After a month of island-hopping, we felt the need for something a bit different, and Georgetown promised to be exactly that.
Those of you with some knowledge of Malaysia will balk at my error: “But Georgetown IS on an island, you fool!” Yes, yes, I know, but it’s connected to the mainland by a big fat bridge, so it doesn’t count.
Georgetown, on the island of Penang, was a British outpost for most of the 19th century, up until the Japanese ran us out during World War II. Consequently, there are colonial churches, forts and hotels clustered around the old town to explore, with a bustling cityscape spreading to the hills.
We arrived, once more, by ferry. The voyage was smooth, but the cabin was stiflingly hot, and I felt for all the Muslim women wearing headscarves or, worse, niqabs. However, I found the choice of film even more uncomfortable than the heat; I was squirming in my seat when I realised we were going to sit through two hours of Bradley Cooper shooting Muslims in the face. But no one seemed to mind. Maybe I’m oversensitive.
We caught a cab from the port and our driver mentioned some points of interest, like Little India, some Buddhist temples, and the oldest Christian church in Malaysia. It became clear that Georgetown is a veritable hotchpotch of cultures – a Malaysian microcosm, as it turns out.
This variety was emphasised by our cabby’s reply to his own question: “Where are you from?” When we replied (I always say England, but Swarana always says London), he said he was “Indian Malaysian, third generation”.
It struck me that Malaysia itself is a very young country and most of its inhabitants are immigrants from neighbouring nations, by degrees of a few generations. To merely call yourself Malaysian is to drastically simplify your nationality (this may be why Swarana’s subconscious insists on saying we’re “from London” – it’s easier and more honest than saying “born in London, raised in Nigeria, schooled in Cambridge, Indian parents”).
As for Malaysians, there are Indian Malaysians, Chinese Malaysians and there are Malay Malays, but don’t call an Indian Malaysian “Indian Malay”, or you’ll have some apologising to do.
It’s this variety that really sets Malaysia apart from the rest of south-east Asia. Some people will tell you, “I didn’t like Malaysia much, it’s too westernised.” But that’s to only notice the people’s excellent grasp of English and some impressive infrastructure. To not like Malaysia because you can flush toilet paper down the drain teeters on the masochistic.
Fatt of the land
Georgetown’s a lovely place – particularly the colonial Old Town. We visited the Blue Mansion, the stunning home of 19th century Chinese businessman Cheong Fatt Tze. Its glorious central courtyard, ordained with tiles from Stoke and iron columns from Aberdeen, overlooks a central pool, which the amiable Chinese guide will tell you filled with water when it rained, signifying prosperity. The Chinese are apparently obsessed with both money and superstition, and every element of the fascinating feng shui building is designed to supernaturally augment the owner’s prosperity.
On the same road you can find an impressive Buddhist temple with relief-carved columns – all twisting dragons and fierce lions – and then round the corner you can head to the top floor of the Bayview hotel to enjoy some expensive beer overlooking the city. Then head to Little India for curry and blaring Bollywood tunes, before hitting Chulia Street and the inevitable Bob Marley tribute musicians. They have a Reggae Mansion here – a type of building you don’t generally associate with reggae.
Find the right street map and you can go hunting for the numerous pieces of Georgetown street art – something we’ve found Malaysians have a particular knack for. Bruce Lee kicking a cat in the face was a favourite. Be careful though, every street seems to have a gaping chasm between the road and the (for lack of a better word) pavement, for drainage. The place really is a death-trap for drunks.
I should mention at this point our friend and esteemed travelling companion Fabio – not because he’s a drunk, you understand. We met this lovely Swiss fellow in Krabi, where we showed him the way to the night market. Then we bumped into him in Koh Lipe, where we introduced him to 100 baht cocktails. Although we missed him in Langkawi, he was in Georgetown waiting with an excellent hotel recommendation (Chulia Mansion) and a guide to the madcap street food scene.
Hitting the streetz
I still don’t quite understand how it works. Sit down at a table? Or poke the chef in the ribs until he acknowledges your existence? Pay first or when they deliver the food? Is the old lady cutting a cucumber excruciatingly slowly the leader of this outfit? Who the fuck is this guy taking drinks orders? He just screamed at some other stall down the street and now he wants money. I pay for drinks now, but food later? WHAT IS HAPPENING?
It’s much simpler at the steam boat stall. Pick a bunch of foods on sticks, plop them in the tank of boiling water for a minute, eat, and then pay for your collected colour-coded sticks. The prawn dumplings, among others, were stunning.
As for attractions, there’s Fort Cornwallis, founded by the British 200 years ago, but with a museum currently undergoing an upgrade; and there’s the viewing deck at Komtar, an ugly building in the town’s mall district that is under renovations until 2017. This becomes a theme in Malaysia, by the way. It’s the irrepressible march of progress.
Of course, there’s more to the island of Penang than just Georgetown, but we were all beached out, so while Fabio went to the north of the island (apparently the spice gardens up there are beautiful) we booked ourselves on a bus to Ipoh. I don’t even know why we decided to go there, because, as we soon found, no one else does.
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