a bit of a climb, but I was rewarded with this…
and I had a teeny bit of fun…he had no idea I was up there!
And now for the finale! One thing I have not really mentioned is the food in Penang. It is legendary and very famous. I will go back and do a full blog on Penang food as it is so special. It is the original fusion food that has elements of Malay, Chinese, Indian and Thai food that’s evolved into delicious Penang classics such as Hokkien Mee and Penang Laksa.
My friend Julie introduced me to Laksa a few years ago. For those that don’t know, Laksa is a broth with noodles, vegetables and some form of protein, usually eggs, chicken or fish. There are two basic types of Laksa – the Thai or Siam Laksa that has a coconut broth, and the Assam Laksa which has a tamarind based broth. Penang Laksa is an Assam Laksa and Elliot had told me about this hawker stall called Pasar Air Itam that all the locals went to. It was close to the Lek Loi Si temple and I arrived just as the heavens opened. Excuse the pictures, but I had to be fast as it was wet and they were very busy!
This Laksa was indeed outstanding and at RM4 ($1.25 or 75p) was exceptional value too. I did manage to have a brief word with the “front of house” guy in the yellow t-shirt, and he told me his grandmother started the stall 60 years ago. The family still run it – with him in this picture is his uncle, brother and cousin.
I did all of this in two days and I barely left George Town, so Penang is a great place to visit for the weekend. Or for a longer holiday, as there also beaches and resorts on the island. Penang really has a lot to offer, the locals are very friendly and helpful and I know I will go back at some point. I really loved my time in Penang.
Getting to Penang
Following on from my Singapore trip, I would have liked to keep the Malaysian train theme going, but as I travelled over a holiday weekend all seats to Butterworth were fully booked. You can check the KTM website for times. I opted for the luxury coach as there are multiple services from KL offered by several operators. The “luxury” operators are Aeroline and Nice ++ . My Aeroline fare was RM60 and we were crossing the causeway exactly 4 hours after leaving KL – and that included a 20 minute comfort break. Seats were extremely comfortable, there was a good selection of individual entertainment plus refreshments. I couldn’t fault it. You can of course fly to Penang – there are domestic and international flights serving the island – more information here.
For accommodation, I opted for a boutique style budget hotel in Chulia street – a popular destination for backpackers but right inside old George Town. My “hotel” was the Chulia Heritage Hotel , was good value, had very friendly and helpful staff, was very clean and appeared to be newly refurbished.
On the down side, it wasn’t a hotel – more an up market hostel – corridors of rooms – and as there wasn’t a restaurant or facilities to get a drink, the door locks were ropey (my room was completely insecure on day 2 I discovered) and the air con condensers outside were noisy (although they did attend to it when I pointed this out).
Overall, it was good value for money but my advice is to shop around – there are plenty character style small hotels and guest houses in George Town that serve breakfast in more charming surroundings. All styles and budgets are catered for on the island, and there are also beach resorts less than 30 minutes from George Town, so you can see the sights as a day trip too.