Penang Diary 8: The last leg @Protestant Cemetery

The serene surroundings


I have a strange fascination for the resting places of departed souls. So I knew I had to visit the oldest Christian cemetery on Northam Road  (Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah). However, my travel partner Manju firmly declined to explore with me in the sweltering heat.

Apparently, this place used to be very creepy before restoration work started in 2012 and cleaned it up. It is now listed as a Class 1 Heritage Site and is maintained by the Penang Heritage Trust. It helped that the Protestant Cemetery was just a short walk away from our hotel, which gave me ample time for a quick trip before leaving for the airport.

The frangipani shaded walk from the gate

The entry was through a beautiful walkway under a canopy of perfumed frangipani. It was quite hot and I was the sole person wandering around in this historic graveyard. There was an amazing sense of calm in this solitude. My mind travelled back by hundreds of years, thinking what life was like in this island when it was ruled by the mighty British.

Plot allotment

Quite a few of the tombstones were in good shape and very beautiful. Some of the inscriptions conveyed the fact that some died very young. Under the shade of trees, caressed by the unexpectedly cool breeze, I was quite transported to another world. If I had more time and if there was a bench, I may just have taken an afternoon nap here…

Interesting to see the Indian connections
Notice the word ‘laboured’
What a lovely tombstone!
Another beautifully crafted one

This cemetery was created to serve as the final resting place for the early colonial administrators, European traders, as well as missionaries who arrived after Captain Francis Light established the British colony here. Many of them died young from malaria, indicative of the very harsh conditions faced by the early settlers.

The first recorded burial was of Lt. William Murray of the Bengal Artillery in 1787 but the earliest surviving grave marker is of H.D.D. Cunningham in 1789.  The last burial was of Cornelia Van Someran in 1892 after which, the cemetery was closed, and all subsequent Christian burials were carried out in the newly constructed Western Road Cemetery.

The plaque with a humble epitaph: Notice the bottom left corner

The most famous grave here is that of Captain Francis Light (1794), which surprisingly, is not grand at all. He left behind his Catholic common-law wife, Martina Rozells, and four children. As marrying a Catholic could result in his dismissal from the British East India Company, he could never declare their status officially. Their son, Sir William Light, was the first Surveyor General of South Australia who chose the site for, and designed the layout of its capital, Adelaide.

How green and peaceful this place is

Other graves include:

  • James Richardson Logan (editor of the Penang Gazette)
  • Reverend Hutchings (founder of the Penang Free School)
  • William Petrie (Governor of Prince of Wales Island, 1811-16)
  • Michael Arratoon (an Armenian whose father started Penang’s first stockbroker firm in 1830)
  • Thomas Leonowens (husband of Anna of the movie The King & I fame)
A lot of these tombs are mounted along the boundary walls
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I could not understand the significance of this symbol at all!

The cemetery also contains 12 Chinese graves. These Chinese Christians were refugees fleeing from religious persecution during the  Boxer Rebellion.


Armenians were another influential ethnic group in Penang. They came as traders and were well educated. Armenian brothers, the Sarkies, established the nearby Eastern and Oriental Hotel as well as the world famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore. Most of Penang’s Armenian society has since emigrated to Singapore and Australia, and they no longer have a big presence on the island. (Source: Malaysian Meanderers)
Another Calcutta-born person
 There is a big open grassy space in front, that (I later learnt) is an area of unmarked graves. Part of the cemetery was heavily bombed by Japan in World War II. Only the middle portion remained unscathed. As the nearby St. George’s Church was also bombed, the cemetery registry went missing.
Restorers then mounted the recovered tablets along the back wall. Unknowingly, I may have trampled over a few unsuspecting sleeping souls.
The area of unmarked graves
WW2 was a pivotal point in the colonial history of SE Asia. When the British returned after years of Japanese occupation, they were not exactly welcomed back by the locals, who had been earlier thoughtlessly deserted in their times of need.
And this is how the process to break free from the shackles of British colonial rule started… which laid the foundation of what we now know as Malaysia.
catholic door
The wall of separation (Pic from the Internet)
There is a wall, with a small doorway, which separates the Protestant cemetery from the Catholic one. I do not recall seeing it. So, even after death, the twain  shall never meet!

