Things to do in Penang

Penang, the Pearl of Orient is one of the most touristic location in Malaysia. The island is situated on the northwest side of the Peninsular Malaysia. There are tons of activities and sights on the island. Penang has an eventful history; the diversity of the inhabitants clearly indicates this. Penang is especially known as the best place to enjoy wonderful local dishes; it is seen as the food capital of Malaysia and recently won the Lonely Planet Top Spot for foodies in 2014.

Every year, hundred of thousands of visitors come to Penang to experience the unique cultural heritage and scenery. Perhaps it is the 2nd busiest city after Kuala Lumpur. Penang has plenty of must-see attractions that one should cover in one’s itinerary.

Pinang Peranakan Mansion

A museum where it showcases the tangible and intangible assets of the Baba and Nyonya culture. It frequently tops must see place in Tripadvisor. The Peranakans, also known as the Babas and Nyonyas, was a prominent community of acculturated Chinese unique to this part of the world, especially in the Straits Settlements (Penang, Malacca and Singapore) hence its other name, the Straits Chinese. Adopting selected ways of the local Malays and later, the colonial British, the Peranakans had created a unique lifestyle and customs which had not only left behind a rich legacy of antiques but its cultural influences like cuisine and language are still evident in Penang today.

At the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, the typical home of a rich Baba of a century ago is recreated to offer a glimpse of their opulent lifestyle and of their many customs and traditions. With over thousands of pieces of antiques and collectibles of the ear on display, the Baba-Nyonya museum is also housed in one of Penang’s heritage mansion of eclectic design and architecture. Built at the end of the 19th century by one of local history’s famous personalities, the ‘Hai Kee Chan’ or Sea Remembrance Store had once served as the residence and office of Kapitan Cina Chung Keng Kwee. Though not a Baba himself, his Chinese courtyard house was much like a typical large Baba home of eclectic style, incorporating Chinese carved-wood panels and English floor tiles and Scottish ironworks. Having survived the many decades of neglect and decay, the mansion has now been restored to its former glory of a stately home.

Penang Hill

Penang Hill was the first colonial hill station developed in Peninsular Malaysia. Comprising Western Hill, Bukit Laksamana, Tiger Hill, Flagstaff Hill and Government Hill, it is located six km away from Georgetown. The hilly and forested area is the state's primary hill resort.

Set 821m above Penang’s capital, islanders call it Bukit Bendera and it is generally about five degrees cooler than Georgetown. It is the last patch of tropical rainforest in Penang so the flora and fauna here have been protected since 1960. It does not have the same prominence as Genting Highlands, Fraser’s Hill or Cameron Highlands but it is one of Penang’s best-known tourist attractions due to its fresher climate.

The History

Penang Hill was discovered when soon after British settlement; Francis Light commissioned the area to be cleared to grow strawberries. Though it was never fully developed (it was difficult to carve out the forest area), it became a favourite expatriate refuge before the advent of air conditioning. Its oldest bungalow, Bel Retiro, is the holiday residence of the Governor of Penang. Today, the ridge on top of Penang Hill is known as Strawberry Hill.

View from the top

From the top of Penang Hill on a clear day you can see the mountains of Langkawi and north Kedah but it is the night time sight of lit-up Georgetown that is especially rewarding. Most people simply come to enjoy the cool, unpolluted air and walk under 30m-high trees along the nature trails. Additionally, over 100 species of birdlife, ranging from ordinary garden species to exotic deep forest inhabitants, call this hillside home. Two kilometres away from Bellevue Hotel is the Canopy Walk: this 220m walkway suspended between towering trees 30m above the dense jungle offers great views of the hillside. Opened in 2003, it was operational for a short time, and since then, due to its failure to attract sufficient customers, it has opened and closed without much announcement.

The Railway

The most popular way to the top of the hill is the Penang Hill Railway. Located at the foot of the hill, this Swiss-designed funicular starts out from Air Itam. Built in 1923, it is one of the world’s oldest funicular systems and has a 2,007m-long track that climbs the hill at a crawling 30-minute pace. The journey takes you past luxuriant greenery and the occasional macaque plus the bungalows originally built for British officials and other wealthy citizens. The queue for carriages can be quite long especially on weekends and public holidays: passengers have to change trains midway.

