Penang Island (Pulau Pinang)

& George Town / Malaysia



Penang and George Town

Penang Island is a larger island, situated at the west coast of the Malay Peninsula. Originally covered mostly with tropical rainforest, now only parts of the north are still covered with forest. There is a National Park (Taman Negara Pulau Pinang, aka Penang National Park) on the island. The original Malayan name 'Pulau Pinang' means in translation 'betelnut island'.

Colonial Shophouse

'Chinese Shop House in George Town, Penang' by Asienreisender

A typical colonial shop house in George Town. Downstairs were the shops (now restaurants) and upstairs offices or, moreover, the dwellings for the shop owners or tenants. Image by Asienreisender, 2005

Penang's capital is George Town (sometimes: Georgetown), one of the biggest and most important cities in Malaysia. It was founded by the British captain Francis Light in 1786 and named after the British king George III. Penang is also a Malaysian province, including a stripe of the mainland (Seberang Perai) with the economic center Butterworth (another English foundation).

George Town is the old, colonial town on the island, the first settlement. George Town is mostly inhabited with Malaysians of Chinese roots, but also Malays and Malaysians with Indian roots are living here. Penang Island's total population is estimated to 680,000 people (2012).

Penang Island

George Town, Penang Island

George Town on Penang Island. In the background: Penang Hill. Image by Asienreisender, 2010

Penang's economic significance results from it's electronic industries. In the years after 1969 it became somewhat like a 'silicon island' of Asia. Also car equipment industries produce in Butterworth. After Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru at the tip of the peninsula, Penang is the third most important trade center of Malaysia.
Tourism contributes a considerable share to Penang's economy.

Map of George Town

'Map of George Town, Penang' by Asienreisender

The old part of George Town. Most of it is nowadays Chinatown and the Indian Quarter.


The History of Penang

Penang's location at the northern entry to the Strait of Malacca provided a sheltered harbour for Chinese, Arabian, Malayan and European ships since centuries. Therefore it attracted pirates as well. Piracy is still until today notorious in the Strait of Malacca.

Europeans came to Penang from the early 16th century on. The first Europeans were Portuguese seafarers, surrounding Africa's Cape of Good Hope after 1488, exploring all the east African coastline, Persia, India until reaching Southeast Asia. The Portuguese, who founded a first European trade post in Ayutthaya/Siam, conquered Malacca, south of Penang, in 1511, and established there the first European colony in the world region.

Francis Light

Captain Francis Light

Captain Francis Light, the founder of George Town on Penang Island (1786). There is no image of Light conserved; we don't know, how he really looked. The picture shows the upper part of the statue in Fort Cornwallis. Image by Asienreisender, 2012

In the late 18th century the sultanat of Kedah was under threat of Burmese and Siamese invaders. Penang Island was under Siamese rule until 1785, called 'Ko Mak' in Siamese/Thai language. To gain protection, the sultan of Kedah made a deal with the British captain Francis Light. The British got Penang Island to found a trading port, in reverse Light promised the Kedah Sultanat military protection. That was in 1786. Penang/Georgetown was the first British possession in Southeast Asia.

What the sultan of Kedah didn't know, was that Light wasn't authorized by the British East India Company to guaranty protection. The sultan tried to get Penang back, but without success. Finally there was an agreement settled in which the sultan got an annual amount of money for Penang.

To clear the land from the jungle it's said that captain Light fired some ship cannons filled with silver coins into the jungle to unleash the ambition of native people. The jungle near the coastline was cut by them in a short time then, in a rush to find as many coins as possible.

In the following time more and more immigrants were attracted by the new free port. Any new immigrant could claim as much land as he was able to clear from jungle.

Fort Cornwallis

Photocomposition Fort Cornwallis

Being the largest colonial fortress in Malaysia, Fort Cornwallis is placed at the alleged landing site of George Town's founder captain Francis Leight. The fort was built as the first building in the new colony after the British arrived in 1786. It served as a military basis to ensure British rule over the place, to keep control over the local population, the sultan of Kedah, the local piracy and, for a time in the Napoleonic wars, to fortify the place against potential French attacks.

Additionally, Fort Cornwallis served also as an administrative center for the colony.

Namegiver for the construction was the Marquis Charles Cornwallis.

