Colourful houses. Delicious food. Lively streets. A thriving art scene.
There are countless reasons to visit Penang; you could never come here and be bored. But for history buffs like me and my husband, Penang’s eclectic modern feel mixes with a rich and fascinating past that needs to be explored.
For the purposes of this article, I’ll refer to Penang Island only. Penang State includes the island and a small part of the mainland, but the Island is where the sites below can be found. Some of them are in the UNESCO Heritage City of Penang; others are spread throughout historical Penang Island.
Before British colonisation in the late 18th century, Penang was part of the Kedah Sultanate. In 1770, Francis Light was commissioned with the task of forming trade relations on behalf of the British on the Malay Peninsula. Penang Island was traded to the British in return for British military protection of the sultanate.
George Town, Penang’s capital, was founded by the British East India company as a free-trade port. The idea of this was to direct trade away from Dutch ports in the region. Economic prosperity drew in migrants, particularly from China and the Subcontinent, and the island became an official part of the British colony.
Improved education and press freedom led Penang to become a hub for intellectuals. Rudyard Kipling was a big fan and you can still enjoy the views from the Eastern and Oriental Hotel that Somerset Maugham once enjoyed (see below).
During World War II, Penang was briefly occupied by the Japanese. This period brought huge upheaval and was quite devastating to some parts of the population. While most of the European population had been secretly evacuated by the British, the Japanese massacred many Chinese inhabitants and forced women to work as comfort women. Upon the surrender of the Japanese, Penang was the first city in Malaya to be liberated.
After the war, Penang became part of the Federation of Malaya. It remained a free port until 1969 and, when this status was revoked, Penang fell into economic crisis. Today, the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone exists in the south of the island to draw in high-tech manufacturing operations. As a result, Penang has one of the highest GDPs in Malaysia and ranks highly on the Human Development Index.
Exploring Penang’s heritage
If you can, follow the Penang Heritage Trail which will take you past all the important heritage sites. Unfortunately, because we had the little guys, we had to break it up into more manageable little chunks. If it was just us though, we’d follow the trail to make sure we didn’t miss anything.
Penang Hill is actually several peaks close together, situated in Air Itam, a suburb about 6km from George Town. During British Colonial rule, the resort at the top was a popular destination for those who wanted to escape the heat.
A funicular railway runs the full height of the peak, and once stopped at several smaller stations on its way to the top.
When we arrived, we weren’t sure we were in the right place. From the outside, with the big lines and ticket booths, it almost looks like the entrance to a zoo or other big attraction. Purchase your ticket at the booth on the right, then follow the queue to the left to board the funicular.
We scored the very front seats on the funicular on the way down – super fun if you’re not into heights or mechanical things, sit at the back. It’s a weird feeling to watch yourself going down.
Speaking of, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like a century ago to travel up to the Hill Stations (and back down again!) Were people just used to it, or did it give them a woozy feeling too? Especially given the types of carriages they used back in the day. These days the funicular looks quite high-tech, but at the top, an old wooden carriage can be found. It looks lovely, but not at all comfortable!
On top of the hill is a restaurant, a small hotel, a botanic garden, and several touristy activities.
Tickets are 30RM for adults and 15RM for kids. Note: this just includes the funicular. There are several other areas and activities on top of the hill that charge extra entrance fees.
Kek Lok Si
This beautiful temple really can’t be described – you’ll just have to go there. But for the sake of the article, I’ll try anyway.
We took a Grab to the temple and arrived right at the bottom. There’s a little shop, and I recommend getting a drink here if you haven’t packed one – it can get hot!
The first section is a prayer room; you can purchase a ribbon with something specific you’d like help with (such as health or relationships) then you write your name on the ribbon and place it on a ‘tree’. Our son chose an ‘academic success’ one – he is three! – and carefully placed it. He said he wants to be a pilot one day and this ribbon would help him learn all the things he needs to know.
Start to make your way up the temple, and the ornate details will start to take your breath away. There are many different levels, each more striking than the next. Within the temple are is the Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas (literally 10,000 alabaster buddhas!) and of course the 37-metre high statue of Rama VI which can be seen from afar.
Kek Lok Si was 40-years in the making, lovingly overseen by the abbot Beow Lean. I think what’s most beautiful to see here is how ancient Chinese traditions blend with both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism to make a unique and harmonious place of worship. Here’s a little bit more on the history of Kek Lok Si.