Another way to the top of Penang Hill is by a five km drive up a private road accessible only to the vehicles of hillside residents: this jeep trail is a popular hiking route and starts out from the quarry at the entry of the Penang Botanic Gardens. There is a well-marked eight km path leading up from the Moon Gate (between the post office and police station) at the Botanical Gardens: it is a steep one-hour climb, but a delightful walk with plenty of places to rest along the way. There is a food court, fruit and souvenir stalls, some gardens, an exuberantly decorated Hindu temple, a mosque, a police station, a post office and an 11-room hotel (Bellevue Hotel) at the upper funicular station: the original funicular train, built in 1897, is also on exhibit here.

Fort Cornwallis

Fort Cornwallis is the largest standing fort in Malaysia. Set close to the Esplanade and Penang Clock tower, the star-shaped bastion is one of the oldest structures in Penang. Named after Marquis Charles Cornwallis, only a set of ten-foot high outer walls remain, with an enclosed park within.

Situated on Penang’s north-eastern coast, a stroll along the privately-managed Fort Cornwallis’ perimeters will take you about 10 minutes. It is a surreal experience to hear the 1812 Overture playing over the speaker system while a Malaysian man dressed in full British regalia stands at the gate. Inside the fort is a variety of vaguely-informative exhibits.

The History

Built in 1786, Fort Cornwallis was intended as a defensive structure against pirates, Kedah forces and even the French during the Napoleonic Wars. However although it was initially built for the Royal artillery troops and the military, it served an administrative function rather than an actively defensive one. Spanning 4490sqft it was built as a stockade with no permanent structures. The fort stands on the site where Captain Francis Light first set foot in 1786 on the then virtually-uninhabited Penang and took possession of the island from the Sultan of Kedah. He then established a free port to lure trade from Britain’s Dutch rivals.

The Construction

Originally built of nibong palms, during Colonel R.T. Farquhar’s term as Governor of Penang Fort Cornwallis was rebuilt with bricks and stones using Indian convict labour thus transforming the wooden fort into a stone structure. Fort Cornwallis’ star shape is attributed to the fact that this design was a better defence against multiple fields of fire from enemies.

Important Feature

A bronze statue of Captain Francis Light stands near Fort Cornwallis’ main entrance. Inside the fort are prison cells, barracks, munitions storage areas, a harbour light once used to signal incoming ships and the original flagstaff. At the southwest corner of the fort is Penang’s first chapel, built in 1799. You can also see several old bronze cannons inside the fort including Seri Rambai, which is popularly regarded as a fertility symbol. Locals often place offerings of flowers and joss sticks at its base.

Penang Khoo Kongsi

Khoo Kongsi is one of Georgetown’s most interesting attractions. Built some 650 years ago, it is part of the goh tai seh (five big clans) that formed the backbone of the Hokkien community in olden-days Penang. One of Penang’s most lavishly decorated kongsis, it is located on Jalan Acheh, off Lebuh Pitt.

A kongsi (clan house) is a building in which Chinese families of the same surname gather to worship their ancestors. Representing a family’s social and spiritual commitments between extended relations, ancestors and the outside community, the kongsi also acts as an important means of solidarity. These days the primary functions of kongsis are supportive roles: they help with the educations of members’ children, settle disputes and advance loans.

The History

The kongsis were initially developed as a way for 19th-century immigrants to band together according to their respective districts. Unsurprisingly, as a result of this clan-centric bias, hostile sentiments developed between the different clan houses resulting in rivalry and eventually violence. Many of the kongsis in Penang are more than 100 years old; the Khoo Kongsi, once known as one of the most prominent Chinese lineages in Malaysia, is probably the most famous clan house in Penang. Founded by the Leong San Tong clan from the Sin Kang clan village in Hokkien Province, the clan house was built primarily to showcase the success of the Khoo family.

The Architecture

At the height of the Khoo family’s prominence, craftsmen from China were commissioned to build this architectural masterpiece. Also known as Dragon Mountain Hall, Khoo Kongsi is an ornate structure standing on a square of granite with stone carvings that adorn the entrance hall. Additionally, there are pavilions, murals portraying birthdays, weddings and 36 divine guardian-statues sprinkled throughout its interior. Meanwhile, massive overhead paper lamps bathe the interior in an orange glow and stunning ceramic sculptures of immortals, carp fish and dragons line the roof ridges.

Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram Temple

Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram Temple is the largest Thai temple in Penang. Set just off Jalan Burma (on the way to Batu Ferringhi), the yellow-and-blue temple is also known as Wat Buppharam. Built in 1845, it is home to a 108ft-long reclining Buddha image, said to be the third largest in the world.

Draped in a gold-leafed saffron robe, the sprawling statue was erected as a monument to signify Buddha’s final resting position at his death and symbolizes his detachment from worldly matters. Located opposite the less extravagant Dharmmikarama Temple (which lights up beautifully at night) Wat Chaiya Mangakalaram Temple is a beautiful sight with ornate, gold pagodas, and mural-painted walls.

The History

Spread across five acres of land (which was gifted by Queen Victoria to the Thai community as a gesture of goodwill to bolster trading relations with Thailand) Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram Temple was originally led by a Thai Theravada Buddhist monk, Phortan Kuat. Also known as the ‘Powerful Monk’, he was very much adored by his congregation: to this day, his devotees bring bowls of asam laksa (coconut-based sour gravy noodles) to his shrine to honour him.

The Architecture

Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram Temple is designed in typical Thai-style with sharp-eaved roofs and flamboyant ceilings. The temple entrance is set off by a statue of a naga (a Southeast Asian water dragon), while the exit is marked by a Chinese dragon (the East Asian equivalent). These serpents lay coiled around the feet of two grim green-faced statues carrying hefty swords that flank the entryway: supposedly the statues were designed to ward off unwanted visitors.

Important Feature

The reclining Buddha statue at Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram Temple is surrounded by elaborate images of a gold-leaf covered Buddha in different poses. Each pose is supposed to signify different things: Buddhists believe that the reclining Buddha, for example, (with his head resting in the palm of the right hand and his head pointing northwards) signifies enlightenment or Nirvana Around the outstretched giant Buddha sculpture are a series of hand-painted gold 3D images detailing Gautama Buddha’s story. Interesting fact: underneath the lounging Buddha are slots where urns containing the ashes of deceased devotees are stored.

In addition to the 108ft-long reclining Buddha, Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram Temple also has smaller statues of the ‘Awakened One’ in various guises plus you can also see statuettes of other popular Thai deities in the main prayer hall. Besides that there is a series of colourful statues of Devas and other mythical creatures on display, spread out across the temple grounds. Vibrant murals depicting Buddha’s life story are painted on the temple walls.

Penang War Museum

Penang War Museum in Bukit Batu Maung was a fort built by the British in the 1930s. In 1941 it gained fame when it became the site where the battle for Penang against the invading Japanese army was lost. These days it is a museum open to the public and is billed as Southeast Asia’s largest war museum.

Situated on the road to Teluk Kumbar on Penang’s southern coast, the fort was initially supposed to be a preserved citadel constructed as part of a plan to protect the island from foreign invasion. It is also known as Muzium Perang Pulau Pinang.

The History

The former British bastion was manned by British, Sikh and Malay soldiers after its completion. It fell during WWII when the Japanese launched an attack against the fort from inland, rather than from the sea, as was expected by the British. From that day onwards (17 December 1941) the Japanese commandeered the stronghold and the army base became chequered with a dark past. It was used as a prison base for acts of torture and other cruelties; as a result of these war atrocities, the garrison was dubbed ‘Bukit Hantu’ (Ghost Hill) by locals due to the hundreds of people who were brought here and beheaded.

Present Feature

The Penang War Museum was restored as a memorial to its dark days and opened to the public in 2002. Interesting fact: the 20-acre museum houses historical artefacts such as cannons and even features underground military tunnels and ammunition bunkers which are located nine metres underground. Some of these tunnels lead all the way to the sea as they once served as access routes to get to submarines. Navigating through these passageways sometimes forces one to walk or even crawl through very narrow, confined spaces. Additionally, you can also tour the barracks, cookhouses, gun emplacements and other structures in the eerie and vast Penang War Museum as there are plenty of signposts to guide your way.

