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A Travel Guide to Penang, Malaysia

All About Malaysia's "Pearl of the Orient"


Trishaw outside City Hall, George Town, Penang

Trishaw outside City Hall, George Town, Penang

Image © Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board
Statue of Sir Francis Light inside Fort Cornwallis, Penang

Statue of Sir Francis Light inside Fort Cornwallis, Penang

Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com
Street art work in George Town, Penang

Street art work in George Town, Penang

Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com

Penang's past as a British colonial holding and its present-day status as one of Malaysia's most prosperous states have made it one of Southeast Asia's most popular tourist stops. Nicknamed "the pearl of the Orient", Penang possesses a multifaceted culture and eclectic cuisine that rewards adventurous travelers.

Located in the northern part of peninsular Malaysia, the island of Penang was first colonized in 1786 by British adventurer Captain Francis Light. Always looking for new opportunities for his employer the British East India Company, Captain Light saw in Penang a magnificent harbor for tea and opium transshipments between China and the rest of the British Empire.

Penang underwent a number of political transformations after Light wrested control of Penang from the local Malay royalty. It was incorporated into the British Straits Settlements (which also included Melaka and Singapore to the south), then became part of the Malayan Union, then finally joined an independent Malaysia in 1957. Yet its long history under the British left an indelible mark: the capital of George Town retains an ineffable Imperial atmosphere that sets it apart from Malaysia's other grand cities.

First Stop: George Town, Penang

The island of Penang covers 115 square miles of real estate, mostly flat with a central hill range topping off at about 2,700 feet above sea level. The state capital of George Town on the northeastern cape serves as Penang's administrative, commercial, and cultural center, and is usually the tourists' first stop on the island.

Georgetown possesses one of Southeast Asia’s finest collections of 19th century and early 20th century buildings, its old shophouses and grand civic buildings serving as the last tangible link to Penang's past as the British Empire's most prosperous trading port in Malaya. Its well-preserved heritage buildings earned George Town recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.

British rule brought with it an influx of immigrants that added to the existing Malay and Peranakan population of the island: the Chinese, Tamil, Arab, British and other migrant communities remade parts of George Town in their respective images.

Chinese clan houses like Khoo Kongsi sprouted up alongside mansions like Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion and the present-day Peranakan Mansion, and British landmarks like Fort Cornwallis and the Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower solidified the imperial presence.

Best Time to Visit Penang

Penang shares the heat, humidity and heavy rains common in this part of the world. It's close enough to the equator to have only two seasons, a wet season from April to November and a dry season from December to March. (Find out more about weather in Malaysia.)

The peak tourist season in Penang coincides with New Year and Chinese New Year; between December and late January, the near-constant sunshine makes the George Town streets look bright, while the prevailing heat and humidity remains tolerable (the heat is at its worst in February and March).

From April till November, rainfall increases, auguring the arrival of the southwest monsoon.  Visitors arriving during monsoon season can look on the bright side: lower temperatures and lower prices overall can make the trip enjoyable in its own way. But traveling during the monsoon season has plenty of downsides, too. More on those here: Traveling in Southeast Asia's Monsoon Season.

Haze. Between March and June, man-made forest-clearing fires in Indonesia (primarily Sumatra and Borneo) carry ash particles into the sky, causing a sickly haze to accumulate over Singapore and Malaysia. The haze may ruin the scenery at best, and be positively hazardous to your health at worst.

Holidays in Penang. With a little foresight, you can schedule your trip to coincide with one of Penang's many festivals. Chinese New Year is the biggest party the island can contrive, but you can also try visiting during Thaipusam, Vesak, or Hungry Ghost Festival.

Expect more inconvenience than usual, though: these festivals bring in plenty of tourists, but may shut down some shops and restaurants (particularly for Chinese New Year, when locals prefer to spend the holidays with their families rather than serving out-of-towners).  

Proceed to the next page to read about Penang's transportation, the range of accommodations on the island (whether you're staying on the cheap or looking for luxury), and all the things you can do while visiting the Pearl of the Orient.

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