With these thoughts, I returned to my hotel to find Manju looking all fresh and ready to leave. I had a quick shower and toured the lovely hotel grounds once again before  leaving for the airport.


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For those interested in viewing more of this cemetery, watch this slideshow.


Penang Diary 7: Street of Harmony (Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling) and some more…

In a multi-cultural and multi-faith country like India, it would be so wonderful if we too had such a street of harmony!

Part of what makes Penang unique is its established mixture of cultures and faiths, but if you are only in Georgetown for a short time, how can you experience all of its varied customs and traditions? Conveniently enough, Penang’s 18th-century town planners have already solved the problem, and a short walk along Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, otherwise known as the ‘Street of Harmony’, draws together the town’s four main religions and provides a quick, easy tour of its different communities. (source:

On our way to the street of harmony, we fist had to first pass by the Church of the Assumption (the biggest here) and naturally, took a peek.It was quite an ordinary looking church – St John’s Church in Calcutta is so much prettier.

Starting point:  Junction of Lebuh Farquar, near St George’s Church

1486695_10151893045031888_137546444_nBuilt in 1816, St George’s Church was the first Anglican church in Southeast Asia. The churchyard now serves as Penang’s most expensive car park.

1469802_10151893045146888_1585594478_nIn the same compound, you will find this Greek temple-style memorial to the founder of Georgetown – Captain Francis Light, under the shade of mahogany trees.

You may want to take a detour down Lebuh Light towards Fort Cornwallis to check out some more colonial buildings and get a sense of British Penang.

On the way

Up ahead north of the church is one of Penang’s oldest surviving buildings – the Kuan Yin Temple, which dates back to 1800. The strong smell of the giant pink smoking joss sticks will guide you towards this temple even before you see it. You will get a real taste of the Chinese quarters of Penang if you take a stroll by the side roads along Lorong Stewart and its narrow streets.

Goddess of Mercy (Kuan Yin) Temple (PC: Perspective of Penang blog)

Just next to the temple is a small Hindu shrine where you may see both Indians and Chinese offering prayers. To the east of this shrine, is Little India, where among the other familiar sights of India, you will also be deafened by the loud Bollywood music blaring from various shops.

Next on the Street of Harmony, is Sri Maha Mariamman Kovil – the oldest Hindu temple in Penang, built in the traditional Dravidian style in 1833.


As you keep walking, you come across the Kapitan Keling Mosque, built by the Tamil Muslim community.  The building is a curious mix of styles, combining colonial architecture with traditional Moorish arches, and its interior features some fantastic stained glass and calligraphy panels.

The Street of Harmony walk ends here technically, but we had four more things on our list which we still had to see.

Stop #1: Han Jiang Ancestral Temple

Han Jiang Ancestral Temple is the only Teochew-style temple in Georgetown. Awarded the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Culture Heritage Conservation in 2006, it is run by the Penang Teochew Association. The temple is dedicated to the Taoist God of the North, a Teochew patron deity.

Han Jian Temple

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The inner temple is reached through three doors (a typical Teochew design); the colourful and elaborate Yu Gate on the roof, an archway with a dragon statue, is just one of the many intricate sculptures in the temple.

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Observe how the sculpture using porcelain shards is distinctly different.


Stop #2: Yap Kongsi

Yap Kongsi at 71 Armenian Street, is the clan association of Hokkien Chinese in Penang of the Yap surname. The association building is known as Lum Yeong Tong. It is located next to the Yap Temple. This tiny but beautiful temple is dedicated to the Chinese god of prosperity. It was formerly the base of the Tua Pek Kong secret society run by the Straits Chinese.

