In George Town, you almost get the sense that the eternal traveller roams against the backdrop of wall-art of bicycles. Travelling slowly.
Indonesia’s wildfire smog pushed over George Town and introduced it in an almost sepia-filter as the ferry crossed over from Butterworth, on mainland Penang, Malaysia, to Penang Island’s capital.
The tropical heat steaming over the Malacca Straits as we moved closer to the place that was nr. 1 on my Malaysia-list. In my mind, George Town had it all: Art. History. Kaleidoscopic culture. Food. I had things to do, and places to visit.
As my friend, Petrus Malherbe, and I walked through the weathered buildings next to the pier on our way to The Old Penang Guesthouse, I could feel my backpage pulling me down and ounces melting away, with my eyes just focussed on finding a place to cool down, whilst trying to take everything in. For a second, completely overwhelmed.
I have, after all, built this up as the highlight of my six-week long trip, I was not going to miss a moment. I had four days to plough through the historic city – eat all the food, experience Little India, China Town, Nyonya cuisine, wander the streets, a plethora of historic buildings, structures, forts, museums, pose with the wall art. . .
It wasn’t until the monsoon’s wrath came in and I discovered a quaint little coffee-spot with shelter, The Postcard Shop, where I came to a grinding halt.
I was on my own for the first time a week – and I realised as I scribbled on my work-of-art postcards, I need to be gentle with George Town, stop rushing it, and if I can, come back as a solo traveller.
The north-eastern tip of Penang Island had a different rhythm than the rest of the world. We would wake up early to make the most of the day, and settle in around 10 or 11 pm.
When I returned four weeks later, I had another four days in George Town, I have changed my approach.
The only early-morning life is around ChinaTown, were hole in the wall Peranakan noodle establishments offered Wonton mee, Old Penang Coffee and Chinese cakes, in the Chinese district where I briefly stayed on return.
I chose to walk around, and when things got far hailed a Grab-taxi (an app similar to Uber), because waiting around for busses wasted a lot of time, during my first visit to George Town, and while this was fun the first time, I would eat a little more, or people watch somewhere with a view.
George Town Life
The ever present wall-art creates ambience is this shabby-chic little city, with its Chinese shophouses and colonial structures and architecture. Sea air often gnawed through its paint, and sometimes you get lost, stumbleupon holy cities for Christians or Hindus, but listen to the powerful sound of an Azan bringing thousands to their prayer mats.
The diverse little hub and its uncanny mixed-bag of cultures also shows up in all shapes and sizes.
In stark contrast to the ancient shophouses or colonial-style in the city center, a modern atrocity, like Komtar, forms part of this eclectic city – and makes sense.
The cylindrical Komtar is a prominent landmark. The 65-storey tower in central Georgetown, with a 58th-floor viewing deck over the straits to Penang’s mainland, and of course the tourism industry capitalizes on the view.
But this is the quintessential George Town-life. It’s a place where people come together. In Komtar’s case, it’s a place where busses come and go, and any shopping can be done and people go on dates to see the magical view.
A different rhythm
I let the days unfold differently to my first stay. Guesthouse coffee, toast and coconut jam was available ’till twelve, so I could really take my time. Work days often end around 9 pm, and then “life” started.
Only around 6pm the ubiquitous street food vendors really came out, and then became a well organised open-air diner. Someone always found me, charged me (a pittance, really) and wonderful things like oyster omelets, satay, pork and magically appeared.
The best deals in town is usually the street vendors and the food quarters which reflect all the different cuisines and cultures in town, and if you go late enough you’ll get someone entertaining you while, especially at The Red Garden Food Paradise and Night Market.
If you never see the inside of a formal looking restaurant, you are doing things right in Penang, especially if your budget is tight.
When I returned to Penang I finally made it to Penang Hill, a place all the guidebooks profess, and consequently draws large crowds.
It’s without a doubt the islands’ Table Mountain – with the exception that local commuters also use this fascinating Funicular Railway that’s the steepest railway in the world.
My day on Penang Hill, became a day of getting my portrait done by a local artist, walking in a screeching rainforest and endless Jasmine tea.
On the second day of my return, I went off wander, and spotted a little shop called “Nguni Designs”, and my heart skipped a beat. My father used to be a cattle farmer in the Waterberg, I know this name. I ended up spending two consecutive nights in this shop with two new friends, one British, the other Bornean – and both of them have seen more of Africa than I have.
And now I know, the magic happens in Love Lane, a colourful lane at the heart of George Town’s old town.
A cheery Pakistani waiter – sporting a purple clowns’ wig – charming backpackers to join for happy hour. Only in Penang does happy hour resemble happy hour as we know it, which already made me smile. Well, it usually means two beers for the price of one. In Kuala Lumpur or Malacca, that’s just means a very expensive bucket with five beers with the sixth one free (for give or take R350).
Each bar has its own live music gig, and for my first stay at the Old Penang Guest House, my travel buddy and I made the mistake of sleeping at the windowed roomed facing the debaucherous Love Lane.
The first time, it was just a noisy (albeit charming) street, that’s great for people watching. This time, I became part of the slow-paced conversation after midnight and ended up exploring
George Town in the early morning hours, hand-in-hand, with a stranger.
People ask me: What do you do in George Town? You taste and wander.
As I left the island on it’s world famous Penang Bridge – the longest bridge in Asia, and the third longest bridge in the world, I know, I will return to the Pearl of the Orient, and in particular to Love Lane . . . just in time for happy hour.