Located in the northwest of Malaysia, Penang, a harmonious fusion of the East and West, modernity and tradition, is arguably one of the most fascinating islands in Asia. Unlike other islands, it offers visitors a combination of delicious food, multiple art and culture scenes, adventures in jungles and hills, and pleasure in soft, sandy beaches.
Penang was established as the first British Straits Settlement because it was the prime stop on the watery road between Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Moreover, Penang was a vital base for Sun Yat-Sen, the first president of the Republic of China, before he overthrew the Qing Dynasty. Sun’s old house is preserved as a museum in Georgetown for its visitors to explore his influence and contribution in Malaysia.
Penang, which means “the Pearl of the Orient” in Malaysian, has been named differently throughout its history. The geographical term “Penang Island” first appeared in the navigation map made by Chinese admiral Zheng He in the 15th century, when it was part of the ancient Buddhist-Hindu Kingdom of Kedah. Penang has traded with China ever since, and Chinese business still dominates the local economy.
Also in the 15th century, Portuguese sailors stopped over during their trips to the Spice Islands. As a result of this, Penang was also known in the West as Pulo Pinaom.
However, Malaysian people believe Penang Island was born when British captain Francis Light established the island as a British trading post in 1786. Although the name “Prince of Wales Island” for Penang has never really caught on, the occasion marked the beginning of Penang in modern history, as well as the beginning of more than a century of British involvement in Malaysia. The capital of Penang, Georgetown, was established in the same year, and that name has stuck.
Penang’s architecture and Art Scene
The Straits’ distinctive architecture and the exceptional charms of its colonial past have earned Georgetown UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Penang has one of the largest collections of pre-World War II buildings in Southeast Asia. The architecture reflects 171 years of British domination in the island, merging with local, Chinese, Indian, Islamic and other elements.
Indeed, walking around Georgetown is highly recommended. Taking the local trishaw or renting a bike is also an environmentally friendly way to learn about Penang’s different religious and cultural legacies. You could start a specialized heritage tour in Penang Museum and observe colonial buildings such as Fort Cornwallis, built by Francis Light, the “Anglo-Indian garden house” features of Suffolk House, and the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee Clock tower.
While Indian Muslims made their mark in the Kapitan Keling Mosque,
Chinese immigrants showed their talent with outstanding architecture such as that of Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, built by a hugely successful Chinese trader and community leader during the Qing Dynasty. Kek Lok Si, the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia, is another good representative of Chinese architecture in Penang.
When looking for accommodation, try to stay in a guesthouse or hotel located in an older building. Two examples are Hutton Lodge, owned by an Indian Muslim family in the 1920s, and Old Penang Guest House, a pre-war building combining its heritage with a comfortable stay and good service.
The art scene is very much alive, and Penang is full of impressive handicrafts. The Yahong Art Gallery displays a huge variety of artwork and a wide selection of fine Chinese jewelry made from ivory, jade, lapis lazuli and other stones. Some of the best batik in Penang is sold at Yahong.
Along Armenian Street, you’ll find the Islamic Museum, showcasing the history of Islamic art in Malaysia. If you are lucky enough to encounter Koay Soo Kau, the owner of Galeri Seni Mutiara, he’ll show you his collection of artworks, created by the first generation of Malay artists, on the second floor.
If you don’t see Penang photographer Howard in his studio, Studio Howard, try to seek out his good friend, an English painter named Paul. Paul helps manage the studio and current exhibitions whenever he’s in Penang. Ask Paul how many times he has returned to Penang for the island’s attractive lifestyle. More importantly, he’ll give you good recommendations of what to look for on the indie art scene.
War Museum brings visitor back to the time of Word War II in Penag. Designed by British engineer and built by South Africans, Indians, Nepalese and locals, Penang War Museum was once British military defense fort. When Japanese invaded in 1941, it was a prison of war camp. The numerous tunnels are fun to explore and it show how soldier used to hide.
Penang has a long list of exciting events and festivals through whole year. It celebrates all major religious festivals. On the upcoming February 7th, the Hindus will walk with kavadis that are pierced into their body or carry pots of milk to celebrate Thaipusam and memorize the birthday of Lord Murugan and evil demon, Soorapadam. This Hindu festival comes alive in Penang as a carnival with chanting and music.
