I arrived in George Town with a three-night stay in mind. Two weeks later, I reluctantly departed, leaving so late that I almost missed my bus to Cameron Highlands.
Like Malacca, George Town gets under your skin.
The two places share special qualities: rich history, old architecture and delicious food.
But the scale differs. While Malacca has a smattering of attractions, George Town has an entire inner city dedicated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Even greater is the food, which is ranked as some of the world’s best.
The result is a city that’s unparalleled in Asia.
The rough city streets
George Town is on Penang Island in Peninsular Malaysia. Named after King George III, it was one of the Straits Settlements under British rule (along with Singapore and Malacca). By sheer coincidence I visited each of these places in turn, which offered some perspective.
While Singapore has successfully become an ultra-modern state, it has disregarded its heritage sites, replacing them with dreary high-rises of glass and concrete.
George Town flirted with development in the early 2000s, but changed tack and received World Heritage status in 2008. The inner city brims with character as old British buildings mix with Chinese stores and houses.
The city’s grid layout reminds you of colonial days, and its narrow roads are lined with street-hawkers all day. One of my favourite morning sights were the roti vendors who cook bread right under your nose as curry pots simmer on the roadside.
George Town has a rundown appearance, but its crumbling facades are beautiful for their decay. The chipped paint and rotting timber cry out for restoration, but it’s this neglect which creates the city’s character.
While places like Hoi An have turned their heritage areas into psuedo-themeparks, locals still live out their normal lives in George Town. It’s not a zoo for camera-wielding tourists. I hope it stays this way.
George Town has substance as well as good looks. It received an important place in history by being the first British settlement in Southeast Asia. Acquired by Sir Francis Light in 1786, Penang island was leased to the British by the Sultan of Kedah in return for military protection.
But treachery soon followed. Light reneged on his promise and the Sultan was forced to cede Penang to the British, another stain on the imperial copybook.
Penang grew in importance as traders came to its main settlement George Town, lured by the free port status. Light was a creative fellow, allegedly encouraging immigration by promising settlers as much land as they could clear, then firing silver into the jungle from his ship’s cannons.
Karma caught up with Light however, as he died from malaria in 1794. It was a fate that befell many settlers, earning Penang the title of “the white man’s grave”. On one of Penang’s muggy, humid days, it’s all too easy to imagine the miserable lives George Town’s inhabitants might have led before the advent of quinine and air-conditioning.
The Chinese migration
George Town’s unique character owes much to the fact that Penang is the only Chinese-majority state in Malaysia. The effects of this are obvious as you wander the city. Stand-out features are the Hokkien clan houses, symbols of Chinese dominance. Notable also are the clan jetties, waterfront communities which are still lived on today. Then there’s the food, which is some of the best in Malaysia, if not the world.
This Chinese influence was rooted in the spice trade, as the British encouraged Chinese traders to migrate to Penang. George Town’s importance as a port was later usurped by Singapore, but it remained important. No less than Arthur Wellesley (better known as the Duke of Wellington) was entrusted with Penang’s defence after Francis Light died.
And Wellesley was not the only famous historical figure to grace these shores. Penang’s large Chinese population made it an ideal place for the Chinese nationalist Sun Yat-sen to raise money for his revolution in China. The 1910 Penang conference led to the uprising that overthrew the Manchu government, transforming China forever.
It feels like George Town has not changed much since then. The Buddhist faithful still go to temple and burn paper offerings during Ghost Month. Old and young alike engage in these ancient rituals. Charming traditions like this make George Town such a fascinating place.
George Town’s street art
In modern times, a new development has swept George Town. The city has achieved cult status for its street art. Hundreds of original pieces of artwork are scattered around town.
The art comes in many different forms. Some are large murals painted onto buildings, others are wrought-iron sculptures attached to the ground. Some are wacky, others are realistic. Some are even educational.
However, one quality they all share is that they depict some aspect of George Town life.
A life that remains to this day, interesting and vibrant. So much so, that I could happily live there. It’s the reason why I was so casual about catching that bus to Cameron Highlands.
Want to know more about George Town or Penang? Check out the links below for more information:
I reached George Town by nightbus from Malacca for 44 ringgit. The bus goes to Butterworth, a town on the mainland. From Butterworth it’s a ten minute ferry ride to Penang island. The ferry stops in downtown George Town and costs 1.20 ringgit.
I stayed at 75 Travellers Lodge, which was the cheapest dorm I could find at 18 ringgit per night. Accommodation in George Town is slightly pricier than other places in Malaysia, averaging 25 ringgit per night.
Eating is a pure joy though, and no advice is needed here. Eat on the street and follow your nose. It’s some of Asia’s best food.
Final tip: don’t restrict yourself exclusively to George Town, there’s lots more to see in Penang.