Visiting GEORGETOWN in 1879, stalwart Victorian traveller Isabella Bird called it “a brilliant place under a brilliant sky”, a simple statement on which it’s hard to improve – though the confusion of buses, lorries and scooters make Georgetown’s modern downtown unnervingly frenetic and polluted. Filling a triangular projection at Pulau Pinang’s northeastern corner, Georgetown’s heart lies between the decaying remains of Fort Cornwallis, which guarded the city in its earliest years, and the towering modern bulk of the KOMTAR centre, overlooking everything 1.5km to the south. In between is Chinatown, a maze of lanes liberally sprinkled with grand clan association halls and two-storey shophouses in various stages of decay and restoration, which itself encloses the smaller ethnic enclave of Little India and a vaguely identifiable Muslim quarter.
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Certainly no sleepy backwater (most of the island’s one-million-strong population lives here), Georgetown’s historic lanes and street life make it an appealing place to explore, and a hangout for budget travellers seeking to renew Thai visas. The city’s main arteries are traffic-clogged Lebuh Chulia (named after the Tamil word for “merchant”), which cuts east–west through central Georgetown, and slightly less busy Jalan Masjid Kapitan Kling (or Lebuh Pitt), which crosses it at right angles. Almost everything of interest – shops, museums, temples, restaurants and accommodation – lies within a short walk of these roads, while the rest of the island can be reached on buses from KOMTAR or Terminal Weld, on the seafront where ferries from Butterworth dock.
Kongsi and clan mansions
In modern Chinese, kongsi simply means “a company”, but in former times each was more like a clan or regional association providing help and protection for nineteenth-century immigrants, who naturally tended to band together according to the district in China from which they came. Formerly a focus for community rivalry, the kongsis have now reverted to their supportive role, helping with the education of members’ children, settling disputes between clan members, or advancing loans.
Many of the kongsi buildings in Penang are excellent examples of traditional southern Chinese architecture: there is generally a spacious courtyard in front of the clan house, opposite which is a stage for theatrical performances, and two halls in the main building itself, one for the shrine of the clan deity, the other for the display of the ancestral tablets (the equivalent of gravestones).
The Penang Riots
Chinese immigrants to Penang brought their traditions with them, including secret societies, which provided mutual aid and protection for the Chinese community – bolstered in Georgetown by alliances with similar Malay religious groups.
As the societies grew in wealth and power, gang warfare and extortion rackets became commonplace. Matters came to a head in the Penang Riots of 1867: for nine days Georgetown was shaken by fighting between the Tua Peh Kong society, supported by the Malay Red Flag, and the Ghee Hin, allied with the Malay White Flag. Police intervention resulted in a temporary truce, but on August 1, 1867, the headman of the Tua Peh Kong falsely charged the Ghee Hin and White Flag societies with stealing cloth belonging to Tua Peh Kong dyers. All hell broke loose, and fighting raged around Lebuhs Armenian Church and Chulia. Barricades were erected around the Khoo Kongsi, where some of the fiercest skirmishes occurred – you can still find bullet holes in the surrounding shops and houses.
The fighting was eventually quelled by sepoys (Indian troops) brought in from Singapore by the Governor-General, but by then hundreds had been killed and scores of houses burned. A penalty of RM5000 was levied on each of the secret societies, some of which was later used to finance the building of four police stations to deal with any future trouble.
Street names in Georgetown
Georgetown’s original street names reflected the city’s colonial past. The current trend, however, is either to rename streets after indigenous worthies – as in Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah – or to translate the existing name, such as Lebuh Gereja for Church Street. This would be straightforward enough, except that the new names have not always been popularly accepted – Lorong Cinta, for example, is almost universally known as Love Lane – and even official maps might use either name. The most awkward of the new names is Jalan Masjid Kapitan Kling for Pitt Street, which more often than not is referred to simply as Lebuh Pitt. Several names are also used repeatedly, so watch out for Lorong Chulia (Chulia Lane) and Lebuh Chulia (Chulia Street), Lorong Penang and Lebuh Penang, and so on. Finally, don’t confuse Lorong Cinta with Lebuh Cintra.
Temples and gardens near Georgetown
A short bus ride from KOMTAR through Georgetown’s western suburbs passes three interesting temples and winds up at the island’s attractive – and surprisingly wild – Botanic Gardens. You could spend a morning out this way, or simply stop off en route to Batu Ferringhi and points west. Rapid Penang bus #10 comes within range of all the sights and terminates at the gardens, though you might need to ask the driver where to get off elsewhere.
