Malaysia is a country with a richly diverse, vibrant, multicultural population and nowhere is this more obvious than in the now somewhat sleepy city of Georgetown, located on the island of Penang.
Penang sits in the Malacca strait on the northeast coast of peninsula Malaysia. George Town is on the northwest side of the island. To get to George Town you can either take a car ferry from the city of Butterworth (which you can walk onto for free even if you are not travelling by car) or by bridge from Gelugor, both of which you will find on the mainland.
If you are taking a train through Malaysia, or coming from Thailand by rail, you will find that the train stops within walking distance of the car ferry. It is well sign posted and makes for a charming entry to the island.
When you get to George Town, be prepared to see streets filled with Chinese style shop houses parked right up next to Indian dress shops, Malay curry houses, and enormous colonial edifices painted in white.
Europeans first settled in this city in 1786, and it was set up as an outpost of the Dutch East India Company by Captain Frances Light. Trade was swift, and George Town quickly became an important and rich trading town. The architecture of the city, now a UNESCO World heritage Site, reflects that history.
This is a walkable city and the best way to discover delights is by foot, however, there are free busses running all day through the major thoroughfares as well as past the delightful Chulia Street, a must see for every visitor.
Little India, the place to go if you want some bling-bling or a damn fine Roti cania, is found around Lebuh Queen, Lebuh Chulia and Market Streets. There is also a China town, although Chinese influence is throughout the city, and try and see the area of Kampung Siam, originally bequeathed by the East India Company on behalf of Queen Victoria to the Siamese and Burmese communities in 1845.
The best view point to see all of George Town is Penang Hill, which is about 6km from the centre of town and can be reached by public bus. The most convenient way up to Penang Hill is by the Penang Hill Railway, a funicular railway from Air Itam to the top of Flagstaff Hill. It takes about 10-15 minutes, and when you are up there you can grab a Devonshire Tea (I kid you not) as you overlook the city. For foreign tourists, the return fare is RM30 for adults and RM15 for children aged seven to 12. Malaysians pay less, the logic being that they pay tax. As a tourist this never sits well with me, but even so, visiting the hill is a nice thing to do.
Another very nice thing to do is to visit the Eastern and Oriental Hotel (known locally as just the E&O), which is the sister hotel of The Raffles in Singapore and The Strand in Rangoon. The hotel has been there since 1885, and was once considered the ‘most premier hotel east of the Suez’. It’s still pretty stunning, and even if you don’t decide to stay there, a drink in the bar is a must do. The Raffles has the Singapore Sling, the E and O also offers a ‘locally famous’ cocktail, but be warned.
These delights do not come cheap. Enjoy a cocktail or two, then head out into the street for a meal that will tantalize you.
It would be truly remiss to mention visiting anywhere in Malaysia and to not mention the food. After 27 years of travelling in Asia, I still find the cuisine in this country some of the most extraordinary. Mainly it’s the diversity. Malay curries with their thick sauces, or redangs, or Chinese noodle dishes, or Hokkien Dim Sum, perhaps some Indian tandoor cooked treats, or a bunch of Thai influenced dishes, or maybe a mixture of all. Malaysia is to cooking what libraries are to readers. Too many choices, not enough hours in the day. In Chulia Street you will find some of the quirkiest and funkiest coffee houses in South East Asia, with some of the best coffee served in the region. Sit for a while, and watch mankind and its ancestry and heritage walk on by. George Town is a visual, and literal, feast for the weary traveller.
The rainy season is August through to November, every afternoon there will be a storm, so be prepared. It is never cold.
It is also very popular with European expatriates, especially retirees, so don’t be surprised to see a bunch of westerners walking around like they live there. They do. In 2010, George Town was ranked as the most liveable city in Malaysia, eighth most liveable in Asia and the 62nd in the world by the cost of living consultancy firm ECA International. At MyGreyNomads we think when you go there, you’ll see why.
#MALAYSIA #CULTURE #PENANG