Few countries are as plural as Malaysia and the country prides itself on its multi-ethnic, multicultural identity, which was influenced by native indigenous populations and then by Malay populations, who came from mainland Asia. Increased trade resulted in subsequent Chinese, Indian and even Dutch influences before the land was colonized by Britain.
One of the most beautiful cities in the country embodies this diversity to its core. George Town, on the island of Penang, is a place where you can hear the call to prayer five times a day while eating a tasty biryani in a local food court before heading to a Thai temple to pray in front of a giant lying Buddha and then go sip a coffee in an ancient Chinese shophouse.
The foodie capital of Malaysia, where food courts and markets are proverbially good value for money and plentiful, George Town is also a historic gem full of heritage buildings telling the stories of the many people that came to shape its identity. The UNESCO didn’t think otherwise and designed its historical centre a World Heritage Site in 2008.
It is no wonder why tourism has become such a prominent feature of the city’s economy either and yet, the second biggest city in Malaysia has not entirely been overwhelmed by tourism as it is also a financial and high-tech manufacturing hub. George Town could have easily become an open air museum but it managed to keep its laid-back vibe and authentic feel.
The city is very walkable and quite pedestrian-family, and even its typically south-east Asian swarms of motorbikes are manageable. Bustling street art, colorful ancient Chinese mansions and temples, mouth-watering street food, inviting alcoves and even lively waterfront promenades are just some of the things you can expect to discover in the city but here’s our top pick to know where to start.
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion
You might have heard about this place under a different name as the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion is sometimes referred as the Blue Mansion, for it is very blue indeed. This exquisite and quite lavish mansion was built in the late 19th-century by a Chinese merchant named Cheong Fatt Tze and it features no less than 38 rooms.
That is why it would be a waste to stop at the mansion’s façade, as pretty as it might be, and not explore its inside. Several styles and artistic trends are blended within the mansion, drawing from European cast iron works and Art Nouveau stained glass windows to Chinese porcelain and architectural styles from the Imperial Period.
There was a time when the Blue Mansion was at risk of being destroyed though but a renovation program managed to keep it safe, notably through turning into a boutique hotel as well as renting it as a shooting location for various films such as the Oscar-winning French movie Indochine, starring Catherine Deneuve. Fortunately, the mansion is still open for visitation three times a day at 11AM, 1:30PM and 3:30PM.
Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi
Chinese architecture is prominent in George Town, from unique shophouses to humble-looking temples. The Khoo Kongsi building sure is unique, although there is nothing humble about it. Located in the heart of the old city, this intricate compound was built by the Khoo Kongsi clan, a clan that originated from Chinese Fujian province. It was originally built to function as a miniature village for the clan, even accounting for its own self-government.
The Khoo Kongsi temple was added to the clanhouse in the beginning of the 19th-century, at the peak of the clan’s prominence, and its architecture is a true demonstration of opulence and grandeur. Ornate statues, golden altars, vivid lanterns, ornamented wooden beams said to have been crafted by the most talented craftsmen of China and on top of the building, a roof surmounted by sculptures of mythical dragons and phoenix birds, the Khoo clan sure took their temple to the next level of splendor.
What’s left of the clanhouse now is an architectural feat that has become an iconic city landmark and a place to learn more about clan life, through exhibitions on display within the complex.
Kapitan Keling Mosque
All faiths coexist peacefully in George Town. Protestant churches, Taoist temples and mosques stand a few miles from each other. Malaysia being a majority Muslim country, the call to prayer can be heard five times a day in every part of the city, including its historic centre where the azan is heard from the Kapitan Keling Mosque.
Surprisingly enough, this Islamic centre was built no sooner than the 19th-century and was the first permanent Muslim institution in the area. Built by Penang’s first Indian Muslim settlers, who belonged to the East Indian Company, it was named after the “kapitan” of the Keling community, meaning the leader of the city’s Indian community.
Contrary to many other mosques, the Kapitan Keling can be visited outside of praying times, provided visitors are dressed appropriately. Abaya robes are therefore handed out to girl visitors while everyone must leave their shoes in the entrance. It is worth going inside to admire its Indian-Muslim style minaret and mughal-style architecture.
Due to its location on the north-eastern tip of the Penang Island, George Town is obviously surrounded by water. As such, the city boasts a number of pedestrian-friendly waterfront promenades including the Esplanade, a seaside promenade that isn’t to be confused with the Gurney Drive, also known as the New Esplanade on the more modern side of the city.
The Esplanade holds great historical importance as it was the site where the first traders from the East Indian Company disembarked. Fort Cornwallis, a prominent city landmark, was built right next to it, as were many subsequent colonial buildings such as the St George’s Anglican Church as well as the Penang Town Hall. Thanks to its close proximity to the historic city centre, the Esplanade is a nice place for a heritage walk and especially so at night, when monuments get illuminated and the promenade gets livelier as many locals gather to take a walk or to get a late night snack at a street food stall.
Along the seaside walk stands the Church Street Pier, a historic dock which was supposed to be turned into a marina which never came to be, and further away stands the Chew jetty, a clan jetty that is home to quaint houses on stilts.
Wat Chayamangkalaram Temple
George Town isn’t short of stunning places of worship, as we’ve seen before. Yet, none reaches the level of extravaganza that the Wat Chayamangkalaram Thai temple achieves so effortlessly. Everything in this temple is oversized, gaudy and glittery.
The temple is especially well-known for its huge reclining Buddha statue, said to be the world’s longest, but it is also home to flashy dragons and giant snakes. It takes quite a journey to get there from the city’s historic centre but it is well worth the trip to delve into a world of bright colors and shiny mythical creatures.
On top of that, a visit to the Wat Chayamangkaralam can be coupled with a visit to the Dharmikarama Burmese Temple, which stands opposite and is the only Burmese Temple outside of Myanmar. This serene place showcases many Buddha statues as well as a Boddhi tree, a wishing pond and a peaceful garden.
Both temples also allow exploring a different side of the city, one that is more modern up on Gurney Drive but also a bit more hectic and less touristy further inland.
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George Town is a fine example of Malaysia' mixed heritage and a city full of amazing architecture, delicious food from all over Asia and picture perfect alcoves streets. The city can be a good start to discover the country and then keep going to one of the country's many islands, such as Langkawi which boasts a direct boat connection from George Town's port. It is also a full-fledged destination in itself and part of the best city breaks in Asia in our opinion.
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