Destination: Georgetown, Penang

Insense and Monks

Georgetown is the entryway to the exotic island of Penang in Malaysia, and this port city has seen different cultures come and go throughout the years while still maintaining it’s own unique flavor.  Georgetown is Penang’s main city, and is the entry point to the island for most, whether you are coming from the Ferry or the primary bridge to the mainland.  It might be tempting for many tourists to skip past this historic town on the way to the more touristy destinations and beaches of Batu Ferringhi, but it would be a horrible mistake as Georgetown has it’s own wonderful appeal, even without the sand.

People on the Streets of PenangPenang, like Malaysia in general, is a giant melting pot of cultures, especially Malay, Indian, and China.  Penang’s strategic location meant that it also had many visitiors/owners from former western powers, such as the Dutch and the British, making for an even greater melange than normal.  This means that, depending on what street you turn down, you could start your walk in Merry Old England, walk through Calcutta, and end up in Shanghai.  It’s like Epcot Center, only real, and without $20 commemorative mugs.

The legacy of British colonialism is apparent in the architecture in the area near the port and culminates in the remnants of Fort Cornwallis, a star-shaped fort built by the British to protect the harbor.  The fort, open for tours, has been gutted by time, but the walls, chapel, powder magazine, and a few cannons are more than enough to conjure up an idea of days past.  You can stare out of the harbor and feel what it would have been to be behind the walls of such a structure, thousands of miles from home.

Barracks in Fort CornwallisCannon overlooks the BayChapel in Fort Cornwallis

Turning away from the port area and heading South, you see the main administrative buildings of the island, another remnant of British control, as you can clearly see by the architectural style.The Town Hall and the Courthouse would fit into just about any British colony around the world.  One of the ways in which they tried to make the world England.  The upside is that these pieces are still quite beautiful to behold, regardless of how out of place they may seem in the middle of Southeast Asia.

City Hall-2Penang Court

Further South into town, you run into the Arab area, as the smells of murtabak, shwarma, and hoummus assualt and fill your nose.  In the center of the town is the central mosque, which has been the center of this mainly muslim community for many years.  It’s still a very active place of worship, so any visitors should be sure to respect codes of dress for a mosque.  However, they are very accepting of people visiting the beautiful mosque, as long as you respond respectfully.  Mosque in Penang 2

To conclude your cultural tour of Penang, we head farther West from the mosque and into Chinatown.  The smells of incense start to waft through the air and soon you are able to see why.  There are sticks of incense that look like they were exposed to gamma radiation and are now huge, standing about 6 feet (2 meters) high.  People come from all over to burn even more, though thoroughly more modest, incense inside the temple.  It creates an ethereal haze of smoke that transports you to another world.

Light Up the Insense

This tight blend of so many cultures makes Georgetown a special place, which would be a shame to miss on the way to tropical paradise.  It’s not a large place, so a solid day would be enough to see the highlights of the city and you won’t regret the time you spend in all of the small alleyways in the city.  Few places offer such variety in such a small place, and Penang would not be the same without it.

Posted on by Aaron in Aaron's Blog

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