In the dynamic, vibrant Asian region, the highlights are just the beginning. Beyond the UNESCO Heritage sites, the ancient monuments and historical landmarks, Asia’s top destinations are cultural hubs worthy of going beyond the surface. Joshua Zukas is a Southeast Asian destination expert with just the right insider knowledge behind Asia’s highlights. In this in-depth series, discover what’s waiting beyond the obvious in Asia’s top spots.
Georgetown, a historic trading port on the Island of Penang, is home to one of Southeast Asia’s most charming old towns. Spectacular food, pocket-friendly prices and hospitable residents makes much of Malaysia a delight to visit, but everything is that little bit more lovely in Georgetown.
The winding alleys and pretty lanes are packed with interest; a stunning clan house or ancient temple revealed at every turn. The architecture is truly charming; grand colonial mansions rise up surrounded by colorful Chinese merchant houses. And the food is enough to get make my mouth water just thinking about it!
This enclave of Penang is – and probably always will be – my favourite place in Malaysia. After a day wandering the streets of Georgetown, I decided to stay for a week, catch up with my writing and try getting under the city’s skin. This city provides the perfect urban environment to relax and take things easy and is worth at least a few days. It has an artistic underbelly that has led to the creation of attractive cafes, excellent cultural festivals and some of Southeast Asia’s most striking street art.
I like to take people off the beaten track in my writing, and usually the smaller the city, the harder it is. Georgetown is big, but the old town is miniscule, and this is exactly where you’ll want to focus your attention. This charming old town is so tiny that it can be entirely covered by foot, but it is still full of fascinating nooks and cavernous crannies, and there are plenty of overlooked delights worth uncovering.
The tour highlights, such as the Blue Mansion and the Fort Cornwallis, are great, but it’s the ethnic diversity in such a small space that makes the old town so special. So, let’s start with the most vibrant part of town.
South Asians make up less than 10% of Malaysia’s population, but they punch well above their weight in influencing the cityscape. Indian enclaves are found across the country – with the largest and most well known in the capital – but in Georgetown, Little India comprises only a handful of streets. Market Street, Penang Street, King Street and Queen Street all burst with life and make for a tremendous assault on the senses.
The brightly coloured colonial era houses provide a gorgeous backdrop, their visual vibrancy challenged only by the multi-coloured saris draped around plastic manikins and vivid flower wreaths sold as religious offerings. The sounds are the sounds of any South Asian city – Indipop and Bollywood classics blare from a myriad of speakers, always with a strong modern beat but still routed in more classic Indian melodic structures.
The sweet smell of flowers and the evocative scent of incense occasionally gives way to an entirely different aroma – that of sizzling spices. It’s all too easy to wander through Little India and suddenly discover that you’re extremely hungry even though just a few seconds ago, food was the last thing on your mind. Market Street has a number of cheap eateries, most of which are fabulous.
The nearby Ren i Tang Hotel, 82-A Penang Street, is also worth hunting out for a cool drink and some respite from the heat, since Georgetown is almost always hot. This beautifully restored building reflects the ethnic diversity and different cultural contributions to Malaysia today. Right where Little India blends into the surrounding Chinatown, the Ren i Tang was an old Chinese medicine house but with distinct European influence in the architecture.
Chinatown literally surrounds Little India, reflecting the fact that Chinese immigrants very quickly outnumbered those from India during Georgetown’s colonial heyday. Unlike Little India, and unlike Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur, Georgetown’s Chinese enclave is mostly calm, peaceful and residential, offering an interesting contrast.
This is a fabulous opportunity to get completely lost in the small lanes and narrow alleyways of the old town. From Little India, a stroll over the busy Masjid Kapitan Keling Road and walk down Lorong Street eventually brings you to Muntri Street. You’ll likely want to make time to head down a lane that sparks your interest, but make sure you come back to Lorong and Muntri. It’s here that you’ll find several incredible examples of Georgetown’s excellent street art, such as the haunting Kung Fu Girl, not far from Love Lane.
Excellent Chinese food is everywhere in Georgetown, and a local guide is the best way to find the best spots that locals love. My favourite is Hainan chicken, which many would report is better in Georgetown than it is in its place of origin, Hainan Island in China. Whatever flavours to end up indulging in, Georgetown is the perfect place to do it. Kick back in the sunshine, surrounded by Asia’s most beautiful scenery and dig in.
Explore the very best of Penang alongside a local guide! Make a stroll through Georgetown part of your Malaysia highlights tour – or customise your very own tour.