Three Days in George Town on Penang Island, Malaysia

By Cristina Maria Chiorean

Last week we boarded the first direct Air Asia flight from Yangon to Penang, Malaysia which is often referred to as Pulau Pinang or the Island of Betel Nut. We came to see the city of George Town and its surroundings for a three-day break.

George Town is a melting pot of cultures and religions, with unique architecture, traditions and flavours which led to the city being recognised as a “living multicultural heritage community” and received  UNESCO World heritage status in 1998. George Town is now known as one of “the historic cities of the Straits of Malacca”.

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It was easy to feel as if I was part of a movie set in an era of rich Chinese and Malay traders surrounded by beautifully restored heritage houses. While most of the friendly locals spoke English, much of the writing is a mix of Malay and Chinese. The Chinese faces reminded us that 60% of George Town’s population is of Chinese descent.

 

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After a flight of a little over two hours, a smooth passport control (no VISA needed) and a well organised and efficient taxi transfer we checked in at the renowned colonial-style Eastern & Oriental hotel. We enjoyed every moment of our stay in this vintage hotel established in 1885 by the Sarkies brothers. The three Armenian brothers also established the Raffles hotel in Singapore and the Strand hotel in Yangon, among others. We booked a suite with sea view in the old heritage wing with all necessary comfort and amenities at an affordable price compared with its sister hotels in Asia.

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If travelling on a budget, the Love lane has plenty of cute B&Bs hosted in heritage buildings with small restaurants or cafes at the street level. In the late afternoon, we came across many tourists enjoying a book while sipping coffee in these cosy inns.

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A short walk from the hotel and you arrive in the historical centre where restaurants and street food sellers offer the famous Penang dishes like the Penang Laksa, the rice noodle fish soup with its unique taste given by the ginger flower.

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Walking the streets of the old town in search of the well preserved and beautifully restored heritage buildings is how tourists usually discover the historic centre. Apart from the the traditional Chinese architecture you should also look for the impressive official buildings built by the British which have been exemplarily restored. You can feel like you’re walking on a London boulevard especially while on Lebuh Pantai. Notable buildings to see are the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, the Penang Peranakan Mansion, Saint George church, Khoo Kongsi temple, the City Hall and the Town Hall.

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George Town is also famous for its street art and wrought-iron caricatures. A few years back the city’s authorities had the excellent idea to organise an international competition to commission the work of artists to paint and adorn the walls of the city’s buildings. Tourists follow the itinerary drawn in a special map to look for and photograph the famous paintings, some of which are hidden in small alleys. The caricatures have anecdotal descriptions of the streets that they adorn.

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The amazing Khoo Kongsi temple is elegant and well hidden in the complex belonging to the Chinese clanhouse with the same name which also includes a theatre, an association building and terraced houses for the members of the clan.

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The food in Penang is both famous and delicious. The various cuisines and the ingredients brought from China, India and Europe many years ago have fused together to create unique local dishes that can be sampled in their original form only in Penang.

the famous Penang Laksa
the famous Penang Laksa

Take bus 101 or 102 If you want to spend a day outside of the city and reach the northern tip of the island and the beach. It takes an hour to reach the beach by bus and 30 minutes by taxi. The public Batu Ferringhi beach is well-known for its water sports, although not the nicest of beaches with water that is neither clear nor calm. We visited the spice garden, which used to be a rubber plantation, where we spent one hour with a guide who patiently showed us and explained the virtues of various spices that were growing in the tropical garden.

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Here are a few tips for your trip to George Town, Penang:

  • it gets dark only around 19.30 which gives you more time to enjoy the sights.
  • take a hotel in George Town, rather than on the beach-side resorts. From the centre of George Town to the Ferringy beach and the parks, a taxi takes approximately 35 minutes and the bus around one hour.
  • visit the information point for tourists and take the maps available to help you discover the street art, the wrought-iron caricatures, the heritage houses, the public buildings, the heritage traders, clan jetties and the waterfront.
  • most restaurants are closed in the afternoon between 14.00 and 18.00. But even so you will still find local food in the food courts around the city or a sandwich in one of the many cafes.
  • make a reservation or arrive early to have dinner in a good restaurant. They tend to fill up quickly and the people queue outside for a table.

Here you can find an online guide with map for Penang.

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