Historic Georgetown, Malaysia

Historic Georgetown is small, but a must see when visiting Penang, Malaysia. The city has a historic fort, houses built over the water and too many temples and museums to count.

Photography by the author

Georgetown is the capital of the island and state of Penang, on the west coast of peninsular Malaysia. It was listed by UNESCO in 2008 as a World Heritage Site.

Georgetown would be a lot like Malacca except that it has the E&O Hotel to soothe the nerves of tourists overheated from sightseeing. The E&O was originally a railroad hotel started by the Sarkies brothers in 1885. These Armenians siblings also began the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore and the Strand Hotel in Rangoon.

The E&O Hotel

Think the Flagler railroad in Florida and all the hotels that flourished along its path.

The E&O Hotel — view from our window

The three-story Heritage building of the E&O overlooks the Straits of Malacca. Our room #207, called a suite because it does have a separate sitting room, was on the second floor. That level of height provided a good view of the Straits plus privacy. We could see the pool placed between the hotel and the Straits. It was surprisingly busy from morning to night. Hotel guests, many British, would bask there in the sun during the afternoon. The E&O will open a new high rise, the Victory wing, this year.

Chinese New Year in Penang

When we visited Malaysia in February, it was Chinese New Year. This provided unexpected pleasing events in which we could participate. One was the Chinese New Year lion performance in our hotel on a Sunday morning at 10 a.m.

They started out with a bang by exploding hundreds of firecrackers at the door of the hotel. This made such an intense close loud noise that a baby started to cry with fright. In fact, I was not far behind.

When the lions entered the large E&O foyer, they wreathed around, hopped and stretched and finally elevated toward the high ceiling. In between these gyrations, the lions transferred oranges from the mouth of one to the other and then spit out excesses. Observers are not spared. They got their share of fruit too, spewed directly onto them from the lion’s mouth.

Other Penang pleasures

At the Blue Mansion

It would be hard to beat this lion dance as pure entertainment, though The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, also known as the Blue Mansion, nearby did give it a go.

The mansion was the home of a Peranakan family (traditionally, the husband was Chinese and the wife Malay). Though it does not contain original furnishings, the essence of the house is opulent and informative. Rooms are rented out and, though nothing like the E&O where there is a view, they are possibly the next best thing in the city for accommodations.

The most recognizable distinction about the mansion is that the movie, Indochine with Catherine Deneuve was filmed in part there. Also, a lesser known movie called The Blue Mansion, used the house for its location.

Statue of Sir Francis Light

Fort Cornwallis was also near our hotel, though far enough away so that a visit by foot would have been uncomfortable with the heat and humidity other than the early morning. It is there that the Englishman, Captain Francis Light made a contract with the Sultan of Kedah to purchase Penang Island for the British East India Company in 1786. It was named Georgetown after the Prince of Wales.

The town became a trading post for tea, spices, pepper, fabric and, later, tin and rubber. The city remained under British rule until 1957 when it became independent under the Federation of Malaysia agreement between Britain and Malaysia.

A sad part of colonial history is that Captain Light did not enjoy his accomplishments for long. He died in 1794 in Penang and left a widow with two small children. She married someone else not long afterward in the chapel that was built at Fort Cornwallis at the bidding of Captain Light. Whether this marriage was one of convenience or love will never be known. Back then, life was primarily survival more than comfort or personal desires.

The Tong Clan Piers

An area that surely most everyone enjoys is the Tong Clan Piers. These houses are constructed over water to avoid taxes for structures built on land. The Chew Jetty is the oldest of the clan jetties.

There are also multiple temples to visit, too numerous to mention and many museums, although some were closed for the Chinese New Year. We did enjoy the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery, in part because it helped us understand better the three major nationalities that live in Penang together peacefully: Malaysians, Chinese and Indians.

Eating

The Red Garden Food Court is next door to the Blue Mansion (and thereby within walking distance of the E&O). We had to try it because the star of No Reservations, on the Travel Channel, Anthony Bourdain waxed elegant about it.

It is essentially an outdoor food court. Hawkers for the stalls try to attract the tourists (I am quite confident that is the primary group that frequents it) to buy from their cubicles. I had the fried oyster, a dish composed of a mixture of tapioca flour, fresh oysters, chives and eggs that are fried. The dish should be crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. Mine contained limp barely heated oysters so it was soggy and without texture. At that point, I thought the food was improved for Bourdain since he liked it so much. Or it could have been that he ate another delicacy — a chicken head that we didn’t try.

Our guide Mr. Ooi, had sage advice. He told us he ate nearby because “it was better and cheaper.”

We did enjoy the food at our hotel. It was not only very good but served in lovely surroundings. Nasuurdin Ibrahim (Nasuurdin@eohotels.com) was more than accommodating in tending to my dietary needs for celiac disease as he would for any resident of the hotel that needed special food prepared.

In Summary

Historic Georgetown is small, though the city’s surrounding area has a population of 1.5 million. The wider area even has several American factories, including Intel, Motorola and Texas Instruments.

For anyone interested in the past, historic Penang is a must. Staying at the E&O helped us survive the heat and was a definite plus.