Penang, “The Pearl of the Orient” – George Town, Malaysia

Written by Frank on March 9th, 2010

© 2010 Frank P. Schneidewind

When the British Empire took informal possession the entire island of Pulau Pinang in 1786, A.D. It was the British East India Company's Captain Francis Light, who landed here and renamed Pulau Pinang the "Prince of Wales-Island".

Pulau Pinang was a little used territory of the Sultanate of Kedah prior to these events. Captain Light married the Sultan's Daughter and was awarded the island as a partial dowry. Light immediately ceded the island to the Government of India and gave his word to aid the Sultan in military ways, should the Sultan's quarrels with the Burmese or Siamese (Thai) escalate any further and threaten the Sultanate.

Light must have lapsed to inform his colonial powerhouse, the East India Company about this promise and faced anger by the Sultan, when his call for help during attack by Siam wasn't responded to by his son-in-law.

The Sultan unsuccessfully tried to recapture the island in 1790 A.D. by force, but failed and was given a sum of money as a honorarium from that year on. These 6.000 Spanish Dollars were a few years later upped to 10.000 Dollars, when a strip of Land on the Mainland was included in this deal (1800 A.D.). Those 700+ sqkm are known today as the Province of Wellesley and are a part of Penang State in Malaysia.

Todays visitor to Penang may come by plane, boat or car. The ferry service belongs to the most efficient of its kind in Asia, arriving passengers never have to wait long for their departure across the channel here. Even at around 6.A.M. in the morning, thousands of commuters are already in motion. Below picture shows the Komtar Tower with the morning sun from the eastern horizon behind us just shining at the lowest possible angle. Behind the City of Georgetown you can see Penang Hill, a massive jungle mountain with a top elevation of over 800 meters. Penang Hill will be subject to a separate feature by SIAMPEDIA, pointing out and documenting its uniqueness.

From mighty Windjammers to sleek Catamarans, sailboats are the wealthy Penangites favorite pasttime since centuries, look slightly to your right, when approaching the Penang Jetty – the piers and harbors there do sport a great array of private vessels.

Colonial pomp under palm trees is ever present in the older parts of the city. One easily feels like an actor in a scenario, made for glamorous movies.

Early morning sun with a rich blue sky is any photographers dream come true here. At least if he or she is into colonial architecture. Penang and it's sister city Melacca further south, won their UNESCO World Heritage designations for visible reasons.

You can stroll downtown Georgetown for many hours and still find massive evidence of the historic past.

Sometimes you can daydream about the old times on Penang island, backdrops seem to fit many scenarios. Depending on the chosen time of photography, your pictures will reveal some of the magic and beauty, plenty of these old buildings are still in use! It is a lively metropolitan and multicultural area here, where the old never appears to have been forgotten and the splendid new architecture blends right in.

Hotels are around in abundance, and again historical offerings are intermingled with ultra modern sky scrapers to lodge in. The famous E & O (Eastern & Oriental) Hotel by the Waterfront is operating since 1855 and has seen much in it's history. Famed authors Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling or Hermann Hesse stayed here before and many Presidents or crowned people have resided within the famed E & O's walls. Interesting "Heritage Trails" start right at the doorstep on Lebuh Farquhar. Trishaws are bicycle-taxis, powered by one person, slow and safe they are ideal for sightseeing in Penang, if pressed for time. We prefer to explore on foot, as Penang offers real pedestrian walkways and sidewalks that deserved this name!

Excellent bus routes across the island make transportation a breeze. Air conditioned, modern low-floor buses offer spacious seating and even on-board WiFi for those, that cannot live without the latest gadgets of the information age. An islandwide free WiFi has been established in 2009 and is accessible for tourists as well.

How well old and new can live together in harmony – Penang is surely a good example for this. Old bazaars and hawker-alleys fill the streets in between the main roads

Cheap guesthouses, tour operators, money changers and cafes are centered around Lebuh Chulia. Lebuh means simply street in Bhasa Malay, and Chulia Street reminds many seasoned travelers today of the Khao Sarn Road  in Bangkok in the 70's and 80's, before it became overly commercialized.

You can still get some backpacking-flair here and meet with folks from around the globe. Malaysia's great visa-policy gets big boosts in attractiveness with every reduction in length of allowed stay or visa amendment of their northerly neighbors in Thailand. Arrival at any border qualifies the traveler almost always to a 90 day stay and a free visa on arrival! Those are renewable without much hassle and Thailand has finally begun to see Malaysia as a competitor. With Langkawi as a great and unspoilt Andaman destination rising in the travelers focus, toss in their status as a duty-free island with out of this world shopping options in the tropics – and you see, why the whole area is booming! Penang always has been a stepping stone for the resort islands further north, a new and direct ferry daily to Langkawi adds nice options. Ferries are also available to Medan on Sumatra (Indonesia) and the low-cost airline Firefly chooses Penang International Airport as its hub .

The currency here is the Malaysian Ringgit, it exchanges to Thai money at a stable rate around 1 RM equaling 10 Thai Baht for years now.

Motorcycle rentals are from 20 Ringgit/day up, depending on the duration of rental and the rented equipment. Contacts are plentiful on Chulia Street, shop around for the best bargains. The second hand bookstores here, are often a good source for bus tickets or other travelers needs.

Whilst Chinatown occupies a large sector of the area between the jetty and Komtar tower, Little India close to the jetty has its own spirited soul. Great Tandoori eateries and other specialities of India await the visitor here.

Penang is the only Malaysian area with a non-muslim majority! Hinduism is very present, but so is Christianity. Food variety in Penang almost has no comparison in Southeast Asia. The true cosmopolitan mix of ethnic groups and religions is hard to beat.

Penang's bridge links also to the mainland, we often promised ourselves to return, when we leave Penang. That we have done over and over again across the seasons and we will be back again soon. There is much more to tell about Penang's features. SIAMPEDIA gladly will have follow-on reports for you telling interested folks what one can do here. Make sure to read our feature on Batu Ferringhi, the perfect beach for activities like Jet-Ski or Parasailing.

A report exclusively dedicated to Penang Hill will also follow soon.

Another SIAMPEDIA report is featuring the favourite beach destination of the Penangnites – Batu Ferringhi – Malaysia’s urban Resortbeach on Penang Island


2 Comments so far ↓

  1. don says:

    Nice report and pics

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