Penang, the Pearl of the Orient

Travel on Magic Carpet Journals with Barbara Kingstone to Malaysia's fascinating Penang and visit Georgetown

Article by Barbara Kingstone     Pictures by M. Maxine George



Bridge to Penang, Malaysia





The story of Georgetown, Penang (the Malaysian island off the mainland and the first British settlement in the Malay Peninsula), unfolded from my 15th floor Sheraton Hotel room. In the distances are the mountains, below the Andaman Sea. The city is dotted with old Colonial houses, some in disrepair, others cleverly renovated, while still others are reproductions but nevertheless giving a nod to the grandeur of the British past. Peeling walls of traditional two story Chinese shop-houses look antiquated, juxtaposed to new malls and shiny glass office skyscrapers.





Itís a brilliant place under a brilliant sky", was how Isabelle Bird, a Victorian tourist, summarized Georgetown in 1879. Georgetown is located on the north east tip of the island. Referred to as The Pearl of the Orient, Penang is a popular destination known for its fine beaches and clear blue waters. In 1786, Captain Francis Light discovered this island, then filled with betel nut palm. Light's friendship with the Sultan of Kedah was so strong that the Sultan ceded the island to the British East India Company.


Rainbow over Penang, Malaysia




Georgetown, with about 250,000 people, and named after King George III, is a throbbing city that feels much larger since it is spread out. For the traveler it offers a menu of unique adventures, different eating experiences and taking your life in your hands when you cross the streets.

Adding to the frenetic pace and the pollution, traffic juggernauts are made from a brigade of cars, buses, lorries, the dying-out ancient trishaw drivers and younger people swerving in and out on scooters.





As I stand looking down, everything western seems to delight the young locals who are dressed in trendy American labeled designer jeans. (Who knows, maybe they're knock-offs). Just below my window is a large original Colonial building, its huge clock tower now featuring a massive poster of the Colonel. Yes, Colonel Sanders and his Kentucky Fried Chicken is a busy meeting place. Scores of young people gather there while their elders seem to opt for smaller, less foreign eateries.




Penang Beach note the skydiver in upper left corner.


Hawker stalls, especially those on Gurney Drive, along the water, where tai chi meets jogging, seems to appeal to both locals and tourists. With a few dollars you can buy superlative Asian food from the dozens of wagons that draw the biggest crowd after sunset. It's a 'sit where you can' outdoor park atmosphere. After walking past several men and women cooking, the steam swirling upwards, I made my choice from three separate stands. Who knows how they located their customers after you've ordered and paid, but they did. The difficult issue was deciding  what you wanted, the variety was so great, the smell so enticing.. Each bowl's colour was dedicated to the individual owner. Nearby, is the incredibly popular 10 floor Gurney Plaza Shopping Mall which stays open late and becomes the best dessert.





Tony, my aging driver guide, born in Georgetown, is a man who seems to know everyone. Of course, I wanted to go to Chinatown and see the colourful pastel colour shuttered shophouses. Postcards of this scene are everywhere. "There is no Chinatown," Tony stated firmly, telling me  this metropolis is a potpourri of change and cultures. However 58% are Chinese hence Georgetown's Chinese have homes and shops throughout the city. Muslims make up 31% and Indians 10%.  The big irritant to Tony is that the pace is getting faster and "land is becoming scarce and expensive. Sky scrapers are going up everywhere," he seems to snarl.



Butterfly Farm PenangPenang Butterfly Farm














Education is free and unemployment is only 3% but the downside is that there are no unemployment benefits or pension plans if you've been an independent business person. Chi, a toothless trishaw driver, at 79 years old, is still hard at work in 35 Celsius, a transportation segment that is dying out. IT/Hi tech industry has taken over and expensive cars rule the roads. "Younger people don't even think about getting into trishaw driving anymore," Chi says sadly..


Tradition however, dies hard. On Lebuh Farquhar, the legendary Eastern and Oriental Hotel, after years of faded grandeur, closed for two years for well need renovation. Now all spruced up, it was totally occupied while I was there and not having considered this prospect, with luck I was able to find accommodations in this busy city at The Sheraton Hotel. However, I did have a splendid lunch in the famous tiled E & O's Palm Court where they have retained the old charm, with even the original floors and moldings. The stunning newly painted white stucco hotel being an heritage property, still has all the exterior Victorian touches and like it's sister hotel, Raffles in Singapore, represents a glorious age of times past. Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling were some of the stellar notables who enjoyed meals on the terrace where the ocean breeze gave some relieve to the sometimes oppressive heat. The hotel can't be beat for its convenience, beauty and reputation.