The Chinese immigration will have 15 days celebration of Chinese New Year, starting on January 23rd. Besides traditional lion dances and fireworks, the Penang Chinese New Year celebration has two main events with special local feature – Th’nee Kong She (Jade Emperor’s Birthday, January 31st ) and Chap Goh Meh (Chinese Valentine’s Day, February 6). Hari Raya Aidifitri, the Muslim festival marks the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan will be celebrated during August 17th to 20th.
Penang is now rapidly getting its recognition of its annual jazz festival. Held on the first weekend of December, the Penang Island Jazz Festival has attracted both local and foreign musicians to play on the beach stage. Besides the jazz performing, the activities include jazz forum, mini jazz poster exhibition, charity dinner, poetry session and numbers workshops. Last year, the 8th festival featured the bands, such as Fred Cheah & the Jazzhats, Espen Eriksen Trio, Nina Van Hor.
Penang Cuisine: A Melting Pot
The mixed population adds rich color not only to Penang’s culture, but also its cuisine. Regarded as the food capital of Malaysia, Penang is known for combining Indian, Malay, Chinese and Thai influences, and it is especially good for hawker food.
Whether you’re eating exotic street food or dining in an exquisite restaurant, dishes cooked with the freshest ingredients and fragrant spices are impossible to resist, and eating is a favorite pastime in Penang. In Georgetown, many
well-designed restaurants and cafes serving rice, noodles and hot curries are located in old, historic buildings, some staying open 24 hours a day.
If you only have a short time, at least five kinds of local food are must-tries: try Assam Laksa, a sour, spicy, fish broth served with rice noodles, in Joo Hooi Café or Poly Coffee Garden; Nasi Kandar, a plate of rice served with curries and dishes of fish, chicken, squid, prawn and beef, in Line Clear Nasi Kandar or Kapitan; Char Koay Teow, fried flat noodles with dark soy sauce, chilli, prawns, cockles, egg, bean sprouts and sometimes Chinese sausage and fish cake, in Joo Hooi Café or Sister Fried Kway Teow; Rojak, a delicious mix of fruit and vegetable salad, topped with a local prawn paste dressing, in New World Park or Astaka Stadium; and Hokkien Mee, the locals’ favorite noodle, cooked in tasty prawn soup in One Corner Café or Heng Kee Café.
If you can’t stand spicy food, try Koay Tew, a fresh flat rice noodle soup, topped with fish balls, slices of pork, chicken and golden garlic. Try it at Fook Cheow Café or Hai Onn.
I’m convinced the best Ang Tau Cendol, the highly popular dessert, is to be found in Penang. This delicious cooling sweet dessert cost RM 1.7, and comes with shaved ice, red beans, cendol, coconut milk and brown sugar. Most customers just stand around the stall eating the cendol, while others sit in the café nearby. I met a local lady, Zen, in Penang, who currently works in Singapore. She told me the Cendol in Singapore can never compare the Cendol on Penang’s streets. It’s also the first-choice snack for many students, so make sure you get it before school’s out.
Wan Tan Noodle, as southern Chinese food is not new to me before I went to Malaysia. However, the best wan tan noodle I had is in Penang– not in the restaurant but in the street vendor run by a lady in her age of 50s with all white hair on Lorong Stewart Street. It only opens in the evening.
Night food market is good culinary experience. You can find all various food above in night market. Red Garden in Jalan Penang is always hectic. New World Park was a failed amusement park, but successful food court. Sri Weld Food Court at Beach Road is simple and cheap. Cebil Market Food Court is good place to try laksa, char kway teow and roast duck.
Hiking and Swimming
For nature lovers, hiking in rainforest trails of Penang’s National Park makes for an exciting journey. Ancient rainforests are endowed with abundant life forms: Besides monkeys, snakes and spiders, the park is also a nesting site for turtles. After a long walk, the beaches of Teluk Duyung, Muka Head and Pantai Kerachut are a popular attraction.
Following the coastal road to the east, Batu Ferringhi is Penang’s best beach area. You can walk from the National Park to Batu Ferringhi. Although it can’t compare with Malaysia’s east coast beaches or the beaches in Langkawi, only three hours by ferry from Penang, it is still a lovely place to get a suntan. Since Malaysia is a Muslim country, don’t be surprised to see tourists in bikinis beside local women fully covered in chador and veil on the beach – another unique sight on this artistic, exotic and diverse island.
The article was originally published on Global Times.
Text and Photos by Cecily Huang