Pearl of the Orient
No sun-and-fun island (though it does have palm-fringed, casuarina-shaded beaches on its northern coast), Penang has been a vibrant cultural crossroads since the first permanent Western settlement in the Far East was established here in 1786.
At the time, the port cities on the Straits of Malacca were strategic way stations on European traders’ lucrative routes from Madras to Canton. Today it’s one of the most colorful, multiethnic communities in Asia, with Muslim Malays, Indians of various religions, and Buddhist Chinese successfully coexisting. The island recognizes and shows off its heritage in a more authentic manner than does Singapore, for instance.
In the main city of Georgetown, a ride on a man-pedaled trishaw is a classic way to enjoy some of the best-preserved English colonial architecture in Southeast Asia. Colonial-era shops, temples, and clan houses make Penang’s Chinatown authentic.
Follow the English of yore and jump on the funicular for a joyride up 2,720 feet through dense jungle and bamboo groves to the top of Penang Hill, where you can escape the heat and enjoy a panoramic view of the island and its harbor.
And don’t leave the island without stepping into the recently refurbished E&O – the Eastern & Oriental Hotel. Sister hotel to Singapore’s Raffles and the Strand in Yangon, Myanmar, it was built in 1884 and stands today as a grand reminder of colonial days, when visitors like Noël Coward, Rudyard Kipling, and Somerset Maugham dallied over gin slings on the breezy veranda.