Penang: Jewel in Malaysia's crown

02:18, Oct 15 2012
ILLUMINATING: The Kek Lok temple in Penang.

We've flown into Kuala Lumpur with the intention of going jalan-jalan, or on the road.

I lived in KL for five years and it is still like a second home.

But this time there is no hanging around, as my wife and I set out to the northern border with Thailand through the heartland of the Malay peninsula.

Our destination is Penang, an island my Malaysian friends tell me has become one of south-east Asia's hottest destinations.

KL is the modern face of Malaysia, a skyscraper city of the future, where Blade Runner meets Bollywood.

There are few reminders of the complex history of a country that declared independence from Britain just 55 years ago.


Driving out of the centre we find ourselves lost in a sprawling urban mass as intimidating as Los Angeles, before we reach the busy north-south highway.

The road north is surrounded on both sides by rolling hills, marked by geometric lines of palm oil and rubber plantations.

The scene resembles an Escher drawing, and there is little trace of the dense rainforest that once covered most of the country.

After about an hour of driving, the landscape changes dramatically, with massive limestone outcrops leaping hundreds of craggy feet out of the flat plains.

A giant but tatty billboard announces that we have arrived at Ipoh - City of Millionaires.

Soon we're sitting in the legendary Sinhalese Bar, considered the sole Sri Lankan bar in Malaysia, whose decor is unchanged since it opened in 1931, and talking to our guide for the next few days, Hong Law Siak, who runs the local heritage association.

"People tend to forget that the modern, developed Malaysia owes its existence to the riches generated by tin and rubber," Hong says.

"And in those days Ipoh was as important as Singapore and Kuala Lumpur."

But when the bottom dropped out of the tin market in the 1980s, Ipoh missed out on the development that so radically altered the face of KL.

We leave the bar and wander along the street.

Hong points out ornate Chinese clan houses, an abandoned photographer's studio with 1960s black-and-white prints in the window and a Madras textile shop, where the aged assistants still wear dhotis, scribble sales into a dusty, giant ledger and an ancient poster on the wall proclaims that their checked sarongs were once "Made in British India".

We disappear down Panglima Lane - known as Concubine Lane when it was lined with gambling and opium dens, brothels and the discreet residences of the concubines kept by rich Chinese tin tycoons.

I'm not surprised when Hong tells me that Ipoh was used as a backdrop for the French film Indochine, starring Catherine Deneuve, about the final days of French colonial rule.

The next day, Hong drives us around the surrounding Kinta Valley, where there used to be 1000 tin mines. These are now deep, man-made lakes.

The century-old mining town of Papan is certainly no Klondike boom town: most of the shop-houses that line the main street are abandoned or dilapidated.

Hong's next surprise is an amazing ruined castle, straight out of a Somerset Maugham story.

 I had heard about Kellie's Castle, but it used to be inaccessible, hidden in the jungle. Now this grandiose folly has become something of a tourist attraction.

William Kellie Smith arrived in Malaya in 1890, aged 20, and after making a fortune as a planter he decided to build a romantic castle for his wife, Agnes.

Kellie designed it in ornate Moorish revival style, and planned a rooftop terrace for parties, a basement wine cellar, even a lift to get to the top of the tower. But he died before it was completed.

Next day we follow winding back roads through shady rubber plantations to Kuala Kangsar, which looks at first like a quiet provincial town in a bend on the Perak River.

In fact, this is a royal capital, home to the Sultan of Perak, some of the grandest palaces and mosques in Malaysia, and the prestigious Malay College.

The Sultan, whose predecessors have ruled Perak since the 1500s, lives in a grand pastel art deco palace, the Istana Iskandariah, but visitors can only get a peek from afar.

Nothing compares, however, to the first view of the Ubudiah Mosque, a swirling vision of marble turrets and golden cupolas.

It was designed in 1917 by Arthur Benison Hubback, an unsung British government architect whose idiosyncratic Indo-Saracen buildings still stand out in most of Malaysia's major towns.

Back to the road and after a couple of hours we're rolling over the Penang Bridge, which links the mainland to the island known as the Pearl of the Orient.

The moment we arrive at our designer B&B it's obvious that the island's capital, Georgetown, is no longer a rundown place.

UNESCO world heritage status, granted in 2008, has saved historic buildings from the wrecking ball. Sumptuous Chinese mansions and maze-like shop-houses are being elegantly transformed into boutique hotels, art galleries, restaurants and bars.

And on the street, there are still the teeming markets, artisan workshops, strange medicinal shops and delicious hawker stalls that make Georgetown one of the last surviving authentic Chinatowns.

We're staying in Cheong Fatt Tze mansion - known as the Blue Mansion because of its distinctive painted walls - which was built in the 1880s by a Chinese entrepreneur dubbed the "Rockefeller of the East".

Restored to its former glory, the mansion and its guest rooms are furnished with antiques from mainland China alongside art nouveau treasures from Europe.

For an even better glimpse of Penang's opulent past, there is the nearby Peranakan Museum, a perfectly preserved private mansion filled with treasures.

Wandering through Penang's melting pot of mosques, Hindu temples and incense-filled Chinese shrines, we stumble on Chinahouse, an eclectic cultural centre that exhibits art-house installations, promotes reggae and soul concerts and showcases gourmet Pacific Rim cuisine.

Studio Howard is a cutting-edge photo gallery, while Campbell House is a hip guesthouse with a genuine Venetian restaurant - it's run by a chef from La Serenissima who has come to Penang to make his name.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of the metamorphosis of Penang. Responsible heritage tourism could well have the same effect on the rest of Malaysia's heartland.


Staying there

In Ipoh, the Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat has villa stays from 1100 ringgit (NZ$440) a night. See

Ipoh's Impiana Hotel has rooms from 190 ringgit a night. See

In Penang, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion has rooms from 420 ringgit a night. See

John Brunton travelled courtesy of Tourism Malaysia

Sydney Morning Herald