The island of Penang has been known at least since the 15th century, when Chinese visitors named the uninhibited island Pulo Pinang, meaning Betelnut Island. Ever since, its history has been multicultural, which makes it and its capital city of George Town fascinating city to explore.
How multicultural? The first westerner here was Captain James Lancaster, in 1593. Sumatra was the origin of Penang’s first immigrants, who arrived in the early 1700s. On behalf of the British East India Company, Captain Francis Light took possession of Penang in 1786. People from all over Asia — particularly China, India, and Indonesia — were attracted to Penang because of the availability of land (if they cleared the jungle), its duty-free port, and for the tolerant, open-minded way of life.
Because of this multicultural background, you can have an incredibly rich experience in George Town. But with so much, where to focus?
Here are two ways to experience George Town: the colonial way and the Malaysian way.
Now, I’m going to simplify and say that a colonial experience is a more European one, and a Malaysian experience is a blend of Chinese, Indian, Malay, and Indonesian cultures. In truth, all of this is Malaysian – a multicultural, blended society. And really, you’re going to want to experience both aspects of this UNESCO world heritage site.
The area around Armenian Street is an excellent place to wander to see beautiful heritage buildings. Don’t miss:
- – Syed Al-Attas Mansion (128 Armenian St): the home of an Achehnese merchant and now an Islamic Museum.
- – Dr Sun Yat Sen’s Penang base (120 Armenian St): the Canton uprising (against the Qing dynasty), which established the republic of China, was planned in this 19th century townhouse.
- – Lam Yeong Tong Yap Kongsi (71 Armenian St): an ornate ancestral hall and temple from 1924.
- – Hock Teik Cheng Sin temple (57 Armenian St): Chinese secret societies ran Penang’s brothels, gambling dens and the opium trade, and this 1844 building was a former headquarters, as well as a temple dedicated to the Hokkien god of prosperity.
- – Cheah Kongsi temple (8 Armenian St): an 1858 temple with a multicultural twist –the British lion heads symbolize the Straits Chinese loyalty to the British.
- – Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi (18 Cannon Square): Malaysia’s grandest clan temple, built in the early 1900s.
- – Clan jetties (near Weld Quay at the foot of Armenian St): 19th century traditional houses built on stilts over the sea.
- – Little India: shops full of bright flowers and saris; when the Bollywood music blares you half expect a line of dancers to come shimmying around the corner.
- – Mahamariamman Temple (Queen St in Little India): the oldest Hindu temple in George Town (1883) with 38 detailed carvings of Hindu deities.
- – Pinang Peranakan Mansion (29 Church St): an opulent former home, now a museum showcasing Straits Chinese (Peranakan or Baba Nyonya) collectibles.
Penang has one of the largest concentrations of colonial architecture in all of Asia, and you can walk to most of it. Some highlights:
- – Fort Cornwallis (Padang Kota Lama): where Captain Francis Light first landed in Penang in 1786 (yes, this is the same Cornwallis who surrendered to George Washington).
- – Town Hall (Esplanade Road): now city hall, this was a social venue in the 1880s (referred to as the “White Man’s Club”), plus a film location for the Jodie Foster version of Anna and the King.
- – Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower: presented by Penang millionaire Cheah Chen Eok in 1897 for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. Each foot of the 60-foot tower represents one year of her reign.
- – St. George’s Church (Farquhar St): the oldest Anglican Church in Southeast Asia, built in 1817-18.
- – Penang Museum (Farquhar St): while the building is colonial, the museum’s exhibits celebrate Penang’s multicultural past.
- – Suffolk House (250 Jalan Air Itam, out of town): this beautiful Anglo-Indian building was the residence of Captain Light, and restored in 2007.
George Town is known as a foodie paradise, and there are plenty of Malaysian and other Asian options for you, particularly Chinese and Indian. Whether you choose hawker stalls or traditional restaurants, you have plenty of options.
- The Red Garden Food Paradise (Penang Upper Road) is a good place to introduce yourself to hawker cuisine (Tony Bourdain ate here). Wander around the different stalls and order whatever strikes your fancy. Tell the vendor your table number, and they will bring your dish to your table (pay when they deliver). A waiter will come by and take your drinks order.
- Outside of George Town, locals say the best hawker stalls are at the Northam Beach Café (Sultan Ahmed Shah St), where you can enjoy your meal watching the sun set into the sea.
- Another local recommendation is Kafe Keng Pin (Penang and Sri Bahari Roads) for the best chicken rice in Penang. Go early — it sells out by 1 pm.
- Some of the best Chinese food is at Tek Sen restaurant (18-20 Carnavon St). Once a street stall, it is so popular that they’ve expanded into a full fledged restaurant.
- Nasi Kandar is a must-try dish which was invented in Penang: an Indian-Muslim rice-based meal served with many side dishes, particularly curry (chicken, fish, seafood, beef, or lamb). If you order “kari campur” you’re asking for a combination of the curries. The best is near the Buddhist pagoda (Burmah Lane).
- If your taste buds don’t care what your eyes see, try ice cendol: a bowl of shaved ice smothered in sugar syrup, evaporated or coconut milk, red beans, and — wait for it — jelly candies that look a lot like swimming green worms. Many say the best is at a hawker stall in Keng Kwee alley, near the end of Penang Road.
You’ll have fewer choices for exceptional western food, but there are a few stand outs:
- Take a taxi out to the beautiful 200-year-old Suffolk House for several courses of western dishes with Malaysian influences. Probably more delicious than what Captain Light would have eaten when he lived here!
- The best scones in town are at 81 Armenian Street, at a little café called Five Betal Nut Trees (no sign, look for the trees). The scones are served warm and come with excellent clotted cream and strawberry jam.
- Delicious European breads and pastries are at Rainforest Bakery (294 Chulia St near Love Lane).
- The strangely named Beach Blanket Babylon (BBB), in the mansion next to the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, is where to eat western (and local) favorites outdoors with a view of the sea.
There are two great boutique hotels which emphasize George Town’s colonial and Malaysian past in two different ways.
- Hotel Penaga is the more modern of the two, but it gives a distinct nod to the Asian heritage of Penang. The hotel was created out of pre-war terrace houses which have been updated and made beautiful again. While the buildings (and the pool) look modern, the decor is a striking Chinese / Art Deco blend.
- You can stay in an authentically conserved and restored Malaysian room or suite at 23LoveLane, a boutique heritage hotel. The buildings date from the 1800s and represent five different architectural periods, including the pre-war shop house. Check out the beautifully restored Chinese gate at the entrance to the main building and the antique Asian furniture throughout the hotel.
Whether you focus on the colonial or the Malaysian sides of this beautiful UNESCO city, you will enjoy George Town.
Blog and pictures by Johanna Read