It’s just a 90 minute flight from Bangkok to Penang Island, where its historical capital Georgetown offers a completely different atmosphere from Thai cities. British history is everywhere here, as Penang was once a major British trade outpost.
The first British settlers arrived in 1786, followed by migrants from all around the world. In 1805, Penang was designated officially as a British colony—ruled from India—and in 1826 it became the capital city of the British Straits Settlements, which comprised Penang, Melaka and Singapore. Penang became one of the most cosmopolitan cities along the Andaman Sea, as it served for a century as an important trading place (due to its “Freeport” status). Historical structures can be found all across the Island, and particularly in Georgetown, which best echoes the grand old days of Penang.
There is so much to visit in Penang, especially for history and food aficionados, but if visitors from Bangkok or beyond start to feel a bit nostalgic about Thai culture, there is an enclave near to Gurney Drive and Jalan Burmah which could very well be nicknamed “Little Thailand”. Wat Chaya Mangalaram, built in the district of Pulau Tikus, represents the centre of the Thai and Burmese communities who settled in Penang 150 years ago. There are early records of a first monastery and temple built in 1845, called Wat Pulau Tikus, built in a blend of European and Thai styles, but the temple changed its name to Wat Chaya Mangalaram in 1948 and was fully reconstructed between 1962 and 1972 (following a grant from King Bumibhol Adulyadej of Thailand). The current structure, with its grand vihara hosting the reclining Buddha, also has a new shrine for a sitting Buddha, which was more recently added.
The temple today is architecturally of mediocre interest but its colourful murals, and statues shining like gems in the sun—due to the fact that they are covered by coloured glass stones—make it worth a visit. Visitors can also witness the true devotion of Thais, local or coming directly from Thailand, paying respect to the reclining Buddha.
Going out of the temple and turning in the first street left, Lorong Bangkok (Bangkok Lane), reveals a true architectural jewel. This small heritage street is lined with a two rows of residential homes built in 1928 by Chinese business man Cheah Leong Kah. The beautifully restored houses, with their delicate stone carving and pastel colours, give passers by an idea of the idyllic small town atmosphere that must have existed in Penang some 100 years ago. In recent years, art galleries, trendy coffee shops, and small boutique hotels have invaded the street, but they are still in reasonable numbers and do not alter the friendly atmosphere of Lorong Bangkok. And for locals, Lorong Bangkok is well known for its mee goreng (fried noodles) sold at Seng Lee Café.