Travel: Long Haul - The sweet and sour island

Penang remains an unspoilt part of Malaysia. But get there before the developers do
It can be tough being a tourist in Penang - especially at meal times. This island, squeezed into the Straits of Malacca, within a sniff of the Malaysian mainland, is famed for its multi-ethnic makeup and is consequently packed with restaurants, food stalls and night markets serving a tantalising variety of cuisines.

Some days it can take a superhuman effort to decide between the Hainan chicken rice and a spicy Tamil curry, hot-and-sour assam laksa or a Malay char-grilled satay.

Variety has always been the spice of life in Penang. The sleepy backwater of Chinese shop houses and colonial bungalows off the west coast of peninsular Malaysia boasts one of the richest collections of original 19th-century urban architecture in all of Asia. But unlike other parts of Asia, where many historic buildings were swept away on a wave of modernisation, Penang is as yet a living museum of architecture.

The island's greatest riches are in George Town, Penang's laid-back urban centre. I began a walking tour at Fort Cornwallis, an 18th-century brick fort perched on the easternmost tip of the island. It was here that Francis Light - a young English captain chasing his own dreams of empire - claimed Penang for the British East India Company in 1786.

Flying in the face of official company policy, he created a free and neutral port where land was easy to acquire, in the hope of attracting the most enterprising merchants and settlers. It worked. Malays from Kedah, Chinese from Malacca, Tamils, Arabs, Persians and others flocked to the island to seek their fortunes. A lack of formal segregation - common in other colonial ports - made Penang the first truly multi-racial society in Asia, a compact melting-pot where a unique "Straits Culture" emerged - so called because of Penang's position.

Light is buried in the Protestant cemetery, just up the street on Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah. And here, beneath the leafy branches of gnarled frangipani trees, lie other tombs of early European settlers. Among them is Thomas Leonowens, husband of Anna whose later adventures as a schoolmistress in Siam were immortalised in the film, The King and I. The cemetery marks the start of what was once known as "European Road", Penang's first posh suburb where the island's colonial elite built spacious mansions in ample gardens. Sir Stamford Raffles stayed here during his six-year tenure as Assistant Secretary to the Governor of Penang, before going on to found Singapore. (You can find out more about him in an exhibition currently being held at the British Museum in London).

The rise of Singapore marked the end of Penang - as a major commercial port, at least. Yet despite the decline in its fortunes, Penang never really suffered, settling instead into a comfortable retirement financed by tin, rubber and, more recently, tourism.

A few blocks west of Fort Cornwallis is the Acheen and Armenia Street enclave where the earliest of Penang's settlers lived, worshipped and worked. The graceful Acheen Street mosque, built by a wealthy pepper magnate from Aceh in northern Sumatra, is the oldest mosque on the island to survive in its original form. Built at the beginning of the 19th century, it has a distinctive octagonal minaret, Chinese swallow-ridge roof and Moorish arches.

The area was also famous for its association with Penang's powerful Chinese clans. Khoo Kongsi is the most elaborate and ornate of the clan houses, with beautifully painted ceilings and frescoes, gilded wood panels with elaborate carved stone pillars and walls depicting scenes out of Chinese legends. Built in 1906, the present temple replaced an earlier building that burnt to the ground, reputedly because its magnificence provoked the gods.

Ironically, no traces of Penang's Armenian community remain on the street named in their honour. The island's most famous Armenian residents were the Sarkies brothers who established both the recently renovated Eastern and Oriental Hotel on Farquhar Street, and the Crag Hotel on Penang Hill. These establishments were the first of a colonial hotel empire that would include the Strand in Rangoon (Burma), the Majapahit in Surabaya (Indonesia) and the world-famous Raffles in Singapore.

One of Armenia Street's most outstanding examples of early Straits Architecture is the eclectically styled mansion of Muslim trader Syed Alatas. This beautifully restored 19th-century house, with its decorative fanlight openings, wooden shutters and airy interior, now serves as Penang's Heritage Centre. Its aim is to stimulate interest in preserving Penang's architectural heritage and to provide information on how to restore its valuable buildings.

For at the moment, little is being done to promote Penang's burgeoning "heritage tourism" industry. The tourist board is still using old images of an especially graceless, concrete commercial tower - representing "modern Penang" - to promote the island while every year historic buildings fall to the developers axe.

Last year alone, nine state-owned buildings were illegally demolished to make way for a new hotel while a number of supposedly protected houses were torn down.

So get to the streets of George Town soon, while traders and merchants, workers and students, Indian, Chinese and Malay, get on with the business of living as they have done for the last 200 years.

Through discount agents such as Bridge the World, 0171-911 0900, you can get a return flight from London to Penang via Singapore for pounds 440 on Singapore Airlines.

Alternatively, get a cheap flight to Kuala Lumpur and take the train from there to the city of Butterworth (seven to eight hours, pounds 12), which is on the mainland adjacent to Penang.

Malaysian Tourist Office, 57 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DU (0171- 930 7932)