By Mike Aquino
Georgetown in Penang, Malaysia is a hotspot for history buffs; its origins as a British colonial trade depot serving as the foundation for the district’s dining, shopping and cultural attractions. Nicknamed the “Pearl of the Orient”, Georgetown’s status as Penang’s foremost historical attraction was cemented in 2008 by UNESCO recognition as a World Heritage Site.
Over the centuries, trade and war brought a rich blend of ethnic settlers to Georgetown. Chinese, Indians, Malays, Arabs, Siamese, Burmese and European settlers built their homes and trading houses side by side in Georgetown, resulting in a colorful collection of historic buildings: Chinese clan houses, European churches, Chinese and Indian temples, Malay mosques, streets lined with bungalows and shophouses, and, of course, the aforementioned British fort.
Today, Georgetown lies in a 109-hectare plot bounded by Love Lane, Gat Lebuh Melayu, Jalan Dr. Lim Chwee Leong, and the Straits of Melaka. Within this district, visitors can find over 1,700 historical buildings, with the most famous examples aligned down Georgetown’s four main streets Pengkalan Weld, Lebuh Pantai, Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling and Lorong Love.
We recommend you start your Georgetown trip at the offices of the Penang Heritage Trust (26 Church Street, www.pht.org.my), where you can secure maps and brochures to help you get your bearings on this rich historical district in Penang.
Penang’s Chinatown is located in the vicinity of Lebuh Chulia and Lorong Love, and hosts some of Georgetown’s most popular bars, restaurants, and budget hotels, along with a rich array of shophouses, markets, and houses of worship. Visit the Khoo Kongsi clan house at the corner of Lebuh Pitt and Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling and the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion on Lebuh Leith to see how prosperous Chinese merchants must have lived like back in the day.
The Hainan Temple, Kuan Yin Teng temple, and Acheen Street Mosque demonstrate the rich faith practised by traders in Chinatown. And it wasn’t all trade going on around here – Chinese nationalist hero Dr. Sun Yat Sen called Georgetown home for a while, staying at an apartment at 120 Lebuh Armenian that is now a shrine to his memory.
Georgetown is big on places of worship, nowhere more so than Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, also known by its nickname “the Street of Harmony”. Its moniker is well-earned; a variety of religious buildings line this street, including the Kapitan Keling Mosque that gave it its name; the Sri Mahamariamman Temple; and the Goddess of Mercy Temple.
The British never really left Georgetown as you can see from the significant architectural presence they left behind. Significant British sites include Fort Cornwallis on the north-eastern coast; Victoria Clock Tower, the Town Hall and the State Assembly Building on Lebuh Light; St. George’s Anglican Church on Farquhar Street; and City Hall on Padang Kota Lama Road.
Visit Little India for some of Georgetown’s finest eats; it’s the area bounded by Penang Street, Market Street, King Street, and Queen Street. You’ll find mamak restaurants serving hot teh tarik; Indian restaurants serving up roti canai, banana leaf rice, biryani, tandoori chicken, and an endless variety of curries; and street vendors hawking Malaysian noodle dishes.
Other key places to see in Little India include the King Street Temples, Nagore Shrine at the corner of King and Chulia Streets, and Sri Mahamariamman Temple on Queen Street. Penang has a richly-deserved reputation for food, and most of that reputation was earned by Georgetown restaurants and hawkers. Chinese and Indian food come good and cheap, served in street carts along Gurney Drive. For authentic dim sum and noodle dishes served up Penang style, Lebuh Cintra’s food carts are happy to oblige.
Jalan Penang caters to both high and low food budgets, with posh lounges and tapas bars, along with the gigantic food court Red Garden near the corner of Jalan Chulia. If you stay for the weekend, you’ll discover Upper Penang Road’s transformation into a street market on the last Sunday of every month. The “little Penang Street Market” features 70 stalls with street food, live performances, kids’ activities, and other special diversions.
Other shopping stops in Georgetown include the fancy Gurney Plaza shopping centre on Gurney Drive; the more downmarket Chowrasta Bazaar on Jalan Penang; Midlands Park Centre on Burmah Road; and the stalls along Lebuh Campbell, Lebuh Chulia, and Lebuh Pantai.
Getting around Georgetown is relatively easy, thanks to a free shuttle bus (MPPP Rapid Penang CAT) that services 19 stops within Georgetown and its surrounding buffer zone. Other transport options include taxis and trishaws; both Weld Quay Jetty and the KOMTAR Complex serve as major bus terminals for Penang.
Or you can just explore on foot, the way Georgetown’s rich mix of residents did of old; you may be pleasantly surprised by what you find while you walk down Georgetown’s narrow history-filled streets.
Mike Aquino is a writer, which means his office is anywhere he plugs in his laptop. He is based in Manila at the moment, but has had spells working as an advertising copywriter in Singapore and Malaysia. He is currently the guide in charge of About.com Southeast Asia Travel.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website