Entrance is free but there’s a small fee of 6RM to take the funicular up to the top.
The Blue Mansion (Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion)
This one blew me away.
I have a Lonely Planet guidebook that’s been on my bookshelf for the past ten years. It’s called “Kuala Lumpur, Melaka, and Penang”. It’s completely dog-eared from my previous stays in Kuala Lumpur, and it’s certainly getting old now. But it sits proudly on the shelf, full of notes on trips past. But I’d never made it any further than KL until this trip, try as I might. On the cover is a bright indigo blue wall with an old trishaw in front. This is the Blue Mansion. For ten years I’d stared at this picture. And I’m happy to say, I now possess a photo of myself with that backdrop.
I did no research before the trip, so I didn’t realise the only way to look around is to take a tour (or stay in one of the rooms). So I took an hour to myself and indulged in the tour. And my goodness, it was absolutely worth the 16MYR entry cost.
Our guide, Christina, was an absolute gem. Articulate, funny, clearly very passionate about her subject… she made me feel like I knew Cheong Fatt Tze (the original owner/builder of the mansion). She explained every little detail with warmth and cultural understanding, giving us a new knowledge of not just the mansion, but the prevailing history and cultural complexities of the time.
The tour lasted about an hour. I’d usually be tempted to comment that an hour is more than enough for such a tour (heavy on the talking). But honestly, I could have sat there for hours listening to the tales of Cheong Fatt Tze and his many wives.
You can learn more here.
Entrance is 16RM which includes the tour.
Eastern and Oriental Hotel
The Eastern and Oriental Hotel was originally two hotels. The Eastern Hotel was established by the Sarkies Brothers in 1884 and was such a success, they opened the Oriental Hotel. The two later merged. Driven by the success of E&O, the brothers later went on to open the Raffles Hotel in Singapore and the Strand Hotel in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar). So, if you’re not familiar with the Eastern and Oriental but you are with Raffles or The Strand… you can imagine.
Literary luminaries such as Somerset Maugham, Hermann Hesse, and Rudyard Kipling, as well as Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, are known to have spent time here.
I love to imagine, looking out over the water from the Eastern and Oriental, Somerset Maugham writing something amazing here.
There’s no entrance fee; rooms start at about $200AUD (600RM) per night. Seasonal surcharges apply. It is possible to head to the bar for a drink if you’re not a hotel guest.
Fort Cornwallis was built by the British East India Company in the late 18th Century and named after Charles Cornwallis, then the Governor-General of Bengal. It was designed to protect Penang from pirates and any possible insurgency from mainland Kedah, but never saw any conflict.
Today, the fort is a popular tourist attraction and incorporates an open-air theatre and public park. There’s also a gorgeous lighthouse.
To be honest, there’s not a HUGE amount to see but for someone interested in history, there’s a lot to learn. Take a free guided tour to get the most out of the experience. Most of the reviews that say it was boring are from people who didn’t take the tour: those who do have a very different experience (trust me!)
Entrance to the fort is 20RM; I’ll say it again – take the free tour!
On Pengkalan Weld across from Lebuh Chulia, are six Clan Jetties that stretch into the harbour. These are water villages belonging to the original Chinese clans that settled in Penang. There were seven, but one was destroyed by fire; the remaining jetties belong to the Lim, Yeow, Chew, Koay, Lee and Tan families. Interestingly, none of the families living here actually pay tax, because they are not living on the land.
When you visit, you do need to be mindful as people actually still live here. There are signs posted on some of the houses stating they must not be photographed. It’s therefore also important to stick to visiting hours and follow all guidelines that are signposted.
If you only have time to explore one, make it the Chew Jetty. It’s the longest one with the most stilt-houses; be aware though, it’s quite touristy with lots of different shops inside. If you can, I’d recommend heading there a little before sunset, when the colours are marvelous. This is when you’ll get the best pictures.
Entrance is free.
So there you have it: a bunch of ideas to add to your Penang itinerary. Have you been to Penang? If you have, let me know in the comments what you loved the most. Need a place to stay? Here’s my review of the Hard Rock Penang. Or if you’re considering other destinations in Malaysia, I have a couple of ideas for Langkawi here and here.
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