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Penang, a 111-square-mile island off the west coast of Malaysia, gets its name from the betel nut tree, called "pinang" in Malaysian. While some residents chew betel nuts, you'll probably be more interested in sinking your teeth into the astonishing variety of foods available in this culinary capital. Add in the historic architecture that boosted port city George Town onto UNESCO's World Heritage list, plus the rich blend of cultures, and Penang makes for a rewarding destination.
Located at the north entry to the Straits of Malacca, the island was used for centuries as a safe harbor for traders from China, India, Arabia and Europe. British Capt. Francis Light arranged to have Penang ceded by the Sultan of Kedah to the British East India Company in 1786 in return for promised military protection. Legend has it that Light fired a cannon filled with coins into the jungle to get locals to clear the ground. With the construction of Fort Cornwallis and the founding of George Town (named after King George III), Penang became Britain's first stronghold in Southeast Asia. Trade flourished -- including rubber, tin and opium -- and attracted fortune-seekers from around the world. The island was captured by the Japanese in World War II and became part of the independent state of Malaysia in 1957.
Today, the population totals about 750,000, with the majority being ethnic Chinese, followed by Malays and Indians. The Peranakans represent a distinct subculture. In the past, Chinese traders married Malay women, and a blending of the cultures created hybrid customs, foods and dress.
Penang's melting pot of cultures contributes to its fascinating food scene, as well as to its many places of worship, including Chinese clan houses, Hindu temples, Muslim mosques and colonial-era Christian churches. Now, UNESCO recognition has brought a new influx of tourists. George Town's crumbling "shop houses" are being rehabbed into boutique hotels, while outside the city, shopping malls and luxury housing have sprung up along beaches.
The cruise season is fairly well timed to coincide with Penang's dryer months of January and February. The equatorial climate keeps it hot year-round (72 to 86 degrees) with fierce sun, so plan accordingly when heading ashore.
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Other Asia Cruise Ports:
Bangkok (Laem Chabang) • Beijing • Cochin • Da Nang • Hanoi • Hiroshima • Ho Chi Minh City • Hong Kong • Koh Samui • Kuala Lumpur • Langkawi • Mumbai • Nagasaki • Osaka • Penang • Saipan • Seoul (Incheon) • Shanghai • Sihanoukville • Singapore • Yangon (Rangoon)
Sip a Penang Sling in colonial splendor at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, once owned by the brothers who founded Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
While you might pick up a "souvenir" of five extra pounds after sampling Penang's delectable food, you might also decide to bring back an inexpensive outfit from Little India or a more expensive lacy, embroidered kebaya, the traditional jacket-like top worn by Peranakan women. (You'll find some ready-made models available at the Chowrasta Market complex.) Peranakan Nyonya beaded shoes can also be pricey -- but beautiful -- souvenirs. The best are made to order at places like Hong Kong Shoe Store (20 Kimberley Street; open Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.), where native son Jimmy Choo apprenticed, or Nyonya Beaded Shoes (4 Lebuh Armenian; open Monday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to noon and 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.). You'll also find less-expensive ready-made versions around town. In the "little something" category, whole nutmeg, grown on the island, can be found at Chowrasta Market (Jalan Penang and Lebuh Dickens) and at spice shops in Little
The official language of Penang is Malay. Most locals you'll encounter speak at least some English -- and many are fluent, thanks to Penang's past as a British colony. You might also hear a mix of Malay and English (with a mash-up of Hokkien, Mandarin, Cantonese and Tamil words, as well), referred to as "Manglish." When reading a map, it's helpful to know that "jalan," "lebuh" and "lorong" are all words for "street" (depending on size), and you'll see both those and English terms used on signs. Some streets are also double-named, with an old British name, as well as a newer Malay name.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Currency on Penang is the Malaysian ringgit. For currency-conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. There are no ATM's or money-changing facilities at the cruise terminal, but banks with ATM's are nearby, including a Standard Chartered Bank and HSBC bank, both at the intersection of Lebuh Downing and Lebuh Pantai.
Where You're Docked
Ships put in at a prime spot, Swettenham Pier Cruise Terminal, located on the northeast tip of George Town, within walking distance of many attractions. The building opened in 2009 and can handle the largest ships; unfortunately, it features little that's of interest for travelers.
Maps of George Town and surrounding areas are available on racks toward the terminal exit, where a flurry of persistent taxi drivers wave brochures. Central George Town, with its UNESCO World Heritage area, museums, covered market, street food vendors and ethnic neighborhoods, is within walking distance of the pier. But if you don't want to hoof it in the heat, hopping aboard a trishaw is also an option.
