In 1786, in a move to break the Dutch monopoly of the spice trade in the region, the British-based East India Company built a fort at the site of Penang's present-day capital, George Town, and took the island for itself. Today the 6,900 acre island – and its sliver of the mainland peninsular – has a reputation as 'Malaysia's silicon Valley'. This particular industry isn't really noticeable amid the development to the casual visitor, chances are you're here for the jungle trekking or beach resorts. Penang weather is equatorial: driest in January and February and wettest from August to November.
George Town is a World Heritage-listed capital, sporting a mixture pre-war houses, colonial buildings, mazes of alleyways, churches and mosques. The Pinang Peranakan Mansion gives an insight into the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by some in George Town more than a century ago. George Town backs onto the 821-metre peak Penang Hill, affording fine views of the region and nearby is the beautifully-crafted 7-storey Kek Lok Si Temple pagoda – a mix of Chinese, Thai and Burmese architecture. But it's the northern beaches around Batu Ferringhi and Teluk Bahang that have drawn the international-standard resorts with their water-based recreation.
Nowhere do the multicultural influences upon Penang's history express themselves more fully than in the flavours of this place. Among the street food/hawker fare here (Penang restaurants are fine but this place is reknowned for its street stalls), you'll find the hallmarks of Nyonya, Chinese, Indian and Malay-style cooking. There are also Hakka-styled Western, vegetarian and seafood dishes. Don't forget to save room for dessert too. Look out for the asam laksa – Penang's famously good curry noodle soup while you're browsing. When it comes to choosing a good hawker stall, if it's too grubby, give it a miss but chances are if the wok stays hot and the food is fresh, you'll be fine!
Where to Stay
If you're keen for a taste of George Town, from your base in a beautifully-restored heritage hotel, you might consider the Edwardian Anglo Malay mansion that is Clove Hall. Flashpackers will enjoy the well-renovated Muntri Mews and artists, families and solo travellers may find Hotel Panaga appealing. You'll find a host of budget accommodation in George Town too. Otherwise, Batu Ferringhi is the hub for upscale properties by the beach on the north coast. You'll find 2 Shangri-La resorts in this stable.
George Town's heritage shopfronts in Little India and China Town give you the chance to fish out little gems and its upmarket Gurney Plaza mall has all the fashion labels, name brands and modernity one could need. If you're in Batu Ferringhi, your options will be a little more limited but the pasar malam (night market) stocks cheap food, jewellery, handicrafts and clothes. Wherever you stay on Penang though, at some point go to a bakery. There are Chinese treats and cakes galore to keep anyone's mouth watering. If you find Heap Hoe Hin in Butterworth though (mainland Penang) get ready to choose between 450 kinds of biscuits. Some decisions really aren't a chore.
Penang like a Local
There are several options for getting to/from Penang. It's worth remembering too there are 2 separate sections to Penang – the island and a portion of the Malaysian peninsular. The international airport is on Penang Island, about 12 miles from George Town, and links directly to Singapore, Bangkok, Medan, Xiamen, Madras, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong. You can take a ferry from Butterworth on the mainland as a foot passenger or with a car; drive across the Penang Bridge or jump on a train from Kuala Lumpur. The train trip from Kuala Lumpur takes about 6 hours.