Malaysia - Penang Island
The Malaysian island of Penang boasts cultural colours and a colonial legacy that has made this island state a centrepiece of cultural tourism.
Pass from old Chinese districts into areas dominated by Indo-Malayans, and scents change along with the sights. British colonial buildings, reminders of a 19th century maritime empire at its furthest reach, are in various states of repair and jostle for attention with Taoist, Hindu and Islamic temples. Shuttered Chinatowns jealously harbour their ghosts, with the silence occasionally punctured by the strains of thumping Bollywood dance music. Everywhere, street stalls and vendors offer a mix of Chinese, Indian, Malay and European cuisine, plus everything in between. Welcome to George Town, the capital of the Penang island and one of Malaysia’s best places to take in the full sweep of Southeast Asian history.
The region has long been the focus of competing Asian influences over the centuries – from the east have come the Persians, Arabs and Indians, while from the north and west have come the Chinese and Japanese. In the early 21st century, China and India, after a long period of European colonial occupation, once again find themselves engaged in a game of commercial cat and mouse as each vies for influence in a region that stretches from Myanmar through to Timor. This is a contest that has gone on for ages. In Penang, the evidence of this push and pull is everywhere, and waiting to be enjoyed by visitors.
In the 1786, Sir Francis Light, a British explorer who had been working in the Andaman area for nearly ten years, arrived at Penang Island and found conditions to be favourable for a trading post. After cutting a deal with the Sultan of Kedah for use of Penang, Light would declare the island a free port. The island would go on to become a key access point for the British East India Company, and Light had success governing the colony, likely owing to his mastery of local languages and the multicultural life he led – his wife was half-Portuguese and half Thai. To this day, Light’s statue remains in George Town, today’s capital of Penang province, which encompasses the 300-square kilometre island and a coastal strip opposite the island of about 750 square kilometres.
My arrival to Penang seemed fitting. I had come aboard Eveline, a 1910-built wooden-hulled, gaff-rigged cutter that had been restored (almost) to former glory by Dato Richard Curtis, a good-natured gentlemen who exudes Britishness. Our crew was mostly Malaysians, some Malay some Indian. Though beautiful, Eveline requires more wind than is the norm for Penang to make serious headway, so we motored the last stretch in the morning light.
As we approached Penang’s eastern shores, small outlying islands came out of relief and into focus, revealing a shoreline that recalled a Joseph Conrad novel. We were blessed with some early sunshine, a break from the rain that had been dogging us all night. As the clouds cleared and the sun broke through, I could imagine Sir Francis on approach to the island.
Rounding the southeastern shores, we entered into the channel separating the island from mainland. The waters here aren’t very inspiring and indeed, the sailing around Penang is not the main attraction. Passing under the 14-kilometre bridge that spans the channel, we carried on northwards towards George Town and the main marina of Penang, the Tanjong City Marina. The southeastern shores reveal Penang’s attempt to reinvent itself economically. After its glory days as trading hub and exporter of raw materials had faded, new economic policies led to the creation of smart new factories housing high tech firms that have sprung up alongside new apartment blocks.
As we pull into the marina, we are forced to contend with the strong current that runs through the channel became very apparent, and the marina itself is not particularly well protected from this current. There is no breakwater to speak of, though an outer wave attenuator offers alongside berthing for larger yachts as well as a modicum of protection. The marina manager insists that plans are in the works for a proper breakwater and expansion of berthing spaces, though solid completion dates are difficult to come by, and boaters may have to wait.
Stepping from the marina into George Town proper reveals the real reason for a visit. The marina is located right in the middle of the action, with the original centrepiece of British defenses, Fort Cornwallis, just a few minutes walk away. The old part of George Town provides visual treats that can easily give people enough to do on a wander for several days. Walking away from the marina in just about any direction reveals restaurants and shops that occupy restored colonial buildings that once held the goods and accounts for a busy entrepôt in the 19th century.
As we had approached the marina, I was given plenty of advice about what to do and where to stay in Penang. First up was a trip to the Eastern and Oriental Hotel (E&O Hotel), just ten minutes walk from the marina. I had been advised by one of our crew members that the E&O was one of those special hotels that can’t be replicated by a Four Seasons or Intercontinental. As I turned the bend and saw the E&O, I knew right away what he had meant.
Beyond just being a luxury hotel, the E&O is a place that a visitor needs to stay in. The story of this hotel runs in parallel with the history of Penang, and is a much an attraction as a place to stay. From the circular driveway that once bore horsedrawn carriages, guests are treated to busboys and greeters in khaki shorts and pith helmets. Entering through the classical façade, the main lobby features a dome and wide open spaces, with antique furntiure and decorations that recall the golden era of the E&O around the turn of the last century.
