The Crag Hotel: The Beginning of Penang’s Medical Tourism

By Enzo Sim

November 2022 FEATURE
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Photo by: Enzo Sim Philatelic Collection.

CONTRARY TO POPULAR belief that regards medical tourism as a product of the modern healthcare system, the beginnings of medical tourism in Penang can be traced back 200 years, to when Penang Hill was developed into a hill retreat by British colonial administrators who sought to escape the sweltering heat of Penang’s lowlands.

When construction of the original Government Hill Bungalow, designated as the hill residence of Penang’s British governors, was completed, it was thought that the hill might be ideal for recuperation and rehabilitation for wounded British soldiers. This idea gave birth to the construction of the Convalescent Bungalow, which was built in 1802 a little to the west of the Government Hill Bungalow.

This first Convalescent Bungalow was raised on a rise called Mount Hygeia, after the Greek goddess of health. As the second hill bungalow to be constructed there, it bore the Anglo-Indian architectural style also found in the Government Hill Bungalow. Its initial structure housed three bedrooms and had a doctor stationed there who would attend to all the daily medical needs of the convalescing soldiers. According to early British records, the first doctor to be stationed there was William Hunter, a British East India Company naval surgeon who was transferred from Bengal, India. Later, a medical attendant’s residence and dispensary, known as Woodlands Brae, was also added on the nearby Fern Hill.

Photo by: Enzo Sim Philatelic Collection.

Soldiers who had been sent to recuperate here remarked on the miraculous healing that many of them experienced after staying up on the hill. The reputation of the hill’s magical restorative effects began to spread worldwide and attracted visitors from all corners of the world. Among these was Sir James Brooke, who had just founded the Raj – or State – of Sarawak. During his two visits to the hill to recuperate from what he called “intermittent fever” (now thought to be malaria)­, he often spent his afternoons in his armchair on the veranda, gazing on the magnificent coastlines of George Town and Province Wellesley.[i]

The Beginning of The Crag

The convalescence business on Penang Hill boomed as the demand for convalescent accommodation soared among the British and Europeans stationed in the region. A group of Dutch planters found the hill so conducive for their health and the stay so pleasant that they purchased the property that soon came to be known as The Crag.[ii]

Built in the 1850s, The Crag began its life as a private residence before being turned into a health sanatorium in 1886 and finally into a hotel. The Crag was the first health resort in Penang – earlier such accommodations were privately owned bungalows that could be leased – and welcomed guests consisting of mostly civilian officials from as far away as the East Coast of Sumatra and Burma, who were buoyed by the promise of a speedy recovery from whatever ailed them and a much-needed respite amidst the cool and refreshing air on the hill.

As with all visitors to Penang Hill before the construction of the funicular railway, guests staying at The Crag would be transported up on wooden sedan chairs with a one-seating capacity by Indian coolies from the foothills at the Botanic Gardens. The journey up to the hotel usually took well over an hour.[iii]

By 1893, The Crag had been transformed into a well-established hotel managed by S.C. Satoorkan, complete with sanatorium amenities as well as food and beverage that were served fresh upon order. In 1897, when Captain John Kerr, who sailed passengers between Sumatra and Penang from 1884 to 1895, and his wife took over the management of the hotel, several new additions were made. These included the construction of standalone bungalows in the compound, namely Jubilee, Alice and Diamond, the expansion of the existing bathrooms and the annexing of a brand new veranda in the main building as well as a billiards and reading room.

Photo by: Enzo Sim Philatelic Collection.

In 1905, the ownership of The Crag once again changed hands; this time, to the legendary Sarkies Brothers – famous hoteliers of Armenian ancestry who had already made their names and fortune from the Eastern and Oriental Hotel along Farquhar Road in the heart of George Town. By then, The Crag boasted nine sizeable bungalows in addition to the vastly expanded main building.

Under the Sarkies Brothers, it became one of the most popular honeymoon destinations in the Straits Settlements and even received famous personalities from faraway lands, such as Hermann Karl Hesse, the world-renowned German poet and novelist who stayed at The Crag in 1911 during his visit to Penang.[iv]

Photo by: Enzo Sim Philatelic Collection.

Troubled Times

However, post-World War I, its operation, which was running at a partial financial loss due to fierce competition from newly opened hill resorts in the region, became increasingly untenable, prompting the Sarkies Brothers to sell it off to the government for a sum of $275,000.[v][vi] These hill resorts, especially those located in the Dutch East Indies, such as the sanatorium run by a “Mr. Otto” in the Sumatran highlands and the Hotel Beau Sejour in Java, were all constructed in a similar fashion, and with similarly advanced amenities and services. These also appeared in advertisements that were often published daily in newspapers alongside the advertisements of The Crag. Furthermore, rising logistic costs incurred in the daily transportation of essentials up to The Crag also greatly narrowed the profit margin of the hotel.

Photo by: Enzo Sim Philatelic Collection.

The Crag’s operation came to a sudden halt following the Japanese invasion of Malaya after being assigned to the operations of the Federated Malay States Railways which was then managing other renowned hotel establishments in Penang such as the Runnymede, Raffles by the Sea, and Eastern and Oriental Hotel. It was reopened in 1947 for a brief time only to  cease operations altogether in 1954.[vii]

Occupying a strategic part of the hill with magnificent views over the island, The Crag did not remain idle for long. Following the departure of the hoteliers, it was soon given a new lease of life as a school, run by different private educational institutions founded by European planter families. Uplands School was the final and last occupant of The Crag before it relocated from the hill in 1977.

Since then, the once-glorious Crag Hotel, with its vast compound housing several independent bungalows that used to be frequented by convalescing travellers from faraway lands, has been left abandoned. It soon fell into disrepair and remains in a dilapidated state today.

It can only be said, as reported in the Singapore Free Press on May 2, 1922, that, “what the future fate of the hotel is to be is difficult to forecast but it will be generally agreed that it would be a great pity if The Crag was to lose its place as practically the only health resort in the Straits, with its beautiful environment.”[viii]

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visited Penang Hill in the 1970s.


[i] Aiken, R. (1984) Imperial Belvederes: The Hill Stations of Malaya, Oxford University Press.

[ii] Gibby, M. (2017). Convalescing on the Great Hill. In Penang Hill: A Journey Through Time. Entreport Publishing Sdn Bhd.

[iii] Stevens, F.G. (1929) ‘A Contribution to the Early History of Prince of Wales’ Island’, Journal of The Malayan Branch of The Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 7, No. 3.

[iv] The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 21 January 1935, Long Weekend Inclusive Excursions Singapore to Penang by T.S.S. Kedah with Four Days at The Crag Hotel $75.

[v] In Straits Dollar.

[vi] The Straits Times, 13 December 1919, The Government has acquired the Crag Hotel from Messrs. Sarkies Bros. The hotel is being continued as usual.

[vii] The Straits Times, 28 March 1954, The Crag Hotel: The Closing of a Hill Resort; National Archives of Malaysia Penang Branch.

[viii] The Straits Times, 2 May 1922, The Crag Hotel Management, it is reported by the Malay Mail, is being given up by the F.M.S. Railways.

Enzo Sim

is a Mass Communications graduate who has an unwavering passion towards international relations, history and regional affairs of Southeast Asia. His passion has brought him to different Southeast Asian capitals to explore the diverse cultural intricacies within the region.