There’s never been a better time to jet off and explore all corners of the world, with flight tickets tumbling and new routes springing up on an almost daily basis, taking us to destinations we could only dream of visiting until quite recently. SE Asia is just one example of many, with the vast expanses of China and Russia also springing to mind. This region has had a pretty troubled modern history but things are starting to settle down now, and travellers will find much of interest as well as a warm welcome across the likes of Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam. They clearly don’t hold any grudges here, as you’ll quickly discover.
Penang in Malaysia is actually the oldest British settlement in the whole region and has been recognised as Malaysia’s northern gateway for centuries. The island is mostly renowned as a popular beach resort, but the numerous Indian, Malay and Chinese influences ensure that it is also a great cultural gem, so any holiday break here is guaranteed to be packed with interest.
Penang Island is easily accessed by public transport in the region, and there’s an airport just south of Georgetown. You can get flights direct from London now, and there are excellent rail links with Thailand and Singapore.
The capital of Penang state is Georgetown and this is where you should go first on arrival for good hotels and an easy introduction to the country if you haven’t been here before. It’s located on the island’s northeast point, with the airport at the southern end. The famous Penang Bridge connects Penang with Butterworth halfway down the eastern shoreline to the south of Georgetown.
The most famous beach on the island is Batu Ferringhi, which is mainly packed with luxury resorts and hotels. But if like many travellers you’re planning on deliberately avoiding the well-heeled crowds there are plenty of small, secluded coves to explore and relax in. You can find these mainly around the extreme northwest tip of Penang, and the roads throughout the state being pretty good you could do worse than hire a car in Georgetown to get conveniently around.
If you come here looking for dense flora and exotic fauna you have that as well on Penang. To the west of the island you’ll be able to explore hills covered in thick jungle, sprinkled with a few fishing kampongs and old rubber plantations, a reminder of the days of colonialism. On the south coast there are more fishing villages and beaches and in the interior there’s an impressive mountain range that forms the island’s spine. Penang Hill is the highest peak here, 850m above sea level, and forms a sweeping backdrop to Georgetown.
In Georgetown you can have a look around Fort Cornwallis, one of the old colonial structures, and the Lebuh Pantai Clocktower, a present to the town during Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1867. The rest of the island has a variety of mosque and temple complexes to explore, and these together with the urban shopping opportunities and some of the finest scenery in SE Asia makes Penang a great first choice for holidays on this continent.
David Elliott is a freelance writer who loves to travel, especially in Europe and Turkey. He’s spent most of his adult life in a state of restless excitement but recently decided to settle in North London. He gets away whenever he can to immerse himself in foreign cultures and lap up the history of great cities.