Malaysia Stories and Tips

Pearl of the Orient

Penang Ferry Service to the island Photo, Malaysia, Asia

Penang is often known as "The Pearl of the Orient". Its history began when the island was leased to Captain Francis Light, an English trader-adventurer working for a Madras-based firm, in exchange for military protection from the Siamese and Burmese armies who were threatening Kedah.

The architecture in Penang is a durable testament of her history - outstanding colonial buildings include the Municipal Council and Town Hall buildings, Penang Museum, the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, St George's Anglican Church, and buildings in the old commercial district - all of which are part of the UNESCO Heritage Site.

Penang is linked to the Peninsula by a 13.5 km (9 miles), three-lane, dual carriageway Penang Bridge. Penang Bridge is one of the longest bridges in Asia. Alternatively, there is a ferry service for passengers, and vehicles from Butterworth in the Peninsula. Driving from Kuala Lumpur is about 4 to 5 hours.

Penang was recognized as having the Best Street Food in Asia by TIME magazine in 2004. I couldn't agree more. The food reflects an ethnic mix of Chinese, Nyonya, Malay, and Indian in Malaysia. The best places to savor Penang's food include Gurney Drive, Pulau Tikus, New Lane, Penang Road and Chulia Street. In retrospective, Penang is truly a cosmopolitan city with communities of Burmese, Filipino, Ceylonese, Japanese, Eurasian, Arab, Armenian and list goes on. It has a sizable expatriate population under the Malaysian My Second Home Program, and this has greatly influenced the local cuisines in Penang which you don't find often anywhere else in Malaysia.

One of Penang's best known attractions is Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. Located at 14 Keith Street, the structure was erected in the 1880s by Hakka merchant, Cheong Fatt Tze. The mansion is built in a traditional Hakka-Teochew style. The stately manor as 38 rooms, 5 granite-paved courtyards, 7 staircases, and 220 timber-framed windows.

The Khoo Khongsi is a Chinese clanhouse for individuals with the same surname, Khoo. The clanhouse represents the family's social and spiritual commitments between ancestors and the extended families. The Penang Khoo Khongsi (known as Dragon Mountain Hall) has an impressive architectural feat that personifies good luck and wealth. Stone carvings adorned the entrance hall and pavilions, fantastic murals portraying birthdays, weddings and most impressively, the 36 divine guardians sprinkle the interior. The Khoo Khongsi has retained its authentic historic setting, which include an association building, a traditional theatre and the late 19th century rowhouses for clan members, all clustered around a granite-paved square.

Fort Cornwallis is another well-known landmark in Penang. The fortress’ 10-feet walls are laid out in the shape of a star, and within those walls, some of the original structures built over a century ago can still be seen – a chapel, some prison cells, ammunition storage area, a harbor light, the original flagstaff and some old bronze cannons, which include the infamous 17th-century Dutch cannon called ‘Seri Rambai’, believed by the locals to have an encouraging effect on women’s fertility. As for Captain Frances Light, his final resting place is at the Catholic Cemetery, located less than a block from Penang Road.

There is a lot more in Penang that meets the eyes. "The Pearl of the Orient" has a unique architectural and cultural landscape without parallel anywhere in Southeast Asia. It is also the most livable city in Malaysia and it has the lowest crime rate in the country. It is definitely one of the best islands to explore in Asia.

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