In the first years the fort was a stockage. Then the building was rebuilt as a brick construction in the years 1808 - 1810, built with convict labour of Indian workers who were brought here from south India by the colonialists. The fort's design is star-shaped, what was an advantage in defence at the time.

Originally the fort was surrounded by a moat. The moat was filled in the 1920s, after a malaria epidemic.

'Photocomposition of Fort Cornwallis' by Asienreisender

There is not much of an interiour of the old fort. Barracks, prison cells, a chapel, a lighthouse and munition storages. Nowadays there are sometimes concerts performed on transportable stages. At the entrance area the bronze statue of captain Francis Light is placed, there is a small museum inside and the walls are still decorated with some old cannons. One of them is kind of a 'celebrity'. Seri Rambai, a 1603 bronze cannon of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), was once a present for the sultan of Johor; the Portuguese got the cannon then, and later it came to Java; anyhow the Acehnese got possession of it, then pirates and finally the cannon came into British hands. Seri Rambai has the recommendation of bringing fertility. That's why the murder tool is sometimes bedecked with flowers, given by women who are in hope of getting pregnant.

Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 2010, 2015

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The first streets in the new settlement were Light Street, Beach Street, Chulia Street and Pitt Street (Masjid Kapitan Keling Street nowadays), forming a sceletton of the emerging place. That's still the main roads of George Town nowadays.

Yeng Keng Hotel

Restorated Building

A few meters apart from Chulia Street is one of the oldest buildings of the neighbourhood: Yeng Keng. Built in the time around 1850, it was an Indian house in an Indian neighbourhood. The area became more and more Chinese inhabited from the early 20th century on. Image by Asienreisender, 2010

Interesting to see that George Town still keeps the same old street names as there were already in the colonial times: King Street, Queen Street, Downing Street, Love Lane, Rope Walk, Buckingham Street, Gottlieb Road and many others.
Three years after the founding George Town inhabited 5,000 settlers, doubling the number within the next ten years. The first Chinese came from a Chinese community of the nearby mainland in Kedah.

Captain Light died in 1794 and is burried at the protestant cemetery, where his grave can still be visited.

In the early 19th century Penang became an important trading post for the opium trade between China and India. Gambling licences and brothel licences were given out by the East India Company. Criminality rose in Penang due to this politics. That were the times when Stamford Raffles arrived in Penang in 1805, getting a post as the Deputy Secretary to the Governor of Penang until 1810.

Chinatown at 1900

Penang, Historical

Historical photo of George Town, seen in a hotel. Might be around 1900. Image by Asienreisender, 2010

In 1826, after Raffles' founding of Singapore (1819) and the English-Dutch treaty of 1824, Penang became together with Malacca, Singapore and Dinding (known for Pangkor Island) part of the Straits Settlements under the British East India Company's administration in Calcutta, India. It became a Crown Colony from 1867 on. Although George Town was declared the Straits Settlement's capital, emerging Singapore gained soon more importance than Penang.

In 1867 a severe conflict between two Chinese secret societies broke out, led to open riots on the streets and heavy streetfighting which came out of control for the authorities (known as the 'Penang Riots'). The fight was over commercial interests, mainly in the profitable tin-mining industries. Cannon Street got it's name because during street fights a cannon ball was fired onto the street, causing a big hole in the ground.

Penang's trade boosted after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, when shipping routes became much shorter, quicker, more efficient. Tin and rubber from the Straits Settlements went in a greater scale to Britain, feeding the hungry and booming industries there. Penang grew more and more, attracting people from different parts of the British Empire and elsewhere. It became extraordinary multicultural, with immigrants from Malaya, Aceh, Arabia, Armenia, Britain, Burma, Germany, Bengal, Japan, Punjab, Ceylon, Siam, Java, Portugal, Sumatra, China and Chinese from several other places, Jews, Gujeratis and many Eurasians. A number of famous visitors as Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Hermann Hesse, Somerset Maugham, Karl May and more stayed here for a while. The prominent visitors stayed usually in the luxurious Eastern & Oriental Hotel.

WW I Stela

War Memorial

The World War I Memorial behind the City Hall. Image by Asienreisender, 2012

In the last days of October 1914 the only major German naval unit in east Asia, the cruiser SMS Emden payed a surprising visit to Penang's harbour and launched an attack on allied warships of whom two sunk. That incidend is called the 'Battle of Penang'.
Apart from this, the war had little direct impact on Penang. Near the old City Hall at the shore is a memorial for the casualties of World War I.

