Penang (Photo:gracethang2/Shutterstock)
4.0 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

By Cruise Critic Staff

Port of Penang

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.

About Penang


Pro

A scenic outlook called Penang Hill, botanical gardens, temples and street art will catch your eye

Con

Watch for petty crime and traffic that travels on the left side of the road

Bottom Line

You might want to venture four hours to the Malay capital of Kuala Lumpur, but Penang has plenty to offer


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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.

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.

Good to Know

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.

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.

Language

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.

Shopping

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 India.

Best Cocktail

Sip a Penang Sling in colonial splendor at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, once owned by the brothers who founded Raffles Hotel in Singapore.