Situated off the northwestern coast of Malaysia, Penang is a real charmer. Heavily favoured by the tourists, the state is power packed with beaches, exciting history, charming vibes and awesome food. Often referred as the “food paradise of Malaysia”, Penang’s multi cultural background makes it exotic in truest sense and then there is the gorgeous vintage movie style Georgetown. Most famous for its charmingly crumbling, yet well preserved architecture, Georgetown was given the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 and ever since, the city’s popularity has increased along with its beauty. Founded in 1786 by the British trader Francis Light, Georgetown shares it’s birth heritage with the other two Straits Settlements of Melaka and Singapore. Before that, the swampy land was inhabited by Malay fishermen and Light had to struggle with many natural adversities before he could successfully turn the city into a booming trading port. Soon free trade, easy lifestyle and charms of a new settlement, made Georgetown very popular and 1805, it became a full fledged British residency.
Discovery of tin deposits added to its economic wealth and with them arrived planters who minted money from their plantations. Needless to say, influx of riches brought about troubles like opium dens, brothels and gambling and quite often riots would erupt between the immigrant Indian and Chinese communities. Despite, such volatile environment Georgetown’s economic rise continued until the World War I and even today, remnants of its erstwhile wealth is very much visible throughout the city. While, it’s preserved heritage core is drop dead gorgeous, the new swankier part is pretty awesome too and the sleek glassy skyscrapers provide an interesting backdrop to the old timeless aura. The result is a very unique mishmash of different eras, three ancient and vibrant communities and history roams alive on the streets of Georgetown. It is very easy to lose track of time among it’s labyrinthine roads and I have always ended up staying there longer than planned.
I love everything about Georgetown; the way the salty sea breeze rushes into the narrow old quarters, the trishaws squeaking past awesome street splashed walls, the food courts which come alive with each sunset and the raucous sounds, spicy scents, and blingy sights of Little India. The beautiful and compact Moorish inspired mosque glowing in the sun against Chinese temples is one of my favourite sights of Georgetown and I have always been mesmerized by its street food vendors tossing out umpteen numbers of delicious titbits throughout the day. The best part about Georgetown is how seamlessly its three very distinct cultures melt into each other without losing their individuality and I have often stumbled upon Chinese incense curling in front of ancestral tablets within nooks of Little India. Many a times, colourful and traditional Rangoli floor designs have surprised me by their presence underneath strings of ceremonial Chinese streetlamps and in my eyes the preserved city is one huge human bazaar of emotions, gossips, urges and shades. While the glitzy cosmopolitan zone full of coffee shops, restaurants and bars does pull one down the rabbit hole of modernity, just one turn around the corner again throws him back to the waterfront old traditional Chinese clan houses.
This constant whirring of cultures, eras and tastes is the strongest attraction of Georgetown and the city is a big flirt. My Georgetown visits are always confined to staying at my favourite hotel in Penang, the comfortable, yet dated Armenian Street Heritage Hotel and except for the dodgy wifi, it is a nice place to be. The heritage lanes wind all around it and in the mornings, old wrinkled ladies sell fresh steaming dimsums near the hotel. On weekends, the small public park holds flea markets underneath its massive mango trees and preserved Chinese shop houses line behind its massive backdoor. The old houses complete with cheerful colourfuls, old ornate doors, checkered tiles and sleeping cats immediately transport one to a time, when money and leisure were easy to come by and rustling ornamental bamboo groves often hide brilliant street art which marks its walls.
Georgetown shot to street art hall of fame, when the Lithuanian born artist Ernest Zacharevic gifted its peeling ancient walls with some stunning larger than life murals of mostly children and since then, the trend has caught on. Nowadays, the internet is strewn with interactive maps which point out to Georgetown’s most famous urban murals and even the trishaws offer street art tours to the interested travelers. This has lead to Georgetown to evolve into a sort of art hub and the city is splendidly decorated with steel rod caricature installations depicting Georgetown during old times. While some of the caricatures are just plain humourous, some are tinged with dark sarcasm aimed at its European colonizers. Few installations serve as landmarks and one of the famous ones reveal the spot where the world famous shoe designer Jimmy Choo had started his apprenticeship. Such is the interactive and flirtatious beauty of Georgetown and even some of its streets have really romantic names. The backpacker’s hangout area of Love Lane is perhaps one of the sweetest street names in existence and a caricature depicting a large Chinese man called the Cheating Husband mark its wall. The street apparently got its name because of its illicit love nest nature and in the olden times, the rich had kept their mistresses there.
Despite its illicit nature or maybe because of it, Love Lane and the rest of Georgetown is very alluring and it is easy to forget about time in its pastel coloured rows of old houses. So, let me take you for a trip through Georgetown and show you why it is the crown jewel of the “Pearl of the Orient”.
Unseen Malaysia | 41 Bucket-list-worthy Destinations. View the interactive version here
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING – BECAUSE I CARE