Malay, Chinese and European cultures collide to create a 'Pearl of the Orient' that moves forward while preserving its past, writes Peter Walbrook
1 Colonial district
George Town's padang, or municipal playing field, is surrounded by well-maintained historical buildings. A Chinese businessman donated the Victoria Memorial Clock Tower at its southern corner in 1897, and the nearby State Assembly Building dates from the beginning of the 19th century. On the padang's eastern boundary are the 19th-century City Hall and Town Hall, while within its boundary lies what is left of Fort Cornwallis. Head to Tourism Malaysia on the eastern side near the seafront and pick up a Heritage Trail pamphlet to explore an area reminiscent of Hong Kong's Central District before its wholesale demolition.
2 Chulia Street
The area's popularity as a backpacker centre can be traced to the early 20th century, when Chinese traders moved into what was a mainly Indian Muslim street and opened budget hotels for domestic and other Asian tourists. A popular, cheap hotel, the Eng Aun (recently renamed the E&A), at No380 is a former Muslim mansion, and several other small hotels occupy architecturally significant locations. This is one of the most interesting of George Town's streets and is home to antiques shops, travel agents, secondhand bookstores, coffee shops, the seedy Hong Kong Bar and some of the town's most distinctive Chinese and Indian buildings.
3 Little India
A block from Chulia Street, Little India is a dynamic district of DVD shops, temples, sari outfitters and some of the best and cheapest Indian restaurants in the world. The emphasis is on South Indian vegetarian. A large, delicious dosa will set you back about M$1.5 (HK$3.20). DVD shops compete to see which can pump out the loudest music onto streets decorated with chalk mandalas and incense burns, creating an assault on the senses that's bearable with the knowledge that comparative peace and quiet is never more than a block or two away.
4 Eastern & Oriental Hotel
Established by the Sarkies brothers in the 1880s with the amalgamation of the Eastern and the Oriental hotels, the E&O is one of many Southeast Asian colonial-era properties trading on its Somerset Maugham/Noel Coward/Rudyard Kipling-stayed-here heritage. It was refurbished a few years ago, and the new all-suite incarnation is a definite improvement. You needn't stay here to enjoy a cocktail or two on the seafront verandah, or tiffin in Sarkies Corner.
5 Protestant Cemetery
Among the more interesting gravestones in the George Town Protestant Cemetery is that of Thomas Leonowens, whose demise ultimately led to the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I. On her husband's early death from apoplexy in 1859, Anna Leonowens headed, via Singapore, to Bangkok to become governess to the king of Siam's offspring. Other notables buried in the cemetery include Captain Francis Light, credited on its notice board as the 'Founder of the Settlement of Prince of Wales Island' (the name he gave to Penang when he arrived in 1786) and 12 Chinese Christians who fled the Boxer Rebellion only to 'succumb to the health perils of the East'. Not exactly picnic territory, but good for a wander among the magnolia trees, the cemetery is five minutes' walk south of the E&O.
6 Penang Hill
Similar to Victoria Peak in that it was established as a high-altitude sanctuary and has a funicular railway, Penang Hill has been spared the over-development inflicted on its Hong Kong counterpart. There are several routes to the top, but the most interesting is the 30-minute funicular ride. Built by the Swiss and 17 years in the making, the railway has been running since 1923 and operates in two stages, starting at Air Itam near the Kek Lok Si Temple. The 11-room Bellevue Hotel was once the Crag Hotel, established in 1895, and is worth a visit for a drink on the back lawn, which looks out over George Town and the mainland.
7 Botanical Gardens
Reached by walking down from Penang Hill, the Botanical Gardens are also known as the Waterfall Gardens after their 122-metre-high waterfall. The site of a granite quarry until the 1880s, the gardens cover about 30 hectares. The best time to visit is in the morning (it opens at 5am) before the tourists arrive and the temperature rises. It takes about two hours to see the entire gardens, but it's easier to spend half a day with a picnic by the lily pond. Entrance is free.
8 Gurney Drive
Good for an evening stroll, street food and shopping, Gurney Drive is a tree-lined, seafront road between George Town and Batu Ferringhi. It was the North Coastal Road until it was renamed after Sir Henry Gurney, a high commissioner killed by communist guerillas in 1951. One of Penang's trendiest shopping malls, Gurney Plaza, houses a decent supermarket where you can assemble your own seafront picnic if you don't fancy the laksa, hokkien mee or char koay teow on offer at the hawker stalls. These begin setting up about 6pm and the strip is abuzz by 8pm.
9 Batu Ferringhi
This seaside area is at its best in the evening. The night market is good for DVDs, clothes and souvenirs, both traditional (batiks) and non-traditional (electronic stun guns). Street food and bars are everywhere, but the Global Bay Food Court at the junction of Batu Ferringhi Road and Sungai Emas Road is a good spot for joining the locals for a cheap and cheerful feed. The beaches here are open to the public and there's no shortage of activities, including water-skiing and parasailing.
As long ago as the 1930s, Penang was a popular place for scenic driving, and Saber Tour and Rental Centre in Batu Ferringhi (18 Batu Ferringhi Road; tel: 8811 882) rents custom-made, vintage-style, two-seater sports cars for an open-topped taste of that era. Prices start from M$60 an hour, with a four-hour minimum charge. A drive from Batu Ferringhi up through the island's hills, returning via Air Itam and George Town, makes a pleasurable half-day trip, and with Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi recently exhorting Malaysians to be 'courteous road users' during the 2007 Visit Malaysia Year, it should also be a safe one.