Before Penang, the Pearl of the Orient, was known to the world as a beautiful, exotic holiday destination, she was Pulau Pinang; a virgin paradise that got her name from the abundance of betel nut palms scattered across her soft, sandy beaches.
Literally translated, Pulau Pinang means the “Isle of the Betel Nut” in Malay; Malaysia's national language. Steeped in history, “Penang” was born when charismatic English captain Francis Light persuaded the Sultan of Kedah to cede Pulau Pinang to the British East India Company.
In 1786, Light landed on what is known as the scenic Esplanade today. Local folklore tells of how he fired gold coins into the surrounding jungle to induce his men to clear the area. Fourteen years later, the Sultan of Kedah further ceded a strip of land on the mainland across the channel to a very persuasive Light.
The state of Penang then comprised of an island originally named Prince of Wales Island, after George V, and the strip on the mainland which was christened Province Wellesley, after the Governor of India. The former was later named George Town, after King George III.
In 1832, Penang formed part of the Straits Settlement with Malacca and Singapore. The Penang maritime port was among the busiest in the region, attracting rich merchants involved in the lucrative trade of tea, spices, porcelain and cloth.
Settlers and fortune-seekers from the all over called Penang home and it was from this interesting mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Siamese (to name a few) cultures that Penang became a melting pot for hybrid communities – the most famous being the Baba Nyonya, Jawi Peranakan and Eurasians.
For more than a century, the major trading post remained under British colonial rule until 1957, when Malaysia gained independence. George Town was accorded city status by Queen Elizabeth II on January 1, 1957, thereby becoming the first town in the Federation of Malay – after Singapore – to become a city.
Although she is Malaysia's electric and electronic manufacturing hub, Penang has successfully retained her old world charm. As recognition of her rich heritage, George Town, together with Melaka, was listed as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site on July 7, 2008.
Situated along the north-western coast of the peninsula, Penang is Malaysia’s only “island state”. Locals are fondly known as Penangites, many of whom will proudly tell you that the state comprising a population of approximately 1.5 million, is a close-knit community of diverse ethnicities, cultures and dialects.
One of Malaysia’s premier holiday destinations, the 285km2 island is separated from Seberang Prai (formerly Province Wellesley) – a hinterland of 737km2 on the mainland, by a narrow 3km channel.
You can either cross the channel via the iconic Penang Bridge or by the ferry – the latter being a “must experience” simply because it is synonymous with holidaying here. Soon, visitors will have the option of using the new Second Penang Bridge which is expected to be completed in 2011.
From the 1970s to the late 1990s, the state’s Free Trade Zone in the Bayan Lepas area was one of Asia’s largest electrical and electronics manufacturing bases. The area south of the island is now the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone. Key exports include electrical and electronic products, semi-conductors, computer products, medical devices, textiles, gold and jewellery.
Penang’s medical tourism and education sectors continue to grow steadily as the state’s industrial sector moves towards high-end manufacturing activities and up the value-chain. The service sector driven by knowledge-based workers is the next frontier as the state focuses on research and development and innovation.
Trishaw, taxi, rented car, motorcycle and bicycle or public bus – you choose. Of course there various modes of transportation in the state but it really depends on where you are planning to visit.
If it is within the George Town UNESCO Heritage Site you want to explore, the trishaw is a good bet because all the famous landmarks are just a stone’s throw away from each other. Besides its quaint charm, the trishaw ride is relaxing and a great way to take in the sights. If you would rather walk or cycle, the Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) has a great heritage trail you can embark on.
To travel around the island, the air conditioned Rapid Penang public bus service is quite reliable and their drivers are a helpful lot. Just make sure you have a comprehensive map in hand!
You can also opt to rent a motorcycle or car or hire a taxi for the day if you want to see other landmark attractions outside the George Town inner city enclave.
Tourism Attractions and Heritage Sites
At the entrance, a statue of Captain Francis Light beckons visitors to the late 18th century star-shaped structure (complete with a chapel, a gunpowder magazine, cell rooms, flagstaff, harbour light and several cannons) which is the biggest well preserved fort in the country.
One of the cannons - Sri Rambai, is believed to possess magical powers. Women place flowers on the barrel in the hope of improving their fertility.
Captain Francis Light Statue
One of the cellrooms
It is at this historical site that Light landed on Aug 11, 1786. Built by the good captain to protect British royal artillery troops from possible French attacks (Anglo-French rivalry was at its peak at the time), the fort was christened “Cornwallis” after the late 18th century Governor-General of Bengal, India, Charles Marquis Cornwallis. Originally built with a nibong (palm trunk) stockade, the fort was completed in 1810. The fort later became administrative base for British troops in Penang.
Although the 9m moat surrounding the fort was filled up in the early 1920s (a malaria epidemic had hit the island), there are many other features that make the fort a must visit for any traveller.
