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 still 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 northern entry to the Strait of Malacca, the island was used for centuries as a safe harbor for traders from China, India, Arabia and Europe. British Captain 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. 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 of the state of Penang (which, in addition to the island, also includes a slice of the mainland) totals about 1.75 million; George Town's population is about 738,000, primarily ethnic Chinese, followed by Malays and Indians. The Peranakans, also known as Straits-born Chinese, represent a distinct subculture. In the past, Chinese traders married Malay women, and the 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 Hindu temples, Muslim mosques and colonial-era Christian churches. Now, UNESCO recognition has brought a new influx of tourists. George Town's crumbling "shophouses" 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 drier months of January and February. The equatorial climate keeps it hot year-round (74 to 90 degrees) with fierce sun, so plan accordingly when heading ashore.
Traffic moves on the left side of the street, 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 pickpocketing sometimes occur. Just use caution in crowds, and carry your purse on the side of your body that is 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.
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.
Currency in Penang is the Malaysian ringgit. Visit www.xe.com for current rates. There are no ATMs or money-changing facilities at the cruise terminal, but there are many banks with ATMs nearby; you'll run into several if you head down either Lebuh Pantai or Lebuh Light. (Both streets intersect with the large traffic circle you'll see just down the road from the terminal.)
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 mashup 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.
Close to the port, Little India and Chinatown offer shops selling items from those respective countries.
A bit further away, under the roofs of neighboring Penang Bazaar and Chowrasta Market (on Jalan 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 alleys between buildings host street-food vendors.
On the Tourism Penang website, you'll find a listing of heritage shops and craftspeople, including a jewelry maker, signboard maker and puppet mistress, all of whom are well worth visiting.
Shoppers who prefer an air-conditioned mall environment can head to Gurney Plaza, about 4 miles up the coast from the pier, which offers nine floors of upscale shops and food outlets. International brands and local clothing and crafts can be found there, as well as a "fish spa," where finned friends nibble the dead skin off your feet. (170 Persiaran Gurney; 604-222 8222; daily 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.)