Colonial charms

A stop in diverse and delightful Penang

It was a long day en-route from Koh Lanta to the Malaysian city of Penang. First up was an early morning minivan back to Krabi, followed by a 5 hour coach ride to Hat Yai, and another minivan to the border town of Padang Besar. The crossing into Malaysia involved a 20 minute walk through the border region amid what seemed like lacklustre security, with hardly any obvious law enforcement between the two countries. I suspect I could have got away without showing my passport.

Political entertainment on the coach to Hat Yai

After getting the passport stamped and adjusting my watch forward an hour, I headed to the nearby train station just a short walk away. I hastily asked around to convert Baht into Ringgit to purchase my 13 RM (£2) ticket down south to Butterworth, beside the port of Penang. Stepping onto the train reminded me of my very first journey to Euston from Milton Keynes. It’s a fast and modern commuter service that took only an hour and a half to complete the journey.  Just beside the station in Butterworth, I caught the ferry to Penang island and arrived 13 hours after a hectic day on the move.

George Town is the small capital of the island state of Penang where the British East India Company first settled in 1786. It became an important port for the spice trade until the end of colonial occupation in 1948. Thanks to Penang’s British influence, English is spoken widely amongst all generations. It’s a melting pot of cultures to a surprising extent. Malaysian, Indian and Chinese people can be found in equal measure, and I was reminded of my first trip to Malaysia where I found it difficult to differentiate one ethnic group from another.

Exploring Penang

Today, George Town is a UNESCO world heritage site in recognition of its well-preserved colonial architecture. Getting around Penang is hassle-free, and it was a pleasure to walk around the old town spotting the street art painted onto the side of historic buildings. The streets are narrow but easily walkable. Most of them have covered sidewalks which provides a welcome shelter from the especially harsh sun and tropical rains.

A typical street in George Town with distinctive colonial architecture

Unusual three dimensional street art can be found tucked away throughout George Town

Heading to Little India provided some familiar home comforts. The suburb It’s more civilised than a typical India counterpart, but all the hallmarks of Indian culture make it feel authentic; classical Indian music blares out on to the street, the smell of incense overpowers the shops and traditional snacks freshly prepared beside the streets.

Little India

Relics from the colonial period aren’t hard to find in George Town. Fort Cornwallis was built in the 18th century and commissioned by Captain Francis Light and when the British first landed in George Town. It never engaged in war and there isn’t much of the fort to see today – only the walls, a few cannons and other ruins remain. However, what made visiting so special was the tour guide who put his heart and soul into explaining every historical detail. He told us about the Seri Rambai cannon that overlooks the sea and had been captured by Indonesian, Dutch and then the British. Today it’s believed the cannon has supernatural powers, and offering it flowers supposedly helps a woman conceive children. Hmm..

Seri Rambai cannon at Fort Cornwallis

Later that day I took the steep mountain railway up to Penang hill which gave a rewarding view of the city from 2700 feet above sea level. Another highlight was a trip to the botanical gardens. It’s a beautifully kept park, in spite of the resident monkeys  emptying the bins to find their next meal. Whilst watching some turtles on the light trek through the surrounding hills, I was approached by a friendly monk and his followers, and talked about life in Penang and my trip there.

The view from a bar at the top of Penang hill

Some turtles at the Penang Botanical Gardens.

Penang is known as a capital for food in the whole of SE Asia, and I can definitely vouch for that. The food reflects the ethnic diversity and authentic and varied. It’s safe to say I didn’t go hungry, even as a vegan. As a bonus, I found that the general living costs are significantly cheaper than Thailand. A freshly made claypot noodle dish would never set me back more than £2, and the cost of most cross-city Uber fares could be denominated in pence. This came as a surprise considering Malaysia is one of SE Asia’s more economically developed countries.


One of my pre-trip objectives was to try couchsurfing, and I figured I’d give it a go in Penang. Couchsurfing an intriguing service connecting budget travellers in need of basic accommodation (usually a couch, as you might have guessed) in return for giving their hosts some social companionship. I wrote a profile on the Couchsurfing app back in Thailand and requested a stay with my host, David, who welcomed me to his cosy apartment in one of Penang’s suburbs. On our evening together we ate a thali at a South Indian restaurant and caught up with other couchsurfers at a nearby bar. I had a great time with David, although as a first time surfer I did find the experience a little awkward. The idea is that a host caters for guests for free, and so in return I tried my best to not inconvenience David despite arriving a day later and late at night. Nevertheless, I liked the whole concept. It’s an excellent way to travel to a city with a resident expert to offer travel suggestions – it works particularly well when traveller and host are a good match. I parted company with David by offering him a souvenir from Thailand of a statue of Ganesh to bring good fortune to his home. For the remainder of my stay in Penang I also had the fortune of moving to a hostel bed to relieve my back pain from a week of sleeping on concrete beds, minivan seats and couches.

My bed for a couple of nights at David’s flat. Somehow I slept better here than I had in weeks.

I had an incredible first stop in Malaysia. Although it was the first country on my adventure that I had previously visited, Penang has a completely different ambience to Kota Kinabalu, and it provided the most memorable social experiences on my trip so far. Whether it was conversing with Uber drivers, masseuses, monks, waiters, tour guides or even just random strangers on the street, many would smile and happily engage with me. Penang’s ambience is remarkably relaxed for such a large city. I can’t remember the last place I visited where people are so free-spirited and keen to chat with strangers. The lack of a language barrier definitely helped.

Less than three weeks now separated me from my flight home from Singapore. I was sad to leave Penang but after 5 days, it was time to move onwards. The next stop on my route through Malaysia was the cool retreat of the Cameron Highlands.

Next: High Tea


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