Pearl of the Orient

Why go?
Located just off the west coast of peninsular Malaysia, and now linked to mainland Malaysia by two bridges (the second opened late last year), the island of Penang is an easy getaway from Singapore. Founded in 1786 by Captain Francis Light, Penang still features many British colonial landmarks such as the star-shaped Fort Cornwallis, the stately City Hall, Penang State Museum, Queen Victoria Clock Tower and St George’s Church, the oldest Anglican church in South East Asia. Penang’s fortunes flourished as a trading hub and stopover for sea-faring traders on their way to and from China, India to Europe. A legacy from this time, and the subsequent establishment of clove and nutmeg plantations by the British, has resulted in a melting pot of different nationalities including Chinese, Malay, Indian, Baba & Nyonya (mixed marriages between Chinese merchants and local Malay women), and Europeans. A good example of this is the bustling Chinatown and Little India in the island’s capital Georgetown. Since Georgetown was given UNESCO Heritage Site status in 2008, some of the beautiful, but often neglected, shophouses and warehouses have been turned into hip boutique or heritage hotels, art galleries and trendy restaurants, and this combined with a burgeoning musical and arts scene, has given the capital a new lease of life.

Where should I stay?
A flurry of boutique hotels have opened up in George Town over the past few years, such as 23 Love Lane, Straits Settlement, Campbell House, Seven Terraces, and Muntri Suites. We chose to stay for two nights at Clove Hall, a beautifully restored six-suite colonial villa run by British lady, Jo, and her Penang-born husband, Jim Lim. From here we were able to tick off the main sights and then enjoy a refreshing swim at the hotel’s lovely pool on our return. We then moved on to the beachfront Shangri-La Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa that has been a prominent landmark on the island’s north coast for over 40 years. The Rasa Sayang is set in mature tropical gardens boasting some of the oldest rain and palm trees on the island and overlooks the famed Batu Ferringhi beach. The luxury 304- room resort, where Jodie Foster and Michelle Yeoh have stayed, is divided into two concepts – the Rasa Wing (the premier category) and the more family-friendly Garden Wing. If you stay in the Rasa Wing you receive lots of lovely perks such as an adults-only pool, complimentary afternoon tea, nightly cocktails and canapés. My girls became quite addicted to their afternoon pastries and sunset Shirley Temple cocktails!

What does the hotel offer?
Some people never venture from the 30-acre property and it’s easy to see why. During our visit we played several times on the charming par-three nine-hole golf course, a couple of games of tennis, and went on our first Segway (motorized scooter) ride around a specially designed track. My younger two daughters spent happy hours on the slides in the Adventure Zone indoor play area, shared with Rasa Sayang’s adjacent sister hotel, Golden Sands, during the tropical rainstorms. I enjoyed an indulgent massage in the hotel’s award-winning Chi Spa, where treatments take place in one of the 11 spa villas nestled amidst lush foliage.

Must-do kids’ activity?
The recently-opened Escape theme park is just a short drive from the Rasa-Sayang hotel and is the place to go to live out all your Tarzan and Jane fantasies. My three daughters adored every minute of their six hours there and would go back to Penang just to visit this well-run ecoadventure park! Highlights were the three-level aerial ropes course, zip lining over a forested valley, climbing up the side of the Gecko Tower, and whizzing down slopes on an inflatable tube.

Must-do sights?
Don’t miss the elaborate Khoo Kongsi temple and adjacent Chinese clan house in George Town. The UNESC0-listed Blue Mansion, the famous indigo-coloured manor house – now a boutique 18-room hotel and museum – built by the wealthy Chinese businessman Cheong Fatt Tze in the 1880s is also worth a look. With 38 rooms, five courtyards, and seven staircases, it’s packed with ornate carvings, antiques, sculptures and tapestries. I was pleasantly surprised when my daughters said they had enjoyed our visit to the Peranakan Museum, packed with European, Chinese and Malaysian artefacts and furnishings, including a Baba & Nyonya bridal chamber. They said it was more like wandering around someone’s house – albeit lavish – than a museum! They weren’t so enamored when I dragged them around the Protestant Cemetery – sadly in a bad state of repair – to see the graves of Sir Francis Light and other key British colonial rulers in the pouring rain!

