A fascinating fusion of eastern and western influences, Penang is Malaysia’s most tourist-visited destination. The island manages to embrace modernity while retaining its colonial traditions; due to its well-preserved heritage buildings Penang’s capital, Georgetown, has been accorded a listing as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.
Although Georgetown’s landscape is dominated by Chinese storefronts – most in need of a good paint job – there are also swanky shopping complexes, refurbished Chinese manors, rowdy pubs and artsy boutiques, cafés and studios. The city is a mainstay on the Malaysian tourist scene yet it is also a popular expat enclave; besides that, the food here– a hotchpotch of Indian curry and Chinese noodles – is for many the best in Malaysia.
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Noteworthy as the only state in Malaysia to have a Chinese majority population, Penang’s sub-culture is a mixture of Asia itself. Rather than feeling mono-ethnic, it exemplifies the country’s colonial past and mixed-heritage future brilliantly. It isn’t Malaysia’s most beautiful state yet it does posses a certain charm – the oldest of the British Straits settlements, this state is arguably one of its most tolerant and cosmopolitan.
Georgetown, Penang’s capital on the north-eastern corner of the island, is dotted with idiosyncratic Chinese shop lots, narrow roads, old-fashioned colonial-era mansions, clan houses, numerous schools, ornate temples and Little India districts. It goes without saying that the city is an exceedingly rewarding destination – skirting the conurbation is a landscape of beaches, forests and lakes.
With its colonial past, it’s hardly surprising that Penang features more than a few tourist-worthy attractions. Listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 2008, the capital – Georgetown – is the embodiment of Penang, so much so that the two names are almost interchangeable. The conurbation holds most of the ‘Isle of the Betel Nut’s sightseeing spots from the Kek Lok Si Temple and Khoo Kongsi clan house to Fort Cornwallis and the Botanical Gardens.
Little is known of Penang’s origins – settlements were found as early as the 1700s but it was only in 1786 when Captain Francis Light took possession of the island on behalf of the East India Trading Company that the state truly began to flourish and soon afterwards he established Georgetown. Emigrants were allowed to claim as much land as they could clear, which along with its duty-free port, resulted in ensuring that the state attracted more and more settlers from all over Asia. The state went through a period where it operated a lucrative opium trade run by Chinese secret societies but British authorities brought it under control after large scale rioting broke out in 1867.
Seven months before Malaysia’s independence in 1957, Georgetown was awarded city status. The city continued to grow throughout the 1960s yet it lost its duty-free status to Langkawi in the 1980s. These days tourism plays a huge role in Penang’s economy, which has led to authorities taking huge steps to preserve its traditional heritage.
Georgetown Highlights and Features
- Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion - Built on the principles of Feng Shui, the award-winning Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion was once the abode of an influential Nanyang industrialist. The house features well-preserved and beautifully-restored 18th and 19th-century Chinese architecture. The building happens to be one of only three traditional Chinese mansions left outside of China.
- Fort Cornwallis - Named after Charles Cornwallis, Fort Cornwallis is one of Penang’s most well-known landmarks. The fortress houses some of the original structures built over a century ago including a chapel, some prison cells, an ammunition storage area, a harbour light, the original flagstaff and some old bronze cannons.
- Kek Lok Si Temple - Arguably the largest Buddhist temple complex in Southeast Asia. Kek Lok Si Temple was erected more than a hundred years ago. Filled with beautifully-landscaped gardens and sacred temples the temple is also home to a seven-tiered pagoda which houses a stunning collection of Buddha statues; also within the temple is a bronze Kuan Yin statue measuring 120-feet in height.
- Kapitan Keling Mosque – Penang’s first mosque and built in the 19th century, the Kapitan Keling Mosque is also the largest in town. The complex is surrounded by low walls and topped with Moghul-style copper domes.
- Khoo Kongsi – Kongsi or ‘clan halls’ are basically family houses within the Chinese communities; each clanhouse acts as the central point of the community. One of the most prominent Chinese lineages in Malaysia happens to be the Khoo Kongsi; this clanhouse is one of Southeast Asia’s most alluring structures.
- Kuan Yin Temple – Built in honour of the Chinese Goddess of Mercy –Kuan Yin – this temple is one of the oldest in Malaysia. Built in the early 19th century by the first Cantonese and Hokkien settlers from China, the temple features classic Chinese architecture including stone carvings of dragons and undulating rooftops. Devotees often burn paper money and incense sticks, making the place redolent of jasmine and lavender.
