Penang Diary 2: George Town

“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.

Our hotel

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 entrance
Notice what the door boys are wearing
Amazing woodwork
A gentle reminder that we were not in the 19th century

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.

  1. The Thai Buddhist Temple or Wat Chaiya Mangalaram – the shrine of the Reclining Buddha and the Burmese Buddhist Temple

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The gate between the two temples

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.



Ban Po Thar tower with Burmese, Thai and Chinese designs at 3 levels
Kuan Yin



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.


The Malay name is Bukit (Hill) Bendera
Scenic ride
The cute station


The view from the top

(All Penang Hill pics from the Internet)                                                                 (to be continued….)




Penang Diary 1: A brief history

Penang comes from the Malay word pinang  or the areca plant (whose nut is called betel) which grew all over the island. Originally a part of the Malay sultanate of Kedah, Penang was “born” in 1786 when Captain Francis Light persuaded the Sultan to cede the island to the British East India Company. Yeah, yeah, our colonial cousins!

He christened it Prince of Wales Island (later renamed to George Town which now serves as the state capital). It was the first British settlement on the Malay peninsula. The state of Penang comprised of the island and an adjacent rectangular strip of land (ceded 14 years later) on the mainland known as Province Wellesley.

Notice the inscription on the bottom left

Penang was a very busy port that brought in rich merchants from Europe, North America, the Middle East, India and China trading in tea, spices, porcelain and cloth. One of the reasons they used Penang as a stop-over port was the geographical position of the Strait of Malacca  – exactly on the crossing of two monsoon periods. The merchants could not set sail until the winds were favorable.

Indian presence
A predominantly Hakka-speaking association of socially ambitious Chinese merchants
A Cantonese tea shop and restaurant association in George Town
Lebuh = Street
Founded in 1803, it catered to the Indian Muslims from Bengal
The missionary presence

To reduce the Dutch dominance in Melaka, Light declared Prince of Wales Island as a free port and boosted its commercial success, bringing in merchants and fortune seekers from everywhere. It was from this interesting potpourri of European, Chinese, Malay, Indian, Siamese and other cultures that Penang became a melting pot for mixed communities like the Baba Nyonya (Straits-born Chinese-Malays), Jawi Peranakan (Straits-born Muslims of Tamil-Malay heritage) and Eurasians.

Indian immigration

In the 1790s, Light mentions the comfortable presence of Chulias (Tamil Muslims) as shopkeepers and farm labourers in Penang. In contrast to the Chinese, they worked only to save enough and return home to south India. Another class of migrant Indian workers was Nattukottai Chettiars who were money-lenders. The Telugu migrants came to Penang as families and so many continued to work and stayed on. Of the 1,500,000+ south Indian workers who worked in Malayan plantations, over 75% returned to India – nearly all of them Tamil.

The typical SE Asian shop houses where business was carried on in the ground floor  and the family resided above
Cultural harmony
The Tamil presence (kopitiam = cafe)

Chinese immigration

Captain Francis Light had said,  that “the Chinese constituted the most valuable and largest group acting as traders, carpenters, masons, smiths, shopkeepers and planters on the island”. Some specialised in the production and trade of tin, while some were involved in pepper and sugarcane cultivation. Few others acted as agents for foreign traders engaged in export-import business by helping them ship their goods to various foreign locations. Yet, there were some others who only imported ethnic foods for cooking and selling to other new settlers. A very industrious and enterprising lot as usual!

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Penang always had of a tradition of religious tolerance despite being highly diverse in ethnicity, culture, language and religion. All races could practise their own faiths harmoniously. The British had separated the ethnic communities into different enclaves to manage them efficiently and this legacy continues even today.

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On January 1, 1957, George Town was given a city status by Queen Elizabeth II and in 1963, it  became a state of Malaysia. In 2015, the island as a whole was accorded city status by the Malaysian government,thus making George Town the only city in Malaysia to have been conferred a city status twice, first by the British monarch, and then by the government!