The rooms and halls wear nostalgia on their sleeve. From the beautifully finished hardwood floors, marble tiling and original bathtub (huge) to the four-pillar bed and terrace, the E&O offers rare and unique style. Past guests at the E&O include Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Hermen Hesse and a bevy of Sultans, socialites, traders and travellers.
The hotel declined through the post-war years, as Penang slowly sank into obscurity, its trading days over. By the 1970s, the hotel had become a favourite among backpackers, and much of its original finishings had been covered over or replaced. A tennis court had been plopped onto the lawns that face the northern entrance to the channel. In the 1980s, new owners decided to revive the hotel and put its past form front and centre as part of the experience. By the 1990s, the E&O was back to its original form, but this time for the curious visitor and history seeker.
As a base for exploring Penang, the E&O is a great option, but not the only choice. But for atmospherics, nothing tops it. The E&O also has 24-hour butler service that can be of huge assistance when trying to suss out places to explore.
By far, the best way to explore the island is by taxi. Nearly every hotel will be able to arrange for a taxi and driver. Most people in Penang speak English and this makes touring about an much engaging experience. Taxi drivers and trishaw pedalers alike will happily chat away about every possible place to visit in Penang, with the background behind it. This is well worth the time. In the time since Sir Francis’ arrival in Penang, which was then populated by Malay tribes, Indian labourers and craftsmen were brought in to help a British colonial population build the infrastructure of a trading centre, with attendant fortifications and pleasantries. Chinese families also made their way to Penang, seeking their own mercantile fortunes. The marks of these many people colour Penang to this day.
Within George Town itself, there are numerous Chinatowns, the most famous of which harbours the Khoo Kongsi Temple, the centrepiece of a district that belongs to the Khoo family, whose lineage is carefully preserved from its origins in medieval China in Fujian Province. The temple and its central square, flanked by rows of housing and trading stalls, is the site of an annual cultural show that entertains the sailors and crew of the annual Raja Muda regatta, which regularly stops off in Penang. The temple is still active, though as with many other temples, it functions as a museum as well.
Nearby, one wanders from Chinese temples to an intricite Islamic temple, and then on to Little India. It is in the border areas between little India and the many Chinatowns that some of the best food stalls are to be found. Many offer buffet style treats that blend Chinese, Indian, Malay and Halal traditions.
Although George Town offers the most for the nostalgia seeker and those who like cultural exploration, there is much more to explore. Although George Town does feature plenty of options for foodies, there is a huge sampling of seafood restaurants and stalls to chose from along Gurney Drive, which extends from George Town’s northeastern flank along the north shore of Penang island to Batu Ferengi, Penang’s main resort town. Gurney Drive features a much more modern face to Penang, though many colonial era structures remain in various states of repair or disrepair. The stretch of seafront road has numerous restaurants of all sorts offering a bewildering array of seafood – as one restaurant says in its signage; “If it swims, we have it”.
Along the way to Batu Ferengi, there is a huge range of hotels and resorts to choose from, many of which provide access to the sole stretch of beach along Penang’s northern shore. While the water is warm and there is much in the way of activities provided for tourists, this is certainly not the reason to visit Penang.
Rather, exploring a little further along the shoreline is advisable, as resorts give way to traditional Malay villages and the rural portions of Penang. Reaching the northeastern corner of Penang, one finds a new nature park which offers views of traditional Malay fishing craft. A helpful guide service is at the entrance, and visitors can take in numerous sights, including a turtle hatchery.
For those wanting to imagine the best of colonial living in Penang’s past, nothing is better than a trip up to Penang Hill, which can be done via a funicular railway that stretches from the outskirts of George Town to the peak of Penang Hill. The journey time is about half an hour, as the ascent is quite steep in places and involves switching trains mid-journey. The ascent is lovely, and given that the peak of Penang hill is over 800 metres above sea level, there is a noticeable and welcome cooling of the air. During the trip, the noise of George Town is replaced by the sound of monkeys and tropical birds. There are four stops along the way, which can be used to access the various colonial homes that were the preserve of British mercantilists and military personnel. However, visitors need to alert drivers beforehand, as the trains will only otherwise make the trip directly.
