Penang, a Malaysian island, is a popular tourist destination. I spent a few days looking around, following in the footsteps of my grandfather, Peter Allen, who often spent holiday time there. He frequently travelled to Southeast Asia for his work as a scientist in the rubber industry, and I remember receiving postcards from Penang (he also visited Bogor, Indonesia).
Georgetown was the first place the British arrived in Malaysia, the beginning of Britain as a coloniser in Southeast Asia, and it’s full of colonial era architecture. Now preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are more colonial buildings in Georgetown than anywhere else I have visited so far in Southeast Asia.
Although it rained almost constantly throughout my entire trip, I didn’t want to waste time sitting in my hotel. Wandering through the streets of Georgetown and visiting some of the tourist attractions was still bearable, even if my hand ached from holding an umbrella for several days!
Fort Cornwallis (RM2 per person) is the site of the first British entry into this region. It is amazing to imagine Francis Light arriving here on his ship and building the original fort, made of nipah palm, and then remember that a palm tree fort was the start of hundreds of years of British rule in the Malay archipelago.
At Fort Cornwallis today, there are the remains of the old stone fort walls (that were built after the initial nipah palm construction), as well as the gunpowder store. Cannons point out to sea. Some of the tunnel-like rooms have been made into a museum that traces the history of the fort.
Across from Fort Cornwallis is the Padang, or “field”, a large open grassy area. There is a foodcourt here, called Medan Selera Lapangan Kota, where we enjoyed a tasty mee goreng (fried noodles) and coconut shake. On the opposite side of the Padang are some large and impressive colonial buildings, including the town hall.
Another short walk and we arrived at the Penang Museum (RM1 each). This was actually very interesting, adding to the knowledge we had gleaned from the Fort about Penang’s history. Each ethnic group has its own room displaying cultural items, furniture, clothes and so on, that are considered to represent the ethnicity. Upstairs are displays about old Penang. Outside in the museum courtyard is a real old-style funicular train carriage, that was used at the Penang Hill funicular railway.
Pinang Peranakan Mansion
Then we walked on to Pinang Peranakan Mansion (RM10 each). Peranakans are found in Malaysia and Singapore, and are mixed-race people. The term is most often used to describe people of Chinese-Malay mixed race ancestry. Peranakans have their own distinctive culture, from wedding traditions to home décor. The Pinang Peranakan Mansion is indeed a mansion house, where items of peranakan furniture, clothing and household items are displayed. The furniture is stunningly elaborate and highly ornamented with mother-of-pearl details and it fills an opulent house. There was not much information available about the items on display, but it was worth a visit to experience such extravagance.
Penang has its own ethnic enclaves, and we wandered through Little India, filled with colourful fabric shops. A man rushed up to us, trying to sell us a Bollywood DVD. We saw Sri Mariamman temple, but it was closed by that time.
We did see an interesting Chinese ancestor temple which had been recently refurbished and had amazing detail in its brightly painted carvings. Chulia Street and Campbell Street, parts of Chinatown, were filled with Chinese writing on shop signs.
Georgetown is a great place for randomly finding yourself somewhere interesting. It’s small enough to walk around in a day, including visits to museums and temples. And it’s bearable in the rain.