The Pearl of the Orient
From the three times I’ve been to Malaysia, on each occasion I get to visit a new place, and this trip is no exception, no other that one of the best kept gems and most visited in the country, second largest city after Kuala Lumpur, the gorgeous George Town in the island of Penang. North of the Malay peninsula not far anymore from neighbouring Thailand along the Strait of Malacca, home not only to a great colonial city but to lush jungles, pristine beaches and excellent resorts.
Founded by the British in 1786 as their first settlement in South east Asia which together with Malacca and Singapore formed the Straits Settlements that developed into a crown colony in 1867, it became the very first city in the modern history of the country, title granted by Queen Elizabeth II shortly before the dissolution and independence in 1957. The Japanese occupation in 1941 after World War II and their massacre of Chinese people, then the short period where the British regained the colony and all the troubles carried over on reconstruction, sanitation, crime, unemployment, decline…and an independent country that forgot about George Town for decades did deteriorate every side of the city until only quite recently from the year 2000.
With such a potential with regards to history, culture and heritage, no wonder by the year 2008 it was included in the prestigious list of World Heritage Sites by the UNESCO. Continuous efforts in restoration, reconstruction and new construction; diverting the overcrowded traffic from the roads and great projects still going these days have transformed it into a thriving port city once again also becoming the major cruise terminal of any ship on an Asia/Southeast Asia tour.
While visiting the city is matter of a day, that’s well enough for sure, it is not the same when planning to go elsewhere such as the beaches of course. Here an average tourist spend a day or two; merely 10 hours if you are on a cruise ship, and a week or two for those who come to enjoy at a resort by the beach, although the prefer choice in Malaysia would be the idyllic islands of Langkawi farther north, where some of the islands are already Thai territory.
The historic core is extremely compact. The original British built Fort Cornwallis at the northeast tip with the main pier, the colonial city immediately south and the later expansions surrounding it. The northwest coast has been transformed into the main resort area with plenty of up-scale hotel and residential towers along a fantastic seafront promenade, and farther west towards the centre of the island and surrounded by the jungle, the famous Penang Hill where you will find the Kek Lok Si Temple. It is this last sight where you will spend more time only in reaching it and returning back to the city centre, although if you are short of time you can skip it.
On a few notes on food, it is said George Town is the food capital of Malaysia. Here you have everything you want, notoriously the rich local cuisine influenced by the Chinese and the British, and what has become to be known the Straits cuisine. Being by the sea, fish and seafood can be found everywhere. Hawker stalls in the streets and markets are great. However among any other is the famous bowl of asam laksa. Listed in very prestigious world rankings as one of the best 50 dishes in the world, it is similar to a laksa soup however with the sour ingredient on it (adding either tamarind, gelugur or kokum to the main base), shredded fish, finely cut vegetables, pineapple, chilly flakes and a thick sweet prawn paste , served with rice noodles .
For more information and history about the city check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Malaysia’s currency is the Ringgit (RM). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in George Town
- Colonial Core The original former British settlement where majority of the historical sights are, all of which listed by the UNESCO a World Heritage Site.
-Fort Cornwallis At the northeasternmost part, between the Esplanade to the west and cruise terminal at the east. Was built in 1786 as the largest fort in Malaysia, however it was never needed in any combat.
-Beach Street The once major business district during the British colonial times, contains some of the grandest buildings such as banks, insurance companies and institutions. Links the Fort Cornwallis at the north with the southwest boundary of the old town. It is towards the south where you will find in the streets nearby some of the street art the city has become famous for, such as the mural Kids on a Bicycle or love me Like Your Fortune Cat.
-Light Street/Esplanade Area One of the nicest streets and place filled with many British colonial mansions running parallel to the shoreline. The four principal streets of the city head south perpendicular to it: Beach, Penang, King and Kapitan Keling streets.
-Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower Located at the roundabout on the eastern side, next to the entrance to the cruise terminal, built to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee in 1897.
-Department of Religious Affairs By the corner of Light with Beach Street.
-Department of Immigration The first building on Light Street.
-State Assembly Completing the eastern side of the street, built in 1820 with the other buildings and the clock tower memorial, one of the nicest stamps of the city.
-Hong Leong Bank Overlooking the Esplanade, in a very traditional former mansion of a wealthy business man.
-Chinese Chamber of Commerce Across the road from Hong Leong, with beautiful Penang Street perpendicular to Esplanade.
-Town Hall Along the western side of the Esplanade, was built in 1880 becoming the first in Malaysia, in Edwardian Baroque style.
-City Hall Next to the Town Hall, was built in 1903 in a mix of Edwardian Baroque and Palladian styles, painted white, quite trendy in the British colonies
-Cenotaph War Memorial Commemorating both Great Wars.
-High Court Founded in 1808 becoming the birthplace of Malaysia’s judiciary system, the current grand palladian style building dates from 1901.
-Saint George’s Church Right behind the main Court building. Dating from 1818 it is the oldest Anglican church in Southeast Asia, in a very similar design to that in Madras, India; combining Georgian, palladian and neo-classical styles.
-State Museum of Penang Also behind the Court building. Built in 1816 as a school nowadays one of the major museums in the city depicting the history of the island. Open from 09.00am to 12.00pm and 14.30pm to 17.00pm except Sunday when they close. Free admission.
