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Strolling around Penang’s Georgetown

July 12, 2012

After two-and-a-half days in Kuala Lumpur, we boarded a plane at the LCC (low-cost carrier; where all Air Asia flights depart) terminal for the hour-long flight to Pulau Penang.  Penang is an island off the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia and is one of the most popular destinations of visitors to the country.  The island, which is about 400 square miles, finds the highest concentration of tourists in two areas: Batu Ferringhi and Georgetown.  The former mostly consists of beach resorts, which do little to interest either WWW or myself; so, we chose the latter as our home-base for exploring the island.

Front facade of The Blue Mansion (Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion)

The inner-city of Georgetown was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, protecting its architectural and cultural integrity from modernization.  Its namesake is England’s King George III, which evinces the town’s colonial past and founding as a base for the British East India Company in 1786.  This part of the island became home to many foreign banking and trading offices in Malaysia during the 19th and early-20th centuries, and retains much of its colonial remnants from decades past.  It’s strategic location on the coast and previous reputation as a free port drew many immigrant populations, several of which–namely Chinese and Indians — remain a key part of Penangite (and Malaysian) culture today.

We were delighted to be staying just outside the “core zone” (the 109.38 hectares of land comprising Georgetown) in what is referred to as the “buffer zone,” or the 150 hectares that surround and protect the city from the south and west.  From our hotel, it was only a 10-15 minute walk to most any of Georgetown’s reported 1,700 historic buildings.

When we arrived in Georgetown from Penang Airport (about a 30-minute trip), we were welcomed by a deluge.  As I was still recovering from food poisoning two nights before, we took a nap in our lovely digs (more on that later) before heading out in search of food and sights.  Luckily, we woke up to clear skies and spent the rest of the afternoon strolling around Georgetown’s many streets.

First, we headed off to the Mahamariamman Temple located in Georgetown’s Little India.  We were excited for another opportunity to experience a Hindu temple after visiting Sri Mahamariamman in Kuala Lumpur.  Unfortunately, this temple was closed, and we weren’t able to enter.  We went back several hours later but still had no luck or any explanation as the place was deserted.

Luckily, many of the city’s sites are extremely close together.  So, we made our way to Georgetown’s iconic Blue Mansion (Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion).  Because the Mansion doubles as a hotel, visitors are only allowed in for guided tours.  These take place daily at 11am, 1:30pm, and 3pm.  Upon arrival, we were told that we had just missed the 1:30pm tour.  My type-A self felt vindicated given our lack of planning during most of the trip.  Aside from booking our accommodations and flights in advance, we didn’t layout any itineraries ahead of time.  This is my preferred way to travel, since it allows more spontaneity when you learn from locals and other travelers.  However, it can be frustrating if you don’t have the luxury of time to allow for incidents such as this.

The Blue Mansion (no getting inside that gate until tour time!)

WWW and I opted to spend the extra time before the 3pm tour checking out nearby Chulia Street, where we stumbled upon one of Georgetown’s mosques (Kapitan Keling Mosque), the Han Jiang Teochew Ancestral Temple, and an unexpected treasure: The Rainforest Bakery.  I had seen a recommendation for this bakery on @velvetescape‘s blog when I was doing research on Penang and then promptly forgotten all about it.  This place has the most amazing focaccia bread, which provided us sustenance as we wandered the rest of the afternoon.  The cakes and other desserts looked divine. Seriously, you must go!

Back at The Blue Mansion, we departed on our 3pm tour.  This building was constructed in the late-19th-century for Chinese tycoon, Cheong Fatt Tze.  Sometimes referred to as the ‘Rockefeller of the East,’ Cheong served as a financier, diplomat, politician, and minister and had his hands in everything from banks to cattle.  He even established his own winery in 1892, and (China travelers you will love this!) founded the Great Wall wines in China (also known as the worst wine I’ve ever tasted).

It was really interesting to learn about the house.  Our guide was excellent and provided details about the building’s strategic position between the water and mountains and all of the various feng shui considerations taken into account during its construction.  A friend had suggested that we stay in the house during our time in Penang, but after touring, I was glad we chose our hotel.  While The Blue Mansion is absolutely gorgeous, I preferred our equally charming place without the tour groups and with the modern amenities (the humid heat of Penang made cool showers and warm baths a necessity for me at the end of each day).

Chinese Temple across from food stall in Georgetown

Next, we picked up some delicious Mee Goreng Ayam, an Indian-Muslim dish of yellow noodles with a spicy tomato gravy and fried chicken, at a food cart on our way to Khoo Kongsi.  This is a large complex belonging to the Chinese Khoo clan, one of Five Big Clans of the 19th-century Hokkien community in Penang.  The clan buildings surround a granite square and include row or terrace houses for clan members, an association building, a theater, and a temple.   This area, specially demarcated for the Khoo clan, would have insulated the community and served as its own microcosm within Georgetown.

Khoo Kongsi Temple

We really enjoyed exploring the many architectural delights of historic Georgetown and being able to check out the little nooks and crannies all on foot. Georgetown was a nice change of pace after the bustling Kuala Lumpur and would allow us to rest up before our activities outside of town the next day.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 14, 2012 1:09 am

    I’m so bummed I didn’t get to Georgetown! Loving the beautiful pictures and living vicariously through you…

    • Ashley Bruckbauer permalink*
      July 14, 2012 9:25 am

      That just gives you a reason to go back! I definitely recommend it as a home-base for exploring Penang. We also went outside the town to Penang Hill and over by Batu Ferringhi for a cooking class and to see the smaller Taman Negara National Park (more on all of that next week). I’ve also heard of people using it as a jumping-off point for Langkawi, which we were sad to miss!

  2. Justin permalink
    September 20, 2012 2:16 pm

    Love Penang and its variety of cultures. Recently visited had a school reunion as I went to boarding school (Uplands School) in the mid 60s. You can ride the tram or they will take up there by SUV – so beautiful up there. I especially miss the food of the street hawkers – so much fun if you are with friends – the more the merrier.


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