After a relatively straightforward journey south from Krabi (only one change of transportation in Hat Yai, from a cramped mini bus with absolutely no suspension to another cramped mini bus with slightly better suspension), we reached the island of Pulau Penang, in the northwest of Malaysia and the town of George Town, which would be our home for the next three nights.
I had secretly been quite excited about the prospect of visiting George Town for some time now. Given my not-so-secret obsession with all things Pirate (the Captain Hook type, not copied DVDs), I was intrigued to visit this town, which historically was an absolute hotbed of trade activity during the colonial era. More than two centuries ago, George Town was transformed from a basic swampland to a thriving port town, in no small part due to the East India Trading Company (yes, the bad guys in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise), who helped to make George Town the first British straits settlement in the late 18th century. Two centuries later and George Town is now basically one big UNESCO heritage site!
After arriving, we checked into our accommodation for the night, a cheap but large hotel
with pockets of character dotted around the place. Indeed, the high ceilings and large, open landing spaces were a little too reminiscent of ‘The Shining,’ but it was quiet enough and the staff were plenty friendly. After the long journey, we were keen to head into town for some dinner and to plan the rest of our stay seeing the sights. Venturing out into the heart of George Town for dinner however, we were able to gain a hint as to what this town’s real draw is...
We left our hotel, just off the central street of Lebuh Chulia and headed for ‘Little India’ a short walk away. Walking through the streets of Little India, we sauntered past countless shops selling copied DVDs and CDs, incense, traditional Indian clothing and accessories. Our senses were assaulted with colour, sound and smell, the latter of which took us in the direction of an Indian restaurant whose sign boasted of a “vegetarian paradise!” After spending the last half an hour walking past many a street vendor displaying various farm animal limbs, to say Amy was sold on this veggie nirvana would be an understatement. The meal itself, including drinks and side dishes,
was delicious and cost less than £5 – an obvious bargain to the locals as well as the tourists, with local Malays, Indians and Muslims dining here also.
Waking the following morning, we decided to just walk through the labyrinth of streets which George Town has to offer. Without even reaching any of the tourist spots in the city, it was easy to see the influence the Colonial era had on this town, the mark of which still dominates the local architecture. Each building is built high, with shuttered windows and the streets are awash with vibrant coloured homes, which have weathered over time to leave a rustic charm behind. The streets are so fascinating that we almost didn’t realise that there were hardly any other tourists around at all. Perhaps it was because we had just come from Thailand, the centre for tourist activity in Southeast Asia, where it is much more convenient for travellers on relatively short trips to stick to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam given their relative proximity. Or perhaps Malaysia is just not as defined on the traveller map just yet. Either way, it seemed to be working to our benefit and certainly we
both hold high hopes that Malaysia remains devoid of the kind of tourism which has devoured their Thai neighbours.
Continuing our walk around the streets, we were headed for the northern shore of George Town, where we would find the Town Hall, Clock Tower and Fort Cornwallis, three of George Town’s most significant developments. Along the way we also passed countless religious buildings, including the Kapitan Keiling Mosque, the Hindu Sri Mahamariamman Temple, the Buddhist Hainan Temple and numerous Christian institutes, the most impressive of which was St George’s Church – quite the display of multiculturalism! Indeed Kapitan Keiling Mosque is mere meters away from a small Buddhist temple and it was here, taking a stroll after dinner on our third night, hearing the chanting emanating from the mosque and the simultaneous Buddhist street performance taking place outside their temple, that we both understood what is truly remarkable about this town.
Over the past two hundred years, the variety of ethnicity that has come to settle in such a small place is impressive: Malays, Chinese, Arabs, Indians, Indonesians, Siamese, Burmese and of course Europeans. What makes George Town special is the way in which these distinct cultures find
a way to live together without hatred and resentment, without blame attribution or ignorance. The various religious and cultural ethnicities here find a way to live together, and not just live together, but interact and actually seem to enjoy each others’ company. It has taken just two hundred years to achieve this harmony, but there it is for the world to see – a shining example of how to co-exist in peace.
To me at least, that was the real draw of this town – not the history and colonialism, which takes a backseat to everyday life. It was refreshing to see that in a town steeped in history and heritage, George Town has not been consumed by tourism and its inhabitants lives are not centred around catering to a tourist, but rather life moves on quietly around these historical sites as if they weren’t even there. In fact, without the tourist map, it would be difficult to actually recognise 90% of George Town’s cultural heritage sites. Impressively, they take a backseat to life itself.
On our penultimate day on Penang, we took a bus ride out to the fishing village of Taluk Baharu, a place described in
the Lonely Planet as somewhat of a hidden gem on the island. However, we were left a little disappointed by what we found there, a little too sleepy a place with very little to even see, let alone do. We settled ourselves on the pier and watched some of the boats as they came and went. After returning to George Town in the evening, we again headed for our vegetarian paradise (it seems I am becoming more of a vegetarian by the day unfortunately!) for dinner before packing our bags, as we would be leaving the next day.
We were both rather sad to see the end of our time in George Town, a place we both acknowledged was one of our favourites of those we had visited. But, it was time for another beach...
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