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Penang Travel: History of Malaysia's Flavorful and Vibrant Island

Updated: 3 days ago

Street Graffiti @ China House, a popular community space
Street Graffiti @ China House, a popular community space

The island of Penang has been in fairy tales and history books for centuries. When Malacca was already one of the most important ports on Earth, the neighboring Penang became known for its pirate-infested waters which got its name from the abundance of betel nut palms scattered across the soft, sandy beaches. Fortunately, everything changed in 1786 when Captain Francis Light first stood foot on the island. Captain Light signed a treaty with the Sultan of Kedah that in exchange for military protection, the Sultan gifts Penang to the British East India Company and thus the island became the first British possession in Southeast Asia.

Beach Street in Penang, Malaysia in 1890
Beach Street c. 1890 - Image via R.S Murthi

The first settlement- called Georgetown- was built around Fort Cornwallis, however, it was not an easy task as the island was a dense jungle. Legend says that Captain Light threw silver coins from his ship’s canons into the jungle so locals would clear the area faster. Georgetown grew so quickly with immigrants arriving from Mainland China in hopes of work that in 1826 Georgetown became the capital of the newly founded (British) Straits Settlements alongside Malacca and Singapore. Soon, Georgetown became a rich trading colony thanks to the lucrative opium trade between India and China. The British started to give out licenses to gambling dens, brothels, and opium traders. It is almost unbelievable to think that during Penang’s heyday opium provided 60% of Penang’s trade!

Best Tours in Malaysia and Singapore

Penang’s prosperity attracted people from far and wide, making the island truly a melting pot of diverse cultures. You can still recognize the different races that once contributed to Georgetown’s history by reading the street names: Siam Road, Burma Road, Gottlieb Road…  Different races settled down in different parts of the city which you still can experience on a walking tour in the city: only within a few minutes you can visit a mosque, a Hindu and a Chinese temple. Men predominated amongst the early immigrants who lived in communal-style accommodations, while the upper class lived in stunning mansions. As men had to work extremely hard (even the rent of a bed was only for 8 hours daily), local women started to sell home-made meals on carts, thus street food that we all love in Malaysia so much was born!  

Cheong Fatt Tze, The Blue Mansion in Penang, Malaysia
Cheong Fatt Tze, The Blue Mansion in Penang, Malaysia

As Singapore’s prosperity grew, Penang’s importance started to fade. Georgetown remained a bustling training port. Today, Georgetown is a UNESCO-listed World Heritage City for its rich historical significance, multicultural heritage, and well-preserved architectural landscape, making it a living testament to the diverse cultures in the area. Some even say, if you wish to see what Singapore looked like in 1960’s you should visit Penang! Georgetown, where each cobbled street whispers tales of resilience and echoes of a bygone era, is not merely a city frozen in time but a vibrant living and proud city, preserving its rich heritage while embracing a dynamic future. In the last decade, investors and locals alike are working hard to restore the beautiful shophouses in the Old Town bringing the town’s unique and colorful charm back. Old brothels and opium dens are reopened as trendy coffees and galleries. The once dusty walls came alive with realistic graffities throughout the city giving Penang a fantastic, unique, almost like-hipster vibe 

St. George Chucrch in Penang in Malaysia
St. George Church in Penang

Penang is a true gem you can enjoy any time of the year! At Malaya Travel, we love it there especially just before the Chinese New Year—it's all decorated and lit and you can jump into a traditional lion dance at many places. We make sure Penang is a must-have feature in our trips because it offers all and has a surprise for anyone. We also love Penang for its unique hotels that are an experience by themselves! The history here's fascinating, and oh, the food! Locals will always tell you, "Penang is all about the food," and they're spot on! The mix of cultures makes it feel like stepping into the past with a lively, youthful vibe. It's like discovering a world of flavors and stories on every street corner. That's why we can't get enough of Penang—it's a treasure trove waiting to be explored!


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