On the 8th of December 1941, one day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, a Japanese invasion army landed at several points along the coasts of south Thailand, among them Pattani and Songkhla. From there they went southwards into Malaya, capturing Penang on December 19th (Battle of Malaya). The European population was already evacuated, for it was clear that Penang couldn't stand the attack of the superior Japanese troops. The following three and a half years were defenitely the worst time in Penang's history. The Japanese rule was brutal. A considerable part of Penang's people fled into the islands inland or the mainland to hide anywhere in hope to escape the Japanese atrocities and terror. The British failure to defend it's possessions and to protect the colonial population led to a severe disillusionment about the British image and prestige. The British were not invincible. Nobody is.

Little known is, that in the time of the Japanese occupation Penang served also as a base for German submarine operations in the Indian Ocean.

After the Second World War things were much different than before. The time of direct European dominance and rule was historically over. Europe had exhausted and destroyed itself in the two World Wars and lost it's power to dominate the world. World ruling power shifted to the USA, who were factually the only winner of the two big wars. Consequently the USA became the dominant post-colonial power in Southeast Asia from then on.


George Town, House

One of the historical buildings in Chinatown, George Town. Image by Asienreisender, 2012

Before Malaysia gained independence in 1957, some last administrative changes were done by the British. The Straits Settlements were dissolved (1946), becoming the Malayan Union first, than the Federation of Malaya.

The post-independence era saw the struggles between the different ethnics and political parties. Penang lost it's 'free port' status in 1969, what lead to an impact on the local economy and a severe increase of unemployment (almost 15%, officially). Nevertheless, in this time the industries were developed and electronic and automobile industries settled down and led to a further development of the region.

The race tensions, respectively the question of participation in the economy and state administration led also in Penang in the years around 1970 to violence and caused victims.

Penang was also hit by the 2004 tsunami, but far not as hard as north Sumatra or parts of Thailand's Andaman Sea coasts.

Malay Market in Penang

'Painting of a Native Market' by Asienreisender

A Malay market in the colonial times, roughly early 20th century. Painting seen in a Chinese gold shop. Image by Asienreisender, 2012


Penang as a Tourist Destination

Penang, namely George Town, is a major tourist destination. It has partially to do with it's status as a world cultural heritage. It attracts a large number of Asian tourists as well as Westerners.

So, what's actually the thrill of the place?

There are after all two main reasons. The first is to visit the historic heritage of the place. It's really remarkable. The other reason is to buy electronics or other high-tech goods who are not to purchase elsewhere. Penang is also a destination for the notorious 'Thai Visa Run'.

Uptown Bistro

'George Town, Uptown Bistro' by Asienreisender

A tourist bar in one of the many historical buildings in George Town. The vivid colours are typical for the place, and they change from time to time. However, when buildings are getting restored, there are strict conditions set up by the UNESCO to preserve the historical structure. Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 2005, 2009, 2015

The places where the masses go are always spoiled by soulless business. That's defenitely the case in Penang. It's an extremely overcrowded place with much too much traffic. The car industries boost out cars, but the infrastructure is much to weak for the traffic. Traffic jams are common, the roads in touristic Chinatown are much to narrow for cars. There are no sidewalks, respectively if, then they are not usable. So, tourists as everyone else are exposed to the aggressive traffic on the roads what makes it impossible to have a calm look around for the heritage. It's really dangerous to walk around here - as devastating as the mass traffic is the pretty aggressive driving style of many locals. Not to mention the noise pollution and the smog.

The atmosphere is also not pleasing. Many local people are rude and/or ignorant. Not seldom people have a loud argument and shout at each other. That's very uncommon for Southeast Asia, where 'to save one's face' is traditionally so important. Looking into the faces of the people around, many of them do look weired. The situation seems to get worse since years. Race tensions are under the surface as well. Drugs are, without doubt, another major issue, particularly among the younger generation.

Although it's often considered a safe place, Penang (as Malaysia generally) is not that safe. There is mugging going on. The 'classic' crime is the 'snatch and run' theft done by two guys on a motorbike (mostly Indians). Muntri Road (Jalan Muntri) appeared for a time in the press as a prefered destination for this kind of crime.

