More than a culinary hotspot, Penang, which sits in the northwest corner of Malaysia, may be one of the country’s smallest states, but it makes up for size by being a cultural giant. Spurred on further by the state’s strategic port location that has been dealing with the East and West trading routes with more than 500 years of various cultural exchanges, Penang is now a melting pot of hybrid communities, boasting a heritage that speaks volumes about colonial influences interwoven with Asian tradition.
The eclectic vibe that imbibes Penang is indubitably also reflected through the architecture that peppers the state. With neat rows of whitewashed pre-war buildings interspersed with a bright palette of shophouses, painted wall murals and religious edifices.
Dotted throughout Penang are various religious hotspots like the Arulmigu Karumariamman Temple (featuring Malaysia’s largest Indian temple entrance), Kuan Yin Temple and Penang’s oldest Buddhist temple or Dharmikarama (the first Burmese temple in Penang). These holy edifices lie along the circuit towards Penang Hill.
The vibrant state, which has its share of natural attractions taking its form in pristine beaches, secluded coves, craggy cliffs, and peaks surrounded by forest parks, is a haven for any type of traveller.
The best place to start exploring all this is from its capital, George Town.
Sitting on the northeast corner of Penang Island, which lies in the Straits of Malacca, is the capital and cultural metropolis of Penang. Considered to be one of the most colourful cities in Malaysia, George Town’s streets, which appear to immortalise the 1920s grandeur, are continually bustling with activities: Chulia Street, propped up by Chinese shophouses, is brimming with street food cuisine that stays open till the wee hours, while Victoria street with its colonial mansions and fortifications serve as a testament of Penang’s British history.
There are also religious hotspots smattered across the region, showcasing the multiculturalism that thrives within the city. Annual festivals like the recent Penang International Music Festival held at Penang Botanic Gardens sizes up George Town – a UNESCO heritage site – as the veritable marrow of Penang’s vim.
Sitting in the heart of George Town and serving as a buffer zone between the various cultural belts, Campbell Street – named after interim Lieutenant Governor of Penang, Sir George William Robert Campbell – is a long stretch of shops plastered with huge signboards and a series of markets that hug the winding streets.
From wet markets that move the daily catch of seafood, poultry and meat to traditional stalls that peddle vintage jewellery, custom embroidered clothes, tea and antique swords to makeshift flea markets, Campbell Street exudes a certain Asian-Bohemian vibe that deviates strongly from the British clout seen throughout the region.
Complementing the street’s lively personality are the numerous murals that adorn the alley walls, especially along the corner of Ah Quee street where works of art reflect the various heritages. Some of the murals were painted by international artists during the George Town Festival in 2012, while most of the art pieces were drafted up by local artists looking to tell a story of Penang’s original inhabitants.
Painting a noble picture, City Hall (a colonial building that was also the setting for some of the court scenes in Anna & King) is situated a few lanes away from Campbell Street.
Summing up the British influence that sweeps the city, this white-washed, stately edifice which stands tall next to Fort Cornwallis (the largest standing fort in Malaysia that has served as a watchtower rather than a pawn in battle) was once used to house the British polity.
To explore this island’s strong British influence and the remnants of WWII, you can take a guided tour like the Urban Trail, which first covers a kaleidoscope of cultural spots that border George Town before hitting the inner, uncluttered colonial areas like Queen Victoria Memorial Clocktower, the Cenotaph (a memorial built to remember those who died in WWII), several cathedrals and churches, and the Penang State Museum that now houses some of the city’s renowned artworks.
Penang is easily accessible by air, as it has an international airport. There are also ferry services that ply between Seberang Perai (in Butterworth) on mainland Malaysia and Penang. These brightly-coloured iconic ferries – which also happen to be Malaysia’s oldest ferry service – take roughly 15 minutes in travelling time, and links up George Town to Butterworth, the mainland’s biggest pull.