Walking around Georgetown, the capital of Penang, it is not surprising why together with Melaka, it was granted World Heritage Site status by the UNESCO earlier this year. Being very compact, it was easy to navigate the maze of back streets, tiny allies, and wide boulevards to take-in the sights of the city’s colorful colonial heritage and its vibrant multi-cultural communities.
It was a really warm day and having come from the cool retreats of the Cameron Highlands, the heat was a bit of a shock. Fortunately, being an island, there were cool breezes. The 10-minute ferry ride across the channel from Butterworth was refreshing after a 5-hour bus trip.
From the pier, I walked to Lebuh Chulia where the guesthouse was. I didn’t realize it was such a long walk and the sun was out in full force. Well, at least, I got a rough idea of the town’s orientation.
Warning: Don’t ever make reservations at Malibu Cafe at Lebuh Chulia. I arrived at around 2 and they were closed. So I opted for nearby Stardust which is infinitely better. The cook at Stardust said that Malibu only opens at night. Like duh… what self-respecting accomodations open only at night. So travellers beware: Ditch Malibu unless. Strangely, it shares the same address as Jim’s Place which is beside it. When I asked the Indian guy at the reception, he said that he has no idea why Malibu was closed. Since he had no aircon rooms available, he suggested the Stardust. When I passed by Jim’s Place an hour later, it was also closed. What’s with these 2 guesthouses?
After checking-in at Stardust (nice enough room with strong airconditioning, ensuite shower, and most of all free wifie) I was off to my walking tour. The plan was to start from Lebuh Chulia and end at the historical Eastern and Oriental Hotel.
Everything is beautifull preserved at Georgetown. Whatever is left crumbling or decrepit only heightens the colonial charm of the surviving heritage buildings. The colorful shophouses still run the same businesses they have had for centuries while some have been converted to more modern shops.
Thankfully, the weather had turned cloudy and there was a strong breeze blowing which made the walk pleasant. It also helped that most of the important structures such as simple but lovely St. George’s Church and the Penang Museum were very near each other.
Thankfully also, there wasn’t much of a crowd at the streets that time so photo-ops were plentiful and one could tour quietly and actually just simply stop and take-in the sites which was totally impossible at Melaka.
One thing I like both with Georgetown and Melaka is you get 4 religions existing side by side with each other resulting in such beautiful architecture. Chinese temples, Hindi shrines, Islamic mosques, and Catholic churches dot the small streets.
Being a melting pot of India, Chinese, and Malay culture with each maintaining their distinct communities and yet sharing both physical and rhetorical spaces, the town is coloful and vibrant. The oldest mosque in Penang, Masjid Kapitan Peling with its domed minarets is just a few steps away from the colorful Sri Miriamman Temple . Round another corner and you come face to face with a Buddhist temple. It is these sharing of spaces that makes Penang so wonderful.
The grand dame of them all of course is the utterly magnificent Eastern and Oriental Hotel with its checkered past. I had planned to have some tiffin but it was past 2pm and service would have been over. Besides, in torn shorts and a sweaty shirt, I would probably look like a refugee amidst its historical splendor.
The main drag for most tourists is Lebuh Chulia at Chinatown with its row of guesthouses, money changers, restaurants, and shops. Done with my walking tour and with so much time before dinner, I simply wandered around. With Lebuh Chulia as a point of reference, I simply walked the streets, ducking into corners that seemed interesting whether it was an old building, crumbling shophouses or a stall selling Chinese medicinal teas. One of the more interesting shops I saw had a faded sign that read “Chicks and Furnitue.”
Along Cintra Street was a restored Nonya Baba house that was both guesthouse and museum. The people at the “lobby” didn’t seem too friendly though so I didn’t go in.
I had a refreshing glass of sugarcane juice from a roadside stall selling herbal teas. I have always loved sugarcane juice since I first tried it a Rasa Singapura in Singapore when I was still a child. Nearby was a crusty and still-hot curry puff from an Indian selling them from a wooden table in front of his house and a sign that read “The Best Curry Puff” . Two doors down was freshly made straight from the grease pot yu char kiuh, deep-fried savoury flour sticks. But the best was yet to come. I also bought a box of pepper cookies from a bakeshop.
The trishaw that had no breaks
Much that I had wanted to explore Melaka by its gaily-decorated trishaws, the sheer number of people walking the main streets plus the vehicular traffic didn’t make it fun. Traffic was a little less here and there wasn’t too much of a crowd. So I hailed a trishaw to bring me to what I had really come for— Baba Nonya cuisine and the pit stop was Nonya Baba Cuisine at 44 Jalan Nagore. It had started to drizzle anyway plus Nagore was some distance away. It was actually fun riding the trishaw as unlike the one in Melaka where the driver’s seat was at the side, this one was behind you. My elderly driver brought me to Nonya Baba Museum instead. I had to explain to him that I wanted to go to the restaurant. Finally he did find Jalan Negara. He got out, asked another driver while I waited. Then the trishaw started moving, fortunately it was parked on the side of the road and hit a small post by a small canal. It was actually a worl’d funniest home video moment. A Caucasian couple saw all these and seemed amused. Turns out they were heading to the same resto.
Nonya Baba Cuisine
Situated at a row of restored shophouses, the restaurant serves authentic Perenakan or Nonya Baba or Baba Nony cuisine. One of the very very few left. Running the resto was a couple of old ladies and a youngish guy who were all very very friendly and made menu suggestions. I had a really delightfully tasty vegetable dish, pork stew of thick gravy (hong bak) and curry capitan chicken. The final flourish was Nonya cendol. It was so delicious and so satisfying to the taste buds. I had never had vegetables taste that good before. Even the curry tasted very different from the usual Indian and Thai curries I have had. I really would have ordered and eaten some more and even bought those cookies and baked goods in boxes, but I didn’t have enough cash with me and they didn’t seem to be doing any card transactions.
Back to Lebuh Chulia, hawker stalls were already open and drawing crowds of admirers like me. Since I was still full, I went to Jalan Kapitan Keling to see the majestic mosque lit at night.
There was a service going on so I didn’t go near the prayer hall.
Back at the hawker stalls, the fried popiah chi (spring rolls) and the lor bak which looked just like our kikiam was too irresistible to ignore. Another stall was selling tiny coconut-filled crepes called apom manis.
Walking further towards the direction of the jetty, an Indian sweet shop on the back of a truck was my next stop for those orange fried sweet things and sweet dried yellow balls with red dots in the middle and saturated with sticky syrup. The orange fried sweet things weren’t as good though as the ones I had at Masjid India in KL. Heading back to the guesthouse, I stumbled on a woman selling very very thin crepe sheets called apom .
If I hadn’t run out of ringgits, I would have eaten myself to a stomach ache.