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Stop #3: Khoo Kongsi

Khoo Kongsi, the most spectacular assembly hall in Penang, is a testament to the influence the Chinese have had on this island’s culture (Penang is the only Chinese-majority state in Malaysia). And the influence other cultures have had on the Chinese.


Unbelievable grandeur


Among the guardian statues standing sentinel over the entrance to Khoo Kongsi’s incredibly pastiche of Chinese architectural styles and decorative arts is a stone Sikh warrior, a reminder of the time sub-continental soldiers provided the security in this former jewel of the British Empire.    – Lonely Planet


Clan houses or assembly halls are part neighbourhood association centre, part temple, part community foundation, and almost always decorated in coiling dragons, paintings of Immortals, Confucian sages, Taoist demigods and Buddhist scripture, photos of ancestors and inlaid classical Chinese script.  – Lonely Planet

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On the way, we passed by Acheen Street Mosque (Masjid Lebuh Acheh or Masjid Melayu) in the oldest Malay kampung (village) in Georgetown. It stands out becaue of its unusual Egyptian-style minaret as opposed to the local Moorish-style ones. It was built in 1808 by a wealthy Arab trader who came from Acheh and hence the name. The mosque is a crucial structure for Malay and Arab traders in this area.


Stop #4: Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple

A bastion of Taoism in Penang, the Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple was built by Chinese immigrants almost 165 years ago. Dedicated to Tua Pek Kong, the temple was symbolic of the values of the community and rituals conducted were very similar to what was practiced in the Fujian Province where most of them originated from. Interestingly, the temple was also the headquarters of a Chinese secret society that would conduct various rites and ceremonies in front of the deity.

One of the many unique features of the architecture is the roof. This temple is the only one in Malaysia that has a `Kuan Kong’ figurine perched regally on its roof. The deity is synonymous with Chinese secret societies because it represents loyalty.

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By now, we had done quite an exhaustive walking tour and it was time to return to Singapore. I had been wanting to visit Georgetown for quite a while and I was happy that finally, I managed to make it before leaving the island city forever. And it was so worth it. Every moment. Every penny.

There was just one more thing I had on MY list. Manju refused to give me company for this exploration. But I went alone. That will be my last blog entry on Penang.


Penang Diary 6: Cheong Fatt Tze or simply The Blue Mansion

The story of Cheong Fatt Tze is a true life rags-to-riches story. Born into an poor Hakka family in Guangdong, China, he left for Southeast Asia as a penniless teenager. He sailed off to Batavia/Jakarta (capital of the Dutch East Indies) where he started off first as a common labourer and then proceeded to become a shopkeeper.

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His was mentored by his wealthy father-in-law, who taught him the ABCs of business. True to his Hakka traits, he was stubborn, humble and extremely hard working. By the end of the 19th century, he established a vast financial empire throughout SE Asia . He is considered to be the “last Mandarin and the first capitalist of China”. He also served as the Chinese Consul in Penang.

Marriage was also a business contract for him and he married ‘wisely’ the first 6 times, keeping business expansion in mind. However, when he was almost 70, he fell madly in love with a 17-year old and married for love for the first time in his life.

The entrance gate with 3-tiered Chinese tiled roof

We had heard a lot about Blue Mansion and were curious about whether it really was as blue as the pictures we had seen of it. It indeed was and maybe more. But why was it this tacky blue? The “superstitious” reason is that the most commonly available wall colour in those days – white – had an association  with death in Chinese culture. So he had them painted in  a vivid shade of indigo blue, probably because it was reserved for his youngest and most beloved seventh wife, Tan Tay Po.

The right side of the house
The gateman looked straight out of The Karate Kid! He said that he has often been told so.

The original jet-setter (albeit land or sea-hopping) had houses all over SE Asia but Penang became his primary home. In the 1880s, he started to build a traditional-style Chinese courtyard home  on 14 Leith Street.  The new mansion had 38 rooms and 220 timber louver windows, 48 of them in art nouveau stained glass. Inside, luxuriant patterns adorned the cast iron railings, pillars and spiral staircases. 

