Georgetown is the capital of the island of Penang, which is off the west coast of Malaysia. Many people call the whole place Penang and don’t refer to Georgetown at all. The tagline for Georgetown is “Pearl of the Orient”, primarily because of its concentration of colonial architecture. Indeed, this is another territory colonized by the Brits and the street names remind you of that: King Street, Queen Street, Buckingham Street! UNESCO added its blessing by naming it a World Heritage Site.
Georgetown has a hop-on, hop-off bus that goes around the colonial district but it is not your regular tourist bus. The bus is not a double-decker and in fact looks just like a regular bus. It’s not widely promoted and was difficult to find. Surprisingly, there is no charge to hop on, anyone can do it, and while the bus I was on was packed, I was the only obvious tourist in the crowd. Indeed, the hop-on, hop-off bus is a home-away-from-home for exhausted locals seeking refuge from the relentless heat. You see, the bus is free and it’s also air-conditioned!
The hop-on, hop-off bus goes by most of the famous colonial landmarks, although I was probably the only person on the bus looking out the window and trying to appreciate them. Nothing is announced so you have to sort of guess what is what. There’s the Victoria Memorial Clock Tower that was built in 1897 to commemorate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign; it’s a little tilted today because some bombs fell around it when the Japanese invaded the island during World War II. The bus goes along the waterfront past what is left standing of Fort Cornwallis, built by Captain Francis Light for the English East India Company. Captain Light thought Penang would be a good port and managed to get the island deeded to the British in 1791. The booming trade that resulted attracted migrant workers from China, India and Malaya. Still today, Penang is considered to be a multi-ethnic society dominated by these three communities.
The Town Hall and City Hall are historic buildings and there is a playing field across from them where you can actually find a hint of shade. You may want to hop-off at the Penang State Museum and then walk along to St. George’s Church, built by convict labour in 1818 and where friendly British expats greet you at the door.
I did get off the colonial trail, walking over to the former home of Cheong Fatt Tze, known as the ‘Rockefeller of the East’, and through a few of the ethnic neighbourhoods. I searched out a couple of temples and looked around a shopping mall but it was so bloody hot. So I mainly stayed with the locals on the hop-on, hop-off bus.
Penang is internationally known for its hawker food such as Koay Teow Soup, Fried Koay Teow, Penang Chendol Desert, Penang Laksa. It is so widely promoted that indulging seemed a little touristy, just like the colonial buildings. I took a pass.
Many years ago I visited the island with my then husband. We stayed in a cheap hut on a beach for probably a couple of weeks. My memory tells me the stay was very good but I don’t see it as a backpacker place today. Maybe I was just in the wrong place.
The taxi driver who picked me up at the airport asked what I remembered from that earlier visit. I said it was the snake temple. A few minutes later, the driver pulled up in front of a temple and announced, “This is it!” And indeed it was. I wasn’t too keen on seeing the snakes again though.
The driver spoke excellent English and I should have hired him to take me around for a couple of days and escaped all that colonialism. We would have gone up Penang Hill for a spectacular view of the whole island. We certainly would have visited Kek Lok Si Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia and one of the most recognizable buildings in the country. Perhaps I would have found the energy to take the 15-minute ferry ride to the mainland and back.
Instead, I decided I had visited one too many ‘Chinatowns’ and that it was time to see the real thing so after a couple of days I took a flight to Beijing. Besides, I knew the weather would be so much cooler there.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012