It felt as though we had been dropped in the middle of a film set as we alighted from our taxi in Armenia Street, in the historic centre of Georgetown, on the island of Penang.
In fact, the 1999 remake of “Anna and the King” starring Jodie Foster was shot here, although it was supposed to portray Bangkok in the 19th century! Our hotel, aptly named The Armenian Suites, was certainly no palace and felt quite cramped and dark after some of our previous lodgings, but was right in the heart of this old colonial town and provided a convenient base for the next few days.
I had been eagerly anticipating our stay in Georgetown, with its long history and interesting blend of Eastern and Western cultures, along with the renowned street art. Although yet another island – off the coast of Western Malaysia – Penang was the first large city we’d experienced for months, and made for a fascinating contrast to resorts and beaches. It was easy to see why this important ancient trading port had been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status.
Unfortunately, the heavens opened as we stepped out for dinner that evening and we were thoroughly drenched by the time we found a nearby eatery in Little India. The following day however, we set our exploring, and after finding that the free walking tour run by the Tourist office was sadly no longer running, found our own way around the sights. Although the British Raj-era City Hall and the 18th Century Fort Cornwallis were imposing buildings, we mostly enjoyed ourselves getting lost in the maze of ornate Chinese Clan and shop houses, mosques, temples and hidden alleyways featuring fabulous artworks depicting local life.
Ian was side-tracked by an old family run antique shop full of Oriental goodies – maybe they should shoot a series of “Antiques Road Trip” out here! He indulged himself with a miniature Chinese teapot set which we could just about squeeze into our case.
Many merchants and labourers were attracted to this thriving port city back in the 1800s. Back then it was a dangerous place, notorious for its opium trade, gambling dens and brothels – mostly run by Chinese secret societies. The influx of Chinese immigrants led to the building of clan houses which served as social clubs for the different extended families. Many of these are still standing today and their elaborate architecture was a sight to behold.
Some of the Chinese labourers worked as dockers and established ramshackle “villages” over the water on wooden stilts, which still exist today. We weaved through the narrow passageways of Chew Jetty – the largest and most intact of them, which still includes over 70 homes, a temple, and even a community hall – but thankfully no McDonalds!
Georgetown was supposedly renowned for its food, and there was certainly a huge mix of cuisines on offer especially in the countless food courts and hawker stalls. I had concluded that being vegetarian didn’t particularly lend itself to enjoying the Chinese variety as it often contained fish sauce with bits of unidentifiable (or worst still, identifiable!) meat-like substances floating in it. Thank goodness for the brilliant selection of Indian eateries – I know where I am with a nice veggie biriani or dosa!
This trip is certainly highlighting the many differences in gastronomy between East and West. I’m sure that Asians find our cuisine quite odd at times, but they certainly haven’t got the hang of making tea (always with added sugar – and hot milk …why??) and toast (warm bread!). Did the British teach them nothing !!
We did probably introduce them to alcohol, judging by the number of small bars…and speakeasies! Although alcohol has never been outlawed, it is often hard to find in many restaurants. I was strangely drawn to experience one of these hidden establishments, and so (thanks to Google – no, they weren’t that hidden!) we found ourselves outside what looked like a conventional front door down a side street. Ian dared me to ring the bell, half thinking it would be answered by an elderly woman in a housecoat, none too pleased at being disturbed by a couple of wayward tourists. The door was opened a crack by a charming young man and over his shoulder I could see a fully stocked bar – we were in the right place! With room for only a dozen or so clients, he rustled up several tailor-made cocktails for us and it made for an engaging evening, chatting to the other welcoming local reprobates that were “in the know”…Great fun.
During our stay we also found several excellent live music venues, and a great little Swiss pub (yes – they even served fondues!) full of vintage timepieces and furniture.
Along with the old, there was the “new” in the form of several skyscrapers and modern hotels and a huge shopping mall (where we finally managed to re-stock on proper PG tips tea bags, cheapish wine, and a few new bras and tee shirts…bliss!). And for those interested… I did manage to get my nails done at “Fanny’s Nails” plus a fringe trim by a lovely Malay lady who spoke no English, but had a convenient translator in the Indian lady sitting next to me. Thankfully, through a series of “Chinese whispers” it didn’t turn out too bad .
Our final day was spent at The Old Hin Bus Depot which had been transformed into a very bohemian market selling arts, crafts and cakes.
The photos below speak for themselves, but I found this busy, chaotic – and I have to admit – pretty dirty – place, strangely enthralling!
Next Stop: On the road to..Malay
Georgetown – Penang, Malaysia – January 2023
Lots and lots of more photos!…