Slurp up the cultural soup

Whether you’re a farang needing to kill a couple of days waiting for a visa or just a tourist wanting to immerse yourself in another culture for a few days, Georgetown is a gem of a destination.

History lives in the colonial streets of this town, the capital of Malaysia’s Penang Island. What immediately strikes the first-timer is the seemingly endless number of Anglo-Indian and Chinese shopfronts rolling across town, some freshly painted, some solidly time-worn and others simply succumbing to time.

Take a deep breath and depending on which part of town you’re in and what the time of day is, you’ll scent a thick waft of incense, perhaps followed by a wave of eye-stinging fried chilli, and then the sweet aroma of an Indian hand-rolled cigarette.

There’s the drift of the call to prayer heard at various times in the day, and you’ll hear the slow creak of trishaws ridden by wizened men with sinewy muscles and hopeful faces as they brake to slow down while cruising past a pedestrian. These men look like they could be from one of any number of countries across the globe; but ask them where they’re from and they’ll all answer “Penang”.

Georgetown is indeed almost a microcosm of world cultures: migrants have settled here from as far afield as Europe, China, India, Indonesia, Burma, the Middle East and even Thailand.

The isle was ‘founded’ in 1786 when Francis Light established a British trading post there for the East India Company. Light negotiated a treaty with the Sultan of Kedah, even though there were already people from Kedah living on the island. The British offered the Sultan military protection from those marauding Thais and Burmese in return for the island, but confusion over the precise terms of the treaty lingered and caused occasional tension. The island gained independence in 1957, and joined Malaysia in 1963.

Today Georgetown has the largest number of old houses standing in Southeast Asia: something like 12,000 pre-war houses remain in use. The British passed legislation banning the eviction of original tenants and controlling rents, and this is cited as the main reason behind the streets today being a virtual living museum. The legislation has recently been repealed, and I heard conflicting opinions as to whether this was a good or a bad thing.

Some said it was about time, as the owners of the shophouses had been unable to make a cent out of their properties for more than half a century, while the original tenants had often sublet at market rates. Others said many tenants, particularly in Little India, had put a lot of money into maintaining their buildings, and were now being turned out without any compensation. Regardless, it will be interesting to see what happens to the buildings with this statute change taking effect.

Two days is a good amount of time to browse the historical sites and sample some of Penang’s fabulous cuisine. If you’re on a visa run from Thailand, you’ll want to be heading to the Royal Thai Consulate first thing in the morning. When you’re done with the form-filling, head to the nearby Botanical Gardens for a peek. Opened in 1884, the 29-hectare gardens have suffered fluctuating standards of care, but today they are a popular spot for fitness freaks and picnickers alike.

Bus number 7 takes you back to town. Hop off at Komtar (Kompleks Tun Abdul Razak), the piece de resistance of Georgetown’s 20th century architecture. The 58-floor tower has a shopping centre at its base. Unfortunately the beige tiled walls lend the atmosphere of a railway-station toilet to the entire centre, and when wandering around the labrynth of corridors you might be forgiven for thinking you haven’t actually arrived at the main centre yet. Welcome to Komtar.

The saving grace of the building is its height. For 5 ringgit take a lift to the viewing gallery where a 360 degree vista of Georgetown and some of Penang is yours to savour. You can see the 13.5 kilometre Penang Bridge, one of the longest in the world, linking the island to the mainland – along with the nearby distinctly-coloured sewage outfall. Observe the layout of the streets below: you’re about to pound the pavement.

But first start your culinary tour. There could never be enough time to sample all the delectable delights in town and in fact you’d be lucky to even cover the main groups of Penang’s diverse cuisine in just two days. But you can try.

I started with one of the island’s favourite Nyonya dishes, laksa. “Nyonya” is the word used to describe both the Chinese women who have adopted the Malaysian way of life while maintaining their Chinese heritage, and the unique cuisine that these women developed. While the style of cooking exists among the Chinese in Penang, Malacca and Singapore, in Penang Nyonya cuisine has been influenced to an extent by Thai cooking, with chillies, fresh herbs and shrimp paste being popular ingredients.

