Historic George Town Penang


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We split our time on Penang Island between George Town, places around the island and of course eating, although we return to our hotel in George Town each night – the air conditioning and central location are too good to miss.

Pinang Peranakan Mansion.
Go there first, said the owner of our guest house, the Malabar Inn, go there before you go to the Blue Mansion he said and while not necessarily planning to do what we were told, that’s actually what we did.

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The first ouch was the cost of entry. It’s now 20 RM to enter for adults, somewhat more than the Lonely Planet promised us. Ah, said the ticket selling dude, clearly used to this, but my boss has opened up a few more rooms and you can see the Jewelry Museum as well.

There’s no doubting that this is a stunning building, stuffed full of stunning items of furniture artifacts, but without much context it was hard to summon much enthusiasm. It was owned by one of the most wealthy Baba-Nonya’s of the 19th century – Chung Keng Quee.

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The mother of pearl inlaid furniture is beautiful, the collections of glassware and porcelain extensive and the architecture of the house quite exquisite. The museum of jewelry (at the back and to the left) is air conditioned – we spent quite a bit of time in there.

When we travelled there was very little online booking available for buses, trains and ferries in Malaysia and South East Asia – the folks at Easybook have now remedied that – check timetables and book tickets online now – its WAY easier!

The mansion also had it’s own private temple, which most folks seemed to miss, staff seem to concentrate on taking your money and then ignoring you. In retrospect, going to the Blue Mansion first would have given us a lot more context.

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

Unless you’re eating at the restaurant our staying in one of the 9 boutique hotel rooms here, the only way to visit it to take a tour, which are offered at 11am, 2pm and 330pm for 16.95 RM each including GST.

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If you arrive at other times, touts outside will try and take you on a tour of the city or to the nearby Chocolate Museum.  The ticket office (on the left hand side) opens 15 minutes before each tour time. Tickets are 16.90 (include GST) per adult. Photographs ARE allowed. Our tour was with the fantastic Pat, who was humorous, extremely well informed and very gracious.

Cheong Fatt Tze was a Hakka merchant who left China penniless and built up a fortune throughout east Asia, becoming the “Rockefeller of the East”.  He provided money to Sun Yat Sen to promote a Chinese Nationalist movement in 1911.  He had wives throughout the continent.  He met his love match (for the others were business marriages)here in Penang.    The mansion was built for this local wife and was built in the 1880’s.  It is beautiful.   It contains tiles from Stoke on Trent in the UK, iron staircases from Glasgow and uses the concepts of Feng Shui to maintain a pleasant temperature inside.

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The mansion was purchased in a tun down state from Cheong Fatt Tze’s descendents in 1989 and has been completely renovated with all new everything put inside. The tour doesn’t just give you a history of the mansion, but of the man (and woman) behind it, the tour also gives detail on Feng Shui, on the history of Penang and a host of other interesting titbits.  We leave much more educated that we arrived.

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The mansion starred in a famous French movie “Indochine” with Catherine Deneuve in 1993 – and since then became known as the Blue Mansion.  The beautiful indigo blue was popular in colonial times as by mixing indigo with lime wash helped absorb moisture and dispell it without causing damage to the structure of the house.

 



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Penang State Museum

The museum provides an easy (air conditioned) introduction to Penang and Malaysian museums.  It’s cheap for a start, (just 1RM) and gives you a route to follow (most Malay museums are ambiguous on direction), detailed information boards and some interesting displays.  Plus, you can take photos – a bonus after India.

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This lovely building was originally the Penang Free School, built in 1896 and the displays provide humor too, likening the Chinese foot wrapping to stiletto heeled shoes…

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St George’s Church

En route around the city we pass St George’s Church (several times), it was built in 1817 and claims to be one of the oldest Anglican Churches in South East Asia.

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The E&O Hotel

The Eastern and Oriential (E&O) Hotel was built in 1885 by the Sarkie family, they’re also responsible for the building of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.  it claimed in 1927 that it’s seafront was the longest of any hotel in the world.  Folks who’ve stayed here that you might recognize include the Sultan of Brunei, Rudyard Kipling, Douglas Fairbanks, Sir Noel Coward, Charlie Chaplin and Somerset Maughan.