It was indeed a grand and ornate mansion – a famous edifice built in the traditional Hakka–Teochew style, which it is hard to believe was ever a home to someone. It is rather “an heirloom with rooms” as somebody aptly describes it and one of Penang’s best-known and most-loved attractions.

At the other gable wall, is a similar carving with dragons instead of phoenixes
The long balcony in front – can you spot the rickshaw?
Stained glass windows are very expensive – this house has 48 such panels
European frieze and metal framework in an otherwise traditional Chinese house. Also notice that the beams are painted – they are not wooden!
Chinese influence
The balcony on the second level
European influence


Despite all these modern Western additions, the house strictly adhered to the ancient Feng Shui philosophy of ‘wind and water’.

“Rain falling into the central courtyard would flow into coin-shaped inlets on either side, but only a little water would leave the house; the rest circulated in a system of pipes running beneath the floor. This embodied the Chinese obsession of accumulating wealth, while spending only a small fraction of the income. (Source:

Coin-shaped holes (PC: Explore Life Lah blog)

Sadly, Cheong Fatt Tze’s descendants did not inherit his business acumen. To protect the future of his 7th wife and her son, the astute businessman had willed the mansion in such a way that it could only be sold after their son’s death. Thus in 1989, the 100-year-old house was put up for sale but by that time it was badly damaged as it sheltered not only the his descendants but also a number of squatter families.

The new owners had the foresight to rescue both the mansion and the memory of Cheong Fatt Tze. With the help of craftsmen brought in from China’s Fujian province, the house was painstakingly restored to its former glory.

Soon the revived mansion became the setting for movies, starting with the 1993 Oscar-winning French film Indochine – a role which gave the house its popular moniker La Maison Bleu (The Blue Mansion).

While the central portion is open 3 times a day for guided tours, the two wings have been converted into Penang’s first true heritage hotel, with only 18 rooms in total. Like the man who built it, the restoration and reuse of Cheong Fatt Tze’s mansion was ahead of its time. One only has to look upwards, at the soulless monoliths next door, to see the fate that might have befallen this grand old dame in indigo blue. 



The timber partition
This mosaic art, using shards of coloured porcelain is called jian nian, which originates from the Ming dynasty Wanli period (circa 1600)
6 of the 48 panels
More jian nian (cut & paste) art
The tallest tiffin carrier I have seen in my life
One of the two annexes
How cosy!
The spiral staircase leading upstairs
The house (with the lanterns) across the street also belonged to Mr Cheong, along with many others in the neighbourhood

Cheong Fatt Tze had hoped to house 9 generations of his descendants there. The plot of land was chosen after heavy consultation with the era’s pre-eminent feng shui masters. Artisans were shipped in from Southern China expressly for the project, and building materials were imported from as far away as Scotland.

Towards Cheong Fatt Tze’s later life, No. 14 served as both an office and a home. It acted as the base for his commercial enterprises and housed the Chinese Vice-Consulate – not to mention his favoured 7th wife. Apart from his successful business, he also had 8 wives, concubines, hand-maidens, 8 sons and 6 daughters! 

When Cheong Fatt Tze was 74, he fathered his last son by his 24 year old wife!! The Chinese drink in the red box was attributed to his virility. Hope it had no rhino horns or tiger teeth.

Cheong was nicknamed ‘the Rockefeller of the East’ and when he finally died in 1916, the Dutch and British authorities flew their flags at half mast throughout their Asian colonies.

