We headed on to George Town from the Cameron Highlands on yet another bus journey. We travelled for around three hours before stopping and transferring on to a ferry to reach Penang Island. We’d travelled here to explore George Town, the capital city and historical core of the island.
George Town has been identified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008. It was one of the first British Settlements in Southeast Asia, governed by the Brits (evident in the existing street names) until conquered by Japan during WWII. We had high expectations for George Town with its intriguing history and melting pot of ethnicities and religions, resulting in an eclectic assortment of colonial and Asian style architecture for us to explore.
George Town’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site resulted in a ‘cleaning up’ of the city, improving traffic flow, pedestrianisation of areas, and cultural and environmental aspects. Shop houses within the UNESCO zone have been converted into trendy cafes and eateries so we weren’t short of choice when we arrived and fancied a drink and a cool place to do so some research. Our hotel was in a great location, situated within the 260 hectares of the designated UNESCO zone, and the oldest part of the city. We wandered down to a local café to draw together a plan for our few days in George Town.
We spent most of our time in the ‘core zone’ of the city, where most of the historic landmarks are located. The first two days were spent mainly wandering the maze of chaotic streets and narrow lanes, quaintly decorated with strings of paper lanterns. We followed an extensive street art tour on our map of George Town, as this scene has flourished since 2012, with international artists invited to paint murals to build on the city’s reputation as a vibrant arts and cultural hub.
In 2012, Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, created a series of wall paintings depicting local culture, inhabitants and lifestyles. The ‘Children on a Bicycle’ has become one of the most photographed spots in the city and we literally had to queue to take photos while dodging traffic. Some of the murals were beginning to fade when we visited so hurry up if you don’t want to miss them, because they might soon disappear!
There are also several wrought iron caricatures within George Town, illustrating unique aspects of their history and culture. They’re installed throughout the city, popping up everywhere, down little back alleys, on the corners of main roads, and above our heads, creeping high up on the walls of old shop houses. The light and shadows bring out the three dimensional nature of these sculptures and a caption in cursive writing explains the context of the scene depicted. These structures were commissioned in 2009 as a physical way of marking George Town’s then recent status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A competition was held at the time, which the sculpture studio SCULPTUREATWORK won with the idea of ‘voice from the people’. It took several years to construct them all, resulting in a total of 52 caricatures tangled within a vast network of streets.
The presence of these murals and iron caricatures have transformed the streets, engaging those who walk past with witty, lively and unique scenes that celebrate the energy and playfulness of the city.
We wandered around George Town freely, moving at our own pace and enjoying the architecture in between street art stops. Aside from colonial European architecture a huge assortment of architectural styles is also evident throughout the city. The Kapitan Keling Mosque and Pinang Peranakan Mansion are notable examples. There were also some beautiful tiled shop fronts painted in vibrant shades of coral, turquoise and yellow, complete with charming shutters.
We made our way to the Pinang Peranakan Mansion to escape the afternoon sun. This ornate building is a recreation of a typical rich 19th century ‘Baba’ home. Free-guided tours take place regularly, giving us a detailed insight into the lives of the Peranakans, also known as the Babas (the men) and Nonyas (the women). Peranakan Chinese are the descendants of Chinese immigrants who came to the Malay Archipelago and Dutch East Indies between the 15th and 17th centuries. The Babas and Nonyas formed a community of acculturated Chinese unique to this part of the world, creating a distinctive lifestyle, evident in their customs, antiques, cuisine and language. The mansion is elegantly restored and displays over 1000 pieces of antiques and collectibles. Inside, there is an eclectic mix of Scottish ironwork, English tiles and continental European art and furniture, as well as Chinese carved wood panels. Stanley, our enthusiastic tour guide, led us around for about an hour. One of the highlights was a one of a kind kingfisher feather jewelry set. The earrings, headpiece and necklace had been created by painstakingly assembling vibrant blue kingfisher feathers into the piece of jewelry. The end result looked like a solid turquoise stone from a distance, but on closer inspection we could see the fine threads of feather within each piece.
The hybrid of cultures in George Town makes for a distinct and ubiquitous street food scene. It has been labeled as the food capital of Malaysia and incorporates Malay, Chinese, Indian, Peranakan, Thai and European influences into its literal melting pot. We enjoyed some delicious food in George Town, veering away from the Malay-Indian curries we’d be devouring. George Town’s food scene was distinctly more Chinese in style and we nibbled on dishes including pork dumplings, char keow tay, chicken satay and handmade noodles.
We ate lots of street food at the Red Garden Night Market, located in the centre of the city, offering all of Penang’s famous fares in a hawker style stall set up. Our hotel was only round the corner from Kimberley Street, notorious for its street food stalls that draw in locals and tourists alike. For breakfast we bought some tasty peanut sesame balls, and good old BBQ pork baos (steamed buns) to keep us going for the long days of walking ahead of us. We treated ourselves one evening, as we’d been spending so little since being in Malaysia, and dined at Jawi House Cafe, one of the top restaurants in the city. They specialised in Peranakan cooking and Lawrence had a delicious Jawi bandieh (boneless lamb stew with crusty bread) and Naomi ordered a herbal Lemuni blue rice with creamy chicken curry. We had an Arabian sherbet drink, and ended the evening with a colonial lemon tart and Malay caramel pudding cake.
