The capital of Penang province, George Town is known for several things: its food, its historic buildings, and its Thai embassy that issues 60-day tourist visas within a single day. I think you can all guess which of these three things attracted us to the city, but I’ll admit, in between eating (the topic for a future post), we actually did spend plenty of time soaking in the cultural sights on offer.
Founded in 1768 and named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, there are ample attractions—from beautiful mosques to the ornate homes of wealthy Chinese traders—to delight inquisitive travelers. But perhaps the city’s biggest draw is its preserved colonial core—the area is sufficiently compact that it’s easily walkable, but is large enough to allow one to escape the crowds (or the harried traffic that is inescapable in Asia, even in a purportedly pedestrian friendly area) by wandering down an overlooked alleyway and discover something new. As we quickly learned, the simple act of stepping out the front door in George Town is a bit like tumbling through the looking glass into a fantastic wonderland.
I hesitate to whip out the cliché expression that George Town is a photographer’s dream location, but it’s hard to think of a city that better fits the bill. With preserved shopfronts dating back to the 1930s, historic George Town is awash in cheery pastel colors that cause your mood to lighten as if mirroring those bright hues. The clusters of buildings feel like huddled supermodels, each one archly offering you her best angle for a portrait.
But the truth is that George Town is almost impossibly pretty; it’s a place where it’s far easier to take a good photo than a bad one, regardless of your facility with a camera. The buildings themselves are inherently charming and house decades—if not centuries—of history. Everywhere you look, around every corner you turn, there is something to capture your eye. It’s one of those wonderful cities where you walk around for the first few days and can barely manage a spare thought because you are just so utterly consumed by your surroundings and are continually inspired to take one photo after another. As in Tainan, far from feeling like a distraction, our desire to capture the essence of this place forced us to look at it and connect with it all the more deeply.
Our first few days in George Town were simply spent pounding the gently crumbling pavement. Every morning, like sleepwalkers, we’d shower and dress and then float through the streets, just wandering wherever our feet happened to take us.
Each street we walked down felt like transitioning, sometimes gradually other times abruptly, from one dream into another. We set ourselves an informal scavenger hunt in which we made it our mission to seek out as many of these adorable (and informative!) wrought iron sculptures scattered around the city that explained a tiny bit of trivia about the origin of a given street name or perhaps the original purpose for the district in which we were wandering. I loved the personality and whimsy of these comical structures and felt they were far more entertaining and in keeping with the aesthetic vibe of the city than a boring old informational sign would ever be (and which, let’s be honest, most of us would probably never stop to read).
Without any further adornment, George Town feels incredibly surreal—so colorful and quirky—but the abundant displays of artistic expression and tiny creative flourishes on every available surface only heighten that sense. Walking down Lebuh Armenian, was a bit like strolling into a dream. It was so richly atmospheric, crammed with cluttered little junk and knick-knack shops, including one where an older man serenaded us on an olde-tyme instrument. This quarter of the city was thick with eclectic street art, often much of it mixed medium and of the caliber you’d expect to see on canvas and framed in modern art museums rather than affixed to the side of a building. Most of the pieces we discovered simply by chance as we strolled without purpose or agenda down one street onto the next, sometimes choosing whether to turn left or right based on little more than a flip of a coin or spotting a particularly attractive building or cheery pop of color up ahead. Having a map or a guidebook would have only got in the way and blinded us to the little secrets that lay all around us.
To really enjoy George Town, you have to slow down. Take the time to move from looking to seeing the beauty that surrounds you.
Interspersed amongst all the cuteness of the city, we found streets like Lebuh Cannon where the historic Khoo Kongsi Clan House stands. Initially leery at paying 10MYR (~$3US) to visit and view the building, we decided to pony up the cash and I actually gasped when we rounded the corner because the building was so magnificently imposing. Like the very best Chinese temples we saw in Taiwan, this building was just dripping with ornamentation and beautiful carvings. The inside was intensely atmospheric, and it was readily apparent why the house was chosen as a major set piece in the film Anna and the King. Khoo Kongsi is tucked away off the main tourist thoroughfare and is one of the few attractions in George Town that actually charges an admission fee but it is truly extraordinary and well worth a visit.
Also worth checking out is Kapitan Keling, a funny name for what turns out to be the oldest mosque in Penang. Much of the building is open to the elements and there are few walls, which I think perfectly embodies the spirit of warm invitation that these sorts of buildings tend to exude; all are welcome, no one is left out in the cold (even if you are a women and made to don a full length robe in order to enter the actual building).
We stopped in at a few of the Chinese temples that are sprinkled about the colorful laneways, our personal favorite being Tong Kheng Seah. Little more than a courtyard, at the behest of all the locals at the temple, we climbed all the way up to the temple’s attic area where we marveled at the incredible painstaking paintings that are delicately scrawled all over the beams. The romance of the moment was only slightly lessened when we learned that most of the paintings had been crafted or restored just 10 years ago rather than having weathered the passage of time as we had dreamed.
But can you really blame us for getting carried away on a wave of fanciful fairytales? For George Town is a city that seems to exist these days for the dewy eyed dreamers who ramble its streets, in search of beauty that blossoms in the most unlikely of places. Thanks to the creative souls who call George Town home, the entire city has been transformed into a magnificent work of art, its buildings the canvas on which the creative spirit dances and delights. And yes, a playground for the photographers among us as well.
Tell Us: Have you ever visited George Town? If so, what was our favorite attraction in the city? If not, which city inspired your own inner photographer to break free?