In the beginning was the word, and the word was light. Or, in this case, Francis Light, an illegitimate English freebooter who turned Penang into the premier Asian trading hub of the 18th century, earned himself a fortune and sired six children for a Thai-Portuguese princess. Or so the better sort of legend has it.

Today, it's tourists as much as traders who head to Penang; but the island retains more than a little of the cosmopolitan richesse of the Light era, especially in the old quarter of George Town, which is lined with the shophouses that are the icon of the Chinese Asian diaspora, and dotted with museums, boutique hotels and the sort of whimsical tycoon's mansion - Cheong Fatt Tze's blue one is a prime example - that were part status symbol, part adult adventure playground.

Yet the core attraction is George Town's vibrant ambience: if someone could work out how to bottle that, they'd outsell the iPhone 6S. Never mind that some random factotum from Unesco slapped the place with a World Heritage bumper sticker, it's a hypnotic blend of Malaysia's three main cultures and races - Chinese, Indian, Malay - and many more besides.

"Europeans, Arabs, Armenians, Jews, Burmese, Thais, Bugis, Ambonese, Javanese, Acehnese, Rawanese, Minangkabaus [from the highlands of western Sumatra], Tamils, Malabaris, Gujaratis, Bengalis, Parsis, Cantonese, Hokkiens, Hakkas, Teochews, Hainanese, Ceylonese, Sikhs, Japanese, Filipinos - all these were active participants in the creation of a cosmopolitan city," says Khoo Salma Nasution, who wrote the definitive Streets of George Town guidebook and is director of the Lestari Heritage Network.

Not so much a melting pot as a supersized smoothie, part of George Town's appeal lies in its sheer modesty. It's an honest-to-goodness, everyday community, where people live and work, rather than some sort of ersatz, touristic showpiece. Nobody's hawking tacky George Town trinkets or blathering about the "George Town experience". Even the sales clerk at the World Heritage office, on Carnarvon Street, seems slightly taken aback by a request to purchase a map, and has to scrabble through several cupboards to find one that's up-to-date. Welcome to the Malaysian laid-back island idyll, which - just to shade in a little contrast - produced such diverse characters as Jimmy rhymes-with-shoe Choo and that very well-known politico Anwar Ibrahim.

Naively, in the weeks preceding this trip I bought a second-hand phrase book, wrote out a score of flash cards, and learned to count up to sembilanpuluh sembilan (99) in Bahasa Malaysia. Yet even before I stepped outside the airport arrivals hall it was blatantly apparent that everyone spoke English, or perhaps Minglish-lah, not only to me but to each other, although some Chinese are happier nattering in hwayu (overseas Chinese language), as they dub Putonghua.

But one Malay word - syiok - prove invaluable. Slang for "great", it carries nuances of pleasure, ease, cool, amusement and general bonhomie.

It is syiok to glide into a hawker centre for breakfast, lunch, dinner or any of the other meals that seem to stretch throughout the day. The set-up varies little: tables and chairs in the middle, Chinese, Malay, Indian plus maybe Japanese and Thai cook-stalls around the sides, ceiling fans pirouetting vaguely overhead - although the temperature doesn't ever drop much below 27 degrees Celsius - and not much in the way of walls. At four ringgit (HK$7) a plate there's never any doubt that you're getting your money's worth. There's everything from chilled Bintang beer to freshly squeezed lime juice at the drinks stall. Few meals are completed in a hurry.

It is syiok to drop by a spice merchant in Little India for a clutch of aromatic holiday memorabilia, delving into the vast sacks and barrels, mingling with the other people in the shop - never less than a cricket team's worth - who might have been customers, staff, friends or distant cousins.

Syiok, too, to board a trishaw - 30 ringgit for an hour's pedalling and only slightly garbled commentary by the veteran pilot - and spin along streets whose very names trumpet Penang's history: Victoria, Armenian, Farquhar, Light (of course) and Stewart. And where would George Town be without Love Lane?

And it is syiok simply to wander the streets, admiring the triumphant form-follows-function shophouses, which open right onto the five-foot-way pavements, are narrow but deep, and flooded with light and air via an interior courtyard. Renovated or dilapidated, some following their traditional calling, others teetering on the edge of the dustbin of history, every single one is a cultural crown jewel, cocking a valiant snook at the 232-metre-high Komtar Tower, an incongruous cylindrical erection on the fringe of the old quarter, a "monstrous carbuncle" in Charles Windsor's vocabulary, or what American writer Bill Bryson would have classified as a hideous example of the "Far Queue" - to put it politely - school of architecture.

Here and there, George Town's public spaces are etched with murals by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, whose work evokes comparison with Norman Rockwell's oeuvre. Complementing these, wrought-iron sculptures - each a nugget of George Town life - spotlight a gallimaufry of diverse subjects, such as the Indian soothsayers who used parakeets to tell fortunes, Ting Ting Thong (sugar, sesame seeds and nuts) rock candy and the hole made by a cannon ball in the 1867 riots. Each sculpture takes on the role of a still-life guide.

While other Asian islands have plumped for the sun-sea-and-sand formula, Penang's street cred comes from its vibrant culture. George Town steps into the international limelight every summer, when its arts festival - conjured from practically nothing in 2010 by textile tycoon Joe Sidek - draws acts as diverse as a Japanese interpretation of Kafka's Metamorphosis, Iranian experimental theatre, a Spanish troupe who mix flamenco with breakdance and Polish puppeteers enacting the last days of movie legend Marlene Dietrich.

Yet with a metropolitan landscape that's more or less a living museum, a heritage that doesn't need labelling by international busybodies and a lingua franca that outstrips Esperanto, George Town does the culture jive 365 days a year. Or 366 in 2016.