The Art of Ambling in George Town

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.

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.

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

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.

Man plays an old instrument, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

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).

Kapitan Keling mosque, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

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.

Tong Kheng Seah, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Tong Kheng Seah, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

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.

Cyclo, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

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?

Popular in: Malaysia

30 comments Leave a comment

  1. We head to Georgetown tomorrow from Cameron Highlands and can’t wait! Thanks for the post and pictures, hopefully we will be able to find as much great street art as you did!

    Feb. 27 2014 @ 2:56 am
    1. Simone author

      We have a few more things to write about this wonderful city, so hopefully we can get them up before you leave so you can take advantage of them!

      Also, I think we only saw a tiny fraction of the street art on offer—I keep seeing photos of Penang street art that features things we definitely never saw!

      Feb. 28 2014 @ 12:46 am
  2. Stephanie, Another great Malaysia post. We missed George Town on our visit last month…bummer! I lamented it while we were there and tried to figure out how to get there, but no deal. Love the cast iron sculptures and all your photos!

    Feb. 27 2014 @ 4:46 am
    1. Corinne author

      Thanks for the kind words, Corinne. Malaysia is a pretty big country so it can be difficult to squeeze in all the places you want to visit—we made it to George Town, but had to skip the Highlands and didn’t get to see anything on the east coast. I’ve no doubt we’ll be back again one day, however, so it’s nice to know there will be more to discover!

      Feb. 28 2014 @ 12:47 am
  3. We loved George Town too, especially the incredibly nice street art which was very different to what we are used to normally. It is such an artistic city! 🙂

    Feb. 27 2014 @ 5:08 am
    1. Franca author

      Oh, I can only imagine what heaven you and Dale were in when you made it to George Town! After months without much street art in Asia, it must have BLOWN YOUR MINDS! 😀

      Feb. 28 2014 @ 12:48 am
  4. I’ll admit that I’d never heard of (this) George Town before but now I doubt I’ll ever forget it. Your pictures are wonderful and I love the city’s mix of cheerful pastels and gritty street art, such a wonderful balance of hard and soft that you captured brilliantly. Another bit of truth, I’ve been feeling a bit over South East Asia recently (why? I have no idea, we’ve never even been there) but this post about this incredible city has me warming up to the entire area a bit more. Thanks for the great read and safe travels!

    Feb. 27 2014 @ 1:29 pm
    1. Calli author

      One thing I will say about (South East) Asia is that it’s a really diverse, heterogeneous part of the world. No two countries are alike and there’s actually still a ton to discover and explore here, so even if you feel burnt out about a particular country, another one really might pique your interest! I do understand how you feel, however, since I’m kind of the same way about South America—I’ve never been, but all the posts from that part of the world seem to be about the same things.

      Knowing how much you love photography, I think you’d have a blast wandering around George Town. And, as you’ll see in my next post, the foods great too!

      Feb. 28 2014 @ 12:55 am
  5. Gorgeous pictures but I do especially love the first one 🙂

    Feb. 27 2014 @ 4:07 pm
    1. Rhonda author

      Thanks, Rhonda! It’s not often I manage to outshoot Tony, but every so often I nail the money shot! 😉

      Feb. 28 2014 @ 12:56 am
  6. Ahhh George Town. Unfortunately we haven’t visited ourselves, but we have heard so many travelers praising it, and it sounds exactly like the kind of place we would love to get lost in. Lovely description and photos. I particularly like the street art photos!

    Feb. 27 2014 @ 6:56 pm
    1. Casey @ A Cruising Couple author

      I think you and Dan would have a lot of fun in George Town, and in Malaysia in general. The people are so friendly and the food is crazy good… I’m actually surprised more travelers don’t make a visit a priority!

      Feb. 28 2014 @ 12:57 am
  7. I’d heard of George Town but honestly couldn’t tell you what I thought I would have expected, but the photos in this post have bowled me over! I would love to meander the streets like you guys did, and I know Ewan would freak out at all the awesome street art!

    Feb. 28 2014 @ 6:20 pm
    1. Emily author

      Yeah, if you’re street art fans (which I know Ewan is!), then it’s hard to think of anywhere else in Asia that is quite as exciting as George Town! We’ve seen little pockets here and there, but this was definitely the mecca!

      Feb. 28 2014 @ 9:21 pm
  8. I love that you guys took the time to just wander and explore. It’s so easy to make plans and fill the time, but it seems like you were well rewarded for your patience. I can’t believe all that street art…amazing!

