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Published on October 15, 2019

PENANG: Pearl of the Orient


By Jaffee Yee

Penang Island, or Pulau Pinang, was founded by Francis Light of the British East India Company in 1786. It was said that he cleared the thick tropical forests by shooting silver coins to spur the migrant workers or Chinese coolies into action. Formerly known as Prince of Wales Island, the city George Town once served as the capital of the Straits Settlements, a loose grouping of British crown colonies that included Melaka and Singapore.

Located at the Malacca Strait, off the northwestern coast of Peninsular Malaysia, it is separated from the mainland by the Penang Strait. The island is home to about 730,000 people and Penang is Malaysia’s second largest by population. With an area of 293 sq km or about a third the size of Singapore, Penang Island is the fourth-largest island in Malaysia.

The island today is a booming tourist destination, growing in popularity after the historical George Town was accorded the UNESCO World Heritage Site status on July 7, 2008 along with Melaka. The day has been designated as a public holiday and named “George Town World Heritage Day” with annual celebrations to mark the occasion.

Penang International Airport is Malaysia’s oldest airport opened in 1935. It is located on the south of the island 16km from the city center. The medium size airport has direct link with major airports of Asia including Singapore, Bangkok, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Taipei, Guangzhou, plus a few island and beach resorts nearby such as Phuket, Krabi and Langkawi.

George Town, the capital city of Penang State, is steeped in history with many heritage buildings, the legacies of the British era. Many of them have been given a new lease on life by transforming into fine heritage hotels. One extraordinary property named the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, or E&O as the locals call it, was built in 1885 by the three Armenian Sarkies brothers who also built The Raffles in Singapore and The Strand in Yangon.

Penang has a unique multi-cultural charm and has more attractions to see and thing to do to fill up the time of any visitor who plans to spend more than just a few days on the island. Not to miss are the temples, museums, art galleries, street art and street food, hills, parks and beaches. Some of the top attractions are Kek Lok Si, Wat Chayamangkalaram, Sri Mahamariamman, Khoo Kongsi and Snake temples, Kapitan Keling Mosque and State Mosque, St. George’s Church, Fort Cornwallis, Penang Hill, Penang Botanic Gardens, Batu Ferringhi Beach and The Top @Komtar.

The beaches of Batu Ferringhi, Tanjung Bungah and Tanjung Tokong in the north are lined with deluxe beach hotels such as Rasa Sayang, Golden Sands, Lone Pine, Park Royal, Holiday Inn, Hard Rock Hotel and Bayview Beach Resort. Balik Pulau, in the southwest, contains the only large pockets of scenic countryside with fishing villages, fruit orchards, and mangroves and a vibrant art scene. Penang Hill, at 833 meters above sea level, is the highest peak of the island and an important forested catchment area. It is also one of the top tourist attractions. Although it is possible to drive up to the top of the hill, a majority of the visitors opt for the memorable romantic tram ride from the Air Itam Station. The experience is comparable to the Peak Tram ride up to the Victoria Peak in Hong Kong.

Penang is also a well-known foodie’s paradise, famous for delicious and inexpensive street food. First time visitors will be absolutely spoilt for choice. Highly recommended are some noodle and rice dishes such as Hokkien Mee (yellow noodle in prawn flavor broth), Char Koay Teow (fried white flat rice noodle with shrimps), Penang Assam Laksa (spicy rice vermicelli noodle), Wanton Noodle, Mee Goreng Mamak (Indian Muslim fried yellow noodle) Fried Oyster, Popiah (fresh spring roll), Chicken or Char Siew Rice (Chicken or BBQ pork rice), Nasi Lemak (mild coconut flavored rice accompanied with dry curry with anchovies and fried chicken usually eaten with breakfast), Nasi Kandar (a favorite Malay style rice with mix curry side dishes).

Photos from the recently released book ABOVE PENANG by David ST Loh

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