Kota (Fort) Cornwallis

In 1786 Captain Francis Light took possession of Penang on behalf of the East India Company, renaming the island to be the Prince of Wales Island.  It was at the site of the fort that Light first set foot on Penang.

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Named for Charles Cornwallis (he surrendered at the battle of Yorktown to George Washington) , building this fort was the first thing that Sir Francis Light did when arriving in Penang.  It’s a shadow of its former self and doesn’t warrant the 20 RM entrance fee considering how little of it remains, however it was empty when we visited, just one other couple walking around with their free bottle of water and selfie stick.

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Originally built as a nibong palm stockade, it was replaced by a brick structure and moat in 1804-5, after outbreaks of malaria amongst the soldiers the moat was filled up in 1922.

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Clan Jetties

The Clan Jetties are built on stilts out over the water,  Some more touristy than others, but folks still live here in the rabbit warren of (some) incredibly spacious areas.

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The Protestant Cemetery

Not long after the British East India Company established a presence here they created the cemetery – here, in this very English little crowded enclave can be found the grave sites of Penang’s founder, Sir Francis Light, governors, merchants and most importantly, the man who married Anna  from the King and I – Thomas Leonowens.

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Anna (her real name) taught the children of British officers after his death and then took up the post of Siam royal governess in 1862, three years after her  husbands death in Penang.

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Five Foot Ways

Throughout George Town and Penang you’ll find few pavements and sidewalks.  Instead, there are covered, arcaded  walkways, often taken over by cafe’s, stores and motorbikes.

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These are the Five foot ways.   They were a unique feature of Malaya’s shophouses.  Stamford Raffles stipulated that shophouses must hae a covered walkway of about five feet along their street front.

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These were meant to protect pedestrians from the tropical sun and rain, but in reality became  an extension of the shop fronts or indeed new small business areas.

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The Fire Station
Until 1909 the fire brigade here in Penang were also the police force.  Here’s the fire station, still in use today.

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Circumnavigating the Island
There are buses on Penang Island,  and more importantly, there are recognizable bus stops!  However, to get to the places that we wanted to (and not get up way to early) we rented a motorbike – there are lots of places down Beach Road, we just found one with reasonable looking bikes, paid over our 25 RM per day, showed a drivers license and off we went.

As well as being able to visit the Tropical Spice Garden and the War Museum, we also got to investigate pharmacies (we needed more doxycycline tablets as our anti-malarial of choice) and there was T Shirt shopping to be done in the big Tesco store – which housed a reasonable variety of Western Sized sports shirts (which dry much quicker than any of the cotton T Shirts we’ve found.  They’re lighter in weight too!

The roads the to north and west of George Town are pretty quiet.  The city itself and heading south is pretty busy, especially as there were roadworks ongoing, but there’s plenty of other motorbikes around and we were soon taking to the grass, pavement and weaving in and out of traffic like locals, even beating a row of bikes off the mark when the lights changed!

The Tropical Spice Garden

This 8 acres portion of secondary jungle was once an abandoned rubber plantation and now brings together more than 500 varieties of fauna and flora, with an emphasis on spices into this space.

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It’s extremely well established, with a great variety of plants, spices and superb information on the self guided audio tour, which, is mind numbing in it’s detail, but you don’t want to skip any of it in case you miss something interesting.

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The garden definitely punches above it’s weight when it comes to mosquitoes per square inch of skin and is really humid, but we just kept spraying on the deet, figuring that if it hadn’t killed us yet we at least had a few more hours left in us.

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There are banana trees, pineapples, flowers, orchids, spices galore and pepper plants. There’s also a huge swing and a stop off for free herbal tea on the way to the end of the trail, at the top of the hill.

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We took the audio tour for 26 RM each (it’s not cheap!) plus 6% GST and were there just over 2 hours – there’s also an option for a live guided tour at 35 RM plus GST.

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Circumnavigating the island by bike is easy.  There are few roads, the signposting is good and the GPS on the phone also helped, once we left the Tropical Spice Garden it was an easy decision to miss the National Park (far too hot to be trekking around) and head south to spot out the War Museum, which we missed visiting on our first day of bike rental because it closed early due to Ramadan.

War Museum

However, the next day it opened up at 09:00 and we were there, looking like we’d be their only visitors of the day – and glad that we’d rented the bike.

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You can take the bus here, but it stops at the bottom of the 1km uphill road that leads to the museum.