Fatt Tze Mansion

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, nowadays a hotel/museum combination for wealthy guests. It depicts a paradigmatic Chinese courtyard house; the entire complex incorporates 38 rooms, 5 courtyards, 7 staircases and 220 windows. Cheong Fatt Tze lived from 1840 - 1916. Image by Asienreisender, 2012

Penang lacks accommodation for tourists. Particularly at holidays and main seasons (December is a national holiday month in whole Malaysia, making the whole population moving around) it's hard to find accommodation. Especially when the extremely inefficient transport system in Southeast Asia delayed one for hours, dooming one to arrive late on Penang when the verymost accommodations are already full. One ends often up in a dirty hole for the tripple price then.

Georgetown is also not too clean. Although general cleanliness improved considerably in the last years (less rubbish on the streets; in the 1990s George Town was a really dirty place), the sewer system is outdated. It's a system of canals who are partially open, partially covered with concrete plates. Waste water from the houses (bathrooms, toilets) runs through rough holes in the outer walls of buildings into these canals. That's not only odd looking and smelling, it also attracts rats. Like in all the Malaysian and Indonesian cities there are plenty of rats living in the 'underground'. At nighttime they come out and are not seldom to see roaming on the streets.

There are some bars and restaurants designed for the Western taste. But that's nothing really attractive, if not even the contrary. No reason to come here, at least.

Hindu Shrine

Hindu Ceremony

A Hindu ceremony at a streetcorner in George Town. People line up in a queue until a priest gives them kind of a prayer. Then they smash a coconut on the pavement that it's content splashes around. If you believe in the ceremony it may give you some comfort; if not, it's just an ugly mess. Image by Asienreisender, 2012

As a plus one has to mention that Penang offers a free wifi in wide parts of the city, namely Chinatown. Once registered, it works fine. Since the wifi connection in my guesthouse fails due to router configuration problems (since years already, they are completely unable to solve a technical problem like this), Penang's free wifi offers a great alternative. More of course if a guesthouse does not offer wifi at all.

Maybe Penang's attraction is mostly due to the marketing strategies of the place. I know Penang / George Town since around twenty years and remember it much more relaxed and as an attractive place to go. But that's over, defenitely.

In the past Penang / George Town was a popular touristic border point between Malaysia and Indonesia/Sumatra. That was before the changes in Indonesia due to the 1997 uprises took place. Until then a main tourist stream in Southeast Asia was an arrival in Bangkok (because there is the most important international airport in the world region), followed by a beach holiday in the south of Thailand (as shown in the movie 'The Beach'), then a trip to Malaysia, namely Penang to take the ferry to Belawan/Medan. But that's past. Few travellers go to Sumatra anymore. Even the ferry doesn't operate anymore. The last one went in June 2010. Now the only connection is by plane.

The Sights of Penang

The Colonial Buildlings of George Town

The first collage gives a few examples of colonial buildings who coin the city; most of them are not among the most significant, but they give a representative impression of the city. A few Chinese places, an Indian place and two night shots are blended into the choice.

The jubilee clock tower of Penang near the harbour and Fort Cornwallis (1) was built to honour British Queen Victoria's 60th year of reign in 1897. It was financed by Cheah Chen Eok, a Chinese millionair, and built in a Moorish style, what is an interesting contribution to the local architecture. The queen herself, however, never visited Penang. When the clock tower was finally completed in 1902, queen Victoria was already dead. There is a second big clock tower a bit south (Wisma Kastam, the Malayan Railway Building, 3).

The Eastern & Oriental Hotel (4) was one of the most exclusive places to stay for wealthy guests. It still is a luxurious address in the city, but there is much competition meanwhile.

'Photocomposition - The Colonial Buildings of George Town -' by Asienreisender

There are many traditional Chinese temples in the town. One of them is Kuan Yin Temple (7). Built in the 1800s, it's the oldest Chinese temple in town and still very busy. Kuan Yin is a Chinese goddess of mercy. In it's early years the temple served not only for religious purposes. Older than all of Penang's Chinese clan houses, it was a meeting place for influencial Chinese. Usually, when passing by, there is always activity of Chinese prayer, burning incense sticks, burning gold and silver paper in the two big ovens in front of the temple building and sometimes fireworks. Smoke is covering the square and religious sounds are coming out of the building.

