Cross the bridge into Penang Island and you can immediately see why this stunning state of Malaysia is a UNESCO world heritage site writes Jonathan Fraser.
We were staying in George Town, named after George III, which features street after street of stunning Victorian and Edwardian buildings, many in disrepair but all, we are told, highly valued. Penang was shaped by British colonialism, beginning with the acquisition of Penang Island from the Sultanate of Kedah by the British East India Company in 1786.
Penang ripples with history from the canon lined waterfront, the wooden stilt houses of the Clan Jetties and the many ornate ex government buildings with perfectly manicured cricket pitches that sit before them.You can fill days just wandering round George Town’s historic streets, bustling with rickshaws and Teh Tarik (a delicious sweet tea made with condensed milk) stands on every corner.
We were lucky enough to stay within one of these historic buildings; The Hotel Areca has been created from a row of shops with each of the ground floor rooms still featuring the heavy oak shop door and beautiful, coloured, pressed glass windows. High ceilings, ornate tiled floors, ceiling fans, dark wood furniture and long plumed palms adorn this beautifully calm hotel that’s perfectly positioned for those who want to explore the old town around them.
Penang has an incredibly strong vintage vibe, shops, cafes, restaurants and bars all look back to their colonial roots and the huge amount of street art, many of which integrate 3D props like vintage bicycles for
a retro ride; perfect for a selfie stop or two. You can continue the vintage feel by travelling up Penang Hill by traditional funicular, although the old wooden trolleys of the past have now been replaced by modern, ultra-fast carriages. Penang Hill was home to the British Army due to it being cooler in the clouds than in the town and many grand old residents still exist. Nowadays Penang Hill is a spectacular place to view the city from and home to every form of entertainment you could possibly imagine. From afternoon teas to snake handling lessons and earthquake simulators, Penang Hill has it and is sure to keep family visitors amused. We visited The Habitat, a jungle reserve area and eco visitor centre home to a vast
array of exotic wildlife including giant black squirrels (sweet!) and tarantulas (less sweet). The centre point of the Habitat is a giant walkway above the treetops which offer amazing views across the city.
If Penang Hill has given you a head for heights make sure you head back into George Town and visit The Top at the KomTar tower. An entertainment resort with an amazing glass floored walkway that overhangs the 86th floor for you to terrify yourself with. For those feeling even braver the GravityZ experience lets you walk and zip wire round the outside of the 86th floor of the building – weather permitting! Less Daredevil entertainment is available in the rest of The Top including some amazing ride on dinosauars that we all had our eye on but were sadly too old to play on! Best bring the kids to this one.
The trend for Hidden bars continues in Penang with the George Town area offering a huge array of places to discover and enjoy. We particularly enjoyed 63 Magazine, a sumptuous space with live music, hidden away behind what appears to be an abandoned shop front; press the woodenpanel on the left and a door will open… Other night time highlights include the incredibly friendly Bar Seventy Seven- with live guitar accompanied open mic sessions – or karaoke when we got up to take part; and we’d also recommend dinner at Mews Café, a small informal eatery with excellent cocktails and deliciously spicy satay.
Penang, and George Town itself, was the perfect place for us to end our Malaysian adventure. As a tourist destination it ticks every box and is suitable for backpackers, intrepid explorers, laid back couples and family
adventurers thanks to the huge range of activities and experiences on offer. We’ve fallen for it, hard, and we think you will too.
Get the cocktails in, we’ll see you at 63 Magazine…