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It’s situated in Batu Maung in the South East of Penang Island, this is the first of Malaysia’s War Museums and it’s located  in a British built 1930’s fort surrounded by encroaching development that reminds you of its presence as you ride or drive up the hill and walk around the site.

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There are bunkers, accommodation blocks, tunnels, look outs and also a paintball center, should the military mindset grab you.  We spent nearly 2 hours in the museum, following the sometimes weird route round (you will have to backtrack several times) and you’re right in the jungle.

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Mosquito spray is a must!  We got a great introduction at the counter (this is a private concern, there’s no government funding) and then set off.

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There are a few tunnels that you can walk through, one short one that you can crawl through, and then one to climb up, we were glad we remembered to take a torch for the pitch black walk through, although you won’t need one for the crawl through (its all concreted and there was nothing nasty in there), the climb up is a ladder and you’ll just need to be careful with any day packs as it was reasonably tight.

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It’s a good, not great, site, very extensive and extremely atmospheric, thought provoking in the extreme was the photo of Corporal JP Smith who was stationed here in 1939.

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His gravestone is in Kanchanaburi.

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Snake Temple

It won’t be like it used to be, said Nigel, who visited the Snake Temple 25 years ago. And, of course, it wasn’t.

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The temple was built in the 1850’s and is dedicated to Chor Soo Kong, a priest who was believed to have extraordinary healing powers – local legend has it that a local man offered pit vipers shelter to escape from danger and they’ve stayed in the temple ever since.

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Now, it’s surrounded by tourist tat stalls, is well lit and, while yes it did have a couple of snakes in it, it wasn’t the picture of dark gloom, lit by wavering candlelight and hissing snakes that my Indiana Jones imagination had led me to believe.

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There is a snake farm and exhibit if you care to spend the money (we didn’t) and five minutes after we arrived we were on our way.

Our final stop before we head back to George Town for our last meal in this wonderful place is Penang Hill, where we’ll get to take a view over George Town and the island.

Penang Hill
Penang Hill (Bukit Bendera) is the oldest British Hill Station in South East Asia, dating back to the 1700’s, it stands at 883 meters above sea level and is a delightful several degrees cooler than down in George Town.

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There’s been a funicular train here since October 1823 (one of the old carriages is on display at the Penang State Museum in George Town) and the track will take you up 1.99 kilometers (the longest in Asia), through a 79 meter tunnel (the steepest in Asia with a pitch of 27.9 degrees.

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The best seats for the view are right at the front. En route you get to pass some of the 52 hill bungalows, most of which are more than 100 years old – with the Governor’s Bungalow having been built in 1789.

You don’t have to take the funicular train to the top, there is a jeep road or a trail to the nearby Botantical Gardens, but it seems rude not to spend the 30 RM (10 RM for MyKad holders) for the return trip. It’s easy to get to the base station on the bus, but we just parked our rental motorbike along with all the rest and took to the top for the views.

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There’s a bar and restaurant at the top but also a food court hidden further back where great Tom Yam Yee was had for a bargain 6 RM before we head down the funicular again, take in white coffee (see the the eating blog on Penang) and head back to George Town.

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George Town and Penang have been wonderful.  Food to get fat for, friendly people, easy places to visit, and oodles of history in what feels like an amazingly well put together cultural melting pot that takes the best from each culture – or at least lets you pick and choose.  It’s time to take a little respite from the heat though, we’re heading to the hills.., or the Highlands at least..

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Heading back to George Town – following Durian on the move

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About Sarah Carter

Sarah Carter is an avid reader, writer and traveller. She loves hiking, sailing, skiing and exploring the world through food. She left a successful career in IT security and compliance in both the UK and US to travel the world with husband and partner in adventure, Nigel.


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3 thoughts on “Historic George Town Penang

  • Chris

    Hello, I loved your post. Very helpful for my upcoming trip. I do have one question I can’t seem to find an answer to anywhere. I want to rent a motorbike when I arrive, but I have been living in Asia so long, my license has expired. Do the rental shops require a valid license or will a passport be enough?
    Thanks!

  • ASocialNomad Post author

    Oh a PS there was one place in Malaysia that NEEDED a driving license and that’s Cameron Highlands because of all the foreign workers there police stops are frequent and you do need a license there!