Ena Ramli explores the old quarters of Penang’s George Town and discovers a romantic past and enduring charm.
The founding of Penang reads like a period novel filled with treachery, romance and tragedy (see The Penang Promise). The narrow lanes, back alleys, buildings and landmarks of George Town – Penang’s capital city and the setting for all the drama – have long buried these tales under the accumulation and passing of years. Fortunately, since receiving the UNESCO World Heritage recognition in 2008, George Town’s past is slowly and carefully being unearthed, restored and retold.
With 2015 being Visit Penang Year, it’s the perfect time to celebrate the revival of old George Town, considered as one of the most romantic cities in Malaysia. Whether you’re a historian, culture buff, art lover, food critic, or great romantic, this water-front city, like a magnificent lover you can’t seem to forget, will always have you pining for it long after the final goodbye.
Relive the romance of the Far East with this guide to the old charms and new facets of George Town.
In the late 18th century, English Captain Francis Light made the island crossing by riding the waves across the Malacca Strait and was smitten by what he saw. Visitors to Penang can make that same journey on the iconic Penang ferry from Pangkalan Sultan Abdul Halim. Recreate the 15-minute romance of water travel in this classic mode of transport as you take in the view of the approaching city and the mountains rising up in the back. Tip: Motorised vehicles are allowed on board, but the best views are from the upper passenger deck where you can sit on the original pivot-backed benches of the ferry.
Going around George Town on a trishaw is probably the romantic equivalent of a horse-drawn carriage ride around Central Park, New York! Passengers disembarking the ferry at the Raja Tun Uda Terminal at Weld Quay on the island side can easily hail one – but it’s best to agree on the fare before hopping aboard. Once you do, the ride offers a unique street-level perspective of the old quarters of the town as the driver wheels around the narrow alleys and back lanes of the heritage areas that motorised vehicles would find difficult to manoeuvre.
Ever since George Town was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, it has really celebrated the unique heritage and built architecture left behind by British rule since the late 18th century.
One of the most obvious changes to the area since then is the conservation and restoration work on many of the city’s old buildings, turning them into a re-adapted café, museum or boutique accommodation, made possible by grants and incentives offered by the Federal and State Governments.
At 23 Love Lane (23lovelane.com), the 150-year old mansion within a walled garden has been given a second lease of life as a cosy 10-suite boutique hotel. The antique furniture, beautiful local art pieces, warm but discreet service and not least, a three-year conservation effort, has transformed a ruin into a refuge. Looking at this green oasis now, it’s hard to imagine that before conservation work began, it was just a rundown building overgrown with creepers and vines – an eyesore at best, unnoticed at worst.
Other equally charming boutique accommodations within the George Town heritage enclave include Seven Terraces (seventerraces.com), a handsome 18-suite hotel occupying what was once a row of crumbling 19th-century Anglo Chinese terraces and which has since won the UNESCO award for its heritage conservation work; Clove Hall (clovehall.com), an Edwardian Anglo-Malay bungalow within a tropical garden setting offering a tranquil retreat with a choice of six unique suites; and Penaga Hotel (hotelpenaga.com), a collection of pre-war terrace and shop houses that has been lovingly restored surrounding a lush garden that used to be the common alley between the main streets occupied by the hotel.
George Town has also opened its doors to a new café culture, without sacrificing the old kopitiams that still remain a popular hangout for the older generation. Modern cafes housed in pre-war buildings seem to attract a younger, hipper crowd looking for French-pressed coffees to go with their local tau sar pneah (Penang’s delicate mung bean pastries), as they chat amid the invisible, swirling history surrounding them.
Some of the cafes in George Town have cultivated such a reputation that getting a table would not be easy. Come early to secure a seat at the highly popular hangout, China House Café & Bar (chinahouse.com.my) on Beach Street. Part of a larger complex of three heritage buildings connected to an open-air courtyard, the café shares the premises with art galleries, theatre space, retail outlets, a live music bar, restaurants and a bakery. Its Sydney-esque vibe has proven to be a hit, as does its long dessert table where you will find patrons lingering about undecided over the choice of mouth-watering desserts such as salted caramel and apple pie, pear and ginger upside down cake and Kahlua crème caramel.
Other places to tuck into for a nice breakfast or afternoon tea (or coffee, if you prefer) are Ete Café (25 Lebuh Carnarvon) where a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef whips up some delightful French pastries and desserts to go along with its siphon coffees and teas; Moon Tree 47 (47, Jalan Muntri) for perfect Italian coffee and a walk down memory lane among its collection of paraphernalia from the past. For a late night supper, drop by at Behind 50 (50 Love Lane), a tiny café that opens only at 6:00 p.m. until midnight for some simple soup, pizzas and pastas, offering great people-watching opportunity from the street-side bar table.
While the street side stalls and large open-air food courts are slowly dying out in Malaysia’s capital city Kuala Lumpur, they are still alive and thriving in Penang. You’ll never go wrong by choosing establishments frequented by locals – just head to Padang Brown (at junctions of Perak and Anson Roads), Padang Kota Lama (Jalan Tun Syed Barakbah) and Gurney Drive food courts where various stalls open around a common dining area lined with plastic chairs and tables. Typical Penang dishes that travellers need to try include mee goreng mamak, prawn mee, mee rebus, pasembor, and kway teow.
Elsewhere, you may want to try the famous Penang nasi kandar – rice with a variety of curry-based dishes. Every Penangite has his own opinion of the best nasi kandar, the popular ones being Line Clear, Nasi Kandar Beratur, Hameediyah, Tajuddin Hussain, Pokok Ketapang, and Kassim Mustafa (so famous that no addresses are needed – just ask any Penangite and they will show you the way!). The street side stall selling Nasi Dalcha Rahim on Queen Street opposite the Sri Maha Mariamman temple is also excellent, as are the fish head curry at Jalan Kelawei, the roti canai at Jalan Argyll and the thick, warm chicken broths of Sup Hameed on Penang Road. The biryani rice at Restoran Kapitan, Chulia Street, is also something that must be tried. Be prepared to sweat it out as you dine in cramped restaurants, and often, in alleyways!