As Songkran, the Thai New Year, came closer, I said to a friend, ‘let’s escape the water splashing and go somewhere else we haven’t been yet’. Our choice was Penang/Georgetown in Malaysia. From Bangkok it’s a short flight, just one hour thirty minutes. We flew with Air Asia from Don Muang and landed at Penang International Airport. As we travelled with style, we had a limousine picking us up and took us to the old, beautiful colonial hotel “Eastern & Oriental Hotel” in Georgetown. This hotel was once upon a time two separate hotels.
A spacious entrée with beautiful furniture and big flower arrangements greeted us. Our room was big with two Queen size beds, a sitting area and the hugest bathroom I ever have seen in a hotel; two basins, a bath tub, shower and a WC with a door to close. Big enough for a board meeting….. Looking out of the window the blue sea and the horizon were all you saw, such a magnificent view. The infinity pool on the 6th floor took our breath away and we spent several hours by and in the pool.
I think I could write a story only about this hotel, but there are so much more to tell about and explore in Georgetown. The only thing that surprised us a bit was the service. It was not as efficient as you would expect from a 5 star hotel, but I guess that we are spoilt here in Thailand as most upper class hotels have very efficient staff. As we were on holiday and everybody was polite and friendly, we did not bother.
On our first evening, we were supposed to meet with friends of a Malaysian woman based in Bangkok. We had only had a brief email contact all of us, so I and my friend did not know who we were going to see in Penang. We were picked up our first evening at the hotel by the most charming man and he took us to one of the private clubs, The Penang Club, located by the sea. After we arrived there, also his lovely, young wife arrived to meet us. Talk about love at the first sight….
Such a great couple we had the pleasure to meet. After a chilled glass of white wine, we went to have dinner at a Chinese Restaurant, the CHIN’S, right on a pier, surrounded by water. Here we were introduced to the couple’s several friends, Swiss, British, Thai, Danish friends; you name it, such an international circle, all living in Penang. The Chinese/ British owner of CHIN’S and his Dutch wife took good care of us.
They had lived in London during many years and had had a Chinese restaurant there. The CHIN’S was/is a restaurant to our taste, nicely decorated and with handpainted china. The decoration was kept in bright colours and last, but not least, the food was excellent. The Peking Duck was so crispy and tasty, to die for. What a nice dinner and interesting discussions.
We sat eating for a long time and after we went for a nightcap to the most pinky club we have ever visited. The entrance was weird, you had to walk through a bathroom with basin, bath tub and a WC, some kind of joke I suppose. At the bar you also could hear many different languages. The walls were all painted pink without any decoration; it looked strange, but interesting. I can only say “What a night”…..Two happy and satisfied ladies went to bed, talking about how wonderful it is meeting new people and in a such a short time, whilst making new friends.
Next morning we woke up a bit exhausted after having had, maybe a little too much wine…. We decided to explore the Blue Mansion, a mansion worth seeing and not too far from our hotel. This indigo blue mansion is legendary in the history of Penang. Located on Leith Street, you can’t miss it, due to its remarkable blue colour. It was once a private mansion built by a Chinese man, Cheong Fatt Tze, who arrived to Georgetown at an early age of 16 from the Guandong province of China.
This man became the most historic and colourful personalities of the era. He has been seen as one of China’s last Mandarins and the 1st capitalist. When he passed away in 1916, all the Dutch and British authorities ordered that flags be flown at half mast throughout their colonies. The Blue Mansion is the most elaborate of his homes and where he raised his sons.
The floor plan is essential Chinese; the effect is typical of the 19th Century, Straits Settlements architecture. Gothic windows, Chinese-and-paste porcelain work. Stoke-on-Trent floor tiles, Scottish cast iron works and Art Nouveau stained glass. The aura and “Chi” of the man pervades the entire edifice.
The Cheong Fatt Tze mansion has earned its place as one of Penang’s foremost tourist destinations, a historical reminder of a past era and a man whose dream will live on forever in the majesty of his home.
Today The Blue Mansion is a small hotel with 38 rooms, 5 courtyards, 7 staircases and 220 windows. There is a very nice dining area, popular for wedding and birthday celebrations and also a bar and breakfast room. What impressed us the most was the unbelievable indigo blue colour, simply beautifully.
In Penang today, you will find many small boutique hotels that from the outside look simple and uninspiring, but you get surprised when you see them inside. I will mention 2 of them, the Campbell House located in the corner of Campbell Street and China Street. Campbell House is a very nicely restored and modernised 3 storey corner shop house with 10 nice suites with décor reflective of Colonial and Asian charm.
We enjoyed dinner at Il Barcaro, an authentic back street Venetian tavern, located on the hotel’s ground floor. A place we warmly can recommend. Another hotel that caught our eyes was “The Edison Hotel”. A big, white Colonial Villa, central located. Now you might ask if we only saw and visited hotels during our stay? No, we saw some impressive mosques and we visited the “Jetties” by the sea. These houses on stilts, owned by Chinese families, have become a popular tourist attraction.
About 30 minutes away from downtown, you’ll find the impressive Chinese temple “Kek Lok Si” on the hill, beside the huge” Kwam Im” Statue. This temple and statue can be reached both by car and with the golden coloured, small funicular railway.
If you ask the people living in Penang what to do in Penang, you get to hear the same answer from everyone “here everything is about food and eating”. There are plenty of local food stalls, what we in Thailand use to call “holes in the walls”. The inhabitants are proud over their local food. After our excursion, we were taken by the guide to one of these local “restaurants” there we tasted a dish made of noodles, pork, seafood and mushroom. Tasted good, even if the ambiance was not exact our cup of tea.
One of the people we met the first evening, a British gentleman, invited us to see his art collection. He is one of the biggest collectors of Vietnamese art. He was kind and picked us up at our hotel and took us to his apartment that at the same time is his gallery and workplace. He has also lived in Bangkok for many years, but moved away to Penang as he found Thailand changed a lot and Penang is nowadays more desirable to him. We could not hold back a “wow” when we saw his apartment.
This condominium had a fabulous location and a fantastic sea view and the apartment was 1000sqm, perfect for displaying of paintings and sculptures. He took his time and explained about every single painting, most of them showing frequencies from the Vietnam War. He had a Portuguese woman working with restoring the paintings and on her desk that day, was plenty of sketches and drawings ready to be shipped to the Singapore National Gallery, on loan to Singapore. The sculptures exposed in the huge living room, were on loan from a Canadian artist.
This British gentleman knew what he was talking about and one day, I promise to be back and write about him and his work, but that is another story. Unfortunately we did not have time to see and explore everything we had wanted to; we both think another visit in the future is a must. If I am honest, the deepest impression of all, were those delightful people who took such good care of us and made our stay so pleasant. We thank you all and hope to welcome you in Bangkok in the near future. Such hospitality and warmness is nothing you take for granted.