On Foot: George Town is flat, and most streets have sidewalks -- though they may be obstructed by shop merchandise. The older parts of town have arcaded buildings that shadow the sidewalks (called gor kha lor or "five-foot ways"), but sidewalk height can go up or down, with a step or two, from building to building. If you decide to walk, there's something of interest hiding in nearly every little alley.
By Taxi: Taxis are plentiful and relatively inexpensive. If you like to tour independently and want to see attractions outside George Town, you might choose to negotiate a ride for the day. Drivers are supposed to use the meter but often refuse or say it's broken. In that case, settle on a fixed fee before you get in and they step on the gas.
By Trishaw: A few of these human-powered taxis still ply George Town, and the same rule goes as for them as for taxis -- negotiate. You'll get the best deal if you hire one for an hour or longer.
By Bus: Rapid Penang operates many buses in George Town and around the island. The company has a handy guide on its Web site listing points of interest and which bus to take to get there.
Watch Out For
Traffic moves on the left side of the road, British-style. Be very cautious, and look to the right when crossing the street.
George Town is generally quite safe, but petty crimes like purse-snatching and pick-pocketing sometimes occur. Just use normal caution in crowds, and carry your purse on the side away from the street.
Take precautions to protect yourself from sun and heat, which can be exhausting. Sunblock and a hat or an umbrella are essential. Take frequent breaks if you're walking, cool off in an air-conditioned shop now and then, and drink plenty of fluids.
Speaking of fluids, the water in Penang is safe to drink, and hygiene among street food vendors is of a higher standard than most places in Asia. We dined on a variety of street foods with no problem.
George Town's historic buildings earned it UNESCO World Heritage status. They include Fort Cornwallis and grand colonial architecture along Lebuh Light and Lebuh Farquhar, as well as historic shophouses (with shops on the bottom and residences above), places of worship, mansions and Chinese clan jetties. The Penang Heritage Trust offers several different heritage walking tours (604-264-2631) that start at 9 a.m. and last about three hours each; be sure to book in advance. If you'd like to tour on your own, Penang Tourism offers a colored map that you can download and print. It includes the locations and photos of many heritage buildings, as well as "intangible heritage" workshops.
The Penang State Museum is an air-conditioned oasis with excellent, well-curated displays depicting the history and cultures of Penang. You'll see everything from ornate Peranakan wedding outfits to information on George Town's food scene. (Lebuh Farquhar; open Saturday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; 604-261-3144)
The "Street of Harmony," Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling (formerly Pitt Street), offers an unusual chance to see major religious communities existing side by side. Just off the street, you'll find the beautiful, historic Kapitan Keling Mosque, the Indian Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy Temple and Anglican St. George's Church. You'll come upon many other historic Chinese temples and clan buildings in the city's old streets and alleys that are well worth a look.
George Town is becoming known for its clever street art, which appears as engaging murals with 3D elements by Lithuanian-born Ernest Zacharevic, or entertaining welded-iron caricatures that illustrate how different streets or neighborhoods earned their names. A downloadable brochure from Penang Tourism offers descriptions and tells you where to find the art (or just look for a gaggle of tourists posing for photos with some of Zacharevic's most popular works).
Under the roofs of neighboring Penang Bazaar and Chowrasta Market (on Jalah Pinang near Lebuh Campbell), you'll find everything from spices to fabric and souvenir fridge magnets. If you enjoy markets, it's worth poking around. The second floor of the market houses a boggling collection of used books, while alleyways between buildings host street-food vendors.
See how wealthy George Town traders lived by visiting either the Pinang Peranakan Mansion (29 Church Street; open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; 604-264292) or Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (14 Lebuhraya Leith; guided tours at 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.; 604-262-0006). Both are huge homes, although the latter also serves as a hotel, so access is more limited. If you have time to visit only one, we recommend the Peranakan Mansion, which is full of furniture and artifacts depicting family life.
Chinese Clan Jetties jut into the water about a half-mile south of the cruise terminal, off of Pengkalan Weld. Houses and temples are built along historic piers. The most famous (and, thus, the most visited by tours) is the Chew Jetty. For a quieter, more personal experience, explore the narrow passageways of the Lim Jetty, which you reach before the Chew Jetty.