Some, not many buildings were still ruins in 2005 (16); this one is already cleaned, and restoration followed. Other buildings changed only the colour (18, image right of 2005, left of 2010).

The implementation of modern supermarkets with neon lights into the old colonial buildings looks sometimes strange (19). It's a break of two styles - the cozy old time living style and the cold and hectical life beat of contemporary consumerism.

The small, very pretty greek temple in memory of captain Francis Light in front of St. George's church (21).

After dusk business is going on in the main roads, while other roads are narrow and empty (22). Steward Street (left) and Chulia Street (right). The Indian burger vendor appeared over years at the same spot.

Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2015

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Sights of George Town and Penang

Built in the years 1879 - 1883, George Town's Town Hall (2) is a typical colonial building, representative in it's classic style. Interestingly, a sequence of the movie 'Anna and the King' (1999, Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat) was filmed in the courtroom. In the early 1990s, the local authorites considered demolishing the beautiful building, but due to an intervention of the Historical Museum it was renovated instead. It was in a poor state then.

Next door the newer and bigger City Hall stands close to the seaside (3). When the Town Hall became too small for the administration, the neighbouring building was meant as a replacement; the former Town Hall then got more social functions. The City Hall was built in 1903 as the Municipal Office. The term 'City Hall' comes from the year 1957, when George Town received city status.

The statue of captain Francis Leight is placed inside Fort Cornwallis (4 see above). To his honour the small greek temple in front of St. George's Church has been built (5). St. George's church itself was erected in the years 1816 - 1818. It's an anglican church.

George Town's Komtar Tower (also: Menara Komtar Komplex, here seen from Penang Road) is the landmark of the urbanized island of Penang. Built in the years 1974 - 1986, it was for years the second highest building in Asia and for a time the highest one in Malaysia, until Maybank built higher in Kuala Lumpur. The grand building houses numerous administration offices, a great number of shops, a food court, a squash hall, cinemas, a gamble level and even a bus hub at the ground level. Altogether the tower has 65 storeys and a height of 232m.

'Photocomposition Sights of Penang Island' by Asienreisender

Sri Mahamariamman Temple from 1833 (9) is the oldest hindu temple in Malaysia. It's one of the main sights of George Town, partially because of all the bizzare hindu deities and the very Indian flair here. It's located in so called 'Little India', the Indian district of George Town. The spot where the temple is situated now was a place of hindu worship from 1801 on. The most eyecatching feature from outside is certainly the goptura (the tower on top of the roof), which shows many of Indian deities. The temple represents a south Indian Dravidia style. Other temples in Penang or elsewhere in Malaysia are built in the same style. Entering the sight, one sees more gods and goddesses, like the charming swine which I quadrupled here. I am not sure if the goddes right is Mariamman. Mariamman is a Tamil goddess with different qualifications and is seen as a protector, for example against diseases. 'Mari' means power, 'amman' stands for mother; 'maha' is great. So, it's the temple of the great, powerfull mother.

Another remarkable building on Penang Island is Kek Lok Si Temple (10). I found it in the past advertised as the 'Temple of the 10,000 Buddhas'. That's because of the many Buddha statues in the place. Any of them is adorned with a Chinese swastika on the breast. The first part of the sight was built in 1893, and since then there were extensions added until today. The image from 2010 shows a slewing crane in the background. Interestingly, the tower combines three different style elements: at the bottom part it's Chinese, the middle part is Thai style and the upper part, the top, is Burmese. However, the Kek Lok Si Temple is a mahayana buddhist temple, not a theravada one. Theravada is the dominating buddhist branch in Southeast Asia. The place is heavily commercialized, everywhere are shops, shops, shops, selling religious items.

Penang's George Town is very rich in various traditional Chinese temples and clan houses. The very Chinese architecture is very well preserved here in many buildings. It seems to me the richest Chinese heritage of the kind in Southeast Asia.

