Never judge a book by it’s cover. Lonely Planet describes George Town as a place that disarms you rather than charms you. We weren’t sure what this meant at first but, after spending a day walking around the streets of the old part of the city, now completely agree.
George Town is that weird girl at a party who accosts you with something pointlessly controversial. You’re not sure what you make of her but she’s most likely an idiot. You give in and carry on the conversation. Now she seems quirky and artsy. She’s also quite cute, in certain lights. Then, BAM, you take a walk down Armenian Street, find the epic China House and you’re in love. I forget whether we’re talking about the girl or Penang at this point, but I don’t think it matters. Ignore your first impressions, George Town is great.
We stayed in the UNESCO-protected part of the city in the northwest of the island. The protected status doesn’t mean it’s in any way a pristine colonial museum-piece. The paint’s peeling and cracking on the old townhouses, and not always in that attractive fading grandeur way. We began exploring on Jalan Chulia (named for the Chulia population moved here under British rule), the main street running east to west through town. Pavements aren’t really a thing here; shops use the covered walkways as places to hang ugly signs, whilst their customers use them for parking. Oh, and if you’re expecting a stroll around the waterfront in this island town – forget it. The waterfront is covered by warehouses and passenger ports. For all that, the traffic is a lot calmer than the sprawling city beyond, so walking round the old town was quite easy, as we ducked between porticos to shelter from the melting heat. When it gets too hot, you can always jump in a tri-shaw, or air-con taxi. Penang is one of those “sorry, meter broken” cities (taxi drivers refuse to use the meter), so you need to negotiate a fare.
Not that impressed by Jalan Chulia we set off down side-streets in search of the famous George Town street art. In 2012 Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic created a set of murals that incorporate everyday objects like bikes, bamboo steamers, and chairs.
Their success has prompted other street artists to get in on the action with paintings and sculptures now dotted around the old town.
A set of metal sculptures tell the story of important moments in George Town history, from the spot where Jimmy Choo started his shoe empire to the story behind how Canon Street got its name.
The street art trail clearly attracts a lot of visitors and, in turn, seems to be having a positive spill-over effect on the city. Buildings near the artworks look better restored, and shops and cafes are busy with passersby. A perfect example of arts positively affecting economy.
Around the areas with lots of street art, we started dipping into cafes, shops, and bars. Here’s where we really started to fall in love. From the outside, they don’t look like anything special, but time after time we found interesting and quirky places. Artisan bakeries, a local wood carving artist’s showroom, DIY sunglasses designers, boutique hostels, capsule hostels, Insta-friendly ryokans.
Between these are Mosques, Churches, Gurdwaras, Hindu, and Buddhist temples, as well as Victorian-era monuments. And then we stumbled across China House.
From the street it looked like an average bar, but inside was a rabbit warren of different rooms. Rooms leading into more rooms, into more rooms, until we realised we’d gone through the entire block and had come outside again on a completely different street! China House is home to a live music bar, a ribbon-festooned courtyard, a small restaurant, a cosy martini lounge, a cake counter of epic proportions, a gallery, a tiny boutique shop, a doodle cafe with paper tablecloths and supply of crayons on each table, and a grand living room that looked like something from an interiors shoot. We found the living room at the top of a side staircase in the bar. Nobody else was there which only added to the ‘down the rabbit hole’ feeling we had when exploring the whole place.
George Town is known as a foodie paradise. Like much of Malaysia, the food is a cool mix of Chinese, Indian, and Malay. In Penang, you can add Baba Nyonya cuisine to the list; an offshoot of Chinese food developed over generations of Malaysian-born Chinese communities. We’d arrived planning to spend whole evenings munching our way through different food markets, to try nasi goreng and nasi kandar, even to (maybe) try the claypot frog porridge (probably not). In the end, we got distracted by the selection of Indian and Middle Eastern food, not to mention the cakes, at China House and didn’t get very far through our culinary wish list.
The streets of Little India and Chinatown come alive at night with street food vendors. We headed to the Red Garden street food court to catch the tail-end of Chinese New Year celebrations, where our dim-sum dinner had a soundtrack of live music performances.
By the time we left Georgetown on the ferry to Langkawi, we’d seemingly developed an immunity to the open drains, hoards of ugly signs, and the need to dodge cars and mopeds whilst walking along the street. All we noticed along our last evening stroll along Jalan Chulia, Armenian Street, and the romantically named Love Lane and Light Lane, were the warm glow of the Chinese lanterns, the delicious smells from the street food carts, live music playing in bars that spilled out onto the street, and the fond memories of China House. Aah, China House.