I awake early and take a stroll around the city’s quaint alleyways. At this time of the morning, a peaceful silence envelops the streets. The musical song of the 5am call to prayer still resonates along the town’s lanes. A lean Malay fellow lifts a rusty shutter, ready to commence another day’s work. Rows of fading, pastel-coloured houses line old world streets – these were former townhouses and shophouses, many with intricately-painted enclosed courtyards.
I am in George Town, the capital of Penang, a sizeable island off the west coast of Malaysia that is connected to the mainland by bridge. The colonial district was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, as a living testimony to the country’s multicultural past. Today, Penang’s multi-ethnic society is mainly formed of three communities: Malay, Chinese and Indian. These three groups have long co-existed side-by-side, and to this day each of the city’s neighbourhoods retains a powerful individual cultural and religious identity. George Town is renowned as the food capital of Malaysia, thanks to its rich heritage and diverse culinary traditions. Recently a new craze has taken the town by storm: street art, which attracts scores of Malaysians and Westerners alike who scour the city in search of the quirkiest mural.
As I venture towards Little India, a potent smell of spicy curry permeates the colourful streets, lined with garish jewellery shops and sari vendors. A hawker stall has set up shop at a street junction; a metal ladle rests inside a large pot of saffron-coloured curry, ready to scoop up breakfast for George Town’s hungry early-birds. Bollywood posters are precariously stuck to the roughly painted walls, alongside mannequins in glittering saris and beaded necklaces. A young CD vendor suddenly blasts up the volume on his obsolete sound system, letting out a wave of melodic Indian songs which echo through the streets.
As I stroll along the crumbling pavements, caricatures jump out at me from the lively street art, mimicking former life in the city. A wrought iron caricature depicts the origins of Penang’s famous nasi kandar dish, which I soon learn originated from Tamil Muslims who peddled the streets selling homemade curry and rice from large containers that rested on either side of a kandar, a wooden stick.
The Indians of Penang originated from different parts of the Subcontinent, although the dominant group here are the Tamils from the south. It was the quest for spices that led the Europeans to establish Penang in 1786. The ruler of Kedah, Sultan Abdullah, leased Penang to the British East India Company, which brought in labourers from southern India to develop the colony. Early Indians also settled here as merchants, moneylenders and traders, while others worked in sugar plantations or in the civil service. With them, they brought age-old traditions and customs, as well as a tantalising food flavoured by rich spices. Little India is dotted with mamak, south Indian Muslim restaurants, where mouth-watering banana leaf curries, colourful biryanis and succulent tandoori chicken are served, along with freshly baked naan, roti canai and thosai. Malaysia is home to all manner of curries, not just Indian, which is thicker and spicier than the sweet Malay flavours, while the Chinese curry is similar in texture to gravy with its watery consistency and is just as delicious as the rest.
I stroll towards the nearby streets of Chinatown, lined with pre-war shophouses, and now filled with antique traders, artisans, lantern makers and shops displaying traditional Chinese medicines and herbs. Every few metres, the overpowering smell of incense and the sight of flickering candles within brightly coloured temples invite passers-by to explore their interior. The sweet smell of hokkien mee wafts down the street: noodles drenched in a thick spicy broth served with beansprouts and water spinach.
The Chinese used Penang as a base for their commercial activities in nearby Siam (now Thailand), Myanmar (Burma), and the northern and western states of Malaya, as well as northern Sumatra. Chinese families intermarried with Malays, giving birth to Baba Nyonya communities, who still exert a large influence today. Nyonya cuisine uses traditional Chinese ingredients and wok frying methods, along with Malay spices. The result is a unique taste that combines spicy, sweet and sour flavours. Among the most popular dishes are otak-otak, fish paste marinated with spices, and ayam buah keula, chicken stew with black nuts. In Penang, Nyonya cuisine also embraces Thai elements, by incorporating tamarind and other sour ingredients.
I soon come across a steel-rod caricature that reveals where the world famous shoe designer Jimmy Choo, a native of George Town, started his apprenticeship. Another depicts a large Chinese man, the “Cheating Husband”, on Love Lane, which was allegedly where the rich kept their mistresses – hence the street name. I get lost in a series of alleyways, where I soon discover a new art world of pastel-coloured paintings that decorate the city’s ancient walls. One of the artists behind these is Lithuanian-born Ernest Zacharevic, whose interactive urban murals, mostly of children, have become the town’s latest trend, with eager tourists queuing to take their much awaited snapshot as they pose by each design.
I saunter along the streets for hours, munching here and there on all manner of culinary delights, taking in the varicoloured sights and penetrating smells that engulf the beating heart of the city – a mélange of diverse ancient cultures that sit side by side, tainted with a streak of modern art that has been welcomingly incorporated by this medley of peoples.
You can explore more of Malaysia with the Rough Guide to Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, and see this varied region using our Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.