Been There, Done That
Nature-lovers might want to head to the Botanic Garden or the Tropical Spice Garden. The 72-acre Botanic Gardens site was founded in 1884 by the British. It's a five-mile trip outside of George Town by bus or taxi. In addition to the vast collection of unusual tropical trees and plants, you'll also probably spot long-tailed macaques and dusky leaf monkeys as you stroll the paths. In fact, don't take any food with you, or the critters might get a bit too friendly. (open daily, 5 a.m. to 8 p.m.; 604-227-0428) The Tropical Spice Garden, about 13 miles from the pier and best reachable by taxi, features 500 species of flora and fauna, spread over eight acres of secondary tropical jungle. The facility also has a gift shop and cafe and offers guided tours and cooking lessons. (Book both in advance.) It can be combined with a visit to the nearby beach area, Batu Ferringhi. (garden open daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
Kek Lok Si Temple is a huge complex (said to be the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia) located in the hills about six miles from the pier. Aside from the excellent views, attractions include a funicular train that travels up to a massive 120-foot-high statue of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, as well as a tower of 10,000 Buddhas, which you can climb under your own power for more views. With its souvenir shops and crowds, the place seems a bit like Disneyland. It can also be combined with a trip to nearby Penang Hill, about a mile away.
Penang Hill was a cool refuge for the British, who built bungalows along its slopes. The Penang Hill Railway can take you to the top, 2,000 feet above sea level, where food and tea vendors offer refreshments to accompany the views. (open weekdays from 6:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., weekends from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., closed for annual inspection during one week in January)
Toy-lovers can travel back to their childhoods at Ben's Vintage Toy Museum in George Town. Chances are, the friendly family members who lovingly collected the toys will be there to walk you through the small private museum's two floors. (55 Lebuh Acheh; open Saturday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; 6014-308-6657)
Shoppers who prefer an air-conditioned mall environment can head to Gurney Plaza, nine floors of upscale shops and food outlets about four miles up the coast from the pier. International brands and local clothing and crafts can be found, as well as a "fish spa," where finned friends nibble the dead skin off your feet.
Ferringhi Beach (Batu Ferringhi) is located up to an hour from George Town, depending on traffic. The waters aren't as pristine as you might hope for, and there's the buzz of water-sports vehicles, but you'll still find white sand and palms amid the resort hotels. As dusk falls, a famous Night Market stretches more than a half-mile along the beach. (By the way, ferringhi might sound familiar to Star Trek fans. It actually means "foreigner.")
Penang's melting pot of cultures cooks up some great cuisine. You'll find Indian, Chinese and Malay dishes -- all with uniquely Penang-style twists. In addition, there's Peranakan Nyonya ("mama") food, a cuisine that developed when Chinese traders married local Malay women, as well as an abundance of seafood. For a look at 12 iconic local dishes, and where to find them, download Penang Tourism's excellent Food Trail brochure.
Some of the most popular dishes include assam laksa (hot and sour fish broth with noodles, vegetables and shrimp paste), fried koay teow (rice noodles stir-fried with prawns and cockles) and roti canai (crispy, flat Indian pastries cooked on a griddle and served with spicy lentil dip). Desserts tend to be shaved ice, with toppings like sweet beans, corn, coconut milk and green pandan noodles. For a fascinating, cooling drink, try ais tingkap, described below.
To sample George Town's famous hawker food, your best bet at lunchtime is to visit Lorong Selamat, between Jalan Burmah and Jalan Macalister -- less than two miles from the pier. Keng Huat Cafe is famous for its char kuey teow (and rude proprietor), as is its competitor Low Eng Hoo Cafe. T&T Hokkien Mee dishes up several versions of the classic soup noodles, while, farther down the street, you'll find oyster omelets, duck rice and laksa vendors. To suss out the best vendors, look for lines of locals.
The ais tingkap street vendor concocts one of the most interesting beverages you'll ever consume. The base is shaved ice, which makes it fabulously refreshing. To that, the Indian proprietor adds rose essence, coconut water, a bit of sugar syrup, fresh coconut water, tender "young coconut" meat, a dash of herbs and -- most unusual of all -- soaked basil seeds, which form a gelatinous coating around their crunchy center. It all sounds rather strange, but trust us, the rosy-pink drink is worth a try. And the show's good, too, as the complex concoction gets mixed for you. To find the vendor, look to your right as you head down little Lebuh Tamil for tables against the wall and a man surrounded by various buckets and jars of ingredients. (Lebuh Tamil, left off of Jalan Penang in the Chowrasta Market complex)
Tek Sen Restaurant is renowned for its siew yuk, or double-cooked pork. (With a name like that, it has to be good, right?) But the extensive menu (in English) provides plenty to choose from, with several Chinese ethnic cuisines represented. The decor offers very little, though. (18 and 20 Carnarvon Street; open noon to 2:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.; 6012-493-9424)
De Tai Tong Cafe is a classic dim sum spot, where you'll find "aunties" pushing carts of Chinese dumplings through the decor-free room that harkens back to the 1960's. In addition to the usual dumplings, they also serve noodle dishes. (45 Cintra Street; open daily, 6 a.m. to noon and 6 p.m. to 11p.m., but sometimes closed on Mondays; 604-263-6625)
Ivy's Nyonya Cuisine, about two miles from the pier, offers favorites like assam prawns and beef randang in a nondescript atmosphere with warm, friendly owners and reasonable prices. Set menus let you sample more dishes with smaller portions of each. (58 Jalan Chow Thye, off Burmah Road; open Tuesday to Sunday, noon to 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.)
