Historic George Town, Penang, Malaysia
The story of Penang belongs, in terms of history, to the British. In terms of the culture, though, the story really belongs to all the people from different parts of the world who came and made the island their home.
It doesn’t take long upon my arrival to realise that Penang’s main city, George Town, is truly a melting pot of ethnic influences. (I should point out that I normally don’t use the term ‘melting pot’ because it’s a bit of a cliche. In this case, though, it seems appropriate because you can’t walk more than a minute down the street without seeing a pot cooking some delicious local delicacy.)
A very brief history of Penang
The British hoisted the Union Jack on Penang in 1786. Until then, the land was basically undeveloped. But from this point work began to create a new city – George Town. There’s a story that the British founder, Captain Francis Light, shot silver coins from a canon into the jungle to encourage people to clear the land as they searched for them!
George Town grew quickly and it became an important part of trading routes that linked countries like China and India. As opportunities to make money on Penang grew, people from those countries came to find their fortune. They brought their cuisines and cultures with them.
What the city became was a British colony where most of the residents were from various parts of Asia. People tended to gravitate towards those from the some place as them, and so political, economic and religious associations formed to support these alliances.
The colony was thriving until the start of World War II, when everything changed. But we’ll focus on the period before then.
Until the war, George Town was relatively harmonious, for the most part. What it symbolised – what it still is, in many ways – was a rich cultural exchange between East and West
Exploring the heritage of George Town
There is so much to explore – but within a relatively small area. Densely packed into the central historic area of George Town are hundreds of years of history, traversing all the different cultures that have come and made their mark on the city.
It can be hard to know where to start and what is significant. As I walk around, every street seems to have something interesting – old homes, historic store fronts, churches, temples. There’s Malay, Chinese, Indian, British, German, and more. But which of these places are important and which just seem to be?
I would suggest one of two ways to get to know George Town – and both involve more than just aimlessly wandering. (Although, of course, in a city like this, that is still quite an enjoyable thing to do.)
You could go on a guided tour – and there are some great ones on offer. I would recommend one of the following:
Or you could go exploring by yourself… but with a little help. That’s why I’ve put together this comprehensive map that shows you some of the most important landmarks, sorted by section.
If you’re using your smartphone, just click on the icon in the top right to open the map in your Google Maps app and all of the markers will load up. Then, as you walk around, you can see whether you’re close to something significant and you can go and have a look at it.
You’ll notice that there are some other sections I’ve included within the map as well. There are some food suggestions and the locations of some cool street art. You can also go and look for some of them or just turn those layers off.
Districts of George Town
There are distinct areas within the centre of George Town, even though the boundaries aren’t clear. Walking along, you may suddenly realise that you haven’t seen a Chinese temple for a while and now the buildings seem larger and more colonial, but you’re not too sure where the change happened. That’s part of the allure of the city.
The map is broken down into the following sections which, in general, give you a sense of what the different parts of George Town are best known for.
What you’ll notice in this area is the variety of buildings related to the different cultures that made Penang their home. That they all sit harmoniously together says a lot about the kind of city George Town has been over the centuries.
I would suggest taking particular note of St George’s Church, the oldest Anglican church in Southeast Asia; Kapitan Keling Mosque, which you’re welcome to go inside and see; and the Goddess of Mercy Temple, the oldest Chinese temple in Penang.
The Waterfront was where the boats arrived so it’s not surprising to hear that it was the historic centre of the trading that occurred in George Town. What remains today are mainly the official buildings associated with the port – most of the actual commerce has moved further into the city.
You’ll see a lot of colonial history here. Some of the particularly impressive sites are the Customs building, the Immigration Department Building and the (side-by-side) City Hall and Town Hall.
In the Business District of George Town, you’ll find the more traditional and formal aspects of business – banks and shopping malls, for instance. But you’ll also see the headquarters of some of the wealthy associations that formed here.
Don’t be surprised to see the traditional HSBC and Standard Chartered Banks still operating – products of wealth of trade in this region. Their buildings, along with the Logan Heritage Building and Whiteaways Arcade, are excellent examples of the grand architecture built in George Town during the boom years.
Alongside the water, but away from the political and commercial parts of the city, is the Leisure Zone. You’ll notice this area has rather impressive architecture but without the chaos you’ll find in other parts of George Town.
There is a great range of sites to see in this zone but I would particularly recommend the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, the Penang State Museum and the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion.
On the edge of the historic part of the city, you’ll find less sites that have important heritage value. However, this is one of the most interesting parts of George Town. It’s where you’ll find a lot of the activity that happens in the city today. Some of the best street food and markets are here, as well as lots of opportunities to shop. In fact, its the shophouse architecture that really defines the look and feel of the Enterprise Zone.
George Town is one of my favourite places in Malaysia. The food and the art are bonuses but it’s the heritage that I really love. It feels authentic and somehow manages to dilute all the tourists and create its own energy. I hope you enjoy exploring it as much as me.
Are there good heritage tours in Penang?
Yes, there are quite a few good tours in George Town that will show you the history and the culture. I would recommend one of these three options:
Where should you stay in George Town?
If you’re looking for a budget option, you’ve got to try the super cool Container Hotel.
A good cheap and comfortable option is one of the ZEN Rooms hotels (there are a few in the city).
For a trendy boutique hotel, you could have a look at Mango Tree Place.
And for the ultimate splurge, you can’t go past the gorgeous Macalister Mansion.