Georgetown Penang has always inspired me as an artist. There is an incredibly rich pastiche here, boiling away in the tropical heat, the flavor of which is expressed uniquely on every palette. Color, culture, weather and history combine to turn even mundane experiences into Kodak moments to cherish . Overall, it’s a grand old pile as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site that stops time in the early years of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The rich texture of the place inspired me to begin to write poetry . Today I stopped to spontaneously dance in the street, without alcohol or guilt. Joy came welling up from deep within my soul and I did nothing to suppress its fountain.
My lover/wife/best friend of 23 years and I spend our days here wondering aloud and wandering the streets as if we were discovering ourselves and each other like a couple who have come to explore the mysteries of the world for the first time. Turning every corner is a delight as there is virtually no repetition in the visual landscape. Age and nature are constantly retouching the color scheme of ancient plaster that holds up sagging walls. The color separation in the magic hours of dawn and sunset are a photographers wet dream. Every time I come here, aging gets a pink slip. For some reason this place gives me the feeling that I am unfettered and alive. There are many reasons why I love this place and why I think that Georgetown is a hidden gem in Asia that remains delightfully under-visited.
The first reason for our being here is that we are required to renew our Thai visa’s every two months. We accomplish this by doing what is called in local parlance ‘a visa run’, which is a hop across one of the convenient international borders surrounding Thailand to exit and re-enter ‘The Hip Kingdom’ for the purposes of immigration. Laos, Burma, Malaysia and Cambodia are all easy destinations as all are within a bus ride or a cheap flight away from our home in Bangkok. Busses from the southern towns of Thailand are well organized for this business. Package deals from Hat Yai and Phuket will run around ninety dollars including transportation and a nights stay in one the many low cost hotels and guest houses in Georgetown.
Air Asia is the least expensive flight option anywhere in Asia aside for the times when the local airlines decide to do battle and have seat sales and a two hour flight to Singapore can cost as little as $ 1.00. But normally a ticket booked in advance is a very reasonable $70 return for the two hour flight. My flight to Penang International will cost on average $100 return. Bali-Denpassar / Bangkok is a popular destination and frequent sales occur. Let me point out that the cheapest flights in all of Asia originate out of Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, headquarters to Air Asia.
Another reason we came is to consume as much of the fantastic Malaysian cuisine as we can in the three days we are here. From our perch at the Oriental Hotel on Penang Street we have a birds eye view of where we want to go to eat. The cozy streets are a haven for family run restaurants and cart vendors that serve up delicious Malay, Indian, Hokkien, Cantonese and Nonya foods that are abundant and cheap. Let me restate for the record that for a gastronomic vacation Georgetown is the least expensive and under rated destination in all of South east Asia. The food here is famous around Asia and a well known haunt of sophisticated foodies from the region.
Mornings and evenings are the best time to prowl the streets for food. You’re going to find that the combination of heat and humidity are quite oppressive during the mid day hours. If you do want to get around during the day, try the easy access hill destinations such as Penang Hill or Butterfly Farm and get away from it all. Cyclo’s ( a sort of tri-shaw gone Bollywood) are very inexpensive and a great way to see the tiny streets in relative comfort with an eccentric guided commentary to give you the highlights and history of the ‘Old Town’. For early morning starters I choose the Nonya and Hokkien restaurants that line Penang Street such as the 77 Cafe. It’s a mini-hawker stall arena in a simplified area that serves up a half dozen different regional delights that are popular with the locals. My favorite is the Four Century Congee, a rice soup that is ‘to die for’.
At night the streets come alive with hawker stands serving up delicious fried noodles and satay with peanut sauce ‘the way it used to taste’. A stroll along Chulia Street where the backpackers haven is located and the areas of Gurney Drive and New World Plaza Food court open to great fanfare by adoring food fans with hundreds of individual stalls breaking out the age old favorites. You will not be alone in the eateries and stalls of Georgetown in the evenings. Tourists and local alike are pouring into the these open air restaurants to take advantage of the cuisine, the cool evening breezes and the riotous camaraderie of the environment.
Little India which intersects with the ancient ‘Goddess of Mercy Temple’ offers up some of the best Indian-Tamil cuisine outside of subcontinental Chennai. Our favorites are the Biryani rice dishes with Tandoori chicken served with fresh creamy yogurt and coconut condiments. I admit to indulgence here and make sure that at least once a day we have a sweet Mango Lassi and a Masala Dosa, the massive Indian crepe stuffed with potato and onion curry. Washed down with a India style ‘Chai’ tea in a sparkling glass and I’m in heaven.