George Town, Penang

Penang Island, Malaysia

Dec 23rd - 25th, 2017

Ever since my day job led me to relocate my home base from Hong Kong to Singapore a few months ago, I had been researching destinations for weekend trips from Singapore. And one place that came up immediately was the historic town of George Town on the Malaysian Island of Penang. Penang Island is located just off the North-West coast of mainland Malaysia, about an hour's flight from Singapore. So it seemed like the perfect place to spend some time sightseeing and relaxing over the long Christmas weekend.

I left Singapore on Saturday morning on an Air Asia flight. Immigration was fairly quick. EU passports holders can enter Malaysia without a visa for up to 90 days. Penang International airport is located at the Southern end of the island, about a 20 kilometer drive from the historic centre of George Town on the North-East coast. On Saturday there was a lot of traffic, which meant the drive took almost an hour. I stayed in the gorgeous and spectacular Eastern and Oriental Hotel located on the North coast. It is one of these grand old colonial hotels with an amazing history, where every famous person who's come to Penang has stayed since the 19th century. I was upgraded to a corner room in the new wing of the hotel, which was without a doubt the largest hotel room I had ever stayed in. It was more like a three bed room apartment and must have been about 1500 square feet.

I started my sightseeing with a stroll through the historical part of town, which was right in front of the hotel. The colonial city centre of George Town became a Unesco World Heritage site in 2008 together with Malacca. The old part of the city contains some buildings from the late 18th century when the British settlement was established. but most buildings are from the 19th and early 20th century. The dominating architecture are these Chinese shop-houses (very similar to those in Singapore):

Due to its colonial history and rapid growth in the 19th century Penang has a very ethnically diverse population of Chinese, Malays, Indians, Europeans, Thais and many others. There was a particularly strong influx of Chinese immigrants, and Chinese still make up more than 50% of the population of Penang Island. One sign of it's ethnic diversity are the many different religions present in the city. There are many richly decorated Buddhist and Hindu temples,

several beautiful mosques, like the two large ones, the Kapitan Keling Mosque and the Malay Mosque

and christian churches. Here are the catholic Church of the Assumption and the St George's Anglican church:

Most of the grand colonial buildings and fortifications are on the Northern end of the city. Fort Cornwallis was built in the 18th century, but only the outer walls of the fort remain today.

The statue inside the fort is Captain Francis Light of the British East India Company, who founded the city of George Town here in 1786. It was one of the three main British settlements in South East Asia (together with Malacca and Singapore) and became a crown colony in 1867. This lasted until the 2nd World War, when is was occupied by the Japanese Army. Penang Island became part of Malaysia when the country gained it's independence in 1957.

Other interesting buildings right near Fort Cornwallis are the beautiful City Hall, built in 1903, which now is the seat of the local government, and the Queen Victoria Tower, which was a gift from a local millionaire to the city to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

Tourism (including medical tourism) and financial services are the two main industries driving Penang's economy. It is a popular destination for large cruise ships, and a good place to visit year round with its tropical climate and consistent year round temperatures of between 20 and 35 degrees, but with relative high humidity.

Penang Island is also known as the food capital of Malaysia, mainly because of its lively street food scene. The city really comes to life at night, when hundreds of little food carts put up their stalls along the roads and in the several hakwer centres. There is a very diverse range of cuisines owing to the diverse ethnic mix of Malays, Chinese, Thai, and many other.  

Trishaws seem to be popular way to get around for tourists

On Sunday I had planned to take the funicular up to Penang Hill, where you are supposed to have the best view of the city. But that plan was foiled by a recent devastating rainstorm, that caused so much destruction that the funicular and the whole hill area were closed for the clean up operations. Luckily there was one other place to have a great view from. The Komtar Tower building, which at 248 meters is the tallest building in Penang, and it has an open air observation deck on top. It was a beautiful clear day and I had great views of the city, the bay across to the mainland and the mountains in the background.

You could see from up here that George Town is much more than the historical centre. It is in fact the the second largest city in Malaysia with a population of over 700,000, while Greater Penang Island has a population of 2.5 million. George Town is also the capital city of the state of Penang, which is formed by Penang Island and a part on the mainland, which are connected by two long bridges.

I also had great views of the old part of town with its curved roofs of the shop-houses.

On my way back to the hotel I came across several small side street with more beautifully restored shop-houses.

My last stop of the day was the very interesting Cheong Fatt Tze mansion, the home of a very rich Chinese merchant, who was also known as the "Rockefeller of the East". You can only visit the mansion as part of a guided tour, which takes place three times a day. The tour was really interesting, and we learned a lot about Cheong Fatt Tze (1840 - 1916), who worked his way from being a poor water-carrier to becoming on of the richest man in China, the Consul-General in Singapore and an adviser to the Empress Dowager. He also had at least 8 wives across South-East Asia as well as 8 sons and 6 daughters.

I left for my flight back to Singapore on Sunday early afternoon concluding my very interesting, enjoyable and relaxing weekend in Penang.

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