Penang- ‘Pearl of the Orient’

by Robin Westley Martin
Little India
Temple

Smash! The wrecking ball swung down, splintering the antique structure. In recent times Bangkok has lost the wonderful Hemingway’s teakwood mansion to development by the voracious business sector–it was a popular meeting and drinking place for locals and expats, but was demolished in favour of the corporate beast, to make way for yet another concrete structure stretching into the skies. Hemingway’s is not the only such piece of historical interest that has bitten the dust in Bangkok, known by locals as the ‘Big Mango’. There are many. But, while I will always love Bangkok and its unique character (it has been my home for 30 years) it was great to be jetting out of the sometimes hazy skies of the mega-city, and fly into the comparative quiet of tropical Penang (betel nut island) for a week. Penang is doing a great job of preserving its past. I stayed right in the middle of the oldest portion of the city, Georgetown, dating from the 1700s, which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. On granting its status, UNESCO said, “Georgetown has a unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel in East and SE Asia”. I last visited Penang about 10 years ago, staying once again in Georgetown, and I wanted to see how things had changed. I was pleased to see that nothing had, much. In fact, it can’t, really, because its status as a World Heritage Site means that nothing can be built or demolished within its environs, and while the interior of a building can be adjusted to modernise it, the exterior facades cannot be touched.

Fisherman

Which is brilliant, because walking around Georgetown and taking in all it has to offer is an absolute pleasure. Around every corner is a new surprise. When you look more closely at Malaysia, you realise Penang is unique because of all the cultures that can be seen within such a small island. The buildings you see have four distinct flavours and styles – British colonial, indigenous Malay, Chinese (Teochew), and Indian (Tamil), and all of these combine together in harmony to make Penang one of the most interesting and eclectic places to visit in SE Asia.

Walking around the streets of Georgetown is easy for English speaking visitors, as most of the streets are known and signposted by their English names, such as Pitt Street or Green Lane, although they have also been renamed in Malay. This respects the feelings of Penangites, who see Penang’s colonial history as part of their identity, and something which they are proud to retain. English is still widely understood and spoken, tourism and the service industry account for 53% of the island’s economy, and you will find that in Penang you are always made to feel welcome by the friendly locals.

Chinatown

I stayed at the Chulia Heritage Hotel on Chulia Street – which is itself formed from old colonial style buildings. Chulia Street is central to Georgetown, and is full of budget-priced accommodation in the historic old shophouses and other structures. A few streets away there are a few more upscale,l uxury properties, such as the venerable Eastern & Oriental Hotel, or further along the coast there is Batu Ferringhi Beach, which even has a Hard Rock Hotel. After a quick settle into my hotel I was ready to explore and decided to take a circular route, heading down Chulia Street, trekking up toward Fort Cornwallis and the British colonial style Town Hall, Beach Road, then coming back past the Logan Memorial, St George’s Church and a few Chinese temples.

I will take you with me on a narrative and pictorial journey. I decided to walk, although tri-shaws are everywhere, and many like to do their exploring while being pedalled around in these colourfully decorated and personalised single- or double-seater antique conveyances, hidden from the scorching sun underneath the overhead umbrella, as part of their Penang experience.

Fruit Seller

Leaving my hotel I made a left and started walking down Chulia Street, I was already familiar with this part of Georgetown, but this time I wanted to take a leisurely stroll, and take in the whole ambience. If you walk fast you miss things. The first thing I noticed was that the old shophouses and arcades over the 10 years since I had last visited seemed to have changed their line of business – the last time there were loads of secondhand bookshops, budget guest houses, money changers, little stalls selling cheap Malay and Chinese-style clothing, and ‘I love Penang’ T-shirts… it was very geared towards the backpacker traveller.

This time around the buildings housed coffee shops, ice-cream parlours and large bars featuring live music and fast food. The focus seems to have shifted towards the slightly more upmarket traveller. However, it cannot be denied that the unique charm of Georgetown is still there. As I continued upon my stroll I saw a colourful street stall piled high with pineapples, mangoes, lychees, watermelons, and bananas, et al. The fruits were bought fresh from the market at 5 am every day the owner of the stall told me. You choose which fruit you want, and he will deftly cut it open with his razor-sharp fruit knife, put the flesh into a blender, and pour it into an ice-filled glass for you (or a plastic bag with a straw if you want a takeaway)…refreshing and delicious in the tropical heat.

Canadian guy

It turns out I was lucky to have delayed my walk at this little stall, as the Chinese family that run it also own the Betel Nut Bar directly behind it. The Betel Nut Bar is probably the cheapest place to get a cold beer or cider in all of Georgetown, and is also the place where expats and local characters hangout. Go and spend an hour or two chatting with 80 year old Canadian Eli the Pirate…he drinks five large bottles of English style stout every day, through a straw! He will keep you entertained with his stories, for sure. Nearby is the long time favourite, the legendary Hong Kong Bar with its albums of customer photos going back to the 1950s, and its neighbour the popular Reggae Bar. Give these two a look-see. And also venture down a side road or two – Georgetown has become a magnet for street artists, and some of the graffiti you can see on the white-painted stucco walls of the antique buildings could belong in an art gallery. Has Banksy been here?

