Thursday, 1 August 2013

Day Twenty Two & Twenty Three - Georgetown, Penang - Malaysia

We got up early on Ko Samui and made our way to the islands small but busy airport. It's one of the strangest airports I've been to, more like an outdoor shopping mall than an airport, but it seems to work! We got on our plane and flew down to Penang, our first stop in Malaysia. We landed at the airport fifteen minutes early, went through customs, collected our luggage and got into a taxi all before we were due to originally land!

We were staying in the Flamingo hotel just outside of Georgetown on the island. Penang spreads over from mainland Malaysia, to an island on the west, linked by a huge thirteen kilometre bridge. On the island lies Georgetown, a part of the city which is home to the old town and has everything that a visitor would want to see. The mainland is more commercial with shipping ports and lots of industry. We were on the top floor of the hotel looking out to sea and the mainland. By the time we had arrived and settled in it was early evening - it's also an hour ahead here too from Thailand.
We decided to go somewhere local for dinner and noticed that across the road was one of the best Indian restaurants in town. We decided to go and check it out! The restaurant was under a corrugated iron shelter with three parts to it; one in the style of a canteen, one a diner style area and another part that was more like a restaurant. We sat in the diner part and looked round at all the tables to see what people were eating. Everything looked delicious, so we decided to pick a few things off the menu that we hadn't heard of before to try out. The food came out really quick and was delicious. Even after visiting India, this is one of the best Indian meals I've ever had. What's more it only came to about twenty pounds and we had enough to feed a small family!
By the time we had finished, we struggled home full of food and decided to bypass the hotel bar (with a dodgy singer!) instead we watched some TV before grabbing an early night. We wanted to be up early the following day to make the most of the city before heading off to Kuala Lumpa.
We had breakfast before catching a bus outside our hotel to central Georgetown. We got off at the main bus station and checked out two malls that were close by. These two shopping malls looked like something out of the seventies in a forgotten British town. The shops all had their shutters down and the interior felt old, over used and slightly depressing. We began to wonder if this was a town the world had forgotten! Slightly worried, we carried on up to Chinatown and were instantly greeted with the Georgetown I had read about back in the UK.

It seems industry and trading has slowed down here a lot in recent years like a lot of places I guess. There are lots of trendy glass fronted new homes and condos all lying empty as you drive around the more modern part of town. From what I have read, the town seems to have been in a rush to develop (hence the huge amount of skyscrapers around) and business has not kept up. Even our hotel must have hundreds of rooms but we can only be sharing it with a handful of others. People have said that the new horizon spoils the old town but I don't think that's so. Once you explore the old town you forget the modern high rises round the corner.

We carried on through Chinatown which is a mixture of old and new with brightly coloured building with signs hanging from the front from the past and present. Silk, spice and food shops line the street broken up with temples, modern bars and hotels. We carried on through Chinatown before heading north along Love Lane towards the coastline and Georgetown Museum.

We arrived at the Museum just as the clouds burst and the streets became dark and flooded within seconds. Just outside the Museum is a collection of old cars that help paint a picture of this old colonial town back in its heyday. One was a Rolls Royce which was attacked by terrorists on the 5th October 1951 and shot with 35 bullets. At the time, the former British High commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney, his wife and secretary were inside driving to Fraser's Hill for the weekend when they were ambushed. Sir Henry Gurney was killed when he stepped out of the car straight into the lie of fire. His wife and secretary escaped unhurt.

Georgetown Museum was originally home to the Penang Free School which was donated by the East India Company. Designed as a symmetrical building, the school was constructed in two parts due to financial constraints. The first half was completed in 1896 and the other in 1906. The school was open to all Penang born regardless of race, thus the name Penang Free School. The east wing was destroyed not long after in the Second World War and was never re-built. It was set for demolition in 1961 as the state government wanted to build a new school. The plan changed thanks to the first Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, who suggested it be turned into a Museum.

The Museum is very informative and holds lots of old photographs of the town along with old artefacts and paintings. Georgetown was and still is a very cosmopolitan town, home to many different races and ethnic groups, each of which has put its fingerprint on the place. Besides the three major races of Malays, Chinese and Indians, Penang was also inhabited by those from Southeast Asia, Asia and Europe since a long time ago. All of them contributed to the states ethnic mix and Georgetown became a cosmopolitan city. Much more than other states in the peninsula, Penang is noted for the existence of myriad ethnic minorities and diverse historical communities that contribute much colour to the Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures.

