What’s Georgetown (Penang) like? Why we didn’t fall in love with it

What's Georgetown (Penang) like? Why we didn't fall in love with it

What’s Georgetown (Penang) like? 

I almost feel bad writing this post. We’ve had quite a few people tell us that they really like Georgetown. Some of them were the same people that told us that they loved Prachuap Khiri Khan (and they were right. We also loved it). But we just didn’t feel the same way about Georgetown, the capital of Penang. So what’s Georgetown (Penang) like?

First of all, I should say that I had visited Georgetown 17 years ago. It had been a strange experience: there I was, arriving in “conservative” Malaysia and within hours of setting foot on the ground I had been offered free blowjobs by homosexual men and erotic massages by Chinese rickshaw drivers. I hadn’t expected that. Other than that, I remember beautiful temples, great Indian food, a friendly and ethnically-diverse population, and amazing sunsets. I also remember it being one of the hottest places I’ve ever been.

 

I’ll get to my thoughts/impressions of Georgetown this time around a little further down.

 

Georgetown is a UNESCO Heritage Site, granted because of its well-preserved heritage buildings. There’s a British fort and a few colonial-era government buildings and churches. But when I think of Georgetown I think of the beautiful Chinese shop houses that line the streets of the old town. These days many have been renovated into boutique hotels, bars and restaurants. Amidst these Chinese shop houses you’ll see a house of worship on almost every street: a mosque, or a Chinese or Hindu temple. I think the racial and cultural mix make Malaysia special and this is especially true of Penang. Besides the Chinese shop houses and the temples, another attraction for many visitors is the street art (which wasn’t around when I came here in 2001). You’ll see many tourists walking around, map in hand, hunting down street art.

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A few photos of what I’m talking about:
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1. Chinese Shop Houses

Chinese Shop Houses, Georgetown, Penang

What’s Georgetown (Penang) like? Why we didn’t fall in love with it

Chinese shops, Georgetown, Penangbuildings in Penang

shops in Penang, Malaysia

 

2. Temples

Sri Mahamariamman Hindu Temple, Georgetown, Penang

Above: Sri Mahamariamman  Hindu Temple

Kapitan Keling Mosque, Georgetown, Penang

Above: Kapitan Keling Mosque

Khoo Kongsi Chinese clan temple, Georgetown, Penang

Above: Khoo Kongsi Chinese clan temple

Thean Hou Buddhist Temple, Georgetown, PenangAbove: Thean Hou Buddhist Temple

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     ‘3. Street Art

Street art in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

.Above: Some of Georgetown’s street art

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More Temples

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There’s more to see outside the downtown core
. In fact, I think the most interesting temples are outside the city center.

There’s a Burmese temple (Dhammikarama Burmese Temple). It’s one of the more colourful temples you’ll ever see. Across the street from it is a Thai temple (Wat Chayamangkalaram). But the highlight of all temples is Kek Lok Si temple, a Chinese Buddhist temple. It is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia.

 

Dhammikarama Burmese Temple, Penang

What’s Georgetown (Penang) like? Why we didn’t fall in love with it

Above: Dhammikarama Burmese Temple

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Wat Chayamangkalaram, Georgetown, PenangWat Chayamangkalaram. What’s Georgetown (Penang) like? Why we didn’t fall in love with it.
Above: Wat Chayamangkalaram (Thai) Temple
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Kek Lok Si Temple, Georgetown, Penang

Kek Lok Si Temple, Penang

Above: Kek Lok Si Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia.

 

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The above all make Georgetown an interesting visit. You should visit Georgetown. But they didn’t make us love it.
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What struck me this time around is how Georgetown has grown up compared to my visit back in 2001. Today it’s much bigger and busier. There’s a lot of traffic. I have memories of walking around the old town discovering the streets. There were small, rustic-type cafés and restaurants. There was a lot of charm to Georgetown. This time around, I felt that Georgetown was overwhelming. Walking around meant constantly dodging traffic. Sidewalks are an obstacle course, a place where people park motorcycles or bikes*.

