The island of Penang floats in the Strait of Malacca like a Chinese junk tethered to peninsula Malaysia. Originally part of the Malay Sultanate of Kedah, Penang was acquired by the British East India Company in 1786 and subsequently governed as part of the Straits Settlements. As the capital George Town prospered, trading tin, spices and rubber, it also swapped people from China, India and the Middle East creating a heady, multicultural mix. Since receiving UNESCO World Heritage-listing in 2008, George Town has blossomed into a gastronomic hub with world-famous street murals, heritage hotels and hip cafes, all set against a jumble of shophouses, mosques and temples.
You’ll need to pace yourself; there are more than 1700 historic buildings in the city’s 109-hectare historic heart. Start at St George’s Church, the oldest Anglican church in south-east Asia, visit the smoky Goddess of Mercy Temple and admire the domes of the Kapitan Keling Mosque. Stroll down Love Lane, once a brothel district now a trendy cafe strip, tread the boards on the clan jetties and marvel at the lavish interiors of the Blue Mansion (Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion). Don’t miss Hin Bus Depot, a creative hub of multimedia exhibition spaces housed in an abandoned bus terminal. See hinbusdepot.com
Of all the people in south-east Asia, none take their food more seriously than Penangites. While locals will get hot and bothered arguing about the best char koay teow (a street food staple of stir-fried noodles) many agree that Tiger char koay teow at Kafe Ping Hooi on Lebuh Carnarvon is the best of the best. For inexpensive and authentic roti, samosas and tandoori stroll through Little India, centred around Lebuh Chulia, Lebuh Queen and Jalan Pasar. Need a coffee fix? Head to the eclectic The Mugshot Cafe, which also hosts Rainforest bakery and Spark Optics, selling artisanal eyewear. ChinaHouse serves up tasty snacks and cakes inside three traditional Malay shophouses, while Jawi House on Lebuh Armenia is the place for authentic Jawi Peranakan cuisine. See chinahouse.com.my; jawihouse.com
Two words – street art – namely the full-scale murals by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, created as part of the George Town Culture Festival in 2012. Found on faded walls across the city, most of Zacharevic’s pieces are interactive, having components in which the art interacts with real elements such as bikes and motorcycles. Also keep an eye out for the 52 iron rod sculptures, which tell stories about Penang’s past through caricatures.
To gain a perspective of George Town’s various historical zones (core and buffer) and how it relates to the rest of Penang Island head to The Top Komtar for a bird’s-eye view. Level 68 is home to the head-spinning Rainbow Skywalk, but if it’s adrenalin you’re after try Gravityz on level 65, a high-altitude sports platform that opened in February 2018. Billed as the “world’s highest rope course challenge”, Gravityz offers six levels of engagement. See thetop.com.my. Further away the new Canopy Walk at The Habitat on Penang Hill offers views across the Penang jungle. See thehabitat.my
The Parkroyal Penang Resort, which sits on one of Penang’s best beaches – Batu Ferringhi – has just undergone a MYR55 million refurbishment of all 308 guestrooms, public areas, Cinnamon restaurant and Javana lounge. A 45-minute drive from the hustle of George Town it is a quiet and elegant oasis with tropical gardens, two swimming pools, waterfront dining, St Gregory spa, 24-hour gymnasium and sports centre. Close to the Penang National Park, Batu Ferringhi night markets and Tropical Spice Garden it is the ideal base for those wanting to dip in and out of George Town, but prefer a resort-style beach holiday. See parkroyalhotels.com/Malaysia/Penang
The Penang Heritage Trust offers three-hour standard, premium and customised heritage walking tours visiting the clan jetties, Armenian Street, Little India, Street of Harmony and the colonial district. They also offer a monthly tour of the Protestant Cemetery. See pht.org.my
Kerry van der Jagt travelled as a guest of Parkroyal Penang Resort and Penang Global Tourism