Touring the Straits Settlements: Penang, Malacca, and Singapore

Updated on May 17, 2018
CYong74 profile image

Yong earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, mythology, and video gaming.

The Straits Settlements, Tropical Jewels of the British Empire

The Straits Settlements were Britain's former prized crown colonies in Southeast Asia. Consisting primarily of Penang, Malacca and Singapore, their strategic positions at the north, middle and south of the Straits of Malacca once effectively ensured Britain's dominance in the region. Today, these former territories are fascinating gems of history and multi-ethnic heritage, visited daily by tourists from all over the world. Beginning with Penang, and ending with Singapore, here's a quick rundown of what to expect when visiting these enchanting tropical destinations.

Penang (or Pulau Pinang in Bahasa Malaysia)

Penang rightly deserves its nickname of "Pearl of the Orient." The former Straits Settlements colony has everything an idyllic tropical vacation would need.
Penang rightly deserves its nickname of "Pearl of the Orient." The former Straits Settlements colony has everything an idyllic tropical vacation would need. | Source

It's challenging to describe Penang. Should I write about the exotic temples complexes, or highlight how the downtown area is one huge colonial architecture showpiece? Should I talk about Ferrengi beach and the sea-front attractions, or should I go the colonial route and introduce Penang Hill and the Waterfall Gardens? I think the best approach would be to invite you to discover the Pearl of the Orient yourself. My suggestion, take your time, or join a thematic tour, and explore at a leisurely pace. At the end of the day, soak in more atmosphere by feasting on Penang's famous street food at one of the many open-air hawker centres. A word of warning though, regarding dining. Food here is heavy on the palette. Like its heritage, Penang cuisine is a mix of many flavours. Frequently, very spicy too. These are flavours you are unlikely to forget for a long time.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Georgetown, downtown of Penang island, has is a showcase of well-preserved colonial buildings.The Khoo Kongsi. A fantastically ornated clanhouse built by the Penang Chinese population.A newer attractions, the Pinang Peranakan Mansion offers a glimpse of the opulent lifestyles of "Straits-Born" Chinese. Otherwise also known as the Peranakan people.Wat Chaiyamangalaram has one of the largest indoor reclining Buddhas in Asia. It offers a taste of Thailand in Malaysia.Those arriving at Penang by cruise would get to enjoy this view from Swettenham Pier during sunset.Penang food. Colourful. Distinctive. Passionate.
Georgetown, downtown of Penang island, has is a showcase of well-preserved colonial buildings.
Georgetown, downtown of Penang island, has is a showcase of well-preserved colonial buildings. | Source
The Khoo Kongsi. A fantastically ornated clanhouse built by the Penang Chinese population.
The Khoo Kongsi. A fantastically ornated clanhouse built by the Penang Chinese population. | Source
A newer attractions, the Pinang Peranakan Mansion offers a glimpse of the opulent lifestyles of "Straits-Born" Chinese. Otherwise also known as the Peranakan people.
A newer attractions, the Pinang Peranakan Mansion offers a glimpse of the opulent lifestyles of "Straits-Born" Chinese. Otherwise also known as the Peranakan people. | Source
Wat Chaiyamangalaram has one of the largest indoor reclining Buddhas in Asia. It offers a taste of Thailand in Malaysia.
Wat Chaiyamangalaram has one of the largest indoor reclining Buddhas in Asia. It offers a taste of Thailand in Malaysia. | Source
Those arriving at Penang by cruise would get to enjoy this view from Swettenham Pier during sunset.
Those arriving at Penang by cruise would get to enjoy this view from Swettenham Pier during sunset. | Source
Penang food. Colourful. Distinctive. Passionate.
Penang food. Colourful. Distinctive. Passionate. | Source

Did You Know?

While it is often thought of as so, and even written in some older textbooks that way, there were actually more than three territories in the Straits Settlements, the other two being Dinding and Labuan. Dinding was incorporated in 1874 but returned to the Perak Sultanate after ten years. Labuan was incorporated late in 1907, after the British government extended the settlement boundaries to include North Borneo.

Malacca (Or Melaka in Bahasa Malaysia)

Malacca is a perfect entry point for visitors new to Malaysia. There is a bit of everything. The best of three distinct cultures brought together by the Straits Settlements.
Malacca is a perfect entry point for visitors new to Malaysia. There is a bit of everything. The best of three distinct cultures brought together by the Straits Settlements. | Source

Compared to Penang and Singapore, there are fewer things to see or do in Malacca. This doesn't in any way imply it's a lesser destination, though, for having fewer "must-sees" is exactly where the appeal is. There is just the right amount of attractions from each culture to fill a day or two of travel. Visitors would never suffer the sort of "OMG! There's still so much I haven't seen!" pressure they would encounter in bigger cities. With the completion of the Kuala Lumpur - Singapore High Speed Railway, the city is sure to become even more attractive as a day trip destination. I believe many tourism operators are already gearing up for this.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A Famosa, Malacca's most famous colonial ruin. This centuries-old structure is actually Portuguese in origin. Portugal was the first European power to colonise Malacca.Jonker Walk is a popular night bazaar in downtown Malacca City.The Church of St. Francis Xavier was originally built by the Portuguese, then rebuilt in 1856 by a French priest. It’s another key example of Malacca's involvement with European powers predating Straits Settlements time.Aerial view of the downtown area.
A Famosa, Malacca's most famous colonial ruin. This centuries-old structure is actually Portuguese in origin. Portugal was the first European power to colonise Malacca.
A Famosa, Malacca's most famous colonial ruin. This centuries-old structure is actually Portuguese in origin. Portugal was the first European power to colonise Malacca. | Source
Jonker Walk is a popular night bazaar in downtown Malacca City.
Jonker Walk is a popular night bazaar in downtown Malacca City. | Source
The Church of St. Francis Xavier was originally built by the Portuguese, then rebuilt in 1856 by a French priest. It’s another key example of Malacca's involvement with European powers predating Straits Settlements time.
The Church of St. Francis Xavier was originally built by the Portuguese, then rebuilt in 1856 by a French priest. It’s another key example of Malacca's involvement with European powers predating Straits Settlements time. | Source
Aerial view of the downtown area.
Aerial view of the downtown area. | Source

Take Note!

