The only Malaysian state with a Chinese majority population, Penang brings together a unique fusion of cultures that manifests itself most notably in the legendary cuisine, writes Annabelle Bladon.

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Take a stroll around Penang Botanical Gardens

Known as the Pearl of the Orient by ancient seafarers, the Malaysian island of Penang, or Pulau Pinang, sits on the northwest coast of the Malay Peninsula in the Strait of Malacca.

What to do and see

statue-flowers-for-web-250Georgetown is the main drawn, a city full of stark contrasts between modern skyscrapers, colonial architecture and ancient traditions. It is a compact capital, easily explored on foot, but a trishaw ride is an exciting way to see it, particularly at night.

The highlight of Georgetown’s old colonial district, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the crumbling Fort Cornwallis, where British trader Francis Light first set foot on the island in the 18th century.

Further inland is an authentic Chinatown, a melting pot of mosques, markets and Chinese shrines; Malay and Indian influences ever present. This is a great place to buy some Penang Pewter – just as good quality as the better known Royal Selangor Pewter, but significantly more affordable.

An equally atmospheric area to wander is the labyrinth of Little India, where Hindi music blares from tumbledown shops and restaurants and the scent of spice wafts down the street.

For an insight into Penang’s Chinese heritage, head to the Clan Jetties along Weld Quay – wooden fishing villages perched on stilts over the water, established by migrant workers in the mid-19th century. The most prominent of these is Chew Jetty, still home to hundreds of people, many of them now selling souvenirs from their front porches. A stroll along narrow plank walkways through the clusters of wooden huts gives not only fantastic views across the Strait of Malacca, but a glimpse of a world where time has stood still.

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Clan Jetties along Weld Quay, Penang

For unrivalled views of Georgetown and some fresh, cool air, take the five-minute funicular trip up Penang Hill. Walk down, following the stream, and stop at the foot of the hill to watch the long-tailed macaques play in the trees of Penang Botanical Gardens.

If you fancy venturing further afield, Penang offers a diverse landscape of fishing villages, farmland, beach and jungle. Sights include Penang War Museum, Snake Temple, hiking in Penang National Park and Kek Lok Si Temple, Malaysia’s largest Buddhist temple.

Where to eat

From Malay to Chinese, Thai to Indian, Penang is home to some of the best street food in Asia. Char kway teow (stir-fried rice noodles) is the iconic dish, best eaten sitting at a low pavement table outside one of Georgetown’s many 24-hour hawker stalls. Try favourite local haunt Weld Quay Restaurant for seafood, or the Sin Hwa coffee shop for Penang’s take on a Thai fish soup, sweet and sour with tamarind – Assam laksa.

When wandering the markets of Georgetown, look out for weird and wonderful local fruits. The durian – ‘king of fruits’ – is identifiable by its stomach-churning odour, but the flesh is custard-like and surprisingly pleasant. The vendor will open it for you, and you only pay for what you eat.

For a more civilized sit-down affair in elegant surroundings, a tiffin lunch on the lawn of Eastern & Oriental Hotel’s Sarkies Corner is not to be missed.

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Where to drink

Farquhar’s Bar, Penang’s equivalent of Singapore’s Raffle’s Long Bar, is best for cocktails, and surprisingly affordable. Try their signature Eastern & Oriental Sling.

For a friendly spot frequented by expats and locals alike, try That Little Wine Bar, a boutique wine bar pouring vintages by the glass and by the bottle.

Where to stay

Penang is famed for its heritage houses and hotels. A collection of lovingly restored buildings dating back to 1800 and set within a walled garden in the heart of Georgetown’s colonial district, 23 Love Lane is one of the best on offer.

If you’re after an archetypal grand colonial hotel, the Eastern & Oriental Hotel is unbeatable. Right on the waterfront, the lawn boasts Penang’s biggest and oldest java tree, and the sea-view suites are worth the extra pennies.

Fact File
Population 1.5 million
Climate Tropical climate with constant temperatures year round. Brief torrential downpours, with the most rain falling between May and October.
Region Penang encompasses the 28km² Penang Island and a narrow strip of mainland called Seberang Perai, linked by an 8 mile bridge.
Economy Dubbed the ‘Silicon Valley’ of Malaysia, Penang is one of the most developed and economically important states in country.