Penang Diary 5: Penang Peranakan Mansion Museum

This ostentatious, mint green structure is among the most stunning restored residences in George Town. A self-guided tour reveals that every door, wall and archway is carved and often painted in gold leaf; the grand rooms are furnished with majestic wood furniture with intricate mother-of-pearl inlay; there are displays of charming antiques; and bright-coloured paintings and fascinating black and white photos of the family in regal Chinese dress grace the walls. The house belonged to Chung Keng Quee, a 19th-century merchant, secret society leader and community pillar as well as being one of the wealthiest Baba-Nonyas of that era. (Lonely Planet)

The entrance









Chung Keng Kwee Ancestral Temple is a family temple built by Kapitan China Chung Keng Kwee for the worship of his ancestors, adjacent to his house.

Ancestral Temple



The museum is open from Monday to Sunday including Public Holidays from 9:30 am to 5.00 pm. Admission fee: RM 20 (children under 6 free)





Penang Diary 4: More sights and mesmerising street art around Georgetown

The house opposite the famous Blue Mansion which also belonged to the same owner
The famous Cathay Hotel housed in an old whitewashed colonial era Chinese mansion
Famous hawker centre on Leith Street
The very popular trishaw
Creative advertising
Chinese presence


The Benggali Mosque or Masjid Benggali along Leith Street was built in 1958 for the Benggali community that migrated to Penang towards the end of the 19th Century, and formed a settlement here. It is a charming fusion of Muslim and international architectural styles.


Shoe-king Jimmy Choo is from Penang. He spent much of his childhood days in that area comprising Muntri Street, Love Lane, Penang Road and Hutton Lane. This house is said to have been his home but is now bought over by an Australian.

Street art honouring Jimmy Choo
The lovely Tian Hou Gong temple on Muntri Street



Freshly ground spices on sale: whatever you want to cook, he will give you the right proportions



Every place has character
The amazing full-of-character Armenian Street in Georgetown
Colourful menu
Live like a local by renting one of these homes


Street art
This long queue is for, guess what??
Shops on the avant garde Armenian Street
Amazing street art
The queue is for posing with the pictures on the wall
More shops
Even the grills are so artistic

Street Art

In conjuction with Penang’s Georgetown Festival, certain old walls within Penang have gained a new lease of life, thanks to the awesome efforts of Lithuanian artist, Ernest Zacharevic, Penang Street Art artist, who is leaving his mark with beautiful wall painting of children all across historical Georgetown. The artworks are funny, fascinating, and very much open to everyone’s interpretations.




More pics from the internet.

00 Yellow Kungfu Gymnist Girl Back Bend Street Art Hin Bus Art Depot Penang-119


Between 15-23 November 2014, the first international street art festival – Urban Xchange, featuring artists from New York, Berlin, Copenhagen, Manchester, Melbourne and of course local talents , was held at Penang. A brainchild and collaboration from Hin Bus Depot Art Center and Urban Nation – this project aimed to bring artists together while enabling a cultural, artistic and social exchange throughout the month of November, as well as to show that art is no longer confined within the spaces of art galleries and exhibition halls.
Click on the link to know more about Urban Xchange.
Penang can serve as a model town to many cities to show how heritage can be showcased to promote tourism.


Penang Diary 3: Walking around George Town

After checking into our room, we quickly decided to go out and explore. These are the various sights that greeted us as we walked out of Eastern & Oriental (E&O) Hotel to discover the sights and sounds George Town, the whole day, by foot.

Upper Penang Road, situated at the beginning of Jalan Penang, right in front of the E&O Hotel,  is considered to be the centre of Georgetown’s nightlife. This major party zone is filled with pubs and nightclubs that come alive with neon lights and thumping music at nightime. However, it looked rather lame in the morning. But naturally.


Quirky, cute and cool, Monkey Bar is one of Upper Penang Road’s longest-running nightspots but it was totally dead in the morning.

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If you are from India, you cannot help but notice this institution, where somebody from your family must have attended.


Next stop was Penang Museum which was a storehouse of history.


A bicycle used to peddle goods

We also learnt that 555 State Express replaced Craven A cigarettes (Rokok Chap Kuching).