Names could be confusing when visiting Penang and Malacca. And I don't mean the fact they are frequently called their Bahasa Malaysian counterparts of Pinang and Melaka. Penang generally refers to the modern Malaysian state, with Georgetown as the key city. Similarly, Malacca is also the name of a Malaysian state. The capital, where most visitors head to, is Malacca City.

Singapore

The richest city nowadays of the former Straits Settlements, the tiny nation of Singapore offers a dazzling myriad of activities for visitors.
The richest city nowadays of the former Straits Settlements, the tiny nation of Singapore offers a dazzling myriad of activities for visitors. | Source

I'm from Singapore. And so it's hard for me to do an introduction. In the sense of not going overboard.

Let me thus approach this by addressing a "fail" I've noticed from many travel articles. Practically every Singaporean travel article I've read over the past year raved about the Marina Bay area attractions. As in the city waterfront, the casino area, and Gardens by the Bay. These are indeed our latest and fanciest locations, but they are hardly the only attractions Singapore has. Way before Marina Bay was even conceptualised, Singapore already had a world-class zoo, the largest bird sanctuary in terms of numbers, and several distinctive ethnic areas. In addition is also our sprawling botanical gardens, which has been around for a century. This, incidentally, was recently awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

My suggestion therefore is to step out of the downtown and waterfront areas. The country is so small and well-developed in transportation, it never takes more than an hour to get anywhere. In fact, it usually takes 30 minutes at most. Another reason why you ought to venture beyond the waterfront area is because prices start to drop. Not a drastic change, just, noticeable. Consider this example. A bowl of Teochew style noodles in town costs around five Singapore dollars. In most suburban areas, it costs three. Is that a good enough reason to check out our other areas?

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The Super Trees of Singapore's Gardens by the Bay. The city state's most iconic attraction at the moment.Singapore Zoo is actually three attractions conveniently located beside each other. You could easily spend more than 10 hours visiting all three.A little dated, and 30 minutes from downtown. But the Chinese Garden in the Jurong area is still worth a look-see.Singapore's public housing, or HDB estates, are pretty unique in their look and feel. It's also where cheaper food and other stuffs are sold.Four ethnic races living together means an astonishing variety of food. Here are four Singaporean ways of cooking noodles. Clockwise from top left: Mee Rebus, Teochew Fish Ball Noodles, Mee Goreng, and Wanton Noodles.Another view of Singapore's now iconic Super Trees Grove.Singapore's world famous Botanical Gardens. Itself a legacy from the Straits Settlements.Well preserved buildings from colonial times are easily found throughout Singapore's downtown civic district.
The Super Trees of Singapore's Gardens by the Bay. The city state's most iconic attraction at the moment.
The Super Trees of Singapore's Gardens by the Bay. The city state's most iconic attraction at the moment. | Source
Singapore Zoo is actually three attractions conveniently located beside each other. You could easily spend more than 10 hours visiting all three.
Singapore Zoo is actually three attractions conveniently located beside each other. You could easily spend more than 10 hours visiting all three. | Source
A little dated, and 30 minutes from downtown. But the Chinese Garden in the Jurong area is still worth a look-see.
A little dated, and 30 minutes from downtown. But the Chinese Garden in the Jurong area is still worth a look-see. | Source
Singapore's public housing, or HDB estates, are pretty unique in their look and feel. It's also where cheaper food and other stuffs are sold.
Singapore's public housing, or HDB estates, are pretty unique in their look and feel. It's also where cheaper food and other stuffs are sold. | Source
Four ethnic races living together means an astonishing variety of food. Here are four Singaporean ways of cooking noodles. Clockwise from top left: Mee Rebus, Teochew Fish Ball Noodles, Mee Goreng, and Wanton Noodles.
Four ethnic races living together means an astonishing variety of food. Here are four Singaporean ways of cooking noodles. Clockwise from top left: Mee Rebus, Teochew Fish Ball Noodles, Mee Goreng, and Wanton Noodles. | Source
Another view of Singapore's now iconic Super Trees Grove.
Another view of Singapore's now iconic Super Trees Grove. | Source
Singapore's world famous Botanical Gardens. Itself a legacy from the Straits Settlements.
Singapore's world famous Botanical Gardens. Itself a legacy from the Straits Settlements. | Source
Well preserved buildings from colonial times are easily found throughout Singapore's downtown civic district.
Well preserved buildings from colonial times are easily found throughout Singapore's downtown civic district. | Source
A
Penang:
Penang, Malaysia

get directions

B
Malacca:
Malacca, Malaysia

get directions

C
Singapore:
Singapore

get directions

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Kuan Leong Yong

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      • CYong74 profile imageAUTHOR

        Kuan Leong Yong 

        2 years ago from Singapore

        Thanks norlawrence! Glad you like the hub.

      • norlawrence profile image

        Norma Lawrence 

        2 years ago from California

        Great article and gorgeous pictures. I loved it. Thanks

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