Penang Snake Temple

The Penang Snake Temple is about three km from the airport in Sungai Kluang, Bayan Lepas. Built in honour of Chor Soo Kong, a Buddhist priest and healer, legend has it that the monk gave shelter to the snakes and when the temple was completed after his death, they moved in on their own.

After that, the snakes were believed to the disciples of the priest, so it became the home to several resident venomous Wagler’s pit vipers and green tree snakes. The temple is also known as the Temple of the Azure Cloud or Pure Cloud Temple and was constructed in 1850 as a result of a generous donation from a Scotsman, David Brown, whom Chor Soo Kong is said to have healed of an incurable disease using local medicine.

Penang National Park

Penang National Park is the world’s smallest national park. Within the park are well-marked trails that lead into the jungle and to the bays around; it contains about 410 species of flora and 143 species of fauna ranging from snakes, macaques and leaf monkeys to otters, hawksbill turtles and dolphins.

Formerly known as the Pantai Acheh Forest Reserve, it is located further up the west side of Penang Island, past a twisting, forested section of road. Comprising 1181 hectares of forest and 1381 hectares of wetlands, it is a pleasant enough place with a waterfall and a pool for a pleasant swim. Camping facilities are available: telephone the Wildlife Office at Teluk Bahang to make reservations. You will have to register at the office before you can enter the park; Penang National Park is accessible via Teluk Bahang at the end of Batu Ferringhi Road. Bus no. 101 runs a route past Teluk Bahang: from there it is a short walk away.

Penang City Hall

The City Hall located along the Esplanade is a fine building of Victorian architecture built in 1903; a reminder of the colonial era in Penang.

The City Hall faces a historic field - Padang Kota which is a venue for festivals and other large-scale events.

Today, the Hall is still used for period meetings among the Penang Municipal Council Chamber.

Penang Botanic Garden

Penang Botanical Gardens are usually simply called the Botanic Gardens by Penang islanders. Also known as the Waterfalls Gardens, the gardens are located in a valley along Jalan Kebun Bunga. It is a well landscaped place that contains a huge variety of indigenous and exotic plant species.

Set up by the British in 1884 by Charles Curtis of the Gardens & Forests Departments Straits Settlements, it used to be an old quarry site and is divided into 12 sections: the Formal Garden, Lily Pond, Perdana Plant House, Tropical Rainforest Jungle Track, Fern House, Fern Rockery, Aroid Walkaway, Cactus House, Orchidarium, Horticulture Centre, Nursery and Quarry Recreational Park.

There is a special path in the Penang Botanical Gardens’ Moon Gate that leads up to Penang Hill: it is about an hour’s walk away. It is a steep but delightful and highly rewarding trek. Be careful though, as the gardens are not called the Monkey Gardens for nothing. Macaques along this path can be a bit cheeky and frisky: do not get too close and do not try to feed or touch them as they can bite (plus there is a RM500 fine if you do). Besides the macaques, other wildlife inhabiting the gardens include dusky leaf monkeys, black giant squirrels and a myriad of insects and butterflies.

Kapitan Keling Mosque Penang

Kapitan Keling Mosque is a Penang landmark. Built in 1801 by Penang’s first Indian Muslim settlers (East India Company troops), the Indo-Moorish structure is set at the junction of Lebuh Buckingham and Lebuh Pitt.

It is the largest mosque in Georgetown and looks sublime at sunset. It was named after the ‘kapitan’ of the Keling (a leader of the South Indian community similar to the leader of the Chinese community), Cauder Mydin Merican. The whitewashed mosque is topped with large golden-yellow Mughal-style domes, crescents and stars and features a single, typical Indian-Islamic minaret from which the sound of the azan (call to prayer) can be heard.

A long walkway leads up to the main prayer hall of Kapitan Keling Mosque, with graceful arches sweeping along its outer passageway. Inside the mosque there are lofty, celestial-white Gothic, Moorish and Roman arches creating an illusion of even more depth to the already-spacious prayer hall; check out the sparkling chandelier that hangs above. The walls are covered with calligraphy panels and stained glass windows featuring arabesques of geometrical designs and floral motifs. The floor is solid, polished white marble with long rows of prayer rugs strewn all over.

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