Seen from the outside, the Sun Yat Sen Museum (12) looks insignificant, but inside it appears large and richly furnished. Dr. Sun Yat Sen (also: Sun Chong San) was a founder of the Chinese Tung Meng Hooi Party with the political agenda to overcome the ancient regime in China and turning the large country into a republic. The party was founded in Tokyo in 1905. Dr. Sun Yat Sen then toured through Southeast Asia to gain support among the Chinese communities for the party's goals. The location here was the party's headquarters in the years 1909 - 1911, and one does not say too much when claiming that a piece of world history has been 'made' here. The building was constructed in the 1870s, and there is now a private museum inside.

The Chinese painting (13) I found, if I remember that right, at a wooden door in the Botanical Garden in 1995.

Kuan Yin Temple (14) has been described already in the photocomposition above. It's the oldest Chinese temple in Penang Island.

The remarkable building at Chulia Street (15) gives in it's outer appearance an interesting reminiscence to the Sultan's Water Palace in Yogyakarta, Java.

Yap Kongsi is a Chinese clan house refering to the members of the Yap clan (16). The Yap clan has a history which reaches back to a historical event in China in 439 BCE. Next door there is the clan temple of the Yap's, called Choo Chay Keong (left below 16).

George Town is clearly dominated by Chinese. Nevertheless, Malaysia has a majority of muslim people, and not only the Malays are of muslim religion but also part of the here living Indians. The large Kapitan Keling Mosque was built in the early 19th century (1801) by Indian traders. 'Keling' is actually a Malay term for Indians. The mosque was named after the kapitan (captain) of the Indians.

Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 1995, 1996, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2015

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More Impressions from Penang Island

The ferry to Penang (1, 6) is an access to the island when arriving on the train or bus in Butterworth. Both, train and bus station are very close to the ferry pier. The ferries go every 30 minutes or so to and fro the island. Here (6) the situation is very relaxed; around rush hours, however, it is usually very crowded.

The coastline south of colonial George Town (2) and the coastline west of the old town (3) are both plastered with ugly concrete monsters, many of them are high buildings.

The coast of the main land at opposite Butterworth (4 + 5). Part of the Strait of Malacca and equipped with a big industrial harbour, there is much traffic on the water. Many container ships are among them. The round-shaped buildings (5) are petrol tanks of the Shell company.

On the roofs of George Town, an old shot from 1995 (7). In the background George Town's landmark, Komtar Tower. Inside Komtar shopping complex (8) with it's hundreds of shops.

Chulia Street (9), the tourist center of George Town. Most of the guesthouses, hotels, restaurants, travel agencies and more tourist businesses are concentrated here.

'Photocomposition Impressions from Penang' by Asienreisender

Here and there one still sees one of the old bicycle rikshaws (10), always run by elder Chinese men. They are an endangered species an will certainly extinct in the coming years.

A street shrine in 'Little India' (11 right). The hindu priest celebrates a ritual for the visitors around, who seek salvation in smashing a coconut on the ground. That's the reason for the wetness on the road - it's coconut milk. The Chinese painting (11 left, 1 right) adorned the doors of an old Chinese temple in town.

Great food is served in the restaurants of George Town. Here a look on the display of a Chinese self-service restaurant (12).

Penang Island is, as same as Pangkor Island, Ko Chang or Ko Phayam, a tropical island. A few decades ago most of it's surface was still covered with tropical rainforest. Although the surface of the island changed so rapidly to a concrete and asphalt desert, the climate, mostly coming from western directions from the Indian Ocean, crossing Sumatra, often brings heavy tropical rains. The concealed ground with it's weak sewer system is not capable to absorb the masses of water then. The streets get flooded very quickly, particularly in the lower parts (13).

Sunset in George Town (14).

Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 1995, 1996, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2015

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As the first and oldest British colony in Southeast Asia and together with Malacca and Singapore, George Town has the richest colonial inheritance in the world region. While for example Phnom Penh / Cambodia was once called the 'Pearl of Asia' for having been a little Paris, nowadays there is little left of the colonial architecture - it's heavily neglected and gets more and more demolished for the sake of ugly, contemporary buildings. After the Malaysian independence, there was also a phase of neglect of the colonial coined cities for the sake of modern urbanization and development. Visiting the place repeatedly in the mid 1990s, the place was dirty and most of the buildings in a rotten state. That changed when the UNESCO put George Town as a nominee for a World Cultural Heritage. Together with UN money and a raising tourist economy the old buildings were step by step restorated. In 2005 it looked already much better, and what was then still in ruins or a building site got improved in the following years.

