To say that the Malaysian state of Penang is a cultural melting pot would be an understatement of the region’s true vibrancy. Thanks to its diverse range of indigenous ethnicities – Malay, Chinese and Indian – and its unique maritime history, it has come to the fore on the list of discerning jetsetters across the globe, all eager to partake in its stunning architecture, culinary treasures and colourful heritage. Home to nearly 1.7 million residents, Penang, located along the Malacca Strait, is the second-smallest state in Malaysia, spanning just 1,048sq.km between Penang Island to the east and Simpang Ampat to the west. While it boasts one of the highest population densities in the nation, one doesn’t have to search too far to find stretches of verdant greenery and coastlines dotted with white sandy beaches.
While history has seen Penang’s fortunes wax and wane with ever-changing governments and policies, the first indication that it would explode on an international scale was in 2008, when its capital, George Town, was officially recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As part of the UNESCO competition, then, the city began to transform the walls within its historic centre with a 52-piece artwork collection dubbed Marking the George Town Steel Rod Sculptures, created by the Sculpture At Work art collective. Today they serve as Instagram-friendly destinations, sure to notch up the ‘likes’ on any social media.
Architecture buffs, meanwhile, are also spoilt for choice in George Town. Thanks to the multicultural influences of its international inhabitants, any walk down its many winding pathways will reveal a treasure trove of Malay kampungs, colonially-inspired bungalows, Peranakan shop-houses and more, all showcasing the overlapping multi-ethnic roots that have shaped the city.
In particular, George Town boasts a vibrant festival scene that caters to each of its diverse cultures. Take, for instance, the popular Tamil festival of Thaipusam, loosely translating to “when the moon is at its brightest”. This three-day Hindu celebration honours Lord Murugan, the Hindu god of war, during the full moon of the Tamil month of Thai (usually in January / February), and sees over a million devotees descend each year to follow the silver-and-gold chariot procession and its train of cheek- and tongue-pierced devotees as it wends its way through the streets.
For those looking for a base from which to explore this plethora of street art, architecture and festivals, George Town is certainly not lacking in luxury hotels and resorts. Among these, perhaps the most charmingly quaint is the Macalister Mansion, a 100-year-old colonial mansion transformed into an eight-bedroom boutique hotel. Named after the city’s former British Governor, Colonel Norman Macalister, the now-redesigned 1,700sq.m mansion is located in the heart of city, welcoming guests with its plush interiors and a sophisticated range of wining and dining options.
If your pedestrian explorations have left you feeling peckish, fear not, for George Town offers a plethora of delicious culinary experiences to suit every price point. Those in search of Penang’s renowned street food, however, could do far worse than pencil in a trip to the neighbourhood of Lorong Baru. The star attraction here is undoubtedly the New Lane Hawker Centre, which offers epicurean-minded travellers with an expansive selection of the Malaysian city’s most popular dishes. Be it servings of delicious age-old family recipes such as Penang asam laksa (a rich and spicy fish-based soup broth loaded with noodles and sumptuous seafood), chendul (a bowl of shaved ice filled nearly to the top with chewy green rice flour jelly, red beans, fresh coconut milk and a pinch of gula melaka syrup), or mee goreng (rice noodles with cuttlefish, potatoes and bean sprouts), you’d be hard-pressed not to leave without loosening your belt by a notch or two.
Once you’ve had your fill of the city centre’s countless urban delights, end your Peranakan adventure by venturing out to one of the countless picturesque beach resorts nearby that dot Penang Island. Indeed, just a 30-minute drive from George Town will take you to some stunning sand-and-surf destinations, including Batu Ferringhi and Tanjung Bungah. Whether you indulge your athletic side with a spot of windsurfing or jet skiing, or embrace complete beachside relaxation, the sheer natural beauty of the surrounding seaside will have you counting down the minutes until your next Penang sojourn.
Text: Bailey Atkinson
Photos: Penang Global Tourism, Macalister Mansion