Postcard From Penang

There’s no finer end to a day in Penang than gathering poolside at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel to watch the tropic sun drop into the Strait of Malacca.

Drink to the dusk with a cold Tiger beer, a reward for exploring the tightly packed and steamy streets of the Malaysian city’s preserved inner core—a 640-acre UNESCO World Heritage site known by its English colonial name, George Town.

A white diamond glistening with the sweat of the exploited laborers who built it, the British imperial port prospered by trading Southeast Asia’s treasures of cinnamon, nutmeg, peppers, and silks.

The same items are still for sale beneath the colonnaded arcades of “shophouses” built by the Peranakan Chinese. Those enterprising Chinese merchants deftly minted money and a legacy—their ancestral tablets commingle with George Town’s Hindu, Christian, and Muslim holy sites.

That same multicultural tradition can be tasted, too, in local dishes like koay teow thng, flat rice noodles and meat saturated in a clear soup, served at long, rough tables on the harbor docks where stilted houses cluster on six adjoining jetties founded by ancient clans.

Their descendants fish the sea until twilight, when their boats sail past a statue of Queen Victoria. Standing on a plinth, Her Majesty may look toward England, but her heart lies with Penang and the looming, purple night.

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This piece, written by Andrew Nelson, first appeared in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow Andrew on Twitter at @andrewnelson.

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