Looking for a vacation destination full of character, history and some spectacular scenery? Penang, an island off the coast of the Malaysian peninsula, is definitely a stop you have to put aside the time for if you’re making your way through Southeast Asia.
As a major trading port throughout most of its history, this city has influences from nearly every culture in the region, including Malay, Straits Chinese (Peranakan), Indian and British colonial, not to mention the small communities of Thai, Burmese, Filipino, Sri Lankan, Eurasian, Japanese, Sumatran, Arab, Armenian and Parsee residents. In a related note, be sure to check ahead for the many cultural festivals held throughout the year. There’s a good chance there’ll be something on no matter what time of year you visit.
The mix of cultures is a large part of what makes Penang the food capital of Malaysia. The street food, mostly Malay, Chinese and Indian, is worth the price of the trip alone. Be sure to try the local speciality, Penang Laksa, before you leave; it’s a fish-based noodle soup in a tamarind broth that’s not like anything in standard Western cuisine.
However, what really earns Penang its nickname of “Pearl of the Orient” is its unique architecture. George Town, the UNESCO Heritage historic district, is home to excellent examples of old Peranakan mansions, colonial row houses (if you can only see one, see 120 Armenian Street for the huge roll it played in China’s political history) and stunning places of worship for every major religion in the region. If you’re going to be in George Town quite a bit, the place to stay is definitely the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, older sister to the legendary Raffles Hotel in Singapore. The E&O has seen guests such as Noel Coward, Douglas Fairbanks, Hermann Hesse, Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham since it opened its doors in 1885.
The island also has plenty to offer just outside the urban bustle. Penang Hill, for one, has great views of the city set in lush parkland. Looking to travel further afield? Going for a homestay in a nearby fishing village, or kampung, is great for a first-hand look at traditional Malaysia. Penang Butterfly Farm is also worth a visit with its 120 species of gorgeous, endangered Malaysian butterflies. Butterflies not your thing? The Penang Bird Park, Malaysia’s first large-scale aviary, is also a must-see.
Have any tips to share about what to do in Penang? We’d love to hear it.