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Tuesday 5 February 2013

Port Review: Penang, Malaysia

Originally published in Cruise Weekly

“The Pearl of the Orient”



Known in British colonial times as “The Pearl of the Orient”, Penang was founded in 1786 by a an English sea captain and entrepreneur, Francis Light, who persuaded the local Sultan of Kedah to grant him the entire 285 sq km island of Pulau Pinang and create a trading port. Located on the Straits of Malacca, it later formed part of the so-called 'Straits Settlement' along with Malacca and Singapore, flourishing into a multicultural hub and centre for such commodities as tea, spices, porcelain and cloth. Indian, Malay, Chinese, British, Portuguese and Dutch inhabitants and traders all made their presence felt in the culture and religion with many architectural remnants left to explore. Within this multiracial melting pot a unique culture developed. The so-called Baba-Nyonya culture of “peranakan” grew from the many Chinese-Malay intermarriages, spawning its own food, costume and rituals. A dedicated display can be found in the Penang State Museum.

In 1957 the British Colonial rulers granted Malaysia independence and in 2008, the historic district of George Town was inscribed by UNESCO onto their World Heritage list.

Who Goes There?

Penang's deepwater, century-old Swettenham Pier is frequented by local cruise lines like Star Cruises who offer 3-night Phuket/Krabi trips, but also others who choose this colourful metropolis for its vibrant shore attractions. In the last 12 months, Penang has seen visits from RCCL, Cunard, Princess, Costa, Oceania, Ponant, AIDA, Silversea, Seabourn, Seven Seas and P&O (UK). Azamara joins this list from 2013 with the newly refurbished vessel, Journey. Peak arrivals are in January and December, with total cruise ship movements expected to be around 100 for 2013. 115,000 passengers arrived in Penang last year (3% up from 2011) with the vast majority from Singapore and India. Australian arrivals are declining, down to just 6500 last year from a peak of 12,400 in 2009, but expect that number to trend upward again as new and larger vessels find their way into the region.

Going Ashore

Offered excursions will almost certainly include tours of the many heritage buildings, places of worship and sites such as Fort Cornwallis, City Hall and State Museum, but Penang is also renown as a confluence of food cultures. On every street corner and down every tiny lane there seems to be a row of little food carts offering everything from coconut, rice noodle and bean desserts (cendol) to more spicy offerings such as nasi lemak, nyonya kuih, prawn noodle, apom balik and the famous asam laksa acclaimed by CNNGo as one of the world's 50 most delicious foods. If the timing is right, cruises may arrive during any one of the almost monthly festivals and celebrations such as Chinese New Year (January) and the bizarre Hindu event, Thaipusam (February).

Staying on

If you are fortunate (or clever) enough to arrange extra time in Penang by starting or ending your cruise there, the obvious accommodation option is the magnificent 1885-built Eastern & Oriental Hotel, [] located in the heart of the historic district and recently renovated to its full glory.

Flying there

Malaysia Airlines flies regularly from Kuala Lumpur (KUL) to Penang (PEN). ||

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