- Penang Botanic Gardens – Also known as the Waterfall Gardens, this 30-hectare park is a parcel of green land with an admirable variety of flora and fauna. The park is overrun with cheeky macaques and it boasts excellent jogging treks and hiking trails.
- Penang Hill/ Bukit Bendera/ Flagstaff Hill – Rising 821-metres above Georgetown, Penang Hill – also known as Flagstaff Hill – is a cool hill station within Penang. One of the most popular attractions in Penang, Bukit Bendera boasts panoramic views of the whole island from the apex; up top there is a restaurant, a Hindu temple, a church, a mosque and a snake show.
- Penang Islamic Museum – Housed in a beautifully-restored villa, the Penang Islamic Museum holds a collection of artefacts that document Islam’s history and growth in Malaysia; the most noteworthy exhibit is located upstairs in the form of a diorama portraying a maritime-oriented haj (pilgrimage to Mecca).
- Penang Peranakan Mansion - The ornate Penang Peranakan Mansion was once the abode of a wealthy 19th century Baba merchant. The stately mansion offers a glimpse into Peranakan customs and traditions; items on display include a traditional marital bed, an opium bed and opium-smoking paraphernalia, and various women’s accessories and gold jewellery.
- Penang State Museum & Art Gallery – Dedicated to Penang’s past, the Penang State Museum & Art Gallery is reputedly one of the best in the country. It showcases Penang’s culture and heritage with exhibits ranging from photographs, maps and documents to antiques, costumes and other historical artefacts.
- Sri Mariamman Temple – The oldest Hindu temple in Penang, the colourful Sri Mariamman Temple features distinctive South Indian Dravidian architecture and is filled with intricate carvings and sculptures of Hindu deities. Its main focal point is an opulent statue of Lord Subramaniam decorated in gold, silver, diamonds and emeralds.
- St George’s Church – The exceptionally well-preserved St. George’s church, Southeast Asia’s oldest Anglican church, was built in 1816 utilising convict labour. Featuring striking Grecian columns, marble floors and towering spires, it is one of Penang’s most beautiful heritage landmarks.
- The Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower – Standing at 60 feet, the gleaming white Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower, is topped by a Moorish dome. Another one of Penang’s most easily-recognisable landmarks, funds to build the bleached-white structure were donated by a Chinese millionaire to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.
Good to Know and What Not to Miss
- Georgetown is a typical big city with street crimes so exercise caution when venturing through its streets – the city may look harmless but conventional responsibility should still apply when you’re sightseeing.
- When visiting houses of worship, do try to be dressed modestly as there are some strict rules against skimpy clothing; also don’t forget that it may be inappropriate to wear your shoes when you step into different shrines.
- Opening Hours:
- Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion: 11:00 – 15:00 (when a guided tour is conducted) everyday
- Fort Cornwallis: 09:00 – 18:30 everyday
- Kek Lok Si Temple: 09:00 – 18:00 everyday
- Khoo Kongsi: 09:00 – 17:00 everyday
- Kuan Yin Temple: Early morning to late evening
- Penang Botanic Gardens: 05:00 – 20:00 everyday
- Penang Hill: 06:30 – 21:30 Sunday – Friday; 06:30 – 23:30 Saturday & public holidays.
- Penang Islamic Museum: 09:30 – 18:00 everyday; closed on Tuesdays.
- Penang Peranakan Mansion: 09:30 – 17:00 Monday – Friday; 09:30 – 15:00 Saturday; by appointment only Sundays & public holidays.
- Penang State Museum & Art Gallery: 09:00 – 17:00 Saturday to Thursday; closed on Fridays.
- Sri Mariamman Temple: 08:00 am – 12:00 and 16:00 – 23:00
- St George’s Church: 09:00 – 17:00 everyday
- The Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower: At the intersection of Light Street, Beach Street (Lebuh Pantai) and King Edward’s Place (Persiaran King Edward).
- How to get there: Penang International Airport is 18 kilometres south of Georgetown. Taxi fare from the aerodrome to Georgetown will usually cost approximately RM40 and the journey will last 45 minutes. Alternatively you can hop on the Yellow Bus 83, which runs between the airport and several stops along the way within Georgetown. Ferries run between Georgetown and Butterworth every 20 minutes from 06:00 – 24:30 – the fare is RM1.20/RM0.60 per adult/kid.