The Attractions of Georgetown – Day 307

Tues 4th Dec

Penang – Malaysia’s ‘Pearl of the Orient’ that is said to carry a natural beauty and cultural splendour like no other place. Its name comes from the Malay translation of betel nut – Pinang.

Penang’s history was officially recorded when in 1786, the Sultan of Kedah ceded the state to a Francis Light of the British East India Company. In exchange, the Sultan was promised British military protection from the Siamese by Light who had told a wee white lie and in fact had no such backing. When the Siamese then did invade, there was of course no such help. He attempted to retake Penang back in 1790. The attack was unsuccessful and Penang continued to remain under British control with an additional strip of mainland added in 1800 with the Sultan being paid off in return. Through the decades, Penang boomed as a centre for trade of tea, spices, china and cloth. It remained under British rule until it became part of Malaysia in 1957 when it became independent . This was except during WWII when the Japanese occupied Penang. Shortly before independence, George Town was declared a city by Queen Elizabeth, making it the first city in the country’s modern history.

Throughout the 19th century, George Town’s population grew rapidly in line with the city’s economic growth. A cosmopolitan, multi-cultural population emerged, comprising of Chinese, Malay, Indian, Peranakan, and Eurasians amongst others. Due to this, 4 main languages are spoken; Malay, English, Chinese and Tamil. George Town’s ethnic majority today is Chinese which is highly evident throughout the city.

Due to the mezcla of all these nationalities, it is no surprise that George Town has long been known as the food capital of Malaysia, renowned for its super tasty, excellent and varied street food, recognised by both CNN and Lonely Planet amongst others.

Having been sent a list of foods to try by my friend James, this morning I go in search of Roti Cenang.

This is basically roti bread (you can even have various fillings in it) served with a small pot of curry sauce which u mop up with the bread. Again, weird to have curry for breakfast but this is bloody lovely and nowhere near breaks the bank at only 18p!

Today I plan to visit some of the temples and houses and take in more of the areas I wandered through yesterday whilst now not on the hunt for art work. Being near the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion or otherwise known as the Blue Mansion (due to its indigo blue walls), I start there.

Unfortunately you can only enter through one of the daily tours which run at 11, 2 and half 3. I’m here before 10 and with so much to see, will not be waiting around to visit. For info, it’s 16R to enter.

But here’s a bit on what I’d read about it – Cheong Fatt Tze, a self-made and affluent merchant-trader left China as a penniless teenager but soon rose to the ranks of the wealthy when he established a big financial empire throughout East Asia at the end of 19th century. Despite the popularity of modern Anglo-Indian designs at the time, he chose to build his mansion as a traditional-style Chinese courtyard house. Featuring art nouveau stained glass and beautiful floor tiles, the mansion is a beautiful representation of the architectural style preferred by wealthy Straits Chinese of the time. In 1989 the mansion was purchased from Cheong Fatt Tze’s descendants in order to save the structure from imminent development that would have resulted in its demolition. Part of it you can now visit through tours and it is also a boutique guest house you can stay in.

Strolling down towards the esplanade I can tell I’m in a nicer part of town. It’s cleaner, green open spaces and there are a lot of big buildings and businesses. Quite a few of these are old British colonial buildings which include 2 churches, the courthouse, town hall and city hall.

The latter of the 2 looking out over a lovely grassy park and out towards the port area.

No surprise that only a few feet away from here is an old British fort – Fort Cornwallis. I pay an entry of 20R and told that a guided tour begins in 10 mins. As I walk over to the meeting point, the guide tells me she isn’t bothering today as she doesn’t feel great! She proceeds to tell me about how Penang got its name from the betel nut (the red stuff men chew in India) and that a lot of the Fort is closed due to excavation work which they hope to open and have a museum in the next 3-5 years. Great, thanks for that.

This info I have however gleaned myself….

Built in 1786, Fort Cornwallis was intended as a defence structure against pirates, Kedah forces and even the French during the Napoleonic Wars. However although it was initially built for the Royal artillery troops and the military, it served an administrative function rather than an actively defensive one. Spanning 4490sqft it was built as a stockade with no permanent structures. The fort stands on the site where Captain Francis Light first set foot in 1786 on the then virtually uninhabited Penang and took possession of the island from the Sultan of Kedah. He then established a free port to lure trade from Britain’s Dutch rivals.

Walking around the place, it amount to much or even that interesting. A few walls, canons, a gun powder shelter and a lighthouse!

If I’d known this beforehand, I really wdnt have bothered going in. The history behind it is much more interesting than the attraction itself.

On to Pitt Street which starts with St George’s Church,

then further down is the Kuan Yin or Goddess of Mercy Temple, dedicated to the Taoist Goddess of Mercy – Guanyin.

The temple had however originally been established for the worship of Mazu, a sea deity. It is a major temple for those of Chinese descent and the main focal point for any Chinese festivities.