* looking at the photos above you might be saying “what the heck are you talking about Frank? There’s nobody and no traffic in your photos”. Maybe I should have taken more photos of the larger streets, the streets you’ll spend most of your time walking around….

 

Another thing that really stuck out at me when I came to Georgetown in 2001 were the people. I met incredibly friendly, honest people on that trip. I remember asking a lady at the hotel reception about hiking. Well, she had invited me for a hike and the next day we had hiked through the Botanical gardens and up Penang Hill. I had gone to a Malay barber shop and the next man in line had given his place to me “you are on vacation. I’m in no rush”. He had insisted.

Today that would not happen (I think there are very few places today where that would happen). Georgetown is now very well know and very much visited. Being a foreigner no longer makes you the subject of extra consideration.

 

I just think that a lot of charm has been lost in the 17 years since I was last in Penang. In one of the museums I saw a photo of what the city had been in the late 1900’s. The city had the same older buildings. But the streets were almost empty, there was little traffic. Today the center is just choked with cars, buses and motorcycles. It just makes you realize that cities like Georgetown were just not meant for traffic like that.

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It’s not Georgetown’s fault, it’s just a reflection of progress.
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*I’m going to write about Ipoh on my next post. We really liked Ipoh, more than Georgetown. And while some people say Ipoh might be “the next Georgetown” I don’t think that’s quite true. It has some of the same elements – but it just can’t compare to Georgetown when it comes to the buildings of the old town, the street art, or the temples. So don’t skip Georgetown for Ipoh. Ipoh, on the other hand, has other qualities that really impressed us.

 

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Georgetown, Penang

 

Tips and Recommendations (the good and the bad)

Fort Cornwallis. This has to be the most boring fort in the history of forts. Don’t pay to go in, it’s overpriced and not worth it. Honestly, the whole colonial area is a bit disappointing. 17 years ago the colourful rickshaws would be parked by the fort. It gave the area a bit of character. Today there are some grey buildings where the rickshaws used to be and it all feels depressing and dead.
– 2nd worst tour: Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (the Blue Mansion). Just terribly boring tour. Instead, visit on your own and have lunch there or have a drink at the bar. It’s a beautiful building. But the tour…
– On the other hand,the Khoo Kongsi Chinese clan temple is really worth a visit. Beautiful.
The temples outside the center are all must-see’s in our opinion: Dhammikarama Burmese Temple, Wat Chayamangkalaram (Thai temple). And of course Kek Lok Si temple.
Penang Hill and the Botanical Gardens are both worth a visit. But this time around we came at the hottest time of the year and didn’t feel like hiking around.
Street art. We enjoyed walking the streets looking at the street art. If you’re a fan of street art, have a look at this post written by our friends at Kathmandu and Beyond.
– Accommodation. We stayed at the Chulia Mansion while in Georgetown. Very nice hotel, great location, nice buffet breakfast.
Food. Georgetown is established as one of the best foodie destinations in Asia. If you don’t have any dietary restrictions (as we do) consider taking a food tour:

 

 

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Sunset, Georgetown, Penang

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So my thoughts?
Yes, Georgetown is worth a visit. But make it for a couple of days, not a week (we stayed a week. It was too much). Instead try to make a little extra time for lesser known and quieter places (like Ipoh for example).

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Have you been to Georgetown? How did you like it?

(Always love a contrary opinion – if so tell me what you loved about Georgetown)

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What’s Georgetown (Penang) like?
What’s Georgetown (Penang) like?

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20 Comments

  1. Oh how I love a colorful city! Great photos of those colorful shop houses and temples Frank. You had me a “hot” though… that’s just not a temperature made for me, I much prefer a jacket to sleeveless! Love the write up of what was boring and what was not, I can always count on good advice from you.

