Penang is about 354 kilometres north of KL on the west coast, and it you can either fly there KL, Singapore and other cities, with the drive from KL to Penang taking around 4 hours on the main North-South Expressway (E1).
Penang is an island just off the coastline with a long bridge, the Penang Bridge separating it from the mainland where Butterworth is located. While officially, Georgetown is the main city on the island, most people simply refer to Penang as being both the island and also name of the City.
Penang, like Singapore, Malacca, Batavia (Jakarta), Goa and Hong Kong was first established as a safe anchor and port trading location, with Penang's history as a port being recognized as early as the 1400's when the Chinese Admiral, Cheng Ho (Zheng He) first sailed here from China in what is thought to be one of six voyages he made to the region. Siamese, Burmese, Arab, Indian and Chinese traders would also sail here, with the first sighting by a European ship being that of Sir James Lancaster (1554-1618) in June 1592 sailing the 'Edward Bonadventure'. He and ship stayed in Penang until September, before returning to Plymouth in England, but he also later returned on a second voyage under the authority of the East India Company, sailing on to Java in the East Indies.
While Penang was territory under the control of the Sultan of Kedah, it was the British and British East India Company under the leadership of Captain Francis Light (1740-1794) who took control of the island in 1786, under a lease from the Sultan, recognizing its strategic location and the safety afforded to ships that anchored here. That year also saw Fort Cornwallis built initially in timber and later using stone in a star shape with high walls and cannons strategically located at the top of the Bastion. You can visit the old Fort and see bronze statues of Captain Francis Light and also Marquess Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805) at Jalan Tun Syed Barakbak in Georgetown. The Marquess was made a British Lord and saw Military service in the Revolutionary Wars in the United States, also in Ireland where he helped in uniting England and Ireland under the Crown, and in 1805 he became Governor General of India, though he died that same year. Captain Francis Light died of Malaria and his Grave can be seen in the Protestant Church on Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah.
While Captain Light had leased the island, he did this on the basis of protecting the island and the Sultan of Kedah from attack by Siamese (Thailand) attack, but he failed to provide the promised protection. The Sultan was however forced to cede the island to the British based on them paying a stipend to him under an agreement.
While cannons can help to protect a Fort and city, greater protection comes from having a bigger population, and so Captain Light set down a plan for the Port City and also made it a 'Free Port' to encourage trade and development. The plan worked taking trade from the Dutch Ports in Malacca and Batavia, and also becoming a port of call for Company ships from the British East India Company sailing from India with their cargo of Opium to Shanghai and other ports in China. Ships flying under different flags also saw sailors, adventurers and traders leave their ships to have families, live and work in Penang, and Penang became a melting pot of different nationalities.
In 1826 Penang, along with Malacca and Singapore became known as the British 'Straits Settlements' and in 1867 officially a British Crown Colony as Malaya, remaining a British Colony until World War Two, when it was invaded and captured by the Japanese. After the War, Malaya returned to British rule as part of the British Empire and it remained so up until 1957 when Malaysia gained its independence.
While Penang is identifiably Malaysian, with its mix of British heritage, Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures reflected in its languages, architecture, Mosques, Chinese and Hindu Temples, it has also developed almost a separate identity too which can be seen in its food. Penang Curry, Penang Assam Laksa, Penang Hokkien Mee, Penang Rojak, Mee Goreng, Nasi Lemak, Char Kway Teow and other dishes are said to be some of the best Malaysian food you will find anywhere.
You will also see in Singapore and KL signs using the word 'Penang' in their menu selections or Restaurant name as a reference to Penang style dishes with the inference that the food is great!
There are certainly high class restaurants in all the big hotels and resorts with great food selections, but equally there are the Penang Coffee Shops (Kopi Shops) and Hawker stalls that come out at night on a number of different streets.
These Hawker Stalls each specialise in a particular dish or dishes, and this is the genuine, authentic real Malaysian food. Hawker stalls maybe just a cart on wheels with a gas fired wok on top and an array of fresh vegetables, Chilli Padi, meat, fish, noodles or rice, but they have been operating this way for a hundred years or more. Definitely try Satays too made by the Satay man over a charcoal fire. They may well be the world's first 'Pop-up' restaurants and they are located in a number of streets in Georgetown – Gurney Drive, Lebuh Chulia, Lorong Baru and many other places – no doubt close to wherever you are staying. Just ask a local, a taxi driver or your hotel desk staff as to where to go. The food is safe to eat, fresh, spicy and extremely tasty. Remember too that Malaysians and Singaporeans love their Chilli, are passionate about food and will travel far and wide to find the best places to eat. Remember too that if there are lots of people eating or lining up at a stall, the food is likely to be great too.
Gurney Drive running beside the coastline is pretty much a tourist playground with the food stalls, bars and nightclubs all located here – but it is also a real experience.
Also look for Indian Restaurants too – which also have their own unique style of cooking and dishes. The area known as 'Little India' is located around Lebuh Queen, Lebuh Chulia and Jalan Pasar. A Mamak (Indian-Malay) or Indian Roti Canai or Dosai breakfast is great, as are dishes served later in the day.
People come to Penang for the consistent tropical sunny days and poolside resorts and hotels and there are literally hundreds of places to stay (see and book Hotels on this website). Second or maybe first on the list of reasons to come to Penang is the food and then third is seeing around the city and gaining a feel for Penang's history and culture.