Sri Mariamman Temple is on the same street and is the oldest Hindu temple in Penang.

Mariamman is popularly worshipped by overseas Indians, especially Tamils because she is looked upon as their protector. She is the Goddess of disease, rain and protection and is associated with enormous powers in the physical realm, particularly destructive, and protects her devotees from unholy or demonic events.

Next is the Kapitan Keling Mosque.

Built in 1801 by Penang’s first Indian Muslim settlers. It is the largest mosque in Georgetown and was named after the ‘kapitan’ of the Keling (a leader of the South Indian community.

In the space of a few hundred metres you have 4 different places of worship belonging to 4 different religions where everyone gets along in peace and harmony. I don’t know if it’s true but the guy in my hostel told me this part is nicknamed Harmony St because of this.

From here I stroll through Little India. The difference between each part of town is quite noticeable. The Malay part is full of women in Muslim dress, stalls full of Malay food, the Chinese part full of people of Chinese descent, typical Chinese food, shops and signs and the same here for little India. There are even lots of flower stalls preparing and selling offerings for the temples.

Sari shops are a plenty and Bollywood music blasting out of several shop speakers. It’s like walking around several countries in one city!

Next I stumble across the Pinang Peranakan Mansion which gives an insight into how the rich Straits Chinese settlers (known as Peranakans or Babas and Nyonyas) once lived. The house was built in the late 19th century by a rich tin mine owner, Kapitan Cina Chung Keng Kwee but was abandoned and left to decay after WWII when it was used by the Japanese army. Now fully restored to its former glory,

with the addition of over a thousand antiques of the period. Despite being told there was a tour at 12, unfortunately there wasn’t so me and some other revellers just grab a sneaky snap inside

then it’s off to my next destination.

The east side of George Town is full of jetties (6 now rather than 7 as one burned down). They’re billed as one of the last bastions of the old Chinese settlements on the island, which is a collection of houses on stilts belonging to various Chinese clans. These water villages are over a century old and each named after a Chinese clan – the Chew Jetty is the most well known and tourist friendly. Initially, the area where the Clan Jetties now lie was a char hionh (wood yard) littered with planks and firewood. After the construction of the Quay in 1882, the waterfront was developed with jetties. Settlements grew on these foundations and they were used for the loading and unloading of goods and for the mooring of sampans (boats). Gradually, each jetty became identified and dominated by certain clans and over time more huts sprung up. Due to constant rivalry over access and monopoly of work consignments, relationships between the clans were very troublesome and often led to bitter fights and disputes.

In the early 20th century, the jetty settlements expanded but as squatters, residents did not have basic amenities like water and electricity. It was only after the Penang municipal election in 1957 that the Clan Jetties began to join the modern era; before that they carried their water in kerosene tins from the main road. When the government first developed the jetties, a shed was built to provide shelter and rest for those waiting for the arrival of the cargo sampans and when the clans took over the jetties, this shed was converted into a communal house. Seven different clans still reside at the Clan Jetties: the Lim, Chew, Tan and Yeoh jetties are the oldest and the Koay, Lee and Mixed Surname jetties were built afterward. To this day none of the families pay any tax as they are not living on land.

Chew Jetty today is a hub of touristy shops selling a range of wears along with snack vendors.

A lot focus on the durian fruit. I’d heard of this in Thailand as it is banned in my hotels and hostels. A fruit that smells like rotten feet but tastes really good. A jolly chap on an ice cream stall gives me durian ice cream to taste – I’m glad I have a pack of mints in my bag to get rid of the taste. Won’t be trying that again!

I bustle through the crowds on the jetty – I arrive at the same time as a coach load of Chinese tourists and an back to the food court at the front. Time now to try curry mee.

I was expecting it to be a bit like the khao soi dish I loved in north Thailand but it wasn’t curry like at all – more just stock with coconut milk. It was however ok and only cost 80p!

Walking around the Armenian St area again, I notice more artwork that wasn’t on yesterday’s map.

I love this part of town, it’s bustling but in a cool chilled vibe kind of way. Nice coffee houses and restaurants….it’s quite a trendy part of town.

I’d look to stay around here next time.

Just up from here is Cheah Kongsi – the first of Penang’s five great Hokkien clan houses.

A kongsi (clan house) is a building in which Chinese families of the same surname gather to worship their ancestors. They represent a family’s social and spiritual commitments between extended relations, ancestors and the outside community. It also acts as an important means of solidarity. These days the primary functions of kongsis are supportive roles – they help with the education of members’ children, settle disputes and advance loans.