The Jubilee Clock Tower built to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897
The tower is slightly tilted due to the Japanese bombing in WW2

The island’s free port status was revoked in 1969, which resulted in huge unemployment. But from the 70’s, the state started to build up one of the largest electronics manufacturing bases in Asia enabling Penang to become one of the most developed and economically important Malaysian states.

The 13.5 km Penang Bridge – inaugurated in September 1985 – was the first road connection between the peninsula and the island. Before this, passengers had to ferry between mainland Butterworth and George Town. A second bridge, 24 km long, was opened in March 2014 to cope with the traffic. It is the longest in SE Asia.

The very well-designed Penang airport


Last stages of construction of Penang Bridge 2 (2013)
Completed bridge (Pic credits: USM website)

Despite this economic progress, Penang has managed to retain her old world charm and rich heritage very successfully. In recognition of this achievement, UNESCO listed George Town as a World Heritage Site on July 7, 2008. Check out their heritage brochure. This made it a thriving tourist destination as well.

It is a successful model of how to blend progress and heritage beautifully. As a result, it maintains its own secular flavour, distinctive from the rest of Malaysia.


(All information from Wiki and other internet sources)

The time when curiosity almost killed the cat

According to Wikipedia

“Curiosity killed the cat” is a variation of the proverb – curiosity killed the cat – that includes the rejoinder “but satisfaction brought it back.” Although the original version was used to warn people of the dangers of unnecessary investigation or experimentation, the addition of the rejoinder indicates that the risk would lead to resurrection because of the satisfaction felt after finding out.

I had a first hand experience of literally “witnessing” this proverb last week, on my solo trip to Maasai Mara.

After a not-so-exciting afternoon game drive, as I was returning to the camp, my driver Simon got a call informing him that 2 leopards had been spotted at the location we had left minutes back –  after a futile search for these very animals. The sun was about to set and darkness was fast descending. He quickly reversed the jeep and reached the spot in time to find 2 jeeploads of tourists keenly  looking towards a spot, dimly washed with twilight. My eyes needed a little time to figure out what they were looking at – two leopards lounging on the fallen trunk of a tree, looking into the bushes and beyond.

The first sighting of the 2 leopards
The wary older one
The curious younger cub


One was visibly much smaller than the other but I couldn’t make out if it was an older brother or the mother. Anyone who knows me even a little bit, knows about my love affair with these very beautiful but shy grey-eyed cats. As I sat enraptured, feasting my eyes on these two cats, I noticed two young elephants benignly progressing towards these spotted felines, while merrily chomping on the plucked grass. Although the little one was closer to the pachyderms, the older one had wisely slipped off the log and disappeared into the long grass as they came closer.

The young elephants and the little cub – look at their relative sizes
The restless and the curious one


Check the position of the tree trunks to follow the progress of the elephants
The older one makes a hasty escape

The little one was as fascinated with the trunked giant as I was with her. She refused to budge and kept watching it. For a split second, there may just have been a change of mind, induced by the instinctive feeling of possible danger, because she jumped off the log for a moment.  But seconds later, she jumped back on it, even more curious!

Back on the log, but at the spot where the older one was initially
Open challenge or juvenile curiosity?
Coming closer

But now, the elephant was within nudging distance, and not looking too happy at the cub’s public show of defiance. I was getting edgy now as I knew what even a playful nudge of those tusks can do. Then came the trumpeting call of warning. The little one had not an iota of doubt any more about which road to take. In a flash, she was gone and I started breathing again! The mini tusker  kept slamming into the log, with her tusks, with displeasure but soon went back to the more pleasurable activity of munching grass.

Now the cub finally gets wiser and starts to move

My hunch is, these two “kids” encountered each of its kind for the first time and went home all the more wiser. I also think the bigger leopard was probably an irresponsible older brother because he never entered the scene after his vanishing act. Would a mother leave her cub to spar with a tusker, no matter how young the calf may have been?

This round belonged to the young tuskers

But the unanswered question that remains is: was the cat’s curiosity satisfied and if so, “will satisfaction bring it back?”

PS: Dusky conditions made photography very difficult.