    1. Thank you very much Rebecca. Spanky feels the same way about heat as you – small doses ok, can’t take it for longer…

  2. Isn’t that the little heartbreak we feel when we come back to a beloved place and see that it’s changed? 🙂 I’d been here in Malaysia for almost a year now and I haven’t made my way to Georgetown yet… Because everyone’s writing about it now, so I feel like I’d already seen all the streetart. Would you say the food here is different (better, maybe?) than other places in Malaysia like KL? A friend is urging me to go solely for the food. She says the char kway teow here tastes better than in the capital.

    1. Hi Katherine. I wouldn’t know about the food because I don’t have enough points of reference. But we did have lots of good food as well as good coffee (although the White Coffee in Ipoh was probably the best we had).
      Street art. It’s funny how Malaysia is a street art mecca! Every place we went to had it. I’m honestly kind of blah to it but a lot of people really love it…

  3. Malaysia has always seemed liked such a magical place to me with Georgetown as its iconic symbol and your pictures of the heritage buildings definitely show its appeal. I wish I could have seen it as you remember it from your first visit but yes, it sounds like the modern world has greatly impacted this city. However, Georgetown will definitely be at on my list of places to visit in Malaysia but Ipoh will be there too. (I always appreciate your tips.) Best to mix exotic and overwhelming with some peace, an off-the-beaten-path location and a place to catch your breath!

    1. Thank you Anita. I would never suggest not going to Georgetown. But now, having been and spending maybe a bit too much time, I would have balanced out the time a bit more. Wish we had spent a few more days in Ipoh,

  4. Hi Frank,

    You feel bad about writing this post, and I feel a bit guilty. I remember telling I love Penang.

    But, of course, I completely agree with you. Traffic is a problem in Georgetown (and other parts of Penang too). Actually, the first time I visited Georgetown, in 2015, I also felt overwhelmed and left after 2 days.

    So how come I love it now?

    Let me precise that when I lived in Penang last year I didn’t stay in Georgetown. I was in a quiet place near the sea, and went to Georgetown 2-3 times a week to meet friends.

    That said, these are the reasons why I love Penang:

    1. People. I have local friends who made me feel at home. Nowhere else I’ve made so many local friends in a short time.

    2. It’s an island that has a bit of everything. Big city, traditional fishing villages, hills, hiking opportunities, secret beaches, beautiful sunsets. And you can go all around in one day.

    3. Food. Knowing locals allowed me to enjoy food at another level. People go to the other side of the island for a specific food.

    The most important reason is people, so it is very subjective. Thanks for reminding me that it’s not a perfect place and I should remember when I recommend it to other people.

    1. Never feel bad Laia – travel is personal and as you say very subjective. And it’s not that we disliked Penang – we just didn’t love it. I’m sure if we had been with local friends being taken to enjoy the best of what Penang has to offer we might have loved it too.

      You are right with all your points. And back in 2001 when I went to Penang I remember skipping out on Georgetown after 3 days and spending 3 more in Batu Ferringhi. I remember it just being too hot…maybe being out the the city and spending more time in the countryside would have endeared us more to Penang this time around.
      It all also depends if you’re a city/beach/country person. All very subjective.

      So please don’t feel bad and keep your recommendations coming! 🙂

  5. Hi Frank….. I was in Penang for 2 weeks last November scoping it out as a potential winter base and I’ll admit I was kind of surprised at how much I enjoyed the place despite its WH status, tourist crowds, “authentic” Italian cafes, new found artsiness, etc. Hiking the surrounding jungle hills and NP trails were also a big plus for me. Like you I was last there in an earlier time -in 1986 actually; we were on our first backpacking trip through SEA and Penang was famous for its “bucket shops” selling really cheap air tickets (we did end up buying tickets on the legendary milk run route through the S. Pacific islands flown by the now defunct UTA French airlines). I remember Penang being a really atmospheric place – gritty, rough and wonderfully dilapidated just the way an old tropical trading port should be…..no friggin cutesy wall art anywhere – only stains from decades of monsoon rains!