Kapitan offers a wide variety of Indian food in a bustling but scruffy environment. We're suckers for roti canai, and their butter chicken was tasty, too, washed down with a mango lassi. They're also known for their clay pot nasi briyani, a spicy rice dish. (93 Chulan Street, George Town; open 24 hours daily; 604-264-1191)
Kebaya Restaurant is only open for dinner, but if you're in port, it's worth a visit for upscale "modern" Nyonya cuisine, using innovative ingredients and techniques, in a stylish fine-dining environment. (Seven Terraces Hotel, Stewart Lane; open Tuesday to Sunday, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.; 604-264-2333)
1885 Fine Dining Restaurant serves British afternoon tea in the landmark E&O Hotel. Dress appropriately for the elegant environment. (Eastern & Oriental Hotel, Lebuh Farquhar; tea daily from 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.; 604-222-2000 ext. 3170)
Suffolk House offers refined European dining and afternoon tea in a beautifully renovated heritage building. The chef is known for his truffle mushroom soup. (250 Jalan Air Itam; open noon to 2:30 p.m. for lunch, 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. for tea, 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. for dinner; 604-228-3930)
Staying in Touch
Mozs Enterprise is more of a Kinko's-type enterprise, rather than a gaming-oriented Internet cafe. It's located about 1.5 miles from the pier, in George Town's tallest building. (A1-31, ground floor, KOMTAR Building; open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; 601-2439)
Netcity.com.my is located about two miles from the pier. It's a large center with 19-inch flat-screen computers and Internet connectivity at 9.0 Mbps -- though it caters to gamers. (173-G-3, 4 and 5 Jalan Burmah; open 24 hours daily)
You'll also find numerous small hole-in-the-wall Internet cafes in the "backpacker neighborhood," around the intersection of Lebuh Chulia and Lorong Love (Love Lane), less than a mile from the pier. While Lovelocks, right at the intersection, doesn't have terminals, it offers good, free Wi-Fi with the purchase of their tasty coconut ice cream -- and it's blissfully air-conditioned.
Best for First-Timers: Different lines offer a variety of highlights and heritage tours, which usually include sites like Fort Cornwallis, the Chew Jetty, "Street of Harmony" and Penang State Museum, mixed in with a batik workshop and a temple, such as the Wat Chayamangkalaram, with its 108-foot-long reclining golden Buddha. Tours can last 5 to 7.5 hours, depending on the cruise line.
Best for Culture Vultures: Several tours offer close-up looks at George Town's cultural heritage -- some even by trishaw. One 5.5-hour tour (with lunch) visits the Clan Jetties and temples. Another visits a temple, clan house and Pinang Peranakan Mansion Museum,while a third tour visits the market, Penang State Museum and Little India.
Best for Foodies: A couple of tours let you experience local cuisine and specialties. The former visits shops with a focus on herbs and traditional medicinal foods, then heads for a food hawker center. The latter visits a shop that specializes in combining chocolate with tropical fruits, introduces you to Penang "white coffee" and also visits a food-hawker center. Tours last 4 to 4.5 hours.
Best for the Big Picture: An island tour of five to six hours (with lunch) circles Penang, from bustling George Town to the quiet Malay villages. Stops can include a batik workshop, a butterfly farm, a fruit and spice stall, and a photo op at the Penang Bridge, fifth-longest in the world. Some versions also include a stop at the Temple of Azure Clouds or "Snake Temple," where monks traditionally care for snakes.
Best for Nature-Lovers: Excursions lasting 4.5 to 5 hours take in the Butterfly Farm, plus either the Botanic Gardens and Tropical Spice Garden or a batik workshop and Batu Ferringhi, the island's best-known beach.
Best for Shopaholics: A five-hour shore tour takes you to some of Penang's malls -- Queensbay, Prangin and KOMTAR. Another 3.5-hour tour takes you shopping at Chowrasta Market, Little India and Jesselton Heights, the local "Beverley Hills."
For More Information
On the Web: Penang State Tourism Official Web Site
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Asia
Independent Traveler: Asia Travel Guide
--by Gayle Keck, Cruise Critic contributor