Wat Chayamangkalaram is a Thai Buddhist temple dating to the 1900s, very different in design from Chinese equivalents elsewhere in Penang with its bright colours, flame-edged eaves and huge gilded pagoda, all soft curves, to one side. The main hall’s entrance is flanked by nagas, fierce snake-like creatures painted gold and bright green, and guarded by two hefty demons holding swords. The aircraft-hangar-like interior is a stark contrast, filled by a 33m-long Reclining Buddha statue, looking rather feminine and draped in a gold sarong with his aura flaming about him. Murals depict episodes from Buddha’s life.
While the Burmese Dharmmikarama Temple is similar to the Wat Chayamangkalaram Temple opposite, its guardians are two snarling white and gold lions, with scales, claws and fiery trim. The Buddha here is standing, smiling mysteriously into the gloom and with oversized white hands, one pointing upwards and one down. The temple grounds are a bit nicer than those over the road, with more greenery and less concrete, and a few naturalistically painted statues dotted about.
Penang’s Nattukottai Chettiar Temple is the focus of the riotous three-day Hindu Thaipusam festival, in honour of Lord Subramanian (Jan or Feb). One of the crowning moments is the arrival of a silver chariot and statue of Lord Murugan, which have been carried from the sister temple in Georgetown. At other times of year, you’re free to concentrate on the temple itself, in which an unusual wooden colonnaded walkway with exquisite pictorial tiles leads up to the inner sanctum, where a life-sized solid-silver peacock – the birds crop up throughout the temple – bows its head to the deity, Lord Subramanian.
Dating to 1884, Georgetown’s Botanic Gardens were designed to beautify an old quarry. You wouldn’t know that now: there are lawns, a stream flowing through, paved walking tracks, groves of bamboos and ornamental trees, an orchid house, ferns and cactus, and surrounding forested hills. Saturday and Sunday mornings it’s packed with family groups of exercising Chinese, who storm around the circuit trail in about thirty minutes; take it slower and it’s good for an hour’s stroll. Picnics tend to be torpedoed by invading monkeys, but there are gentler creatures too, not least flying lizards, which coast between trees on the forest edge.
You can walk to Penang Hill from here in around three hours, but it’s a tough uphill hike – better to come down this way.
The suburb of Ayer Itam (also written “Air Hitam”) amounts to little more than a 100m-long bottleneck, where the traffic squeezed between shops and the canvas awnings of a busy wet market. There are two reasons to visit: the colonial-era retreat of Penang Hill, slightly north, which is rich in refreshingly cool air and greenery, and Kek Lok Si, a ludicrously over-built hilltop Buddhist complex.
At 821m high, Penang Hill makes a nice escape from Georgetown’s pollution and humidity: there are walking trails, flowers and bungalows (now hotels) dating from colonial times, when this hill station was a retreat for the British administrators. Nowadays, it’s a popular local excursion; avoid weekends and holidays if possible.
The bus delivers to the foot of the hill on Jalan Bukit Bandera; signs a short way north point to the “bat cave temple”, Tua Pek Kong. “Bat” in Chinese sounds like the word for “good fortune”, so the tiny shrine – named after a colony of bats out the back – is naturally dedicated to the god of luck.
From the top of Jalan Bukit Bandera, a funicular railway whisks visitors to the top of the near-vertical hillside in a few minutes – a fun ride, were it not for the extortionate fee. Views from the top terraces stretch beyond Georgetown and over the straits to Butterworth; gentle, badly marked walks lead out to Tiger Hill and Western Hill, while a sealed road at the back descends steeply to the Botanic Gardens in around two hours. Cream teas are offered by a few establishments, and you can also stay up here .
Supposedly the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, Kek Lok Si was founded by the abbot of Georgetown’s Kuan Yin Teng in 1885, and originally modelled on Fok San Monastery in Foochow, China. It certainly doesn’t resemble any normal temple complex nowadays: the hill sprouts all sorts of fantastic shrines and pagodas, linked by hundreds of steps, and bedecked with flags, lanterns and statues. The two most prominent features are the white, seven-tier wedding-cake assemblage that is the Ten Thousand Buddhas Pagoda, capped by a golden Burmese stupa; and a 30m-high bronze statue of the goddess of mercy, Kuan Yin, sheltered from the elements by an open-sided pavilion, its pillars wreathed in carved dragons.
For such an obvious landmark, the route up here is hard to find. From the Balik Pulau road, follow the market street up towards Kek Lok Si; just before the road bends uphill, look for a row of shops to the left concealing a gauntlet of trinket stalls, their awnings forming a tunnel. Steps ascend to the temple forecourt, past a pond for turtles, which represent eternity. A vegetarian restaurant at the top is open throughout the day.