Located 180 mi/290 km northwest of Kuala Lumpur and the largest city on Penang Island, George Town is a wonderful blend of cultures. The diverse Chinese, Indian and Malay population will fit anyone's image of an exotic Southeast Asian seaport (it's our favorite stop in Malaysia).
In 2008, George Town was accorded a listing as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site because of its unique mixture of British-colonial-era architecture, townscape and culture, which is considered without parallel in Southeast Asia. Today, the center of the old town area retains most of its colonial charm, its narrow streets flanked by charming yet crumbling prewar shop houses in which local craftsmen still carry on decades-old trades. In fact, thanks to its UNESCO status, renewed interest and restoration of buildings is attracting new businesses, coffee shops, restaurants and boutique-hotels back into the old town.
George Town itself is a large, sprawling town, but the historic district can easily be explored on foot or by bicycle rickshaw, called trishaws. Local maps featuring the area’s many highlights are available for free at most hotels and guesthouses.
The city's most famous landmark, the Eastern and Oriental Hotel (the "E&O") shouldn't be missed. Set on the waterfront, the restored E&O was built in 1855 by the Sarkie brothers of Raffles (Singapore) and The Strand (Yangon, Myanmar) fame. Take English afternoon tea in the aptly named elegant venue, 1885, and you'll feel as if you had stepped into a Somerset Maugham story (the E&O was featured in several of the author's short stories).
After tea, take the funicular railway up Penang Hill for the excellent view (there's also a small cafe, hotel and Hindu temple on top). Visit some of the city's other sights in the British colonial part of town: St. George's Church, Fort Cornwallis and the Clock Tower (built in honor of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee). We also enjoyed walking along the Espalande, a popular waterfront promenade with hawker food stalls at one end, the town green in the middle and the clock tower at the far end.
Make sure you have time to see the Penang Museum, the Kapitan Keling Mosque and the Khoo Kongsi (an elaborately decorated Chinese clan house). Tour the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, the fabulously gaudy former home of one of the country’s richest men. Also worth discovering is Little India, a vibrant area with temples, shops, restaurants, florists, astrologers, money changers, and clothing shops selling colorful ladies' saris.
You could spend a few days visiting all of George Town's temples: Among the best are the Hindu Sri Mariamman Temple (carvings of gods and goddesses), the Buddhist Kek Lok Si Temple (a pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas) and the Taoist Snake Temple, where poisonous snakes are worshipped—you can have the snakes placed on you for an unusual photo opportunity. Allow at least an hour for each temple.
Penang is famous for its unique local cuisine. Diners can enjoy a wide selection of good food at the local restaurants—everything from Malay satay to Chinese stir-fry. Try cheap delicacies at the Gurney Drive food stalls, where row after row of hawkers tempt you with smells of fresh traditional favorites cooked to order and enjoyed at streetside tables.
In recent years, Penang has become known for its engaging and often witty street art. While exploring the historic downtown area, look out for welded ironwork caricatures and murals on walls. http://www.tourismpenang.net.my/pdf/street-art-brochure.pdf.
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