Georgetown Malaysia. Anglo-chinese-indian tradition in the capital of Penang.

Georgetown Malaysia. Asia is my continent of choice and after Laos and Thailand I say it’s time to hit the capital of Malaysia, KL,  and head north to the island of Penang and the city of George Town.

This city, together with Kuala Lumpur, is one of the classic destinations for tourists traveling in mainland Malaysia.

A  view of the capital of the state of Penang.
Georgetown Malaysia. A  view of the capital of the state of Penang.

Georgetown Malaysia. Double soul but not a double standard

Georgetown has a double soul. A modern city that extends over a large part of the island of Penang and a “small” English colonial outpost of which still retains several buildings built between the late nineteenth and early 20th century.

The beauty of Georgetown is given precisely by the difficult, fragile, sometimes opportunistic, con- fusion of a colonial past that recalls the golden moment of the European expansionism and of a present that speaks mainly Chinese.

Not that Georgetown does not retain traces (to be honest entire neighborhoods) of Indian immigration or Malaysian “natives”, but certainly the leading role today has been conquered by the Chinese ethnic group, who hold in their hands the economic power of the State of Penang.

George Town Malaysia, view of the Kek Lok Si temple. The photo is not but the temple is really a great place.

Georgetown Malaysia. From history to present

From this bicentennial Anglo/Chinese stratification, emerges a city a bit shabby but full of charm. Georgetown is one of the few cities in Malaysia where, on full moon nights, between the hot wind and the screams of the sellers of fried food, you can still find the red lanterns lit up the streets and feel as if you ended up in one of Joseph Konrad’s novels (preferably Lord Jim or Victoria).

Of course, Georgetown is not just red lanterns, Chinese shophouses, Buddhist temples, and an English colonial-style town hall.

The shopping centers are starting to appear everywhere. The old hostels (including the Banana hostel, the legendary first hostel in George Town and a must for the backpacker tour of Southeast Asia, called “banana pancake trail “) are being renewed and here and there. Among the crossroads of Love Lane, you could find boutique hotels with European prices.

Undoubtedly the tourist tastes have changed a lot in the last twenty years or so and today even the (in)famous “backpacking tourists” prefer structures equipped with those basic comforts that were once considered bourgeois luxuries. It follows that the supply of local accommodation has been adapted to the needs of tourists.

Unfortunately, the time has not only led to a qualitative improvement of the hotels, but also an intense building fever that has completely saturated the already polluted coastal areas.

Georgetown Malaysia. Colonial district

The colonial district of Georgetown, overlooking the Andaman Sea, is certainly one of the main attractions of the city. It is here that you will find the remains of Fort Cornwallis, built in the place where for the first time English feet have touched Malaysian soil in 1786.

Near Fort Cornwallis, you will find the Townhall and the City hall, two white buildings with arcades. Both quite impressive, together with the building of the Supreme Court and the State Assembly, complete the colonial area of ​​Georgetown. Not far away are also two Christian churches, the church of San Giorgio (1818) and the Church of the Assumption.

Georgetown Malaysia. What to see and do.


Chinatown extends behind the colonial zone, between the streets Lebuh Pantai and Jalan Penang. It is quite large and depending on the area in which you are you may find rundown warehouses, restored shophouses, hotels and museums.

The atmosphere, in any case, is fantastic, especially in the evening it seems to take a step back in time. If you’re interested and lucky, you could also find some good deals on clothes, technological gadgets or opium (I’m joking).

Temples and shopping

A little outside the center but still, within walking distance with about twenty minutes walk, there are two interesting temples. Wat Chayamangkalaram and the Dhammikarama Temple (in the first you can see a reclining Buddha 33m long). The Kek Lok Si Temple can be reached by bus from the city center (number 201/203) and is perhaps one of the most majestic temples in all of Malaysia. The statue of the goddess Kuan Yin, inside the last pavilion, is 36.5 meters high.

Finally, if you are interested in shopping, you can go to the Komtar area, where the shopping center of the same name is located plus another couple of “paradises” of western shopping (obviously very appreciated by Malaysians too).

Where to sleep

To everyone it’s own, you can choose between:  hostels, mid-range hotels and boutique hotels. As already mentioned, the general level has improved but do not expect the red carpet. In case you decide to take a dormitory bed if there is a red carpet you have to worry about what is underneath…

As hostels I have to mention the Banana hostel (but not to be confused with the Banana boutique Hotel), together with the SD guesthouse and Jim’s place.

Red lanterns (in George Town). Ring a bell?
Red lanterns (in George Town). Ring a bell?

Of a medium standard I could recommend the charming Old Penang Guest House or the Red Inn Court. Personally the Red Inn Court remains my favorite: cozy, clean, renovated, modern and traditional at the same time and above all with absolutely affordable prices.

If you choose the high end you will be spoiled for choice. You can think about the Eastern & Oriental, hotel that tries to keep alive the tradition of old colonial hotels.

Time to eat!

The culinary tradition of Penang is born from the fusion of Indian, Chinese and Malay culinary traditions. In particular, the last two have reached a level of integration and mutual influence such as to have given rise to a new type of cuisine, called Baba-nonya (a term that, more generally, includes Malay culture with Chinese roots).

Shining examples of this “fusion” concept are: the chili squid (sambal sotong), the otak otak (fish wrapped in banana leaf), the curry chicken malay and pork with sauce.

The streets of the chinatown of George Town at sunset.
The streets of the Chinatown of George Town at sunset.

Of course, you will find restaurants of all kinds. From Japanese to Western cuisine (including a Bavarian restaurant whose quality and goodness may surprise you but I will not reveal anything if you are interested ask the receptionist of the Red Inn Court …).

If you have time and want to have some travel suggestions I can reccomend Caucasus or the Carnival of Las Tablas and Villa de Los Santos in Panamà.

Or you can read about travel and climate change.

The original article appeared on the number 19 of Sensi magazine.

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