George Town is the capital of Penang, Malaysia. Go there for its UNESCO-listed heritage, art scene and world renowned street food. Malaysia’s sub-tropical climate means George Town is always warm and frequently wet, so any time’s fine to visit. The fusion of cultures and religions fills the calendar with festivals all year round.
Like Kolkata, Penang was simply a few dwellings until the British decided to make it their base in the far east. Trade had been flourishing in the Malacca Straits for hundreds of years before their arrival, with travellers from Europe, China, India, the Middle East and all over south east Asia calling this part of the world home. The island of Penang was little more than a base for local fishermen. It took the East India Company to turn a malaria-ridden swamp into a thriving colonial town. Other cultures followed and soon the busy port attracted traders and chancers from east and west.
The disparate groups that shaped the city are reflected in its diverse architecture, from colonial mansions and rows of shophouses to Chinese clan houses and elaborate temples. In 2008 UNESCO inscribed George Town and Malacca, its historical neighbour in the straits, onto the World Heritage List. Today George Town is a hotch-potch of languages, religions, food, art and cultural festivities. Step out of a Chinese shop house into a Hindu temple, mosque, or Christian church. Georgian mansions and Chinese clan houses dominate the area, but turn a corner and you are in Little India.
Don’t worry about finding the energy for all that sight-seeing, Penang was at the top of Lonely Planet’s best places to eat in 2014. And there’s no need to dress up to go out because the best food is found on the streets and in the hawker markets.
One day tour
You could just follow your nose, or a map, around the Lebuhs (avenues) and Lorongs (lanes), looking out for the ‘Marking George Town’ wrought iron sculptures which appear on most of its corners. Stop at the elaborate and colourful Buddhist temples, dark and dusty shops selling an eclectic choice of international nostalgia from the last ten decades, joss stick makers, rattan weavers, aromatic coffee shops and more.
A morning guided tour will give you a framework. The guide can bias the tour towards history, culture, art, religion, food, or whatever floats your boat. George Town has some amusing and clever street art, often hidden away behind unprepossessing walls, ask the guide to take you to some.
After lunch from any of the roadside ‘hawker markets’ where everyone stops for a bowl of something, head for the Pinang Peranakan Mansion to wander through its cool, wooden rooms for a flavour of what life was like as a wealthy trader. Then walk to tarted-up Lebuh Armenia, with its chichi shops and painted shop houses. Pretty Yap Kongsi (clan house) is on the corner, but turn into Lebuh Cannon to gain access to Khoo Kongsi, the largest and most impressive of the clan houses. Look out for depictions of the ‘Filial Piety’ stories, mostly attributed to Confucius, which appear on four stone panels at the entrance.
If you are only in George Town for one night, head over to Tek Sen on Carnavon Street, just off boisterous Lebuh Chulia, for the best Chinese kitchen in Malaysia. There’s always a queue of locals and visitors outside, a sure sign you’re on to a winner. Resembling a hospital café, with white tiles, bright lights and scrubbed-clean aluminium tables, chances are you’ll end up sharing. But don’t let any of that put you off. Try dishes like ‘stir-fried dragon spinach with Judas’s Ear fungus and egg’, Char Siew Bak (‘home recipe double roasted pork with chili padi’), or stand-bys like stir-fried prawns with tamarind sauce. The slightly tart homemade barley with lime will curl your eyeballs, but goes well with the food.
When you’ve finished, walk towards The Red Garden night market, where you can buy beer, join the party and watch the increasingly cheesy live entertainment. If you like expensive bars on the roofs of tall buildings, then the Three Sixty Sky Bar on top of the Bay View Hotel is worth a stop, if only for the view. Although the Chinese population is big in Penang, Malaysia is a Muslim country, so bars tend to be frequented by ex-Pats, backpackers and holiday-makers.
Most backpackers head for cheap ‘heritage’ rooms above the shops around Chulia Street, but you can’t beat the Armenian Street Heritage Hotel for five star professionalism at a budget price. Smack bang in the middle of museums, temples, restaurants and art, this 92 room hotel is clean, smart and friendly. From around £25 per night.
Rattan chairs and low tables pepper a shady veranda that runs along the five Chinese shop houses which comprise Coffee Atelier. There’s a smart coffee and tapas bar on the corner, next to a small art gallery. The final two buildings are divided into top and ground floor apartments. Heavy wooden doors open into high-ceilinged entrance halls displaying local antiques and textiles. Eclectic furniture styles and local artworks, varnished wooden floors, and original patination left on the walls all add to the authenticity of the buildings. If you’re just looking for some downtime, take a few books and spend your first 24 hours drifting between the art gallery, tapas bar and breezy rooms, occasionally stopping on the veranda for a chat and a coffee with Stefan, the Swiss proprietor. Prices from around £70 per night.