    Unlike many other similar WH cities (i.e. Dubrovnik, Krakow, etc), I found that Penang has not (yet?) completely surrendered to mass tourism…..it’s still very much a lived-in, old colonial port city. For sure, Conrad and Maugham would be shocked at what they see now, but there are still enough characteristics present of what a colonial trading port should have that I think they might be happy to sit down, have a few pints and be amused by all those clicking monkeys!

    But enough romanticism, back to reality…… many of your observations about Penang remind me of why I have doubts about how long I could stay there as a winter base location. The traffic, crowds, heat, hassles of walking around and freezing A/C on the buses were annoying. But as you know most every major city in SEA suffers from the same problems.

    On the plus side, I sure enjoyed the vibrant Penang street scenes, good food and it’s wonderful colonial setting…. the fact that there are still many Chinese, Indians and Malay families continuing to go about there lives and businesses as they have for generations virtually oblivious to the tourism is fairly unique for a city of its stature. And let’s not forget about Malaysia’s hassle-free visa system, which is a major improvement over Thailand’s.

    Interesting, I went to check out Taiping which is just up the railine from Ipoh. I was there for 5 days, did a bit of jungle hiking and biking, but overall I found the town kind of uninspiring and, other than a few curry shops, the food options seemed awful. Next time, I’ll head to Ipoh, does look more interesting/charming…….BTW, another great set of photos – yeah, where are all the people, scooters – did you photoshop them out?

    1. Don, one of my most poignant travel memories was flying UTA’s African milk run – on a 747-300 to Lusaka with stops in Libreville and Brazzaville. It was continuing on to Lilongwe, the final destination. I was 18 years old going to Africa to visit my mother and it is still one of my most vivid memories. Flying was sexy back then and I’ll never forget that flight and the UTA colours (I have an old post here with a UTA plane). It was a different time. I had gone through the UTA plane magazine and seen that Pacific route and again thought it was so exotic. So you actually flew it? It was 1987 as I recall. Still my fondest travel memories and I’ll never forget that trip back to Zambia (I had lived there as a child in the 1970s).
      Anyway, you’re probably the first mention to ever mention UTA. My favorite airline to this day.

      You’re very right in all your points about Penang, the chief of them for me being the diversity of its citizens. I love that. I know it hasn’t been perfect but they’ve made it work and it’s thriving. And I guess it’s not alone among SEA cities in it’s exponential growth. Just the way things are.

      You talk about romanticism. I often remember how travel used to be before budget travel and the travelling masses and I wish young people had the chance to have visited some of the places I did when I was young. Some of them don’t even resemble what they did. When they rave about Thailand they have no idea what they’re talking about, no point of reference. Except for a few places Thailand has been largely overrun.

      Lissette and I had a chat about Thailand vs Malaysia on this trip. She’s very much of the opinion that if she had to choose one of the two to live it would be Malaysia. People are friendly, the environment is cleaner, and you don’t see all those dirty backpackers and old men. I’m on the fence: I love the food, the Muay Thai, and the massages. Thailand is just more exciting.

      Yes, the price I pay for waiting until a car or person gets out of my shot. In this case admit that it doesn’t reflect reality.

      Thanks for the comment Don. I hope we get to meet one of these days.

      PS you mentioned Krakow. That’s where we are right now.

      1. Hi Frank – I don’t remember too much about the UTA flying experience other than the routing which was Sydney-Noumea-Auckland-Tahiti-LA (we were on our way back to Vanc.). Tahiti was the highlight. Originally the schedule only allowed us 3 days there, but after seeing how stunning Moorea was, we had to extend for another week. We were down to our last few dollars and survived on baguettes, canned tuna and beer!