However, there is still much to do, and the question is, if it ever will be done. Southeast Asians are known for never doing a job right to the end. The sewer system is completely outdated, a problem which is technically not easy to solve. Would probably cost a lot of money. Cleanliness could be very much improved; it's still so that there are many rats to see in George Town, particularly at night. A really bad problem is, as already mentioned, the rampant traffic. As practically everywhere in our world individualized traffic, cars, trucks, motorbikes etc., dominates the scene. As a consequence the enhancement in the town is barely to enjoy, because one is permanently hazarded by (often extremely aggressive) traffic.

Click the chapters to access the photocompositions of George Town and Penang.

All images and photocompositions by Asienreisender, 1995, 1996, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2015


Sights of George Town

George Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2008. Since it is a British foundation with a long history under British rule, it's architecture is coined by colonial buildings of representation and colonial warehouses and shops.

Fort Cornwallis

Fort Cornwallis

Fort Cornwallis. Image by Asienreisender, 2010

Namely there is Fort Cornwallis, the first British building built here. Further the Town Hall and the City Hall (built in 1903, now the Municipal Council of Pulau Pinang, still in function for administrative purposes), the Penang Museum, the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, St. George's anglican church and the Suffolk House, former residence of Penang's British governors.

At the northeastern corner of Penang Island is the star shaped Fort Cornwallis situated. After taking possession of Penang, Francis Light let the fortification build. So much I understood it was in the beginning a pallisade fort. Years later, from 1804 on, it was rebuilt in bricks and stone by Indian (forced) labourers. The dry trench outside the fort's walls was once a ditch, but filled with earth in the 1920's when it came to a severe malaria outbreak on Penang Island. Fort Cornwallis was used for military purposes as well as for administrative ones. A number of old cannons decorate the fort. In one of them is an engravement of the Dutch East India company (VOC). The only buildings inside who survived the times are an old gunpowder magazine and a small chapel. Nowadays the fort is often used for giving concerts. Entrance: 2 ringgits for foreigners without any particular performance.

Town Hall

George Town, Townhall

George Town's old Town Hall is still in use for administrative purposes. Image by Asienreisender, 2012

The 'Queen Victoria Clock Tower' near the pier was built by a Chinese millionaire, Cheah Chen Eak. It was meaned to honour the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. There is another, bigger clock tower a bit south of it.

When I entered the ground of St. George's Church and shot a photo, the church was closed. Outside was an Indian guard in uniform, an older man, sitting. He shouted to me: "Hey, no photos, go, go!" I approached him and asked him what happens. I couldn't do any harm there and the gate was wide open. He became angry and threatened me to call the police. That's Penang nowadays.

St. George was seen as the patron saint of England (a legendary martyr). The church was built respectively completed in 1818 by convict (forced) labour, probably by Indians. Maybe the response of the Indian guard was a late revenge. It's the oldest anglican church in Southeast Asia. An interesting small memorial which looks like a small Greek temple, dedicated to Francis Light, stands in front of the church.

Strong Chinese influence is visible all around the town. There is a number of extraordinary Chinese clan houses, temples, shophouses and mansions such as 'Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion'.

The 'Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion' is distinctive on the first glance, alone because of it's strong blue colour. It was built around 1880 by a very rich and influencial Chinese merchant after whom the building is called. Cheong Fatt Tze was also called 'The Rockefeller of the East', due to his enormous richness. The building presents extreme wealth and is fundamentally built in a historical Chinese architecture. A number of other style elements, including western styles, are in the building combined. The principles of Feng Shui are applied in the mansion as well.

Since a few years the 'Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion' is turned into an exclusive 16 room hotel in combination with being a museum.

Hindu Deities

George Town

Inside Mahamariamman Temple. Image by Asienreisender, 2012

Indian influence can be seen in the Indian quarter in form of the apparently very vivid, living Indian community as well as in the many temples as for example Mahamariamman temple. 'Kuli Sri Mahamariamman', as it's formal name is, is the oldest hindu temple in George Town, built in 1833, renovated and extended in 1933. I have been many times in Mahamariamman, because it's a really strange place of a thousands of years old culture. All the paintings and sculptures inside look really grotesque, as in all the other hindu temples as well.