    Feb. 28 2014 @ 7:53 pm
    1. Rochelle author

      The longer we travel, the better we get at just letting a city reveal itself in unplanned ways rather than darting about from one guidebook attraction to the next. These days we often show up with just a very rough idea of one or two things we would like to experience and then we leave the rest up to chance!

      Feb. 28 2014 @ 9:24 pm
  9. Wow those sculptures are awesome. It is amazing how a bit of street art can change a place. We saw a lot of graffiti art in San Cristobal of all places, and it turned dingy walls into something beautiful to look at.

    Of course you also have the temples 🙂

    Mar. 1 2014 @ 9:54 am
    1. Tyrhone author

      Yes, street art can really take the most mundane of places and elevate them into something extraordinary, so it’s especially exciting to encounter it in a place that’s already got “good bones”.

      I’m excited for us to (some day) make it to Mexico because the cities there look so colorful… and while Asia may have temples, you guys have tacos, so let’s call it a draw! 😉

      Mar. 3 2014 @ 3:20 am
  10. Lovely – the street art is fantastic! Is the food really as good as I’ve heard?

    Mar. 2 2014 @ 6:36 am
    1. Maddie author

      If you’re curious about the food, we reveal all in our next post! 😀

      Mar. 3 2014 @ 3:23 am
  11. Hi Stephanie —

    I now live in Hong Kong but Penang is where I was born and my parents still reside. Having lived abroad for more than half of my life, when I returned to live there for a couple of years, my mother would laugh and say I saw Penang at least half through a foreigner’s eyes that made me think things that were everyday to her were wondrous and special.

    Re non-food* places to visit and that I like showing to visitors: you went to two of them – the Khoo Kongsi and the Kapitan Keling mosque. Hope you did also get to the Kek Lok Si Temple out in Air Itam, and the world’s smallest national park:out in the northeast of Penang Island:-

    *Re food; I know you wrote that you preferred the food in Malacca. It’s made me curious to see where you ate while you were in Penang!.

    Mar. 2 2014 @ 8:40 am
    1. YTSL author

      “[M]y mother would laugh and say I saw Penang at least half through a foreigner’s eyes that made me think things that were everyday to her were wondrous and special.”

      That’s what I really love about traveling, actually! The fact that it lets us see the extraordinary in the ordinary.

      I’ve still got a few posts about Penang up my sleeve—next one is about food (so you’ll be able to see what we ate very soon!), and the one after that will be about some of the “non-local” sites we made the effort to see. Not to ruin the surprise, but we did make it to Kek Lok Si (though not the national park)! Well worth the effort, it was magnificent!

      Mar. 3 2014 @ 3:26 am
  12. This looks like the kind of city I could get happily lost in for hours, just wandering around with a smile on my face, soaking it all up. When we’re back in Asia, Malaysia is high on the list.

    Mar. 2 2014 @ 1:19 pm
    1. Heather author

      Yes, definitely make time for Malaysia! Too many people skip it, which is a shame because it’s lovely and really quite different culturally from the rest of Asia!

      Mar. 3 2014 @ 3:28 am
  13. The street art is so wonderful! A lovely read too…

    Mar. 12 2014 @ 11:01 am
    1. Sand In My Suitcase author

      Thank you! So glad you enjoyed this. The street art in Penang is really world class!

      Mar. 14 2014 @ 12:27 am
  14. The street art is amazing, and the temples – my goodness! I would love to explore this amazing town! It seems like there is something wonderful at every turn. And you captured some fantastic photographs!

    Mar. 12 2014 @ 8:49 pm
    1. Lauren author

      Thanks, Lauren! So glad you enjoyed this and I hope you do get the chance to visit George Town one day. It’s a city that really is great for exploring and photographing, which I hope our photos prove!

      Mar. 14 2014 @ 3:23 am
  15. George Town is one photogenic city, I absolutely agree with you. The art of experiencing it entailed for me putting down the camera and just observing. My favorite ‘sight’ was the people: more than the buildings and art George Town was for me very much a people-watching town (I do remember the trishaw driver from your last picture).

    Mar. 16 2014 @ 8:34 am
    1. Peter Korchnak @ Where Is Your Toothbrush? author

      The people in George Town certainly are characters in their own right, aren’t they? Definitely one of those cities where all of the elements unite to create something of a heightened reality!

      Mar. 20 2014 @ 7:36 pm

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