On our third day in George Town we continued working our way around the endless amount of street art, but also tried out one of George Town’s many unique museums; the Wonderfood museum. This specialty museum celebrates Penang’s rich food heritage and definitely made us hungry for lunch. The museum displays giant handmade food replicas, made from plastic, synthetics and silicone. Each dish is painstakingly created by artists and sculptures with meticulous detail resulting in highly realistic looking fake food, good enough to want to take a nibble when the museum security isn’t looking. The people working at the Wonderfood Museum were great at offering to take photos and we ended up partaking in quite an exhaustive photo shoot. They advised us on the best angles and poses to really get the most out of our experience and it was a lot of fun. The museum aims to promote the varied types of multi-cultural food available in Malaysia. It draws attention to the beauty of the local food, the multi-cultural society that comes hand in hand with this, and the sheer range of food types accessible in the country. In one of the more luxurious rooms, replicas of the world’s most expensive food are displayed. From golden sushi to the Pizza Royal 007, ranging from $1000 – $4000. But the last exhibit delivers a more powerful message, depicting a skeletal child crouched over some scraps of food with the message ‘food is precious, don’t waste it’ looming over her.
On our last full day we ventured out of the UNESCO heritage zone and took the hop on hop off bus to the Botanical Gardens. This bus services runs regularly covering two separate directions, the city route and beach route. Along the route there are more than 50 attractions and designated stops to hop on and off the bus. It was a great way of seeing the city we’d learnt our way around over the past few days, and gave our tired feet a rest.
We’d had glorious sunshine for days, but on our last day the clouds were threatening rain. It drizzled a little as we drove out to the gardens but stopped just in time for our walk. We didn’t stay long at the gardens, but it seemed to be a popular exercise spot. Many people were jogging, running and walking around the winding paths beneath lush rainforest flora. Our plan was to walk to Penang Hill from the Botanical Gardens, as our hotel receptionist encouraged us, claiming it was a popular walk with lots of fitness fanatics undertaking the route. It was only 4km so we thought it would be a leisurely stroll to the top, not thinking to wear appropriate footwear once again. We were dressed in our flip-flops, denim shorts and cotton shirts, neither good for walking nor absorbing sweat. As we climbed an endless staircase to reach merely the base of the hill that takes you to the top, Naomi had quickly realised they’d made a big mistake and this ‘walk’ was not what she’d signed up for. Constantly fanning herself with a Botanical Garden map, she ploughed on, motivated by Lawrence’s unbroken positivity. But the climb up seemed to be an endless uphill main road of at times a 20% gradient with zigzagging corners, to be shared with speeding trucks ferrying tourists up and down the mountain. The flip flops were sliding off of our perspiring toes as we trudged onwards, avoiding unhelpful comments from those descending e.g. ‘enjoying the slippers?’ ha ha ha HA HA…Everyone else we passed (or who overtook us) was geared up in their head bands, visors, kinesio tape, CamelBaks, Fitbits, gaiters, FiveFinger running shoes, and strapped up with protein bar filled bum bags. There was zero conversation during the two-hour climb as Naomi’s mood deteriorated with each step, worsened as the sweat saturated every item of clothing being worn that dreadful day. There were times when standing on a blind corner as we heard one of the trucks approaching full throttle seemed like the kindest way out. But we made it. We’re divided in our opinion of whether our perseverance paid off. We were rewarded with panoramic views of George Town, the mainland, and the connecting bridge, however Naomi thought it was a tad underwhelming. Lots of Asian tourists had opted for the funicular railway up so we felt a little out of place as we tried to cool off and compose ourselves. There was a depressing looking owl museum, a gimmicky ‘love walkway’, and a food court where we headed for. We pottered around the top for around an hour before sensibly catching the Swiss made funicular train back down to the bottom, which was a fun experience and made us realise just how steep the route is.
We hopped back on the bus and did a loop of the city in sunshine, which was a nice relaxing end to the day, topped off with a coffee in one of George Town’s many chic cafes. We had a much bigger budget planned for Malaysia than we needed as the food and drink has been dirt-cheap. It’s been nice not to hold back over here and indulge in coffee and cakes!
The various races and religions in George Town means their calendar is full of annual celebrations and festivities and we happened to coincide our visit with the World Heritage Site Celebration. This festival commemorates the inscription of George Town as a UNESCO World Heritage Site on 7th July 2008. This is a festival celebrating the living heritage of George Town, its multicultural practices, traditional food, art and crafts. George Town is a Chinese majority city, but other ethnicities include Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian, to name a handful. As well as these multi ethnicities, there are many languages spoken including Malay, English, Cantonese, Mandarin, Tamil, Punjabi, and Telugu. The theme of this year’s celebration was ‘Walk the Talk: Oral Traditions and Expressions’ which highlighted these different communities and encouraged the public to understand the diversity of George Town.
On our final night we wandered around the streets to find some dinner, and quickly discovered that the festival was in full swing, focused around Armenian Street and Cannon Street with many roads pedestrianised for the event. Different cultural stations were set up, allowing tourists to discover the many languages and traditions ingrained within the city. We were given a booklet outlining the main ethnicities and tried our hand at writing our names in the various languages spoken within George Town. Street food stalls selling traditional dishes lined the roads, bustling with an eclectic jumble of tourists and locals. We learnt the most about the Gujarati community, hearing first hand from this group of people as they came out in full force to proudly represent themselves. We watched traditional dancing and ate A LOT. We nibbled on a peanut pancake, deep fried curry bread (amazing), fried bananas, a passion fruit and mango slushie, pork dim sum, and traditional chee cheong fun. George Town’s atmosphere was particularly electric on our last evening, a Saturday, and was our best night in Malaysia so far. Everyone was so friendly, welcoming and rightly proud of their rich history and culture. It was lovely to be a part of it and learn a lot in the process.
Our final night in George Town left us feeling buzzing with our time spent in the city. We’re constantly pleasantly surprised with all Malaysia has to offer and George Town certainly exceeded expectations.