Penang: Living the colonial dream

November 17, 2009 0 Comments

Our next stop in Malaysia is somewhat smaller and quieter than Kuala Lumpur. Penang is a state on the North-West coast of Malaysia comprised of an island and a strip of land on the mainland. Had we been travelling by train we would have arrived at Butterworth on the mainland and taken a ferry over to Penang Island. Instead we fly up to the airport on the south of the island. From there we get a taxi up to the capital of Penang State – Georgetown. For a while it seems that the taxi driver might endeavour to talk us out of going to the accommodation that we’ve booked, but our extremely disinterested comments persuade him that it won’t be worth the effort. He settles for telling us that it’s a ‘bungalow lodge’ in a tone that implies this is a bad thing. Whatever – we’ll chance our luck with it. As it turns out, the Hutton Lodge is fine. It’s a small B&B type hostel on the fringes of central Georgetown. The room is big and reasonably clean, the air conditioning works and the bathroom facilities are perfectly useable. We can live with the lingering smell of bug spray if it’s helping to keep any unwanted insects out of our room.



So why are we in Georgetown? Georgetown is supposed to be a typical colonial city. It reminds a lot of people of Singapore back in the seventies. It’s listed as a world heritage site and is apparently one of the top ten locations in Asia for Europeans to live and work. It has a mixed population of Chinese and Muslims and is one of Malaysia’s largest cities. Wikitravel also tells us that Penang is considered the food capital of Malaysia, and Georgetown offers the best of Penang cuisine. Originally this would have been a convenient stopoff point on the long train journey through Malaysia. With our flights we’ve gained a bit of extra time to see what all the fuss is about. On our first morning I break the news to Brodie that we are in fact, currently on an island, which was a relevant fact he’d somehow missed when we were discussing our visit to Penang before. Having cleared that up, we’re free to explore.



Georgetown is a lot further north than Kuala Lumpur and we can see clear blue skies above us again when it’s not actually raining. It’s a large city with a strange combination of a colonial inner core and the more developed suburbs where we can see tall buildings mixed in. The streets are mostly one-way in the centre and you have to watch for wide open gutters or sewerage systems along the sides. Stone slabs sometimes bridge the gap between road and covered walkway. In the heat of the day the smells rise overpoweringly in places. Every second shop around here is a jewellers store. A good proportion of the remainder are pawn shops. Most of the traffic in around the centre of the city consists of scooters – the bane of our lives. These guys merrily go where they will. Wrong way up the road, check. Wrong way up a one-way street, check.  Mount the pavement whenever you feel like it, check. Park all over the covered walkways so pedestrians have to walk out into oncoming traffic, check.


penang in the rain

During the couple of days we spend in Georgetown we have to dodge some thunderstorms and torrential rain – par for the course during the rainy season. We stick with Indian food for the duration and spend some time roaming the streets of the colonial core becoming accustomed to ignoring the ever present tuk tuk drivers. The store fronts are quite distinctive, facing directly onto walkways that can be covered off against the heat or rain. Temples appear randomly along the streets, some plain, some decorated to excess. It’s an interesting place to see though definitely not one of our preferred locations during the trip. This goes firmly into the category of ‘cultural experience’ – good to see, but no real reason to linger. The memory of the stench along some of the more ‘authentic’ streets has been embedded into our minds within a couple of hours. The highlight of the visit without a shadow of doubt has been enjoying the cuisine the place is famous for.

Our first foray into the streets in search of food doesn’t seem to go too well. The natives have a preference for street stalls when it comes to getting food. Without a local to guide us we’re quite wary of what we might end up with. We pass through markets where random pieces of meat are piled high and nothing particularly appeals to us. Eventually we search through Little India and settle on a place called Kapitan which is serving Indian food to a good crowd of people. While we could do without the waiter glued to our table while we look at the menu, we’re more than happy with the food when it arrives. We both have naan bread, Brodie goes for the chicken with sauce and I opt for the skewered kebab meat. With drinks this comes to the princely sum of €2.50 each. It’s all good food and we’ve already resolved to come back for lunch the next day although we’re not sure whether perhaps we’ve gone for the Malaysian equivalent of fast food instead of quality. When we’re back at the hostel I find that this is actually one of the budget locations highly recommended by wikitravel. Apart from Kapitan we investigate Jaya – another Indian restaurant that rates highly with wikitravel and has a different choice to Kapitan, but it’s Kapitan which ultimately becomes our favourite.



Kapitan may not be likely to pass a very stringent health and cleanliness inspection, but the food preparation is mostly done in view which is always reassuring. It’s fascinating to see them preparing small mounds of naan bread and tossing both it and skewers of marinated meat into what looks exactly like the kind of kiln you would expect an artist to be using. Waves of heat come from that corner of the building and you can see the sparks flying up. A while later the lids will be removed and cooked food is gingerly picked out. When it arrives on your plate you can taste the difference, not quite like a barbeque, but smoky nonetheless and full of flavour with plenty of spices. Judging by the large number of people, both local and foreigners who are filling up the place, the food is very popular. This is what I’ll be remembering Penang for, not the colonial store fronts or colourful temples – the chicken tikka and naan.