George Town, the multicultural jewel of Penang
George Town, Penang
My heart races as the ferry crosses the narrow channel from peninsula Malaysia to the island of Penang; I have dreamed of returning to this multicultural jewel for six years.
The ferry deposits us on the fringes of George Town, Penang’s capital, and we walk towards the UNESCO heart of the city: a short walk from the ferry terminal.
Within a few strides we are suddenly transported to India: past shop after shop of vivid saris and fabrics, Bollywood favourites blaring from speakers over the doors and fragrant spices drifting up the street from restaurants and hawkers. Flower sellers on street corners thread blooms into long garlands for puja.
The smell of food reminds us how hungry we are; we are walking with a regular visitor to Penang, an American expat from Thailand who we met on the train, he knew a great place for street snacks and lead us further us the street to a stall of hot, fresh samosas.
The stall was piled high with fried snacks; we continue our walk with paper bags plump with heavenly indian pastries.
Within a few turns we’ve left India behind and we are passing traditional Chinese shop houses, pretty in pastels and tiled with joyous abandon.
These gorgeous streets with their covered walkways make Chinatown a photogenic gem, and help make George Town a UNESCO heritage site.
Under the shady arches, with their worn tiled floors, are shops selling everything from pharmacies to tourist goods. Some are simply houses: hidden behind shutters.
To tell the story of this historic district, there are quirky steel-rod sculptures dotted around the town. These humorous cartoons reveal the lifeblood of George Town through its inhabitants and their eccentricities.
Who else knew that Mahjong translates as the game of sparrows? You learn a new thing every day!
The next morning we take a walk, to explore more of old George Town.
Down at Fort Cornwallis, the colonial fort on the waterfront, things hadn’t changed much since our last visit.
There isn’t much to see in the sparse interior but for less than a dollar, this quiet park provides some shade and a little light history on the founding of the British settlement on (mostly uninhabited) Penang by Captain Light in 1786.
Further around we wander down one of the clan jetties; these ramshackle, yet wonderfully characterful, wooden piers lead down to the sea and are cluttered with homes, tiny shops and the occasional accommodation option: Chinese communities living over the water.
At the end, a fisherman is showing his small haul to a small huddle of tourists who whoop at the scuttling crabs and the sorry-looking puffer fish.
After a quick lunch in Little India, we visit the Pinang Peranakan Mansion on the recommendation of a fellow traveller. This sumptuous house has been restored to its former grander and is a fine example of a wealthy Straits Chinese home.
These homes were heavily influenced by the colonial west and are a spectacular blend of eastern and western design. This particular mansion was owned by a super-weathly merchant who lavished his home with fine furniture, oodles of gold leaf and luxurious fabrics.
The intricate wrought iron balconies came all the way from Glasgow, Scotland; the beautiful floor tiles from England and the magnificent wooden screens in the entrance hall came from China.
We, unfortunately, didn’t time our visit with one of the free tours of the house, which was a shame.
Some glass cabinets inside the house displayed various vintage artefacts including beaded shoes and, more culturally interestingly, tiny lotus feet shoes for bound feet: a Chinese tradition that had continued in Malaysia with the Straits Chinese.
On the edge of the old town the architecture becomes more eclectic: art deco details, concrete and traditional Chinese temple design stand side by side.
A meat market displays its wares, pig carcasses hang like a screen in front of the stalls. Unremarkable until you realise this is, after all, an Islamic country.
The day is drawing to a close and the Masjid Kapitan Keling looks glorious in the late afternoon sun, its Mughal-style domes glowing in the golden light; the call to prayer sounding across the rooftops.
We could be lazy and take a trishaw back to the hostel, these peddle-powered trikes trundle tourists around the historic streets of George Town; but it’s not far and, to be honest, I found travelling head-long into the traffic a little alarming the last time I tried it!
The rain lashes the buildings, flooding down gutters and turning the streets into black rivers; lightening fills the sky with white light. Maybe we’ll stay in tonight.
We still have a few days in Penang, let’s hope the rain doesn’t stick around: there’s street art to see, Penang Hill to
explore and a whole lot of food to eat!
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Have you been to Penang?
By Rachel A Davis