In the 1780s, the port of Penang was established on the tropical island of the same name by Captain Francis Light of the British East India Company. From small beginnings, this strategically located Malaysian port in the Malacca Straits has become a major Far Eastern commercial centre with Freeport status. The capital of Penang State – George Town – is on the island, along with extensive port facilities and numerous high-tech industries. Railway access is to Butterworth at the mouth of the Perai River, facing Penang across a 3-km (2-mi) channel.
From there, there’s only one way for self-respecting travellers to proceed to Penang Island – by ferry (though in truth it is now possible to get there via a modern road bridge). The famous Penang vehicle and passenger ferry service is the oldest in Malaysia, having been established in 1920, and has long enjoyed iconic status. It connects the Sultan Abdul Halim ferry terminal near the station in Butterworth to the Raja Tun Uda terminal in George Town. The fleet of eight double-decker ferries constantly plies the waters of Penang’s port from early morning until well after midnight. Once known as ‘The Big Yellow Ferry’, the boats have recently been repainted in an assortment of bright colours – oranges, yellows, reds, blues and greens – making them an even more distinctive feature of the busy waterway.
From the ferry’s top deck there is an excellent view of the impressive 13.5-km (8-mi) Penang Bridge. The 21st-century skyline of George Town is not up to New York standards, though this is undoubtedly a work in progress. But still ferry voyagers enjoy one of the world’s great ‘must see from the water’ timeless forested hills of the island’s interior.
WHEN TO GO:
November to March, June and July
TIME IT TAKES:
Around 15 minutes
Penang Bird Park (Taman Burung Perang) in Butterworth – for a fabulous display of over 300 bird species from South-east Asia.
In George Town – Beach Street and the streets leading off it, at the heart of the old colonial commercial quarter.
Fort Cornwallis – an old star-shaped fort on the north-eastern coast of Penang island, rebuilt In 1804.
It’s only necessary to pay on the outward ferry journey – the return trip from Penang Island Is free