Laksa is hawker fare. Mine set me back a whole 2 ringgit at a shopfront restaurant on Jalan Penang, and was divine. It’s base is rice noodles and these swim in a sour-based fish soup topped with onions, chilli, cucumber, pineapple and a pungent fish paste. It’s a refreshing variation of Thai noodle soup.

I didn’t get my bottom pinched (see accompanying story) at all during my stay, but while slurping my laksa I did witness a mobile phone theft. A motorcycle-helmeted man lurked for a while between tables in the restaurant before making a leap for the phone and dashing out into the street. The victim rushed out after him ; his friends looked at each other and shook their heads. Then they kept slurping their laksa. It’s that good.

Thus fortified, you’re ready to hit the streets. There are plenty of options, but I took a wander down Lebuh Chulia, named after the chulias, or South Indian Muslims, who settled here in the early days. The street is probably as close as one gets to Khao San Rd in Georgetown, with cheap hotels, travel agents and foreigner-friendly restaurants lining the street, but there the comparison ends: the street has retained most of its original architecture and is far from a tourist ghetto.

From here you could head to Fort Cornwallis on the water, the island’s original feeble attempt at defence (if I was the Sultan and had seen this attempt at the British side of the bargain, I would have been upset too), via the Victoria Memorial Clocktower. The tower was given to the island by a local Chinese millionaire to commemorate the diamond jubilee of Britain’s Queen Victoria; by the time it was completed she had died, and today it has a slight lilt caused by bombing during World War II.

Or you could stroll around the quay area with its more majestic examples of architecture, or perhaps just browse in the shops. You should definitely make an effort to get to the Penang Museum, housed in the former Penang Free School – the first English-language school in all of Southeast Asia. It’s well set up and gives an excellent potted history of the island for the beginner.

What you must do the following morning – early, while the light still paints the buildings with gold, the traffic is thin and the heat is yet to escalate – is hire a trishaw for a tour of the sites you missed the previous day (30 ringgit per hour, negotiable). The trishaw first appeared on the island in 1941, and by 1947, 2,000 of them were plying the streets for fares.

Today they are outsped by pretty much anything else, but there’s no better way of taking in the charms of the town. Tell your driver how long you have and he’ll know where he can manage to peddle you – two hours will allow you to visit plenty of sites, as well as Wat Chayamangkalaram, a Thai temple whose grounds were given to Penang’s Thai community by Queen Victoria in 1845. A 32-metre reclining Buddha lies inside.

Regretfully, your visa will be ready in the afternoon, or if it’s a weekend getaway you’ve managed to slip away for, it will be time to head back. You can always try squeezing in an excursion to Penang Hill, a favourite expat retreat in colonial days, or a visit to Kek Lok Si temple, which took Thai, Burmese and Chinese artisans around twenty years to build. But if I were you, I might just settle for another laksa.

Travel Details
Getting there: Thai International Airways has daily flights.
Accommodation: There is something to suit all budgets, with low to mid-range hotels concentrated around Chulia and Penang Sts. The Federal Hotel on Jalan Penang offers a basic room with fan and bathroom for 40 ringgit, while the Oriental a few doors up offers aircon as well for 69 ringgit. For something more upmarket, the newish Cititel across the road has rooms for 125 ringgit a night. There’s also a Sheraton in town.

Recommended reading:
Old Penang by Sarnia Hayes Hoyt, Oxford University Press, 1996.
Food Guide, by the Penang Development Corporation, available from the Penang Tourist Centre on Lebuh Pantai.
The latest copy of the Penang Tourist Newspaper, also available from the Penang Tourist Centre, will provide information on the latest accommodation specials and restaurant recommendations.

Further information: Check out the Penang Museum’s website at http://penang.insights.com.my/museum

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