When I entered it last time, I politely asked a man sitting at a table near the entrance for making photographs. Photographing was never a problem. That's fine, he replied, except the central shrine is forbidden to make photos of. Well, I looked a bit around and just made the first shot when a priest came to me and ordered me to follow him. He brought me to a sideshrine and produced a show with candlelight, murmuring anything mysterious and applying some powder between my eyes. Then he produced a plate and demanded: "Money, money, money!" I was just pulling some coins out of my pockets as he shouted: "Dollar, dollar, dollar!" I turned and left the temple. Behind me I heared: "Hey, you! YOU! YOU!".

I actually should have asked him why he is worshiping a cow?! I always wondered about that.

That's another perfect example for the atmosphere in Penang nowadays. What's the countries slogan? Malaysia - truly Asia. But I can tell honestly what: there are much better places in Asia - outside Malaysia.

Muslim architecture is reflected above all in the dominant 'Kapitan Keling Mosque', the 'Aceh Mosque' and the 'Penang Islamic Museum'.

The P. Ramlee Museum gives an example for a traditional Malay stilt house. Even Thai and Burmese influences reflect in some buildings.

Since the 1970's George Town also get's a heavy modern impact. Even the notorious shopping center 'Komtar Tower', which is to see as a landmark from almost everywhere around, and is kind of the city's symbol, is considered being a sight. One can go upstairs by elevator to the view platform, and enjoying a bird's view over the city.


Sights of Penang

Penang National Park (Taman Negara Pulau Pinang) is easy to reach by bus and worth a visit if one wants to escape the city rush and see some green. Easy hiking is possible, partially along the coastline, partially passing through inland rainforest. There are beaches on which big sea turtles lay their eggs at a certain time of the year.

Penang National Park -

Taman Negara Pulau Pinang

'Penang National Park' by Asienreisender

At this shorter coast section the coastline looks as it has in former times over millions of years. Only in the very last decades urbanization changed the surface of most of Penang Island. Image by Asienreisender, 9/2010

Penang Hill is actually a big mountain (833 m), covered with dense vegetation. From the top respectively also from the slopes one has a great view over George Town and further east to the mainland. There is a cable car going up to the top. It's originally from 1923 and was for some years under restoration and out of order. Since 2011 it's running again. Malaysians pay 4 ringgits, foreigners 30 ringgits - Welcome to Malaysia - Truly Asia. It's also possible to walk up to the top from the Botanical Garden.

Other sites on Penang Island are the butterfly farm, the botanical garden, the snake temple and some historical Thai and Burmese temples.

Map of Penang Island

'Map of Penang Island, Malaysia' by Asienreisender

The Island of Penang. The yellow, urbanized parts are still constantly growing, while the green, still forested parts remained spared for the reason that these parts of the island are mostly mountainous. One sees the road south of the Butterfly Farm is a serpentine, and the part between it and Penang Hill is coined by steep slopes.

Penang International Airport is apparently a heavy impact on the island's nature.


Penang Bridges

Penang Bridge, finished in 1985, is 13,5 kilometers long and therefore the longest bridge in Southeast Asia. Due to capacity overload the bridge was extended from 2007 on. Under planning is a second Penang Bridge further south. It will be, according to the planning, 24 kilometers long.

Time is running like an Olympia champion, and meanwhile 'Penang Second Bridge' (official name: Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge) has been opened on March 2nd, 2014. As to see, it links the Malay Peninsula with Penang at Batu Maung near the international airport. It's a 24km long toll bridge of who 16.9km span over water. Now, Penang Second Bridge is the longest bridge in Southeast Asia. It's a dual carriageway with two lanes plus one for motorbikes in each direction. It was financed by a huge loan from the People's Republic of China.

The megabridge cost 4.5 billion ringgit, an equivalent of about 1 billion euro. It's equipped with a technology to withstand earthquakes up to a magnitued of 7.5 on the Richter scale.

Penang Bridge

Penang Bridge

A clip of Penang bridge. The part between the two pillars is the middle of the bridge and the bottleneck which all the bigger ships have to pass through. Image by Asienreisender, 2010

'Greek Temple Memorial for Francis Light' by Asienreisender Asienreisender Up to the top!

Published on December 14th, 2012

Penang Island

Last update on March, 31st, 2015