        Not too many 18 year olds have that experience of flying into deepest Africa……in those days with wars in the Congo, Angola, conflict in SA, etc. you were a brave guy it seems. Most of your mates were probably just happy to be flying down to Varadero or Cancun! What was your mom doing in Zambia? She must have been a major influence on your travel desires. You mentioned Lilongwe, Malawi…..that was where Paul Thoroux started his travel life as a Peace corp guy. My parents and Mr. Theroux definitely put the travel bug in me.

        Yeah, totally agree with you about the travelling masses and before/after perspectives. You’re right, many don’t have that point of reference, although i suppose it’s all relative. You and I missed out on the 1970s overland hippy journey from Europe to Goa, which would have been amazing. Two things “shock” me about the travel backpackers these days. First, is their young age, many seem to be appear naive, superficial, just looking for that next instant gratification. Plus, I don’t get how they can afford their travels – many seem to be right out of university. I had to fight forest fires for 4 months before i had enough money to take off. Second is the long periods of time that travelers are spending in places like Thailand. In the 1980s and early 90s, backpack travelling was very much a seasonal thing. Most just left the region and went home by end of March. Not anymore it seems.

        Anyways, yes one day well have to get together for some beers and jaw about the “old days”. Currently, I’m cycling through N. Croatia (Osijek), crossing into Serbia this weekend, following EV6 to the Iron Gates on the Romania border. Probably be back in Bratislava in mid-Aug.

        dovidjenia, dg

        1. Iron gates on the Serbia/Romania border- never heard of that before. Is this what you are referring to? Impressive.

          Young people. Most probably travelling on their parent’s dime. Seen a lot of that with young Americans in Croatia. But we met other types as well in Thailand who we got talking to (when we took the Muay Thai training): young people who had digital jobs or who volunteered in SEA. Met one guy from Toronto who bought/sold stuff on Amazon, an American guy who taught cutting hair in Cambodia (? didn’t know there was a market for that…). I guess there’s all ways. The ones in SEA mostly don’t have the traditional jobs and make money in other ways.

          I think I was too young for the 1970’s hippy route to Goa. I had lived as a child in Lusaka for a couple of years (I posted about that here) and then in the late 80’s my mom went back to Africa as financial controller for an NGO. So I got to visit her in both Lusaka and Harare. Shows you how things change in Africa: at that time Harare was THE place to be in Africa.

          Haven’t been to the Pacific but I know how stunning it is. Not the ‘one month base’ kind of destination though. Attracts big-money tourists these days.
          Maybe we’ll have to take a vacation-type trip through there one day.

          I guess we have similar stories Don. Maybe we’ll cross paths one of these day 🙂

  6. Great photos. We visited Georgetown but never fell in love with it either. Just too busy and we didn’t really find the people that friendly which maybe had something to do with all the backpacking tourists walking around. Interesting culturally (and some great temples) but a few days was enough.
    We thought Melacca was really pretty though!

  7. i was there in 2004. I remember a few temples, but they have really overdone the bright colours. I liked it I guess without falling in love with the place. but you know, time does these things to places…

  8. considering you and I have been to many of the same “HOT” places on Earth, you sold me for passing on Georgetown with “I also remember it being one of the hottest places I’ve ever been.”
    Thanks for the heads up mate!
    cheers 🙂

    1. Actually, I think THE hottest place I’ve been was Los Mochis, Mexico last year when I completed El Chepe from Chihuahua. Walked out of the hotel and like getting hit by a wall of humidity. I don’t know how humans can live there.
      Malaysia very hot…but I don’t think anything will compare to Los Mochis for me.

  9. I’m unsure about all that since I’ve never been, but I do have to say it’s very colorful and the street art is great. Good to know to not to stay long and tours not to bother with.

    1. Yes, it’s famous for street art if you like that. In fact all 3 places we visited in Malaysia had quite a lot of street art. Must be the new thing 🙂

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