Penang Travel Information

Mother Earth Travel > Malaysia > Penang > History

From a tourist map, the island of Penang looks somewhat like a mink pelt laid flat. Georgetown, its capital, sits roughly on the right arm of the skin, while the Muka Head Lighthouse on the left signals the strategic appeal that had the British East India Company come a-calling two centuries ago. Somewhere near the head is a cluster of good beaches that lends Penang the euphemism of a resort island. Penang Hill is at the centre, near where the animal's heart might have been, while the figurative legs are hosts to an international airport and the Batu Maung Fishing Village.

As for that adjacent strip of land on the mainland called Seberang Perai (formerly Province Wellesley), the other territorial half of the Penang State, the arrival of the North-South Highway and the Penang Bridge has brought sweeping industrialisation and urbanisation to its nostalgic rural landscape of padi fields, Malay kampungs and plantation townships.


Georgetown has stayed as ruggedly antique as its kingly name suggests. Indeed, rare is a city that so authentically retraces from one end to another the footsteps of the colonialists, and the trading diasporas chasing the prosperous heels of Empire's enterprise, that its streets were nakedly captured on celluloid depicting a 19th-century scene in "Anna and the King". And as noted by the Penang Heritage Trust, a private conservation activist, "a few" first-generation brick buildings (1790-1830) survive in the old historic core, while "the majority of its 10,000 heritage buildings span the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries".

The rarity starts at Fort Cornwallis, the very spot where Captain Francis Light had disembarked on 16 July 1786 and set up a fort in wooden haste. Rebuilt later with convict labour, other modern day touristy supplements, a history gallery and a souvenir shop, within the fort have become as much its guardians as the Sri Rambai Cannon at a corner, hyped for its mystified salvage from off the shores of Penang. The empire's architectural tastes have splendidly survived in the Town Hall, City Hall and the State Legislative Building, further anglicised by the green grass field (Padang Kota Lama) at their doorsteps, a trademark of British colonial capitals. And who can say for sure on these fields sybaritic colonial ghosts may not still linger in the presence of such a stubborn relic of the imperialistic zenith as yet another Clock Tower donated by some rich local on the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee, Crickets are out of fashion here, though, with local sports and events being the dishes of the day.

Lebuh Pantai

More colonial artefacts line one of Penang's oldest streets, Lebuh Pantai, where palm trees once swayed in tropical elegance. It is now a congested quarter of moneylenders and noisy commerce, being the dead centre of the modern business district. The waterfront, a narrow alleyway away, is the site of Frank Swettenham's Pier and the ferry terminal, where yellow lumbering ferries preserve a reminiscent frame of life across the Penang Straits before the lengthy Penang Bridge was built. Close by, Kampung Ayer is a village on stilts and home to several generations of harbour workers and their families.

Chinatown and KOMTAR

Stepping away from the colonialists' enclave, the stuff that truly made Penang begins in an amalgam of cramped narrow bristling thoroughfares. Godowns and two-storey shop-houses built Penang. Most still stand nonchalantly about as going-concerns, a colourful fabric of russet roofs and crusted stuccos from the raised panorama of the KOMTAR, which in its aesthetic incompatibility serves remarkably well as a directional marker, for there is nothing as garishly tall on the island. The shop fronts are unmistakeably Straits Chinese with their lettered colonnades, colourful awnings and treasured delicacies and herbal roots. And for bonus, Penang's Chinatown does not lack intricate architectural adornments. The Khoo Kongsi clan house and the Cheong Fat Tze Mansion are positively among the best of their kinds.

Pitt Street

Within the borders of Georgetown lie several notable religious monuments of diverse faiths. Pitt Street may have been renamed to a mouthful Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, but the town planners' idea of a "street of harmony" had won the day. Through good and bad times, the Taoist Goddess of Mercy Temple, the Hindu Maha Mariamman Temple, the Muslim Kapitan Kling Mosque and the Acheen Street Mosque have been close neighbours for over one century.

Little India, Gurney Drive and the Suburbs

Indian and Chetty moneychangers, Singhalese silverware and lace vendors, and the "Bombay merchants" have their own corner too. Theirs are an experience of sights, smells and sounds straddling a few streets around Lebuh Pasar commonly called Little India where an abundance of saris, garlands, trinkets, sculptures, Indian music and curries jostle for the hard-earned dollar.

West of Jalan Penang hides an enclave of stylish mansions set in manicured compounds, where ethos of an exclusive brand of existence live on within the fences of the Millionaire's Row. Where tall casuarinas swayed and swimming was once a pleasant pursuit at the beach of Gurney Drive, modern cafes and bars have sprung up to serve the needs of a new age-one of high-rise condominiums, land reclamation and nighttime bike racing. Pulau Tikus, nonetheless, has charmingly remained a middle-class residential district of tree-lined avenues and pretty bungalows, and now hosts a lively wine-and-dine scene.

Alas! This island is heavy from the weight of history and culture. Everywhere one turns, a reminder pops up and burst into song like the Streisand classic "The Way We Were". St George's Church, the Penang Museum and Art Gallery, the Heritage Centre at Syed Alatas Mansion are among the many wonderful options to pass a lazy afternoon.

Northern Beaches and Batu Ferringhi

Batu Ferringhi had seen quieter days when the seventies' hippies combed its crystalline beaches and blue water. Today the 3km stretch of beachfront is packed cheek-by-jowl with world-class hotels and eateries along with a nocturnal clutch of trinket stalls, tailors, street hawkers and rowdy bars. Several other beaches of the North Coast, Teluk Bahang, Teluk Duyung, Monkey Beach, Pantai Kerachut and Pantai Mas, get progressively better and less crowded going west.

Pening Hills and Ayer Hitam

A series of hills rise up toward the centre of the Penang island and the highest of these is the Penang Hill, coming in at 821m above sea level. A big refrigerator like this could not have escaped the attention of those sweat-drenched, fair-skinned types, and it certainly did not. Today, it begs of relief from greedy developers and tardy administrators. Luckily, around the hills still scatter a few delectable attractions of the greener varieties, including the Botanical Gardens and the Ayer Itam Dam. The Kek Lok Si Temple makes an imposing spectacle on the approach to the Ayer Itam district from downtown, befitting its name the "Million Buddhas Precious Pagoda".

Seberang Perai

Three kilometres across the Penang Straits, Butterworth in the old days was better known for its ferry link to the Georgetown and as a railhead and transhipment point for the exports of the Peninsula. How things have changed! For recreation, there are Penang Bird Park, Snow Land, and the Bukit Mertajam Recreational Forest. But the signboards on the spanking freeways are more likely to give directions to sprawling housing estates, mega shopping malls and rumbling industrial parks.