Cheah Kongsi resembles the grand temples and palaces usually seen in China. The ornate building is the only clan house in Penang that fuses Malay with traditional Straits Chinese and European design. It was established in 1873 by Cheah Yam, an immigrant who came from the Sek Tong village in South China. Upon Cheah Yam’s death, his widow Ong Sin Neoh took over management of the clan house, before her, women did not wield such direct influence over the local Hokkien clan associations. Her son, Cheah Choo Yew, and subsequently his descendants, have served as the presidents of the Cheah Kongsi ever since.

Another of these clan houses is Khoo Kongsi

and is just around the corner. Built around 650 years ago, it is part of the goh tai seh (five big clans) that formed the backbone of the Hokkien community in olden-days Penang. At the height of the Khoo family’s prominence, craftsmen from China were commissioned to build this architectural masterpiece. Also known as Dragon Mountain Hall, Khoo Kongsi is an ornate structure standing on a square of granite with stone carvings that adorn the entrance hall. It is one of the most exquisite out of them all.

It’s been a full on morning and the sun is gloriously hot. With nowhere really to go and sit out in it, I decide to plough in with the sightseeing in case I don’t have time when I get back from the beach. With time ticking away, I get a Grab (like an Uber) as it’s about 8 km out of town, for only £2 out to Penang Hill. Grab is usually more than half the price of normal taxis here.

Penang Hill was discovered soon after British settlement when Francis Light commissioned the area to be cleared to grow strawberries. Though it was never fully developed (it was difficult to carve out the forest area), it became a favourite expatriate refuge before the advent of air conditioning. Its oldest bungalow, Bel Retiro, is the holiday residence of the Governor of Penang. Today, the ridge on top of Penang Hill is known as Strawberry Hill.

The most popular way to the top of the hill is by the funicular. Built in 1923, it is one of the world’s oldest funicular systems and has a 2,007m-long track that climbs the hill at quite a speed. You pass some gorgeous houses on the way that I learned were originally built for British officials and other wealthy citizens.

The funicular costs 30R fir a return ticket but there is a fast track option available. With no queues at the bottom I didn’t bother but the queues at the top are enormous. I look around quite quickly, aware that getting back down cd take me a while! The views are pretty impressive where u can see see the mountains of Langkawi and north Kedah and out across all George Town.

I realise on joining the queue to go back down that this cd take forever and a day. They’ve obviously cottoned on to this as there are signs saying u can upgrade to fast track for an extra 20R….yep, sign me up, I haven’t got time to be standing in this. Instead of a long hot queue, I’m taken into an air conditioned waiting room…they do like to make u feel special hey!

Now that I’m here, I have to do one last tourist attraction. The 204 bus will take you to Kek Lok Si Tempke for 1.40R. Have small money as they don’t give change! A cheeky taxi driver quoted me 15R…more than I paid to get here!

The Kek Lok Si is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia and is free to enter – although as always, donations are appreciated.

This place is spectacular and I’m glad I came. It comprises of a series of monasteries, prayer halls, temples and beautifully-landscaped gardens…this national icon was built in 1890 by Beow Lean, a devout immigrant Chinese Buddhist. It is also known as the Temple of Supreme Bliss.

As you enter you can see the massive temples and pagodas up on the cliff.

You pass a pretty bridge

and a turtle pond which known as The Liberation Pond. This was built because according to Chinese tradition, turtles symbolize longevity, strength and endurance and the act of capturing and freeing a turtle is a symbol of spiritual liberation.

The main attraction here is the impressive pagoda of Rama VI and at the centre of the complex, the seven-storey, 30-metre high tower is acknowledged as the ‘face’ of Kek Lok Si.

There are many many temples here too. It’s a bit like a maze with one leading to another, rows of statues and Buddhas everywhere.

The structure, gardens and views are beautiful

It’s a stunning place but it could be better signed to navigate around better.

To get to one of the most famous parts, you have to walk through a myriad of gift shops. The inclined lift is hard to find due to these shops and stalls but found, I pay 1R for a return journey.

Up at the top and the highest level, there is a huge 36.5 metre-high bronze statue of Kuan Yin – the Goddess of Mercy, with 16 ornately decorated bronze columns supporting a roof over the statue.

It’s quite a sight but hard to get a good view and photo due to the position of the sun.

There are more temples up here and made to feel more spiritual by the chanting of the monks. After my experience at the monastery, I definitely won’t be joining them!

I get the 204 bus back for 2R. One turns up after about 10 mins – which is lucky for me as a group of Spanish I go speaking to have been waiting an hour! I had been told it can take up to an hour on the bus but it didn’t take all that long back…maybe about half. The bus is only a street away from my hostel thank his as after a scorcher of a day, the heavens open just as I get in.

It’s been a full on day (24,000 steps and 16kms) and I’m glad to shower and sit down. I finish off the evening with some more delicious street food…all the meals today have cost me a staggering £2.25! U gotta love this place hey!

Having rested for a few weeks if has been real nice getting back out there seeing and doing things again…although I am looking forward to my beach day at Batu Ferringhi tomorrow!

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