“Back when the distinction between governments, armies and companies was less precise, the British-based East India Company sailed into Penang harbour and took over the 28-sq km island as its first settlement on the Malay peninsula, a move intended to break Dutch Melaka’s monopoly of the spice trade.
What evolved on the formerly unpopulated ‘Betel Nut Island’ was a bustling port. Entrepreneurs of every imaginable ethnicity, most notably Chinese, flocked to this new land, creating wealth and cultural hybrids. Like many company settlements, Penang wilted after the collapse of the British Empire. Today it’s become the ‘Silicon Valley’ of Malaysia although this high-tech world is scarcely noticeable to the casual traveller. Beyond the capital Georgetown’s heat and decay are beach resorts, such as Batu Ferringhi, and the sleepy Malay fishing village of Teluk Bahang.” – Lonely Planet
I had been wanting to go to Penang for quite some time but was looking for a travelling partner. It would be a shame if I left Singapore without visiting this melting pot of cultures and also a food lover’s heaven. Fortunately, I found Manju just a few months before we relocated to Kenya.
Keeping the purpose of our tour (heritage trail), we chose to stay at a hotel dripping with colonial history, but conveniently located in the heart of its capital George Town. The Eastern and Oriental Hotel (E&O) was established in 1885 by the Sarkies Brothers of Armenian ancestry, who later established Raffles Hotel in Singapore 1887.
The hotel boasts of hosting guests like Rudyard Kipling, Sir Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham, Sun Yat-sen, Charlie Chaplin, Michael Jackson and Lee Kuan Yew among others.
This blog is not meant to promote this hotel but I fell in love with its grand architecture. And it prepared me for the visual treats that were soon to follow.
We had decided to only visit Georgetown as it is undoubtedly the most interesting place in Penang. Lonely Planet introduces Georgetown in this way:
Combine three distinct and ancient cultures, indigenous and colonial architecture, shake for a few centuries, garnish with a burgeoning tourism scene, and you’ve got the tasty urban cocktail that is George Town.
George Town’s most apparent – and touted – attraction is its architecture. And the city’s romantically crumbling shophouses will likely spark a desire in some visitors to move. But perhaps even more impressive is the movie set-like mishmash of the city’s buildings, people and culture. In George Town you’ll find Chinese temples in Little India and mosques in Chinatown, and Western-style soaring skyscrapers and massive shopping complexes gleaming high above British Raj–era architecture.
This eclectic jumble means that George Town is a city that rewards explorers. Dodge traffic while strolling past Chinese shophouses where people might be roasting coffee over a fire or sculpting giant incense for a ceremony. Get lost in the maze of chaotic streets and narrow lanes, past shrines decorated with strings of paper lanterns and fragrant shops selling Indian spices. Or you might be led to George Town’s burgeoning art scene, its modern cafes or its fun bars.
Yet perhaps the greatest reward of all comes at the end of all this exploration: George Town is Malaysia‘s, if not South East Asia’s, food capital. Home to five distinct cuisines, cheap and delicious open-air hawker centres, lauded seafood and legendary fruit, it’s the kind of place that can boast both quality and quantity.
We’ll drink to that.
Some of the sights we saw in this quaint and unique city.
- The Thai Buddhist Temple or Wat Chaiya Mangalaram – the shrine of the Reclining Buddha and the Burmese Buddhist Temple
2) Sasana Vamsa Shima Shrine Hall & International Standing Buddhas just across the street from Wat Chaiya Mangalaram
3) The Temple of Supreme Bliss or Kek Lok Si is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. Built in 1890 by the first Hokkien and Cantonese settlers in Penang, it is a cornerstone of the Malay-Chinese community. To reach the entrance, you have to walk through a maze of souvenir stalls, till you reach Ban Po Thar, a 7-tier, 30m-high tower. The design is said to be Burmese at the top, Chinese at the bottom and Thai in between. At the highest level, is an awe-inspiring 36.5m-high bronze statue of Kuan Yin, goddess of mercy.
3) Funicular ride up to Penang Hill – One of the oldest colonial hill station established by the British during their time in Malaysia, to escape to the cooler climate on the hill.
Penang Hill comprises several hills including Strawberry Hill, Halliburton’s Hill, Flagstaff Hill, Government Hill , Tiger Hill,and Western Hill. The highest point of this range is at Western Hill, with an elevation of 833m (2,723ft ) above sea level.
The earliest mode of transport to the hill was via horses, or a system called ‘doolies’, where masters were carried up the hill on special sedan chairs. To further explore the potential of the hill, systems of bridle paths were cut by Indian penal servitude prisoners for the establishment of more bungalows on the hill.
The Penang Hill Funicular Railway was the second mode of transport established for access to the summit. On 1st January 1924, the 2,007m long funicular railway was officially opened by then Governor of Straits Settlement, Sir L.N.Guillemard. The last upgrade was in 1977, before a complete overhaul of the system in 2010.
(All Penang Hill pics from the Internet) (to be continued….)