Once at the top, visitors are greeted with sweeping views of Penang – indeed, it would seem that the whole state of Penang is visible from the peak. Penang Hill is crowned by numerous villas, restaurants, resorts and temples. Some of these places date back to the turn of the last century, and it shows. One tea house in particular bears a strong resemblence to an English west country inn, complete with gated entrance ways, wrought iron trestles and a patio that fronts onto a lawn which finally opens up before a glorious view of all George Town. If ever there was a place to enjoy a fine cup of tea or some tropical cocktail mix (and the establishment promises the best), this is it. Besides travellers seeking a piece of the past, visitors will also find Indians and Chinese families enjoying the pleasures of the peak.
There is still an inn offering lodging and this is a good idea, as there is quite a lot to see and do, including trail hikes. It also frees up visitors from the restrictions of a day trip. Although an interesting piece of historical infrastructure, the funicular railway can also be quite crowded, from mid-morning ascents to late afternoon descents. It is likely better to stay over in one of Penang Hill’s last remaining retreats, the Bellevue Hotel. Though very basic, it offers refreshments and meals on a terrace overlooking George Town. The night view is spectacular, and stretches well into Penang state’s mainland territory.
The influences upon Penang are manyfold. While the sailing is not known for being marvelous, it does offer cruising yachts on their way from the Andaman Sea through the Straits of Malacca into the South China Sea an amazing cultural excursion. The mix of sights, sounds, tastes and smells offer those wishing to learn a little more about the fascinating history of Southeast Asia will find plenty to keep them busy. Penang is a visual treat that proudly showcases how the world’s major religions and cultures can also live in harmony. Though Penang’s history is not without trouble and violence has indeed troubled the island in the past, today’s Penang is a showcase of inter-faith tolerance. That alone makes the island a great destination.
Places to stay:
There are many options for visitors. Aside from staying aboard the yacht at an anchorage in the channel (see marinas), there are several upscale beachfront hotels along the stretch of shorefront near Batu Ferengi. George Town also offers plenty of business-oriented hotels that offer a decent bed, but little character. In George Town itself, the E&O is the preferred choice.
At the moment, the main marina is the Tanjong City Marina, which is located in the heart of downtown George Town, and thus offers easy access to the city’s justly famous sites and treats. The marina can accommodate craft with a maximum draught of four metres. It has 102 berths that can moor craft from 11 to 50 metres length overall. Arriving yachts should contact the marina on VHF channel 68 from beyond the channel.
Further south down the channel is another, government run marina, Marina Batu Uban. Though very cheap (sailors will often get power and water for free, as officers of the marine department seem to have little inclination to actually check meters), the marina offers little else in the way of supplies or nearby entertainment. The marina has just 35 berths and most vessels are 15 metres or less, though the outer pier can be used for larger vessels. There is an anchorage available to much larger yachts just offshore in the channel, and on the time of my visit, Lady Orient (48 metres) was anchored there. Getting from Batu Uban to other places of interest can be difficult, as it is located nearby an industrial area.
The E&O Hotel has plans to establish its own marina along the northern shores of Penang and just out of the channel. Work is proceeding, with hopes for an opening in 2010.
There are a few isolated islands that may be worth exploring around Penang, but sailing conditions usually tend to be light to moderate winds year round. Consult the manager at the Tanjong City Marina or review the Southeast Asia Sea Pilot (www.southeastasiapilot.com) . Along the north coast, there is anchorage in up to six metres of water near the resorts of Batu Ferengi (North Bay), but this is not advisable in the northeast monsoon, which runs from September through till May. Around the northeast tip is Monkey Beach, a delightful spot located within the Natural Park.
Without a yacht:
Ferries to and from Langkawi are available and make the journey in a few hours, but are not pleasant and seem to date from a few decades before. Penang is served by a small but tidy international airport, with flights offered by Cathay Pacific, China Airlines, China Southern, Malaysia and Thai International that connect to all major cities in Southeast Asia.
In 2008, the old part of George Town was listed as a world heritage site by Unesco, a point of particular pride among Penang residents of all stripes. As a result, many of the area’s best temples also function as museums, and offer plenty of insight into Penang’s history.
The Raja Muda Selangor International Regatta:
Every year in November, the Raja Muda Selangor Interanational Regatta stops by Penang for a 48-hour layover. In addition to antics in the marina, visitor sailors and their yachts will make the George Town night scene burst into life.
Further information about sailing in and out of Penang can be found in the Southeast Asia Sea Pilot. Sailing from Langkawi would likely be an overnight trip. Tourism has become an important business in Penang, and the tourism board has plenty of information (www.tourismpenang.gov.my).