By all means stay at the Sarkies brothers’ Eastern and Oriental if you like inch-thick white linen napkins and staff who stand to attention. Prices from £120
For informal and impeccable service, stay in a restored mansion like 23 Love Lane. It is where Somerset Maugham’s characters would have met for an afternoon assignation over tea. Without a uniform or salute in sight, this tranquil hotel stays just the right side of pampered luxury. Rooms are lofty, the garden is leafy and the idiosyncratic decor adds charm. Prices from £95.
Stay another day?
Twenty-four hours isn’t long enough to get under the skin of this unique city. You could spend a day just looking at its heritage buildings, another visiting the temples, mosques and Kongsis, a third could be entirely devoted to art. And, of course, not even a week is long enough to sample all that spectacular cuisine.
Stick around and let the city get under your skin. Put on the walking boots again, and explore the parts you missed on the first day. Or hire a bike. The Metro Bike tour is a great way to see the whole of old George Town. Buy a ticket for the beautiful Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (the ‘blue’ mansion). There are limited spaces on the guided tours, at set times, so book ahead.
Go down to the clan jetties for a glimpse into waterfront living. Present day occupants are descendants of those early nineteenth century pioneers.
If you have time, leave George Town and cool down at the top of Penang Hill. Stick to week days to avoid the crowds for the funicular.
The chances are you’ll be flying in on a short hop from KL or Singapore. Domestic and international flights are housed in one terminal. The airport is open 24 hours a day and there are plenty of shops and places to eat, so everything’s easily accessible and it’s not a bad place to wait for connections.
ATMs and foreign exchange counters dot the airport.
For the truly homesick, there is a McDonald’s.
The airport is 18 kilometres south of Georgetown, and it should be about a 25 minute drive. But heavy traffic can easily double or even treble the time. Penang’s roads, though wide and well-surfaced, are usually clogged. Make sure you have something to amuse yourself with during the drive.
Taxi: buy a coupon inside the terminal for a fixed fare.
Bus: unless you’ve plenty of time to kill, or it’s very early or late, be prepared for a slow ride. There are rapid services into George Town, but then you’ll have to find your hotel from the bus stop.
Starting at 06:00 and finishing at 00:30, ferries from Butterworth on the Malaysia peninsular run every 20 minutes. The fare is RM1.20/RM0.60 per adult. Two fast ferries depart from nearby Langkawi at around 14:00.
The Second Penang Bridge, officially named Sultan Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah Bridge, was opened in 2014. As the name implies, it is the second bridge which connects Penang to the mainland. Officially the longest bridge in South East Asia, it is a spectacular sight, particularly at night.
In November 2014 the Penang Bridge International Marathon will run over it for the first time. The organisers are expecting 80,000 runners to participate. Let’s hope it doesn’t wobble.
Need to know
Language Malay, some Chinese dialects, English
International dialling code +60
Visas Tourist visa (for UK passport holders), usually for three months, issued upon arrival
Currency Ringgit Malaysia (RM or MYR). At time of writing around MYR5 to UK£1
Health Check with your doctor before travel. Current advice can be found on the Fit For Travel NHS website
Courses or boosters usually advised: Hepatitis A, Tetanus, Typhoid.
Other vaccines to consider: Cholera, Diphtheria, Hepatitis B, Japanese Encephalitis, Rabies.
Malaria and Dengue fever are in the area, so take anti malarial precautions.
Climate Penang is subtropical, so it’s hot all year, seldom dipping below 30°. The monsoons bring the most rain from April to May and October to November, when it tends to be sunny during the day, with rain in the evening. The hottest period is June till August. The best time to visit is in the driest months from late November till early April.
Hospitals and medical care in George Town are world class and a fraction of the price you would pay at home. Have everything checked, scanned, screened and measured in the luxury of Island Hospital. Results are mostly immediate, and you won’t have to wait months for an appointment. You can often be seen on the spot.
Penang Global Tourism. Everything you need to know about the island. Look for the downloadable pdf brochures in the sidebar, especially “Marking George Town” and “Penang Street Food” or pick up the hard copies when you hit town.
Penang Tourist Guides Association No. 7 Cannon Street (Lebuh Cannon), open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10.30 am to 5.30 pm (Closed on Monday & Public Holidays)