Above: George Town waterfront on the Strait of Malacca

Colonial-Era Charm in George Town, Penang

George Town, on the Malaysian island of Penang, and its larger and better-known sibling, Singapore, were both born at a time when the sun famously never set on the British Empire. Located at the northern entrance to the strategically crucial Strait of Malacca, George Town, unlike Singapore, still evokes an age of travel by steamship among storied ports and their grand hotels, an era that began with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

It was a Hindu feast day on my arrival, and on the road into town from the airport, I caught a glimpse of a happy, colorfully dressed crowd, its members draped with marigold flower necklaces and following several huge, brightly painted puppets. In quick succession, we then passed a large mosque, a Buddhist temple and a handsome white church. George Town is an ethnically diverse city — with a population chiefly of Malay, Chinese and Indian heritage — which helps to explain its conspicuous vitality.

Eastern & Oriental Hotel

Eastern & Oriental Hotel in George Town

A natty doorman in shorts, white knee socks and a pith helmet opened the door of my taxi when we pulled up in front of the 100-room Eastern & Oriental Hotel. The welcome in the sedate lobby was cordial and slightly formal, just as I had expected. This legendary hotel was created in 1885 by the Sarkies, an Armenian family that went on to open The Strand in Rangoon and Raffles in Singapore. At the time, it was considered to be the definition of luxury, with electric lights, hot and cold running water, even elevators.

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Above: George Town waterfront on the Strait of Malacca

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