Shoes of torture
The horror story explained
Cannot help but admire their sense of humour
These tiffin carriers are so quaint. I have one like this but made of stainless steel



Exquisite Nyonya beadwork


Extravagant Nyonya marriage car

As we approached Little India, these familiar sights greeted us.


George Town Dispensary, constructed in 1923, is housed in a landmark three-storey corner building at the junction of Beach Street and China Street.

I would love to buy medicines from here
The Chinese quarters of the town

This excellent-value buffet restaurant is the place to go for a filling meat-free Chinese lunch. Take what you want from the selection of vegetables, curries and beancurds on offer, and you’ll be charged accordingly. I had to take this photo because of the Chinese vegetarian sign.


This banner made us very curious about Armenian Street but that amazing part of Georgetown needs to have a separate blog entry
Surprising how even in Calcutta – the only city in India which has a Chinatown – the dry cleaning business used to be controlled by the Chinese
This was a very funny sight. When the British first built houses in George Town, they built chimneys on it, but realized soon enough that these were the last things one needed here. Please note the minaret of a mosque peeping out from the top corner.

By the time we had our lunch and explored more, it was dark and time for dinner. Penang is the food capital of Asia, and maybe the world. Street food is cheap and mind-blowing. You would be a fool if you did not try the hawker fare and ate in the sanitised environs of your hotel. Manju had already done the reserach and armed with a list, we hit the food spots. Unfortunately, I remember nothing of what we ate and where we went but I can tell you it was the best culinary experience of my life. So many blogs have been written about the food in Penang that it is a waste of time writing about it. Here are the elaborate links of some food bloggers. Born to BunkBibik GourmandHalal Food BlogKen Hunts Food

One historic sites we did not visit was Fort Cornwallis. There is a lot of history but so little to see that we decided to skip that in favour of more visually appealing sites.

Fort Cornwallis is the largest standing fort in Malaysia. Set close to the Esplanade and Penang Clocktower, the star-shaped bastion is one of the oldest structures in Penang. Click here for more information.

After heavily indulging ourselves at dinner, we needed to burn the calories. The evenings are also cooler and the walks more enjoyable. The town is also very safe.


Millionaire businessman Cheah Chen Eok started to build a clock tower in 1897 to commemorate the 60th year of Queen Victoria’s reign but sadly, by the time it was ready in 1903, there was no more need to say Long Live the Queen! Haha.

State Legislative Assembly building
Georgetown; Penang;
The glorious Town Hall in daytime (PC: Pete’s Penang website)

The foundation stone of Dewan Bandaraya or Town Hall was laid in 1879 and the main building completed in 1883. It consisted of an assembly hall, a grand ballroom, and a library. The Penang Library was born here, after the Prince of Wales Library was moved here and renamed. An annex was added in 1890 while the porch and top floor added in 1903. The left wing – when cement plaster was introduced – as added in 1930. Those extensions and renovations together constitute the Town Hall.

For decades, the Penang Town Hall was the watering hole for the local socialites and elites, the venue for theatrical performances. Church services were held here – by Wesley Church in 1891, Bangsawan plays were performed, in 1903, while a group of Filipino musicians played here from 1890 right up to 1954. The Penang Town Hall was even featured in the movie Anna and the King, the courtroom segment of which was filmed here in 1999.

When the local authorities considered demolishing the Penang Town Hall, the National Museum stepped in to save it, gazetting it a historic monument on 29 July 1993.

City Hall (PC:  Food, Booze and Shoes website )

The City Hall was originally built in 1903 as the Municipal Office, to relieve the pressure for office space at the adjacent Penang Town Hall. It was renamed the “City Hall” in 1957, when George Town was declared a city by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. It was built in the Edwardian Baroque style, and has been listed as a national monument since 1982.

Penang High Court (please note the word mahkamah which is nothing but mahkuma in Bengali and tinggi in Malay means high)




After a leisurely night stroll, we were done for the day, heads buzzing with history!!

For more detailed information on Penang Heritage Sites click here.




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)