Penang Island – and Georgetown – is one of those travel experiences where sights, smells, sounds and tastes blend together in an eclectic bazaar which brings great memories.
Penang’s colourful history can be traced in its outstanding architectural heritage that dates back to 1786 when Sir Francis Light persuaded the Sultan of Kedah to cede Pulau Penang (or Betel Nut Island) to the British East India Company. The first settlement that soon grew was named Georgetown after King George III.
Today Georgetown is Penang’s main cultural and religious melting pot and political Capital. Malays, Chinese, Indians and various other communities co-exist in full harmony. Sanctuaries and sacred places dot the capital to an extent that most of them are found few meters away from each other.
During the time spent in Georgetown I mingled with flocks of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian devotees. By walking along Lebuh Cannon, I was able to visit St. George’s Church, Goddess of Mercy Temple, Sri Mariamman Temple, Yap Knongsi Temple and Kapitan Keling Mosque. A simple turning on Lebuh Acheh and I stumbled upon the Malay Mosque. But if you think that is too much, think again as Georgetown’s historical trail displays in addition, to the ones already mentioned, The King Street Temples, Teochew Temple, Islamic Museum, Cathedral of Assumption, Hainan Temple, Benggali Temple, Christian Cemetery, Cheah Kongsi Temple and Saint Francis Xavier Church.
Multiracial population also means multi-culinary options. In Little India (in Lebuh Pasar) I indulged in Indian dishes such as Nasai Kandar, a dish of Indian Muslim origin, as well as other sub-continental favourite specialities such as Tosai, Idiapom, chicken tandoori, dhal curry and chicken tikka with either chappati or naan bread. These feasts enjoyed in Georgetown brought back memories of Mystical India.
For Chinese enthusiasts, the freshly steamed pork ribs, pao of char siew with sweet paste fillings, har gao, and dumplings make for a delicious experience. The other main dining escapade was at the Gurney Drive, famous for hawker food-stalls offering Penang specialities such as nasi goreng, rojak, asam laksa, hokkien mee and pasembor.
When I felt a need to bask in nature, I found myself strolling in verdant parks or along sun-drenched beaches. Classical escapes from Georgetown’s concrete heritage are Penang Hill; you can make your way up by trekking or you can use the public funicular train – this was my choice. Once at the summit you will enjoy the refreshing climate and fantastic views. From there I hiked down to the other classic getaway, The Botanical Garden, a real oasis of peace and tranquillity and a haven for botanical lovers.
One early morning I boarded the public bus and in a matter of an hour I was hiking in the Penang National Park, rated in the Guinness book as the smallest park in the world. Early that same afternoon I was lunching at one of the beachfront restaurants in the small fishing village of Teluk Bahang. Later that afternoon I was strolling along the golden Batu-Ferringhi beach – famous playground boasting international deluxe resorts. A host of water sport facilities such as sailing, windsurfing, water skiing, parasailing and speedboat rides are offered. Other recreational activities on the beach include horse-riding and volleyball.
Penang is also a shopping and entertainment delight with hundreds of watering holes, theatres, shopping malls and bazaars located around the city. My choice for shopping was Gurney Plaza and for cultural performance the Eden Seafood Village. Had it not been for my credit card limit, I would most probably be still mending my debts.
Georgetown as seat of the administration and commercial hub of the British colonial era grew by combining the best of the East and West. The merging of these two cultures makes Penang a unique place for visitors and denizens alike. As a final note, in recent surveys the island has been ranked in the top most livable cities in Asia.