Today Penang's colourful ethnic community is dominated by Malay, Chinese and Indian communities. Together they make up ninety percent of its population. These three ethnic groups together with their diverse history, culture and religions live in harmony with one another and have done now for generations.
The islands atmosphere is captured in this written description in the nineteenth century:
Jinrikishas, Trishas and overladen handcarts share the crowded streets with trolly-busses and modern American motor cars. In the Amusement Parks, Chinese Opera with its rich traditional costumes is performed side-by-side with a modern cinema and a Malay concert party, while nearby, Indian, Malay and Chinese restaurants serve their national dishes.

Sir George Leith, A Short Account of the Settlement, Produce and Commerce of Price of Wales Island in the state of Malacca, 1804.
As you go through the Museum and read further into the city's more recent history the name Francis Light crops up a number of times. Sir Francis Light was a British trader originally from Suffolk. There is even a piece of glass he engraved at his school in Woodbridge, Suffolk on show. He originally based himself in Phuket, Thailand and used it as a convenient location to trade between India, southern Siam and the northern Malay Peninsula. Fluent in Siamese and Malay, he was highly respected by the native chiefs.

When the British needed a base in the Malay Archipelago at the end of the eighteenth century, Light used his influence to persuade Sultan Abdullah, the ruler of Kedah, to lease Penang to the British. The Sultan agreed to lease Penang to the East India Company for an annual sum of 30000 Spanish dollars in compensation for the trade in opium, tin and rattan which would be diverted from Kedah to Penang. The British were also asked to defend Kedah against threats from Siam and Burma as part of the agreement.

On the 11th August, 1786, Francis Light hoisted the Union Jack and took formal possession of the island of Penang "in the name of His Britannic Majesty, King George III and the Honourable East India Company". This also lead to the renaming of the island part of Penang city later being called Georgetown after George III.
It was the quest for spices at this time that brought Europeans to the east and led directly to the establishment of the a british settlement in Penang in 1786. The spice trade led to the development of an independent land-owning European community in Penang. Their large plantations were planted with pepper, cloves and nutmeg. This was a labour intensive process that forged cooperation between the Europeans and Chinese because the latter could provide the much needed manpower to work the plantations.

Penang also possesses a natural, sheltered and deep-water harbour. This was also declared as a free port in 1786 when the European's arrived. Located on the northern straits of Malacca, one of the major seaplanes of the world, Penang went on to enjoy success as a major regional trading destination.

After we had finished visiting the Museum, fuelled with knowledge on the city's past, we headed off on a tour of the old town led by me! We started off walking up towards the port, passing the old colonial building which is the Supreme Court as well as some old famous spice shops opposite it. We then walked up past the City hall, then past a World War II memorial before going along the back of city hall and passing the town hall that lies on the street behind it.

Opposite to these buildings is a large park that's north side lies along the harbour. We followed this along the south and passed the Colonial fronted State Assembly Hall to the end of the road where the Victorian clock tower is. This tower was commissioned by a local millionaire in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and is a testament to Penang's royal connections. The clock tower actually leans to one side due to bombing in the Second World War. It also wasn't completed until after the queen had passed away!

We then walked back on ourselves and entered the old colonial streets, stopping off to see Pinang Peranakan Mansion in its beautiful shade of mint with its golden decorations. In its day this was home to one of Penang's great merchant barons. We carried on down the beautiful street lined with colourful buildings until we reached Little India.

There's no mistaking when you reach Little India. The smell of foods and the sound of Indian music blasting out of every shop assures you that you are in the right place. Bright temples open up the narrow streets lined with silk stores, food stalls and grocers. We stopped off at one stall for an amazing naan bread with chicken set (and blanked the mice running around on the street out of our minds!)

At this point Jamie was loosing the will to live in the 38 degree heat and high humidity so we decided to go and visit Penang Hill. This hill sits at 821 meters and is accessible by a tram that runs up the side (phew!). Once at the top, the temperature is five degrees lower than in the city and the views are spectacular back over the city and mainland. You also get a great view of the bridge that links the island as well as all the surrounding dense jungle that you almost forget about down on the streets. There is also a Hindu Temple at the top with a Mosque right next door all busy with worshippers inside or eating outside. The hill was originally cleared by Captain Light to grow strawberries and consequently originally bearded the name Strawberry Hill.

We descended the hill and got a taxi back to out hotel. By the time we arrived it was late afternoon. We decided to end our day by taking a walk down the beach to a floating temple about a kilometre away. After this we went for dinner at a local Bulgarian restaurant before returning to our hotel. Tomorrow we fly to Kuala Lumpa.

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