24 Hours in George Town, Penang

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The resort island of Penang is connected to mainland Malaysia by Penang Bridge, a 13-kilometre umbilical cord over the Straits of Malacca.

One of the world’s most important sea routes since its Western discovery in the sixteenth century, its history embraces European colonization, migratory shifts and the powerful wheels of commerce which made Penang hum as a center of the hugely profitable spice trade.

Retaining a timeless ambience and relaxed pace, Penang’s capital George Town, named for King George III, is an Asian melting pot underpinned by adventurers, merchants, artists and writers.

 8am

Pull up a Bentwood chair at any Kedai Kopi, corner coffee shop.  The coffee is hot and strong accompanied by a selection of pastries or go with the local Chinese favourite Kuih Tayap, crepes filled with coconut and sugar or Yu Char Kuih, a crispy savoury dough fritter.

 9am

George Town is an urban time-capsule with the most complete collection of outstanding 19th century and early 20th century buildings in Southeast Asia and a simple street grid makes it a delightfully easy city to explore.   When England’s Captain Francis Light, a swashbuckling career adventurer, landed on Penang’s swampy promontory in 1786, he quickly raised the Union Jack and established Fort Cornwallis on Light Street.

Now a popular historic site, the gun ramparts command peerless views over the Straits of Malacca.   In the forecourt, the cast bronze statue of Light is an effigy of his son William who founded Adelaide.

From here, a handful of impressive colonial civic buildings form a heritage trail along Farquhar Street leading to St George’s Church, a beautiful Ionic style Anglican church and the oldest in Southeast Asia.

Continue down Masjid Kapitan Keling Street with its monumental mosque crowned with yellow domes and turn into Armenian Street, a notorious area for secret societies.

In the shophouse at No. 120, Dr Sun Yat Sen established his base for the Chinese Revolutionary Party planning the Canton uprising  which led to the 1911 Chinese Revolution.   Decorated in surprisingly bourgoise style, the house/museum is a wonderful place to buy books on Penang’s colourful history.

Turning into Acheh Street,  Hokkien for ‘the noisy street of tombstone makers’ you’ll find the  dying art of tombstone engraving shop at No. 11.

George Town also has its hidden commercial, religious and clan enclaves and rounding the corner into Cannon Street, find one of three elusive entrances to the Kohh Kongsi clan citadel.

The Khoos were wealthy Straits Chinese traders and crossing the gilded threshold into charming rows of mid-19th century shophouses including the richly ornate Khoo Kongsi temple and theatre will transport you back to a time when the clan was at the height of its eminence in Penang society.

11am

Hail a trishaw, the cheapest way to cruise to sights, and head for 14 Leith Street and the indigo-hued walls of the Blue Mansion.  Once the home of Hakka millionaire Mandarin Cheong Fatt Tze, this award-winning restoration resonates with Oriental ambience. Now in part a 15 suite boutique hotel built around a central courtyard, the one hour tour through opulent interiors covers his fascinating rags to riches story.

The Blue Mansion was also the setting for the French film ‘Indochine’ starring Catherine Deneuve.

Tours are daily at 11am and 3pm. To book visit www.cheongfatttzemansion.com

12.30pm

It seems that one half of Penang is cooking for the other half to devour and at hawker stalls along Campbell Street, the kitchen theatre is in full production. Naan bread topped with spicy chicken, spiky pineapples, sweet yellow mangosteens and yam sandwiches, delicious golden orbs are all consumed kerbside.

1.30pm

Feeling lucky?  Then head for Aunty Sim, one of the last sidewalk fortune tellers at 156 Chulia Street and for a few ringgit, she’ll read your face, palms and cards!

2pm

Escape the midday heat and plunge into the cool arcades off Chulia Street where fabrics are draped from every rafter and ‘Mamaks’, Indian Muslim men in long white shirts and sarongs wait for a sale. Watch the last of the old tricycles ladened with freshly baked bread being sold to school kids spread with coconut jam for a few cents before browsing nearby Penang Road’s artful splash of boutiques selling local crafts, fashion, accessories and food.

3pm

It’s easy to imagine Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling taking tea at the Eastern & Oriental (E&O), a 5-star, 99 suite hotel.   After all, they’ve all stayed there! Established in 1885 by Raffles before he constructed his eponymous hotel in Singapore, escape the street for English afternoon tea in the quiet opulence of their gracious dining room overlooking the waterfront.    Staff clad in sharp black and white wheel a trolley groaning with tiny cakes and tea pastries while serving-up tiers of finger sandwiches, scones and a range of fruit and classic teas.

10 Farquhar Street, afternoon tea is served Wednesday to Monday and costs around $12 per person

5pm ...

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