Gateway to the Thai Buddhist Temple

One morning giving Tony a free hand to decide on my itinerary, he drove to a spacious courtyard. . Khoo Kongsi, a clan house, was originally built in 1894 to assist and protect immigrants from the same clan. Unusual to North Americans, the kongsi is a secret society for people with the same surname. Originally erected in 1851, this kongsi mysteriously burned down in 1894 and was rebuilt in the early 1900s. The structure is meticulously crafted with saddle shaped roof, magnificently adorned hall and ornamented beams of the finest wood all done by Chinese craftsmen. On one other side of the courtyard is a stage where performances of Mandarin opera take place while facing it is the association building and row houses for clan members. The noise of razing equipment drowned out our conversation. Owned by the Khoo  families, the surrounding area, will have open- to- the- public shops and housing for family. One of the 2000 Khoos who live in Penang, a trustee, was standing on the ornately carved balcony. A friendly man, who seemed happy to talk to me said, "Not just any Khoo can become a member but only those from Hokkien Province. This organization dates back 165 years.




Head of the Reclining Buddha at the Thai Buddhist Temple



Not far away, certainly the most visited sight, is Chaiya Mangkalaran, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. The land was donated by Queen Victoria to the Thai community in the 1800s. Within this elongated simple rectangular building with high pitched roof is the largest Buddha in Malaysia and the 3rd largest in the world. The 33m sculpture, covered with gold gilt and looking like porcelain, has his head on his right palm signifying Nirvana. On his foot is a large birthmark representing a happy realm. Behind are numerous and costly niches containing urns with ashes of late devotees. With some shoving and pushing, school children of expats are sketching on their pads and taking notes for their end of school term.





Elephants guard gate at Burmese Buddhist Temple, Penang



Across the street, is Dharmikara Burmese Temple built in 1815 A pair of carved elephants guard the entrance. Inside, seated in saffron robes is a monk now surrounded at his feet by a few dozen children from an American private school. He asks them if they have any questions. A few tentatively raise their hands and the elderly monk kindly answers and explains. His smile is serene. I leave to see the mythical figures and religious icons dotted around the temple grounds where there's a man meditating under the Boddhi tree, several visitors tossing coins into a wishing pond while another stretched out on a bench is having a snooze.





Entrance to Sasana Vamsa Sima Shrine Hall


The day is steaming hot but a visitor can't leave without going to the Blue House, Cheng Fatt Tze. The exterior, an exciting indigo has the blue sky to emphasis the colour. Feng Shui is meticulously incorporated into the 38 room mansion with 2 windows once owned by its namesake, a most successful businessman. Waiting for the tour, the ceiling fans don't help the oppressive heat, Mother- of -pearl inlaid Ironwood chairs are inviting so a few of us sit as we listen to the guide who goes into every minute detail of the lobby. The stately mansion, now a privately owned small hotel has 15 theme bedrooms but before visiting them, the guide holds us hostage in the rectangular and tranquil courtyard. Her tour seems never ending in this hot, humid atmosphere. However, the mansion is worth seeing and won the UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Award in 2000 (room rates are from RM250 to RM 700)




There is a never ending list of sights to see..60 foot high Clock Tower ( junction of Lebuh Light and Lebuh Pantai); Kek Lok Si Temple; Bird Park with 800 birds (Seberang Jaya); Butterfly Farm ( Teluk Bahans); and of course the 13.5m spectacular Penang Bridge, the only link with the mainland.



For a resort stay, Batu Ferringhi (Foreigner's Rock). is the most famous of Penang's beaches.. The Grand Plaza Park Royal Hotel is equipped for children of all ages, baby sitting facilities, sandy beach and swimming pools. It's approximately 27 Km from the centre of Georgetown.

After hot days of sightseeing, rest and relaxation and dipping in a cool water pool at a nearby beach resort would be the most obvious and intelligent diversion. However, with my love for this city with all the noise and colour I opt instead to remain in Georgetown for its history, mystery and beauty and for Thai meals from several of the Hawker stalls.




I flew from Toronto to Vancouver on Air Canada, stayed over at the very convenient Vancouver airport's, Sheraton Hotel before boarding Cathay Pacific Airline to Hong Kong and Malaysian Air to Kuala Lumpur. Cathay Pacific Airline also has flights from Toronto directly to Hong Kong shaving off several hours of travel.


Article By Barbara Kingstone.            Pictures by M. Maxine George

If you go:

Eastern & Oriental Hotel 10 Lebuh Farquhar Tel 630630

Wat Chaiya Mangkararam, on Lorong Burma Admission free

Dharmikaarama Burmese Temple, on Lorong Burma

Clock Tower at junction of Lebuh Light and Lebuh Pantai


Return to Magic Carpet Journals                   Return to Malaysia

To sign in as a fellow traveler on  Magic Carpet Journals  or to contact us just click here to send a message.

Last Updated on November 07, 2008 by M. Maxine George editor.

© 2006 Magic Carpet Journals. All rights reserved