The Quaint Charms of Georgetown

by Audrey Lim, Jul 19, 2001 | Destinations: Malaysia / Georgetown

Out of the many states in Malaysia, each has its own specialty, culture, influences and food. But the thing that makes a place stand out is the little difference it held in the heart of each visitor who came, experienced the charm, and left with the feeling of fulfillment.

Personally, Penang or Pulau Pinang as it is called, is a place full of cultural influences - and this is the charming part about the place. If you are a person looking for a place to fill the cultural needs, then head on over to the old streets of Georgetown. Penang's cultural aspects are widely noticeable in the architecture of the buildings found all over the tiny state/island. As you walk along the streets of Georgetown, the feeling is somewhat stronger and is bound to be a memorable experience.

Smack right in the center of the town is Komtar. Famous as the complex may be, however, it isn't exactly an architectural sensation. It is merely a large and tall building that acts as a landmark and provides for an excellent viewing point. Komtar is also the base for hotel shuttle buses from Batu Ferringhi. Because it is tall, the building serves as a navigation point as well.

Let's start the tour from Komtar itself. At the main foyer, there is a tourist information desk. Pick up a free copy of the Penang Island and City map. From there, you might want to proceed to the observation deck. At the observation desk, you will get to see a breathtaking 360 degrees view of Georgetown. Next, I would suggest that you check out some of the oldest parts of Georgetown. To the eastern side of Penang Road are some of the oldest sections of Penang. It is also the closest part to the water. From a distance, you could almost see the antiquity emitting from this old town. White walls, russet tiled roofs, old clan docks, you name it. There are also old warehouses and trade shops from years gone by. Fringed by the waterfront docks, you have come to the birthplace of Georgetown.

Penang Island is rich in history and memories. One deep mark left behind is from the time when the British reigned. Fort Cornwallis, located at the very tip of the island, is the start of the British settlement. You will be able to find Fort Cornwallis situated along Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street). The old fort is a novelty by itself, but the trishaw ride is even more so. Expect to be overwhelmed by the many trishaw drivers offering you a ride to the fort. Fun as it may be, but do remember that tourist may sometimes get ripped off by these trishaw operators. Negotiate a price first. It always helps. You will get a "guided tour" onboard the trishaw. Alternatively, you may choose to take a bus or taxi from Komtar to the fort. Of course, you may take a leisurely walk also.

Interesting and charming though the place may be, there is also another side of Georgetown that may not be everyone's cup of tea. Georgetown is, first and foremost, a commercial city. For the longest time (and as far as I can remember), it has been in the trading business for years! So, you can expect to see lots of shops and warehouses strewn all over the city. Unlike other places, the lifestyle of the people in Georgetown somehow varies from those that live at other parts of the tiny island. Here, the people live, work, eat, play and sleep at the same place. If you own a shop house in Georgetown, you will literally have your business running at the shop, the first floor could be your home, a courtyard or garden at the back or even on a higher floor. The shop houses themselves are filled with history as well. Decorated with glazed tiles, old wooden screens/doors and some with stucco, these shops can often tell a story by itself. While some may claim that this lifestyle is not healthy, yet rest assured that the people of Georgetown have great pride in their lifestyle. Having been preserved for generations, this simple form of living is apparent along Chulia Street and China Street.

Although these shop houses are old and traditional looking, don't let the façade fool you! Once you have stepped into the arched doorways, you will find many imported products as well as local produce. Let's just say that the people of Penang can accommodate to current taste also.

If there is one thing that Penang is famous for, that will be its food and drinks. Do check out the local coffee shops or one of the many restaurants scattered all over town. I am very sure you will be able to find a shop that will suit your taste buds. There is something for everyone in Penang. Décor may not be the unique selling point for most of these food establishments, but with that aside, you will be surprised at the quality of food served at these places. Some of the world's best cuisines are found in Penang and served to you at very reasonable prices. The locals are so familiar with the specialty that no menu is necessary. If you are new and speak only English, do ask them for a recommendation. Sometimes, they may even be able to whip up an English menu from nowhere. Just like any other sidewalk café in the world, the locals also enjoy sipping a hot cup of tea while watching the world go by. A famous restaurant located on Penang Road was the point where matchmakers loved to meet. Restaurant Loke Thye Kee is famous to this day with its cast iron balcony and idyllic atmosphere.

While some of you may be attracted to the mysterious dark warehouses, also known as godowns or gudang (in the Malay language), this is the part of Georgetown that I disliked. There dark, dinghy places lead the way to the wharves. They line up next to each other and are often dirty. Pungent odor will greet you through the open doorways! Oriental spices, palm, and bamboo products are some of the many wares that you will catch a glimpse of. Exotic? Hardly so. But to many, it is an eye-opening experience.

Another location that promises strong smells is at the Campbell Street Market. The Campbell Street Market specializes in chicken and seafood. Street markets are not exactly a rarity in Penang - this is one of many. Visit the place during early mornings while it is cooling and refreshing.

In Georgetown, expect to walk a little more than usual. This is the recommended way to view the town and the best way to take in all its little charms, ambience and vibrancy. I can assure you that the chaotic lifestyle and cultural diversity of Georgetown will linger in your mind for a long time.