Some of the cell rooms have been converted into galleries displaying historical facts, artifacts and conservation efforts. Outside the entrance of the fort, local artworks as well as stalls welling handicraft, batik and souvenir items are available.
There were proposals to convert the fort into a living museum allowing visitors to experience how soldiers had lived inside the fort back to the 18th century.
In 2003, archaeological excavations unearthed a small tunnel with a 96cm opening underneath the building. Artifacts discovered included broken pieces of pottery, Chinese roof tiles, bricks, glasses, porcelain and coins and even nails.
Then, the building – known among locals as the European Club, was primarily used as a venue for the town’s European community where social events, balls, public speeches, drama performances, art exhibitions and concerts were held.
Built in Western architectural style with classical arches, columns, pilasters, quoins, ornamental elements on roof parapet and balustrades, the sunshine yellow double-storey is the oldest municipal building in Penang.
Lt-Governor Sir Archibald Edward Harbord Anson first laid its foundation on Jan 1, 1879. Occupying a land area of 70,711 sq feet, the building was completed in 1880 and officiated by the then Governor of Straits Settlements Frederick Weld.
Through the years, the Town Hall has undergone five extensive expansions and now comprises a front portico, an assembly hall, a ballroom with adjoining supper rooms, a stage, office rooms and a library,
In 1999, the building’s ballroom on the first floor was “transformed” into a “Royal Hall of Justice” for the filming of 20th Century Fox’s blockbuster, Anna and the King.
Opened in 1903, the City Hall is currently occupied by the local council. With its British Palladian architecture featuring magnificent Corinthian columns and huge windows, the white double-storey mansion is as intimidating as it is awe-inspiring.
Kapitan Keling Mosque
Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, George Town.
Opening hours: 1:00pm to 5:00pm (Saturday to Thursday) and 3:00pm to 5:00pm (Friday).
Admission is free but visitors are required to wear robes which are provided at the mosque. Guided tours are available at the Information Centre located at the ground floor of the minaret.
One of the main houses of worships along George Town’s “Street of Harmony”, the Kapitan Keling Mosque was built and designed by German architect Henry Alfred Neubronner.
With its Moghul-style domes adorned with crescents and stars sitting on exquisite Gothic, Moorish and Roman arches and towering minaret, the mosque which was originally a humble single-storey brick structure, now stands a regal landmark and one of the country’s most beautiful and historically rich mosques.
Founded in 1801 by well-respected headman of the Indian Muslims community, Caudeer Mohudeen, Kapitan Keling Mosque is a sight to behold with it magnificent chandelier, calligraphy panels and stained glass windows featuring the Star of David.
At dusk, against the backdrop of an orange sky, the cream-coloured mosque is nothing short of magnificent.
The clock tower was presented to Penang by local millionaire Cheah Chen Eok in 1897 to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria.
It towers 60 feet in high – one foot for each year of Her Majesty's reign. The Queen had died by the time the clock tower was finally completed in 1920.
Next to Fort Cornwallis is the Esplanade, a popular waterfront promenade which stretches from the hawker stalls at one end to the clock tower at the other. Central in the Esplanade is the Padang, a huge square of town green.
Standing proudly beside is the City Hall, a stately colonial building which is a fine example of British palladian architecture featuring magnificent Corinthian columns and huge windows. It was once the seat of local government.
Tanjung City Marina, Pengkalan Weld
The RM44-mil Tanjung City Marina (TCM) in Penang, the first inner city marina in the country, was completed in October 2005 and is fully operational. The new marina is a stepping stone to turn the Penang into an international cruise centre by attracting sailing vessels from all over the world.
Penang Butterfly Farm, Teluk Bahang
Located at Teluk Bahang, 20km from George Town, the Butterfly Farm covers an area of 0.8 hectare. Visitors can marvel at the hundreds of species of butterflies and local insects in their natural habitat.
The best time to visit is in the late morning or early afternoon, when the butterflies are most active.
An Indian-Muslim creation, the Nasi Kandar is synonymous with Penang (it’s been said that Malaysia’s former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad always insists on a plate of his favourite Nasi Kandar whenever he is in town).
Nasi Kandar is a meal of steamed rice and various accompanying dishes that are rich in spices. In the early days (before Nasi Kandar restaurants mushroomed), Indian-Muslim vendors would peddle their delicious curries and rice from containers balanced on a pole and slung over the shoulders. Today, Nasi Kandar remains a favourite among all communities.
Although usually eaten at breakfast, Nasi Lemak (coconut rice with spicy ikan bilis sambal, roasted peanuts, eggs and cucumber slices) is also served at lunch, tea and dinner! Such is the popularity of one of Malaysia’s best-loved specialties.
Traditionally wrapped in banana leaf or paper, the fragrant rice is available at many roadside stalls.