-Eastern and Oriental Hotel Continuing west along Farquhar Street. Established by the Armenian hoteliers Sarkies Brothers in 1885 as the most luxurious back in the days, was one of the grand hotels built by the brothers in Southeast Asia, being the others The Crag in Penang Hill (Malaysia), Raffles in Singapore, the Strand in Yangon (Myanmar) and the Majapahit in Surabaya (Indonesia).
-Cheong Fatt Tze Or commonly known as The Blue Mansion. South from the E&O Hotel, was built for a very wealthy merchant blending Imperial Chinese style with Gothic, art-nouveau and others with very rich fittings and decorations. A great museum to visit and enjoy how the life of a rich merchant was in the late 19th century.
-Muntri Street Parallel to Light Street, entirely surrounded by traditional shophouses, starts from near the Blue Mansion at the west linking to one of the original British colonial streets, Kapitan Keling.
-Thean Hou Temple Dedicated to the Hainan community was built in 1865 and has some of the finest stone carvings of any temple in Penang.
-Goddess of Mercy Temple The oldest Taoist temple in Penang, dating from 1728, and also one of the most richly decorated.
-Kapitan Keling Street It was the westernmost street of the original British settlement.
-Sri Mahamariamman Temple The oldest Hindu temple in Penang, built in 1833 in pure south Indian Dravidian style with a great richly decorated tower (gopuram).
-Kapitan Keling Mosque South along Kapitan Keling street, 2 blocks from the Goddess of Mercy temple. Built in 1801 it is still the largest in the city, enlarged in the 1930’s with the current design.
-King Street One of the original perpendicular main streets to Esplanade, two blocks east from the Mosque.
-Nagore Dargha Sheriff A very tiny shrine to an Indian Muslim saint built in 1800, mistakenly referred as a mosque.
-Poe Choo Seah Built in 1902 as one of the finest shophouses in the Straits eclectic style.
-Toi Shan Wui Kwun Temple Built in 1833, it even had the bricks made in China and shipped to Penang.
-Church Street A block north east from the Goddess of Mercy Temple, another of the principal original colonial streets.
-Pinang Peranakan Museum Once the residence and office of the 19th century wealthy Chinese tycoon Chung Keng Quee, it is nowadays one of the country’s best museum dedicated to Penang’s Peranakan heritage.
-Church Street Pier Dating from 1897 was the main terminal for the booming ferry transportation, especially the line connecting to Butterworth in mainland Malaysia.
- Gurney Drive The seafront promenade, farther west after the Eastern & Oriental Hotel is the place for the many hotels and residential towers, shopping galleries and up-scale malls, restaurants and bars. Although not a mandatory sight when visiting the city, it is a nice walk by the sea especially if you have lots of time to kill.
- Penang Hill At the west of the city, pretty much in the centre of the island of Penang itself and surrounded by the jungle, is a nice retreat outside of the busy streets. Offering awesome views over the city and the sea, it is also home to museums, the botanical gardens, temples such as the Kek Lok Si, luxurious hotels and wealthy mansions. A funicular links the bottom with the upper sky walk and viewing platform.
Most travellers coming to the city arrive from Kuala Lumpur, the capital of the country, Thailand not far north from the border and Singapore to the south; no matter if this is an overland trip, by plane or as part of a wider tour on a cruise ship.
When coming overland, buses are straight forward and incredible comfortable. The bus station in KL is Terminal Bersepadu Selatan (TBS), easy to reach by Kmuter or KLIA Transit trains from downtown KL. In Penang, buses do arrive at Sungai Nibong bus station some 15 kilometres south of George Town itself. Bear in mind which bus you do take, as some do only reach the port city of Butterworth in Malay peninsula, so you do still need a ferry to cross over.
When arriving by plane, the best and cheapest way to get into downtown either by the Komtar Tower or the main ferry terminal at the northeast is by taking the Rapid Penang buses 401, 401A or 401E. These run every 30 minutes, taking approximately 1.5 hour and costing 2.7 RM per way. The exit number 5 from the terminal building will take you direct to the buses, lane 5 is where these buses depart, exact change only, or no change given.
Lastly, there is Grab available everywhere in Malaysia, this is the equivalent of Uber but better, and cheaper! Simply download the app, register and you are done. You do not even need to provide a debit/credit card as you can pay cash. You will always know the total fare, and the precise location of where you are going. This comes very cheap to be honest, and the most comfortable way to move around without any doubt, especially if you are 2 or more people as it turns to be cheaper than public transportation then.
To what it refers to the historic city, there is no need for taking any public transportation during your sightseeing. Distances are not big and sights literally one after another hence the best way is to do as much walking as possible. I must say some streets are not pedestrian friendly at all, being narrow with no pavement but only the road to share with the cars, but that’s the way in the city.
As this was a day trip from our main base Kuala Lumpur, we cannot recommend any place to stay in the city overnight. In any case, this is one of the most visited places in the country hence very prepared for the tourism of masses. No one can argue the immense selection of properties available from luxurious to more modest and everything in between. New towers keep rising, being hotels, apart-hotels and residences, and so the large resorts by the beach areas. And considering this is one of the backpacker’s heavens, the amount of hostels and apartments for rent very large. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, Hotels Click, LateRooms or Ebookers, and rental apartment sites such as and airb&b.