E&O Hotel, timeless charm of the British colonial era
The Eastern & Oriental, popularly known as the E&O, is an all-suite luxury hotel that exudes a timeless charm of the British colonial era.
Located along Jalan Farquhar with a seafront in the heart of George Town, the hotel has an interesting history established by the famed Sarkies brothers – Martin, Tigran, Aviet and Arshak. Although the family name was Ter Woskanian, the brothers adopted their father's first name Sarkies as their surname. Their firm Sarkies Brothers dominated the hospitality trade in the East for nearly half a century.
The oldest brother Martin (1852-1912) apparently arrived in Penang in 1869. Tigran (1861-1912) followed, arriving in Penang after completing his education at the Armenian College in Calcutta. He leased a large house opposite of the Esplanade which he converted into Eastern Hotel, opening for business on 15 April 1884. A year later, Tigran teamed up with Martin to establish Sarkies Brothers and acquired Hotel de l'Europe at 10 Farquhar Street, renaming it the Oriental. In 1886, Aviet (1862-1923) joined his brothers. By August 1889, the extension of the Oriental was ready for the public and they gave up Eastern. The brothers renamed the Oriental as the Eastern & Oriental Hotel and until today, the name still stands.
More details about the Sarkies Family in Penang are available in an 88-page book entitled "The Armenians of Penang" written by Nadia H. Wright. I had the privilege of designing this book and the early photographs of E&O, courtesy of Marcus Langdon, are priceless. A copy of the book can be purchased at the hotel's Emporium. Only when we look back at these humble beginnings can we truly appreciate how far the hotel has journeyed.
Today, the hotel is fully owned and managed by the Eastern & Oriental Berhad Group. After a major refurbishment, E&O reopened its doors to the public on 3 April 2001. In 2013, the multi-storey Victory Annexe, an extended wing featuring 118 Studio Suites and 14 Corner Suites, was ready to receive guests. Furnished with modern comforts, these suites retain the old-world ambience and charm that are synonymous with the E&O. In December 2019, the Heritage Wing completed its restoration and refurbishment works, welcoming guests back.
In the past, I have stayed a couple of times at both the Heritage Wing and the Victory Annexe, always leaving with a bag of wonderful memories. In May 2022, my family and I stayed in a Studio Suite at the Victory Annexe for two nights, a weekend getaway to celebrate my daughter's birthday.
As I entered the elegantly furnished lobby of the Victory Annexe, I was greeted by the bellboy, dressed in an off-white British-style safari outfit, complete with long white socks and a pith helmet. He was like a character stepping out from the Passage to India movie set, offering to help me with my bags.
At Shangri-La's Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa and PARKROYAL Penang Resort, a refreshment towel and welcome drink are offered upon arrival as you wait for the check in to be processed. When handing over the room cards, the front desk personnel will also run through the location and facilities of the resort. A bellboy will then accompany you to the room and explain the switches and facilities available in the room. Maybe E&O might consider emulating this to offer a better welcoming experience.
We managed to locate the suite easily, following the clear numberings and signages along the corridors leading to the room. The 55 square-metre suite, furnished with a king-size bed, a writing desk and an armchair, has a balcony overlooking the Andaman Sea. However, the flat screen television with satellite channels should be updated to keep up with the times. The mini bar with four complimentary cans of carbonated drinks, a coffee machine and a plate of fresh fruits were also provided.
The luxurious black and white checkered marble bathroom takes up almost half the size of the room; it features a vintage-style claw and ball long bath, flanked by a vanity sink on each side with a separate shower area. I love standing under the soothing rainforest shower. The toiletries by Panpuri exude a lovely scent. In future, I hope the hotel would consider adding two very common items into the vanity kit – a disposable shaver and a comb.
When I stayed at Galle Fort Hotel in Sri Lanka, housekeeping even provided turndown service. At Encore at Wynn Macau, I was charmed to find chocolates on my pillow in the evenings. These little gestures have made a lasting impression on me as good service never goes unnoticed. With the burgeoning hotel industry, E&O has to constantly strive to improve if it is to compete among the top hospitality giants in Penang. The "brand and look" can only go that far as it is the human experience that makes all the difference. Having said that, after dinner when we returned to the room, we were pleasantly surprised to find a lovely birthday cake for my daughter. She was thrilled to bits and savoured the cake with glee. A big thank you to the hotel for the kind gesture.
E&O has two pools – one in each wing – reserved for their respective guests. Having stayed at both wings and swam in both pools, it is the infinity pool at the Victory Annexe that I like better. Enjoying a good swim in the mornings – also avoiding the crowd – is invigorating. I truly appreciate that a tall glass of ice water was served at the pool side, this being refreshingly good especially to beat the tropical heat. Besides the pool, my wife found the fitness centre conducive for a good workout.
I love soaking in a hot tub and sweating it out in a sauna. Maybe in future E&O might consider adding these two items in their next refurbishment exercise at the Victory Annexe.
The breakfast buffet at Sarkies offered a wide selection of local and western dishes. Being an early riser, I was there at 6.30am, enjoying char koay teow, a mini pancake with ice cream and mixed fruits, a small helping of fragrant nasi lemak with tender beef rendang and a spoonful of bread pudding with a drizzle of rich vanilla sauce. My cousin from Kuala Lumpur recently stayed four nights at E&O. By the second day, she was jaded by the breakfast spread. She found very few items that could excite her, having sampled many on the first morning. Nothing of extraordinary quality stood out in the sea of options.
Sarkies serves buffet dinners as well. The numerous patrons who flock to indulge in the buffet line shows its popularity. I used to enjoy buffets but have stopped feasting mindlessly, much preferring to relish a serving of something extraordinary nowadays.
Another dining outlet at E&O is the Java Tree. In 2020, I celebrated a memorable birthday dinner there among friends. We started off the evening with drinks at Farquhar’s Bar. Java Tree serves Nyonya recipes and some classic European dishes.
The Emporium, located on the ground floor of the Victory Annexe is a house of beautiful gifts and intriguing souvenirs celebrating Penang; these include gorgeous hand-crafted sculpture silver jewellery by Jonathan Yun, vibrant batik prints and fascinating books on Penang (a handful designed by me!).
The hotel is strategically located in George Town. A map illustrating walking tours of neighbouring tourist attractions which the hotel provides is useful, especially for those who would like to explore the UNESCO World Heritage City of George Town.
After breakfast, I walked along the seawall and soon stood beneath the towering “Java” tree. It must be the oldest and largest of its kind on the island, believed to be planted way before 1885 when the hotel was established. If only this tree could talk – imagine the stories it would regale about the hotel's rich legacy. E&O was an oasis for early travellers to the East but today, it faces stiff competition from an influx of world-renowned chains of hotels as well as avant-garde boutique accommodations. This grande dame of hospitality in Penang has to look towards its future and not only draw from its past to surpass the demands of sophisticated travellers of today.
PS: Many thanks Maggie T. for the generous room voucher. Jean had a fabulous birthday escapade.
Eastern and Oriental Hotel
10 Lebuh Farquhar, 10200 George Town, Penang, Malaysia
T: +604 222 2000
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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27 May 2022