Port cities have a charm of their own. The hustle-bustle amidst the multicultural influences combines to offer a potpourri of sights, sounds and smells that you wouldn’t find elsewhere. George Town, the capital of the Malaysian state of Penang, is a UNESCO heritage city that stays true to the premise. Named after King George III, the city is a former British colonial outpost, which has major impact of the Chinese traders and Indian workers.
There is no better way to start a day in George Town than a visit to the mansions. The Blue Mansion, also known as Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, and the Pinang Peranakan mansion were residential quarters of affluent businessmen, later converted into a hotel and museum, respectively. The reason these mansions draw in a plethora of tourists every year is the striking colours that stand out against some ornate decorations. As Chinese businessmen entertained British officials and traded regularly with them, their houses are an aesthetic mix of Chinese wood panels, English floors and Scottish ironworks.
Though mansions are a flag-bearer of multicultural ethos that bind the city, the true essence of Malaysia’s cultural diversity can be experienced with a walk along the Street of Harmony: from the St George’s Church to the Kapitan Kelling Mosque. The church was established in the 18th century by the British East India Company and the stucco white architecture is a magnificent contrast to the blue clouds circling overhead. The Taoist temple of the Goddess of Mercy is next with its typical mélange of bright colours, while the Sri Mahamariamman Temple is built in a traditional Dravidian style that is commonly found all over South India. Minarets and domes of the Kapitan Kelling Mosque round up a multicultural sojourn that binds the fabric of this island nation together.
In a city that’s rushing towards modernity, the jetty of the Chew clan is one of the traditional spots. Chinese migrants, who came over to Penang in search of a better life, settled here and started living in wooden houses built on stilts. Later, as more and more families joined in, these houses were connected with platforms that created the jetty on the waterfront. A walk along the wooden planks with the sea peeping in between them will make you experience a riot of colour, aromas of food and sounds of the Azaan emanating from the mosque against the honking of rickshaws traversing across the city. It is a stark contrast to the modern harbour located nearby as a view of the Straights of Malacca opens up in the distance.
The food is equally good here. With all the lovely flavours that you can smell wafting in through the streets, it isn’t a bad idea to head to a place that Malaysians call their second home: Mamaks. The Mamaks are 24-hour restaurants that serve up an eclectic mix of Malay, Chinese, Indonesian and Indian food. With the majority of the Malaysian population eating out, these Mamaks are their virtual nerve centre. A typical Penang lunch usually consists of chicken rice and tea.
Early mornings are the best time to explore the city that is known for its street art. Hiring one of the small rickshaws for RM 80 (`1,300) for an hour-long ride across the streets of George Town is a viable option. Be it outside restaurants or the sidewalks outside malls, the city is literally a canvas for artists to work their magic upon. The beauty of George Town lies in its ability to mingle the East with the West, the modern with the old and become a bustling metropolis while still retaining its soul.