The plane lands on the Penang island and I’m wondering if this really is Southeast Asia. This thought will be in my head during these few days in George Town.
Our Grab driver, southeast Asian Uber, keeps repeating “Welcome to Malaysia”. Not because his vocabulary is limited. He’s just kind. Malaysians are kind.
It’s evident we’re in Asia. Just one glance is enough to realize there’s no local space development plan. It looks like someone took a few dozen blocks, tossed them up and left where they fell. But the whole George Town feels surprisingly spatial as for Asia. Only a little chaotic, not so crowded, you can walk around it, you can breathe in it. Simply speaking – I was delighted from the very first moment.
George Town is so fascinating I have no idea how to start. They say it’s good to start from the beginning, so let’s try. At the end of the 18th century, the British East India Company established the first trading point and settlement on Penang Island. So we have the Brits. But there were more nationalities which discovered that Penand makes a good trading port. Chinese and Indians were stopping there here. And Malays, Thais, and a few other nations. Is it getting interesting? In the meantime, the island became a center of spice production. 100 years later everything which was British in the area, turned into a British colony. This dominance was interrupted by Japan during World War II. During this time Penang became a base for Nazi U-boats. Then the year 1957 came and the Independence of Malaysia. Have I just written the shortest, most general and probably quite ignorant summary of the history of Penang? Probably 😉 but it shows what a mix of cultures they have there. Also in the streets. Just go through the main George Town street. On a distance of 500 meters, we pass the mosque, Hindu temple, Taoist temple, and Anglican church. Interesting, isn’t it? To make it even more fun, over half of George Town’s population is a Chinese minority. In this case, rather the majority.
The Chinese kept coming to Penang for years and years. As they were settling there, their families started coming to Penang. Close relatives, more distant relatives, 8th cousin and so on. Once the family moved in together, they stayed together. The more wealthy families built mansions in the city. Others built their houses on jetties and this is how Clan Jetties developed. There were 7 of them, 6 remained.
Let’s continue with trivia and let’s go to the Armenian street. We have the Brits, Chinese, Malays, Thais, so why not add Armenians to the mix? Yes, Armenian traders were there too. Is there a nationality which didn’t come to Penang? For sure at least one Lithuanian came – Ernest Zacharevic. And he’s called the Malaysian Banksy. We have Banksy, we can expect some street art. There’s plenty of street art in the streets of George Town and you can see on Lebuh Armenian. Looking for Zacharevic’s art is like having coffee in Italy. You just have to do this. The sad part is that his murals are on each and every souvenir from Penang but Zacharevic himself doesn’t get any money from it.
When you walk around George Town discovering it’s history you can’t miss tiles. You just have to take pictures. At least when you’re like me.
Oh, and the European influence on the architecture can’t be missed as well. Is this really Asia?
But the best are the colonial-era houses. They’re everywhere and I’m not exaggerating. Some of them look good, some are barely standing. Some are renovated, turned into hotels and cafes. In some, there were probably workshops and stores, but now they’re shut down. We landed on Saturday, ok, maybe in Malaysia they don’t work on Saturday afternoons. On Sunday almost everything was closed, ok, it makes sense. But on Monday not much has changed. On one hand, it’s really sad to see all these abandoned buildings. On the other hand, there are so many buildings, it’s not a surprise that there aren’t so many services and other businesses. 10 years ago the old town of George Town joined the UNESCO World Heritage List. Since then each renovation has to be done according to the rules. One of them is to keep the original layout of the building. I guess it’s a good thing and a bad thing – UNESCO protects these beautiful buildings, but probably some investors are discouraged. We spent a night at a renovated house turned into a hotel and I have to admit, I’m a fan!
Talking about hotels and cafes… The whole Internet says that George Town is THE PLACE for street food. The Malaysian capital of street food. Or even the World capital of street food. Sounds good, doesn’t it? We asked in our first hotel “where is street food”? We got two places. Sounds good. In the second hotel we asked the same questions. Three guys started talking with each other, looked quite surprised and confused and said “just walk and you’ll find something”. So we went. And looked for food. And it wasn’t easy. We found it a few hours later and it was good. But the World capital of street food? Come on. There weren’t that many hawker stalls, dishes were quite similar. Or maybe we’re spoilt? In our hometown, we can find food from almost every country in the World, so maybe our expectations were too high?
George Town requires a happy ending, so here’ a story. On a hot November morning, we were walking down the street and met an older man in a traditional outfit. He smiled, even grinned and greeted us with: hello, Merry Christmas!
Truth be told, I can talk about George Town for hours and hours. Safe to say it became my favorite city in Southeast Asia.