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.
Ships dock at 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, aside from restrooms and Wi-Fi. Maps of George Town and surrounding areas are available near 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.
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.
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 "5-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. GrabTaxi is a local taxi-calling app you can use if you have cellphone service.
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 website listing points of interest and which bus to take to get there. Rapid Penang also operates the free CAT (Central Area Transit) Bus, a shuttle that runs within George Town, serving local attractions. Buses operate every 15 minutes, from 6 a.m. to 11:45 p.m.; look for Rapid Penang buses with a "Free CAT Bus" sign.
By Hop-On Hop-Off Bus: These tourist buses cover two different routes -- City (every 20 to 30 minutes, with a stop at the cruise terminal) and Beach (every hour and 15 minutes); both run from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. You can buy a 24-hour or 48-hour pass.
By Bike: George Town has a bike-share program called Link Bike. Sign up in advance, and you can get a day pass for a very reasonable rate. (Day passes let you ride for free in 30-minute increments throughout the day, with charges only if one biking session stretches beyond the allotted half-hour.) There are bike stations within a couple of blocks of the port. You'll need a smartphone and cell service to be able to operate the system.
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.
Penang's melting pot of cultures results in 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 fresh local 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 at lunchtime, visit Lorong Selamat, between Jalan Burmah and Jalan Macalister -- less than 2 miles from the pier. Heng 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 Lebuh Tamil for tables against the wall and a man surrounded by various buckets and jars of ingredients. (Lebuh Tamil, left off Jalan Penang in the Chowrasta Market complex)
Tek Sen Restaurant is a simple spot that's renowned for its siew yuk, or double-cooked pork, but the extensive menu (in English) provides plenty to choose from, with several Chinese ethnic cuisines represented. (18 and 20 Carnarvon Street; 6012-493-9424; Wednesday through Monday noon to 2:30 p.m. and 6 to 8:30 p.m.)
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 1960s. In addition to the usual dumplings, they also serve noodle dishes. (45 Lebuh Cintra; 604-263-6625; daily 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 6:15 to 11:30 p.m., but sometimes closed on Mondays)
Ivy's Nyonya Cuisine, about 2 miles from the pier, offers favorites like assam prawns and beef rendang 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; Wednesday through Sunday noon to 3 p.m. and to 9 p.m.; Tuesday, 6 to 9 p.m.)
Kapitan offers a wide variety of Indian food in a bustling but scruffy environment. We're suckers for the roti canai, and their butter chicken was tasty, too, especially washed down with a mango lassi. They're also known for their clay pot nasi briyani, a spicy rice dish. (93 Chulan Street; 604-264-1191; open 24 hours daily)
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; 604-222-2000 ext. 3170; tea daily 2 to 5 p.m.)
Suffolk House offers refined European dining and afternoon tea in a beautifully renovated heritage building. The chef is best known for his truffle mushroom soup. (250 Jalan Air Hitam; 604-228-3930; daily noon to 2:30 p.m. for lunch, 2 to 6 p.m. for tea, 7 to 10:30 p.m. for dinner)
Kebaya Dining Room is only open for dinner, but if you're in port overnight, 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; 604-264-2333; daily 6 to 10 p.m.)
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.)