Nicely refreshed at the Betel Nut Bar after a pineapple juice followed by an ice-cold locally brewed Somersby cider (about 2 dollars) I continued on down the road and was soon in Little India. In this quarter you can see beautifully decorated temples in Tamil style, housing niches featuring gilded sculptures of religious deities, and dozens of Indian restaurants…born in Birmingham, UK, I am a sucker for Indian food, and I can really recommend the Kapitan Restaurant, great tikka masala and pleasantly hot Tandoori, with warm naan bread, only a few bucks.

Chinese temple

Further on, I headed towards the seafront and jetty area, where I discovered the Queen Victoria 60th Jubilee Memorial Clock (60ft tall, 10ft for each decade of her reign) and the buildings in the old administrative and business district; the impressive looking and well preserved reminders of British colonial times that dominate the neighbourhood. I noticed two young teenagers sitting on the sea wall, with a fishing rod, idly chatting away, and looking out over the harbour. I was intrigued in what they were doing, so went over to ask them. They told me that they were trying to catch ‘Queen fish’. They said that it was not for eating, it was just a hobby.

They competed with each other to see how many they could catch in a given time, but they would let anything they caught free into the sea again. Today the older of the two (holding the rod) was four fish up on his friend. As I left they gave me a cheery ‘Have a nice day’! I spent quite some time in this part of Georgetown soaking up the atmosphere, and wondering about the history and grandeur of the place, as you can see from the accompanying photos. After my history fix I headed back towards Chulia Street, past the biggest church on the island, St George’s, and only a few yards away from it I came across the wonderful ‘Goddess of Mercy’ Chinese temple, on Pitt Street.

Food place

There were about 50 tall bundles of incense burning at the roadside frontage, sending thick clouds of smoke into the temple courtyard, and into the road, too, which the cars and rickshaws had to slow down to get through. As I was heading back to my room, I realised that walking through Georgetown is very much like having been taken back somewhere in a time machine. The place absorbs you. I made it back to the hotel, where a much-needed cool shower was taken, and sat down with my smartphone to check out what was next on the menu. Penang is recognised as one of the greatest places for foodies in SE Asia, and it was time to see how things had changed since my last visit.

Not a lot, as it turned out! At the top end of Chulia Street, where it meets Penang Road, right on the corner, down a little passage, is a Muslim restaurant selling street food that seems firmly stuck in the past. It had not changed an inch since I was last there. The same delicious aromas, and the trays of food lying there, floating in their deep red sauces, just waiting to be snapped up by hungry Penangers. Although it is a Muslim restaurant, it still attracts a few customers from the Indian or Chinese population, too. And myself. As was the same last time I was there I was the only foreign tourist. Let me tell you that the hot and spicy mutton curry is to die for, find this place and check it out. But if you want to cool down your taste buds after your spicy meal with a cold one, head back down Chulia Street, no beer in this restaurant! So, on down Penang Road, perhaps the main street in Georgetown.

Komtar Tower

On this road you are heading towards the Komtar Tower landmark, Penang’s tallest building, at 249m (816ft). Komtar is where you can find the main bus station, and many shops, restaurants, and supermarkets. It also features the Rainbow Skywalk, the tallest glass bottomed skywalk in Malaysia. Malay-Chinese make up the largest ethnic group on the island, and on Penang Road there are some great Chinese restaurants. I prefer to sit with the locals at the open front places to order my noodle dishes, which are made fresh right in front of your eyes. On Penang Road there are also lots of street vendors selling locally made clothes and T-shirts, and knock-off baseball caps and polo shirts, etc… get your bargaining head on, and move (slowly) upwards from about half of what they first quote you. I was not ready to visit the supermarkets in Komtar yet, for my chocolate fix, so I headed off back up Penang Road to the Soho Free House, a Brit type pub owned by an Anglophile Chinese guy. It’s the place to go if you want to hangout with the local expat community, and have a pint pulled for you while watching sport on their flat screen TVs. Right opposite Soho is the Red Garden Food Court, where all local foods can be found, as well as European, Japanese, Thai, and other Western stuff. It opens about 6 pm, and as soon as you find a place to sit someone will come to your table asking what you want to drink. After your beer, or whatever, comes you are free to wander around all the stalls to make your choice. It’s cheap, but good.

Kapitan

As the night winds on, Chulia Street really livens up, and people are busily making their way from one place to another. Checking out the scene, and the great street food carts that appeared as the sun went down. About half way along the road is Love Lane (opposite the Betel Nut Bar) deserted during the day, but really busy at night. Not for the reason you might be thinking. Love Lane got its name from the old colonial times, when the British government officers would buy a house or room for their lovers, and visit them there for their trysts, away from the official residences. Nowadays it is full of the young teenage and twenty-something crowd, guzzling beers, cocktails and wines at the tables that spill out onto the street, and puffing away on e-cigarettes or shisha pipes.

I joined them one night and had a great time. I was surprised how many of them knew and liked the same rock bands I did when I was the same age as they were. A word of warning, all along the sides of the roads in Georgetown are two foot deep open drains… so if you guess you might have had a few too many be careful of falling into one. Not a good end to your day!T his is only a brief introduction to Penang, there is so much more.I hope this account has stirred your interest, that you will think about making a visit, and do some exploring for yourself (don’t miss Kek Lok Si Chinese temple or Penang Hill). I won’t be leaving it another 10 years before I visit again!

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