One of the highlights of any visit has to be viewing the street murals by London-trained Lithuanian artist, Ernest Zacharevic, that dot the inner streets of Georgetown. One of the most recognisable is his 20-foot high ‘Little Girl In Blue’, a mural of a young child dressed in ocean blue pyjamas flanked by the two real windows of its ‘canvas’ – a building along Muntri Street. As well as the murals, there are also ironwork sculptures by other artists adorning many streets’ walls often making reference to the history or trade of that street.

Take the vertiginous five-minute ride on the funicular train up to the top of Penang Hill, the island’s tallest peak at a lofty 2,750 feet. Admire the spectacular island views, stop for lunch, and if you are energetic walk the two/three hour trail down the hill ending up in the lovely Penang Botanic Gardens. If you take a taxi down from the summit stop by the Kek Lok Si Temple, Malaysia’s largest Buddhist temple, a complex of monasteries and temples set in manicured gardens.

Where to eat?
The island’s ethnic mix is reflected in the cuisine offered and you can try a huge variety of dishes. The island is famed for its street food and you will find hawker centres everywhere – Gurney Drive and Red Garden are popular tourist stops. Try some Penang specialities, such as Asam Laksa (spicy fish-based rice noodle soup), Hokkien Mee prawn noodles, Char Koay Teow (spicy noodles with crab meat and cockles), chicken rendang, and popiah (spring rolls). A wonderfully atmospheric place to try Nyonya cuisine is Perut Rumah restaurant, which is housed in a heritage bungalow and decorated in Peranakan style.

When we were sightseeing in George Town, China House, run by the same female duo behind the Bon Ton resort in Langkawi, became our favourite refuelling spot. Located on 153-5 Beach Street in three connected heritage buildings, China House offers several restaurants and cafés with tempting arrays of heavenly homemade cakes (the Tiramisu cake is a must!) and ice creams, which are worth coming here for alone.

We returned one evening to eat in the more formal BTB Restaurant, where menu highlights including BBQ King Prawns, Apple and Guava Salad with warm peanut dressing and prawn crusted sea bass with coconut, green pea and lime sauce. Another good lunch stop is Cozy in the Rocket, on Lebuh Armenian, which offer great pasta dishes and a rustic-chic ambiance.

A further culinary highlight of our trip was dining at the iconic Eastern & Oriental (E&O) hotel, built by the Sarkies Brothers, who also built Raffles Hotel. We loved the lavish nightly buffet at Sarkies served in the black and white floor-tiled dining room, looking out to the Straits of Malacca. The buffet choice has to be seen to be believed, offering everything from gargantuan prawns, roast pork on a spit, sushi, and satay. Alternatively you could head to the Farquhar Bar, with its dark wood bar and colonial vibe, for a classic E&O Sling cocktail and fish and chips!

What to buy?
Visit the night market that runs along the road parallel to Batu Ferringhi beach if you’re looking to buy designer-fake handbags, watches, and DVDs. If you prefer labels then Gurney Plaza, an upmarket waterfront shopping mall, stocks labels such as Armani, Diesel, Nike & Kiehls, as well as an array of food outlets, too. For more high street names – Cotton On, H&M, Brands Outlet – head to 1st Avenue, next to Traders Hotel in George Town. Browse Little India for beautiful silks and colourful saris, curries and henna tattoos, whilst nearby Lebuh Armenian is lined with art galleries and boutiques such as Bon Ton.

Celebrity Trivia
The island has appeared in several films, such as the 1999 US blockbuster Anna and the King, starring Jodie Foster as the female lead, Anna Leonowens, a British widow in Penang who was appointed as an English governess to the royal family of Siam in the 19th century, and who is buried in Bukit Brown cemetery in Singapore. This non-musical remake of ‘The King and I’, was filmed entirely in Penang, Langkawi and Perak.

The famous Blue Mansion was transformed into the Vietnamese home of Catherine Deneuve in the romantic epic Indochine, whilst the imposing Cathay Hotel, a former merchant’s mansion on Leith Street, appeared in the movie The Touch starring Malay-born actress Michelle Yeoh.

If you visit this year you may bump into Julie Walters, Henry Lloyd-Hughes and Jemima West who will be on the island to film a new Channel 4 series called Indian Summers, based on the decline of the British Empire in India. Penang’s streets will stand in for Indian ones in the new TV series.

The article was published in the October 2014 issue of The British Association of Singapore’s monthly magazine The BEAM.  For more on The BEAM, visit