My parents are pro travelers. They know where to go, when to go, and what to do when you get there. As a family, we were in Paris during the Tour de France, in Germany during the World Cup, in India for Diwali, and some of us (touchy subject) were in Burma for the Balloon Festival. So when they suggested visiting George Town, we didn’t hesitate booking. I recommend reading
their my mom’s blog post about it, it was basically our guide book. [you can also read another Penang post here]
George Town is the capital city of Penang, in Malaysia. Huh? Where?
It was established as an entrepôt by Francis Light (real person) of the East India Company (real company) in 1786, and was the first British settlement in Southeast Asia.
George Town is rich in history (again, see my mom’s wonderful post) but our key takeaways for today’s lesson are harmony, art, and food. Oh, and it’s also a UNES—yeah we get it Isabel, we get it.
We started with a self-guided walking tour around our neighborhood, fighting the heat and humidity to find some art and see some sites. Around the corner from us were two famous areas, Little India and Pitt Street. Little India is self-explanatory of course. Besides Indian restaurants and businesses, it’s also home to many of the street art murals. In 2012, Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic painted a number of scenes around George Town depicting local life and culture. People loved it, so more art was added over time.
The street art is everywhere, it’s a real scavenger hunt to find them all. At one point, we discreetly followed a rickshaw tour to see if we could find some hidden gems. Some are interactive with the surrounding areas, some are hidden amongst the crumbling brick and concrete walls.
There are also iron sculptures throughout the city, all depicting a unique aspect of George Town’s history and culture.
George Town in general is a terrific blend of different cultures. Malay, Chinese, Indian, Peranakan, Thai, and European influences are evident in the architecture, food, festivals, and even in the people. It’s common to see many men wearing taqiyahs and turbans, women wearing beautiful headdresses and burqas. If anyone has seen Project Runway Season 16, Ayana Ife proves that modest clothing doesn’t have to be boring. I saw this first hand in Malaysia — women walking around in stunning fabrics of various patterns, some were bejeweled, some were subdued palettes while some were bold and bright.
Our hotel, despite it’s location, was pretty quiet. Early one morning I awoke to calls to the mosque. We also stayed near a mosque in Cambodia so the sounds were familiar and quite beautiful. We walked by this mosque later that afternoon while walking to check out an air conditioned mall. We politely walked in the busy street to avoid stepping on the prayer mats, and continued on our way. After lunch, while waiting at the long light at the intersection, we marveled at the number of men leaving the mosque. I remembered the calls in the morning and assumed services were getting out. I took a moment to take the beauty of George Town in — a beautiful mosque with a crescent moon rising from the roof, the brightly colored buildings of Little India, the radiant women’s fashion, the diverse group of people all waiting for the same traffic light…a truly compelling sight.
It wasn’t until later that evening that we heard about the news in New Zealand. I instantly thought of the moment outside the mall. How strange that two different people, in two different locations, were staring at the same scene and thought two radically different things. I don’t want to dwell on what that man saw, but I saw utter beauty. I saw harmony, and I saw peace.
Over the years, people from all over the world settled in Georgetown, bringing their cultures with them. The end result is a melting pot of cultures as well as a place known as Pitt Street, or Harmony Street. It’s known for four places of worship, each of a different religion, all located within close distances of one another. Islam, Taoism, Hinduism, and Christianity are all in harmony with one another, hence the name Harmony Street.
The diversity of George Town is also what makes it the culinary capital of Malaysia. It’s considered to have some of the best street food in Asia and is routinely ranked on “best of” lists when it comes to food.
But the honest truth is (and I am not ashamed to admit it) we went there because we’re food-crazed. We intended to eat our way across this culinary mecca.My mom and dad
Mark and I also ate our way through this food-crazed city. Before we ate on the street, we hit up a local food center first. It’s basically a large food court with upwards of twenty vendors selling a wide variety of cuisines. There is a kebab stand, a Vietnamese food stand, a seafood buffet, Indian food, etc. The possibilities were endless! Plan of attack — we each picked a dish or two and shared family style. Everything we ordered was delicious!
Our second night we walked around our neighborhood in search of the Chulia Street night hawkers. These vendors aren’t there during the day so you can’t scope out the competition until you get there. You really can’t go wrong through, everything is amazingly delectable. Mark opted for a yummy chicken shwarma while I stood in line for…something. I read somewhere that if you don’t know what to eat, find the longest line and try that. So I did!
At the time, I didn’t know what I was eating, but thanks to the internet I figured out it was something called wantan mee. It has noodles, won tons, char siew (chinese bbq pork), vegetables, and what I believe to be fried pork fat on top. It’s smothered in some kind of dark gravy sauce and is so, so good! The vendors are pros, whipping up sauces and ingredients with their eyes closed. You order, pay, and find a seat at a nearby table.
Another night we ventured out to New Lane Hawker Centre, another open street of food vendors. No one had long lines so we watched people cook and decided based on that. Mark chose duck and rice, always a good choice. I went for a stir fried noodle dish as I watched the man make it from start to finish and it looked pretty good. Turns out it’s something called chai tow kway, and it was okay. Turns out there is a much better version in Singapore and there it’s known as fried carrot cake. We also tried chee cheong fun or steamed rice rolls topped with shallot crisps and sesame seeds. These are similar to the dim sum version except they are stuffed with anything. The dipping sauce was a combination of Chinese sweet sauce and Malay shrimp paste, not bad.
Mark decided to wing it and picked something that wasn’t in English and the picture was not of the best quality. It looked like a spring roll, so maybe it is a spring roll? Well, we were half right! It’s popiah, a Fujianese/Teochew-style fresh spring roll. A paper-thin crepe-like outer shell is filled with stewed julienned yam bean, diced beancurd, spring onions, and finished with brown bean paste.
We were told to try the local dessert, cendol, so we ordered one. It’s an iced dessert with droplets of worm-like green rice flour jelly, coconut milk, palm sugar syrup, and sweetened red azuki beans. It was gross. It was mildly sweet but very cold, and full of weird, contradictory textures. (Mark’s note: It tasted as though you finished all but 5% of your meal, put your bowl of remnants in the sink, ran some cold ice water over it, and then decided to finish your meal anyway.) I, Isabel, think that’s too mean of description. I honestly believe we went to the wrong vendor. As always, I’m happy we tried it, because now we can say we’ve eaten it.
For those of you worried about our mass consumption of food on a daily basis, don’t worry, we walked around a little bit. Other sites include Fort Cornwallis, the Clan Jetties, The Pinang Peranakan Mansion, and Church Street Pier.
If you find yourself looking for a new destination in Southeast Asia, definitely add George Town to your list. The food is incredible, the art scene is marvelous, and there is plenty to do in terms of sightseeing. The island isn’t that big and Grab rides are pretty cheap. George Town is quite unique with it’s mishmash of customs and absolutely worth the trip. But no blog post is complete without a proper Isabel send-off, so here is my final comment:
I just finished 19Q4 by Haruki Murakami and just started The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey. Mark just finished To Pixar and Beyond by Lawrence Levy and is currently reading Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. Feel free to send us more reading suggestions!