The whole Penang

Sholto Byrnes

With its colonial grandeur, cultural vibrancy and luxury beach resorts, Sholto Byrnes finds his Shangri-la in the Pearl of the Orient…

In 1786 Captain Sir Francis Light landed on the northeastern coast of Penang and took possession of the island on behalf of the East India Company. He had promised military protection to the Sultan of Kedah, who offered him Penang in return, but Light was not authorised to do so. When the Sultan was then attacked by Siamese forces from the north and the British did not come to his aid, he tried to reclaim the island. Too late. Light was well entrenched, and Britons have been familiar occupants of, and visitors to, the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ ever since.

For two and a half centuries they were the colonial authorities, making use of the island’s strategic location in the Straits of Malacca to turn it into a thriving entrepôt port and a place where European planters from the upcountry Malay sultanates could take rest and recreation. Since independence in 1957, Britons have continued coming as tourists. It is not hard to see why. Georgetown, the state capital, has preserved its history better than any city in Malaysia. You can hardly turn a corner without encountering the legacy of the island’s multiracial past – Malays, Chinese and Indians all call it home today – from exquisitely painted Chinese shop-houses, to colourful Buddhist and Hindu temples, imposing mosques and elegant colonial façades that shine an impossibly dazzling white in the tropical sunshine. UNESCO declared the city a World Heritage Site in 2008, commending its ‘unique architecture, culture and townscape’. More recently, Yahoo placed Penang eighth on its list of ’10 Islands to Explore Before You Die’.

That alone should be enough to entice the visitor to take the 45-minute flight from Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur. For my wife Farah and me there was another reason to make the journey, with her parents and our baby son Orlando: his grandfather Rahim is from Penang, so as well as a holiday for us, this was an early introduction to his Malaysian inheritance.

There is no better place to start a trip to Penang than the Eastern & Oriental Hotel on Lebuh Farquhar. Founded in 1885 by the Armenian Sarkies brothers, who also built Raffles in Singapore, its colonnaded entrance is manned by staff in crisp white shorts and pith helmets. The old-fashioned atmosphere continues inside, where the reception hall is lit by a grand glass dome and the suites are named after writers who have stayed there, including Somerset Maugham and Noël Coward. The rooms, all suites, are wood-panelled, with four-poster beds and enormous bathtubs. We were fed fine grills for dinner and the hearty breakfast (lamb chops and dhal, anyone?) set us up for a morning swim in the seafront pool, ornamented by guns guarding the parapet over the rocky shore.

We began our trip proper with a tour of historic Georgetown. As you could easily spend two weeks exploring the city, a good introduction is to head for the Khoo Kongsi Temple in Cannon Square. The headquarters of a Straits Chinese clan dating back to the 17th century, the temple is filled with intricate carvings and finely detailed artworks. Outside waits a bustling rank of trishaws, the ideal way to take in the sights. Start by passing north through Little India, past St George’s, reportedly the oldest Anglican church in South East Asia (1818), the Penang State Museum and the City Hall, all of whose colonial exteriors are so pristine they look as though an army of cleaners must set to work on them each day before dawn, and on to the ramparts of Fort Cornwallis, which dates from Captain Light’s time.

Lunch should be on the go, and from a hawker stall. Watch the owner whip up Penang char kway teow, the local seafood noodle speciality, right in front of you (be sure to say how ‘pedas’, or chilli hot, you want it) before taking in sights such as the Peranakan Mansion, with its thousands of antiques, and the house on Armenian Street where Dr Sun Yat Sen plotted the 1911 revolution that ended imperial rule in China.

Just five minutes’ walk away, in the heart of Georgetown, which feels almost unchanged from 50 or even 100 years ago, is the Straits Collection hotel. Run by the same people responsible for the Bon Ton Resort on Langkawi island, and specialists at restoring and recreating local South East Asian architectural styles, this boutique hotel is spread over two rows of old shop-houses, and includes a reading room, art galleries and a superb café, Kopi Cine, whose eclectic menu ranges from ginger bud pesto spaghetti to a marvellous mushroom bruschetta which, washed down with proper Italian coffee, kept me going for the rest of the day.

When Malaysia’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, signed the independence agreement with Britain, he joked to the then Colonial Secretary that he was righting the ‘wrong’ of his ancestor – for the Sultan of Kedah, who had let Britain gain its first possession in the peninsula with Penang, was Tunku’s great-great-great-grandfather. It seemed appropriate, then, that it was the Tunku’s son Suleiman who made us welcome at our final destination, Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort on Batu Feringgi beach. Thirty minutes’ drive from Georgetown, the seas are a little choppy on the northern coast (fine for parasailing, though), but at Rasa Sayang, you barely want to move beyond the pool anyway – especially if you stay in the exclusive Rasa Wing, with its staff dressed in traditional Malay uniforms and head-dresses, all ready to cater to your every need, whether it be more fresh jam to go with your tea or a glass of fizz before dinner, or even to fill the enormous bath-tub on the balcony.

Rasa Sayang was the first luxury beach resort in Malaysia, and the level of service at its acclaimed Feringgi Grill seems to belong to a more gracious era – it’s certainly the first time anyone has made me a Caesar salad to order tableside while I nibbled on amuse bouches. Best of all, we were able to dine for as long as we liked, courtesy of a hotel babysitter who charged just £2 an hour.

For luxury, history, street scenes, cuisine and culture, all set in balmy tropical heat, Penang is hard to match. Yahoo was on to something with its list – as was Captain Light, whether he was aware of it or not. We bid the island farewell, ‘jumpa lagi’ – see you later. We’ll be back, for sure.

Suites at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, B&B, from £140 per night (00 604 222 2000;
Residences at the Straits Collection from £84 per night (00 604 263 7299;
Rasa Wing Premier Rooms at Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa from £195 per night (
Qatar Airways flies London-Doha-Kuala Lumpur return from £690 (

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