Way up the west coast, 370km from KL and 170km from the Thai border, PENANG is a confusing amalgam of state and island. Mainland roads and the rail line converge at unattractive Butterworth, jumping-off point for the brief ferry ride over to Pulau Pinang, Britain’s first toehold on the Malay Peninsula. The island’s lively “capital”, Georgetown, sports a fascinating blend of colonial, Indian, Malay and – especially – immigrant Chinese culture. Along with Melaka and Singapore, Georgetown is also considered a centre for Peranakan heritage, the Chinese-Malay melange frequently known as “Straits Chinese” or “Baba-Nyonya”, though – aside from some food and a splendid mansion – there’s little evidence of this. What does survive, however, are spectacular Chinese temples and guildhalls, built by merchants and clan societies to display their wealth, alongside a whole central quarter of shophouses, many being thoughtfully restored after they helped the city become a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008.
Georgetown is likely to be your base on Pulau Pinang, and three days would be enough to cover its main sights. A day or two extra spent touring the rest of the island – all 285 square kilometres of it – will turn up minor beach resorts, a coastal national park where you might see nesting turtles, a couple of unusual temples, plus plenty of renowned food stalls.
If you’re headed towards Thailand, you can catch direct ferries from Pulau Pinang to Langkawi, and change there for cross-border boats to Satun.
Pulau Pinang was ruled by the sultans of Kedah until the late eighteenth century. But increasing harassment by Thai and Burmese raiding parties encouraged the sultan to seek military protection from Francis Light, a plausible British adventurer searching for a regional trading base to counter the Dutch presence in Sumatra. After a decade of wrangling, a deal was struck: Light would provide military aid through the British East India Company and the sultan would receive 30,000 Spanish dollars a year. There was one snag – the East India Company’s Governor-General, Charles Cornwallis, refused to be party to the plans. Concealing the facts from both parties, Light went ahead anyway and took possession of Penang on August 11, 1786, then spent five years assuring the sultan that the matter of protection was being referred to authorities in London. The sultan finally caught on but failed to evict the British, ending up with an annuity of 6000 Spanish dollars and no role in the island’s government.
Penang thus became the first British settlement in the Malay Peninsula. Within two years, four hundred acres were under cultivation and the population – many of them Chinese traders quick to grasp the island’s strategic position in the busy Straits of Melaka – had reached ten thousand. Francis Light was made superintendent and declared the island a free port, renaming it “Prince of Wales Island” after the British heir apparent. Georgetown took its name from the British king, George III, and retained its colonial label even after the island’s name reverted to Penang.
For a time, all looked rosy for Penang, with Georgetown proclaimed as capital of the Straits Settlements (incorporating Melaka and Singapore) in 1826. But the founding of Singapore in 1819 was the beginning of the end for Georgetown, as the new colony overtook its predecessor in every respect. This had one beneficial result: with Georgetown stuck in the economic doldrums well into the twentieth century, no significant development took place within the city, and consequently many of its colonial and early Chinese buildings survive to this day.Read More
Sitting 94km north of Taiping, the dusty, industrial port of BUTTERWORTH looks over a narrow strait to a far more attractive Pulau Pinang from an intricate concrete mesh of flyovers, highways and rail lines. With ferries crossing to the island every few minutes from early morning until late into the evening, the only reason to spend any time here is in transit. The bus station, ferry pier, long-distance-taxi stand and train station are all next door to each other, so this shouldn’t take long – just follow the signed pedestrian overpasses to whichever you need.
Temples and gardens near Georgetown
Temples and gardens near Georgetown
A short bus ride from KOMTAR through Georgetown’s western suburbs passes three interesting temples and winds up at the island’s attractive – and surprisingly wild – Botanic Gardens. You could spend a morning out this way, or simply stop off en route to Batu Ferringhi and points west. Rapid Penang bus #10 comes within range of all the sights and terminates at the gardens, though you might need to ask the driver where to get off elsewhere.
Wat Chayamangkalaram is a Thai Buddhist temple dating to the 1900s, very different in design from Chinese equivalents elsewhere in Penang with its bright colours, flame-edged eaves and huge gilded pagoda, all soft curves, to one side. The main hall’s entrance is flanked by nagas, fierce snake-like creatures painted gold and bright green, and guarded by two hefty demons holding swords. The aircraft-hangar-like interior is a stark contrast, filled by a 33m-long Reclining Buddha statue, looking rather feminine and draped in a gold sarong with his aura flaming about him. Murals depict episodes from Buddha’s life.
