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.