While the Burmese Dharmmikarama Temple is similar to the Wat Chayamangkalaram Temple opposite, its guardians are two snarling white and gold lions, with scales, claws and fiery trim. The Buddha here is standing, smiling mysteriously into the gloom and with oversized white hands, one pointing upwards and one down. The temple grounds are a bit nicer than those over the road, with more greenery and less concrete, and a few naturalistically painted statues dotted about.
Penang’s Nattukottai Chettiar Temple is the focus of the riotous three-day Hindu Thaipusam festival, in honour of Lord Subramanian (Jan or Feb). One of the crowning moments is the arrival of a silver chariot and statue of Lord Murugan, which have been carried from the sister temple in Georgetown. At other times of year, you’re free to concentrate on the temple itself, in which an unusual wooden colonnaded walkway with exquisite pictorial tiles leads up to the inner sanctum, where a life-sized solid-silver peacock – the birds crop up throughout the temple – bows its head to the deity, Lord Subramanian.
Dating to 1884, Georgetown’s Botanic Gardens were designed to beautify an old quarry. You wouldn’t know that now: there are lawns, a stream flowing through, paved walking tracks, groves of bamboos and ornamental trees, an orchid house, ferns and cactus, and surrounding forested hills. Saturday and Sunday mornings it’s packed with family groups of exercising Chinese, who storm around the circuit trail in about thirty minutes; take it slower and it’s good for an hour’s stroll. Picnics tend to be torpedoed by invading monkeys, but there are gentler creatures too, not least flying lizards, which coast between trees on the forest edge.
You can walk to Penang Hill from here in around three hours, but it’s a tough uphill hike – better to come down this way.
The suburb of Ayer Itam (also written “Air Hitam”) amounts to little more than a 100m-long bottleneck, where the traffic squeezed between shops and the canvas awnings of a busy wet market. There are two reasons to visit: the colonial-era retreat of Penang Hill, slightly north, which is rich in refreshingly cool air and greenery, and Kek Lok Si, a ludicrously over-built hilltop Buddhist complex.
At 821m high, Penang Hill makes a nice escape from Georgetown’s pollution and humidity: there are walking trails, flowers and bungalows (now hotels) dating from colonial times, when this hill station was a retreat for the British administrators. Nowadays, it’s a popular local excursion; avoid weekends and holidays if possible.
The bus delivers to the foot of the hill on Jalan Bukit Bandera; signs a short way north point to the “bat cave temple”, Tua Pek Kong. “Bat” in Chinese sounds like the word for “good fortune”, so the tiny shrine – named after a colony of bats out the back – is naturally dedicated to the god of luck.
From the top of Jalan Bukit Bandera, a funicular railway whisks visitors to the top of the near-vertical hillside in a few minutes – a fun ride, were it not for the extortionate fee. Views from the top terraces stretch beyond Georgetown and over the straits to Butterworth; gentle, badly marked walks lead out to Tiger Hill and Western Hill, while a sealed road at the back descends steeply to the Botanic Gardens in around two hours. Cream teas are offered by a few establishments, and you can also stay up here .
Supposedly the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, Kek Lok Si was founded by the abbot of Georgetown’s Kuan Yin Teng in 1885, and originally modelled on Fok San Monastery in Foochow, China. It certainly doesn’t resemble any normal temple complex nowadays: the hill sprouts all sorts of fantastic shrines and pagodas, linked by hundreds of steps, and bedecked with flags, lanterns and statues. The two most prominent features are the white, seven-tier wedding-cake assemblage that is the Ten Thousand Buddhas Pagoda, capped by a golden Burmese stupa; and a 30m-high bronze statue of the goddess of mercy, Kuan Yin, sheltered from the elements by an open-sided pavilion, its pillars wreathed in carved dragons.
For such an obvious landmark, the route up here is hard to find. From the Balik Pulau road, follow the market street up towards Kek Lok Si; just before the road bends uphill, look for a row of shops to the left concealing a gauntlet of trinket stalls, their awnings forming a tunnel. Steps ascend to the temple forecourt, past a pond for turtles, which represent eternity. A vegetarian restaurant at the top is open throughout the day.
Pulau Pinang is the focus of several important festivals and events throughout the year, starting with the riotous Hindu celebration Thaipusam. Perhaps the best known of the rest is the November Penang Bridge Run (wpenangmarathon.gov.my), when thousands of competitors run a pre-dawn marathon via the bridge to Butterworth. June sees the International Dragonboat Race (wpenangdragonboat.gov.my), a nominally Chinese event commemorating the death of a patriotic poet in 278 BC, while the July Cultural Festival (wgeorgetownfestival.com) provides a showcase for Penang’s ethnic groups, with a three-day food festival, art events and traditional Chinese opera performances at the temples. In November or December, Batu Ferrenghi also hosts the Penang Jazz Festival (wpenangjazz.com), attracting local and international performers.