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Experience China in Georgetown, Penang

Georgetown on Penang island near the coast of Peninsular Malaysia looks and feels like an old Chinese town. Where cities like Hongkong and Singapore have changed over the years, Georgetown stayed almost the same. Sure, both the Malay and the Indian population of Malaysia are present here as well, but the Chinese are the dominant group here.

Pagoda at the Kek Lok Si temple complex in Penang

The fast ferry

In Bukit Lawang we arrange a ticket for the fast ferry between Medan and Georgetown, which promises to bring us from Indonesia to Malaysia in only four hours. Yeah right, that's only the part of the journey on the sea. We have to leave Bukit Lawang at 5 AM to be in Medan on time. But in Medan, where we arrive at 7, we have to wait till 8 for the office to open. We get our tickets for the bus to the harbortown of Belawan, and arrive in time for the ferry, which is supposed to leave at 10 AM.

As we wait for the customs officers, we hear that the boat will not leave until 11 o'clock. But at 11, we are just through customs, and there is still a line. In the end, the boat leaves half past noon. Somehow, we got used to these time schedules in Indonesia.

The ferry arrives at Georgetown at 5 PM. But we still have to pass customs here, which takes another hour. Since Malay time is one hour later than in Indonesia, we finally leave the harbor at 7 PM when it is almost dark. Total travel time is 13 hours.

Chulia street

Arrival in the evening is always a bit tricky. Together with the other tourists on the ferry, an English couple, we take a taxi, but the hotels we pass are all full. So we get out and perform our ritual: two of us wait with the backpacks at a café, while the others search for a place to stay. And finally, we end up in a room with shower but without a toilet, in hotel Swiss, a Chinese hotel in Chulia street, the backpacker area of Georgetown.

Chulia street is full of hotels and restaurants. But it is also a busy street with lots of traffic. Consequently, it doesn't have the same feel to it as the backpacker areas in other cities in Southeast Asia. Since we would like to have a room with a toilet, we search for one in another hotel, but that is quite difficult. Finally, we find one at 75 Travellers Lodge where the Chinese Jimmy welcomes us with open arms. It is located one street away from Chulia street on a more quiet street, much more to our likings.

Exploring Georgetown

The rest of the day we set out to explore Georgetown. First we head for the colonial area. We expect to find something similar as in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, but it is a bit disappointing. We pass some colonial buildings, but there is no special attraction. When we take a wrong turn we have to climb up a quay where the fishermen stare at us, before we reach the market near fort Cornwallis. This fort is another disappointment, we stare at some low walls with the occasional canon. Eventually we end up at the clock tower, which is the highlight of the colonial part of our exploration.

Little India

So we move on to Little India. Again we search for a sample of the crowded, filthy, but fascinating streets of India, but without much success. We do find a street with shops full of saris, Indian movies, curry restaurants, etcetera. Interesting, but we suppose the real Indian is different. We do admire the beautifully colored Hindu temple is nice though. And the people and rituals they perform inside these temples keep fascinating us.

From Little India we go back into Chinatown. Here are a lot of shops, food stalls, and spitting and gambling Chinese people. There is also a temple where different items and gods are worshipped. We have seen it in many places before, but can hardly get used to it. The Chinese are really something else.

A little disappointed we arrive back at our guesthouse. Jimmy is replaced by Mister Lo, who welcomes us as enthusiastically as Jimmy did. He makes us feel a little more at home in Chinatown.


We spend the next day shopping. We see a lot of souvenir shops, but everything is very expensive compared with what we are used to. The wooden statues we bought in Sarawak would cost 5 times as much here. So we move on to the big mall. A lot of luxurious shops here, and we specifically look at the electronics shops, comparing the prices to what we would pay in Europe. Although it is a bit cheaper here, the differences are not big. But then we spot a software shop, where every software you can imagine is sold for only a few dollars. It must be copied, but we are amazed it is being sold in what appears to be a normal shop.

The Chinese Opera

Actors in the Chinese Opera, Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaIn our guesthouse we read on the notice board about the Chinese Opera, and a possibility to look behind the scenes there. We haven't seen it yet, even in China, so we ask Mister Lo where we should be. He points us to the Chinese temple, where a group of people is already talking to the guide. Together we walk to some kind of shed, build with scaffoldings and covered with blue polytarp. It appears to be the dressing room of the actors performing in the Chinese Opera. We are allowed to look inside where the actors are busy dressing and putting on makeup. We walk around and are allowed to make pictures of the actors and of ourselves with wigs on. We also find out that the back of the shed is actually the stage where the opera will be performed.

Our guide takes us for a drink before the opera will begin. When we come back there is nobody on the street in front of the stage yet. There are also no chairs and we are the only audience waiting to see what will happen. When a loud gong sounds, the spectacle starts. And a few elderly Chinese appear to watch the opera. They bring their own chair, sit on a motorbike or in a rickshaw, or just stand to watch it. We are just happy we are not the only audience.

The show starts with the protagonist telling a tale in Chinese. He is also singing a few parts, but the quality of the sound, his voice, and Chinese as a singing language are not a good combination for our ears. Our guide explains what the story is about, but to us it is not very interesting. After a while, more actors appear on stage, but the performance isn't getting much better. Our guide understands that, and lets us take a few more pictures of the actors behind the scene before we leave. It is great to have seen this dieing Chinese art from up close, but for westerners, it isn't very interesting.

Kek Lok Si temples

Georgetown is located on the island Penang, and we set out to explore more of the island. First we visit the Buddhist temple complex Kek Lok Si. It consists of a large amount of temples, with even more Buddha's. We see the complex from a distance, with the pagoda as main eye catcher. Buddhist warning: You have a hunchback now? Because you made fun of others in a previous life!!From the bus stop, we have to climb up, passing a lot of souvenir stalls. Then we reach the complex, with many different temples in different styles. But there are also all kinds of things for sale everywhere. Strange, for a religious place. And they are also collecting money to build even more temples in the complex.

Penang Hill

From Kek Lok Si, we walk on to Penang Hill, at an elevation of 830 meters historically serving as a cool retreat from the heat and crowd below for the upper class in Georgetown. The hill can be reached by the Penang Hill railway, a little cabletrain service climbing the steep hill in a slow pace. The carriages of the train are built in an angle as well, like a stairway. We have to hurry to get a seat, most of the passengers in the full train have to stand. The views from the train are great, so this ride is an attraction in itself.

On top of the hill we first have lunch in one of the restaurants, where we spot an adder above our heads. Then we walk around to visit the Hindu temple and the Mosque. But the true attractions are the views over Penang and Georgetown. Unfortunately, it is a bit foggy, so we cannot take good pictures of it. After some time enjoying it we return with the railway down, and with the bus back to Georgetown.

Penang Beaches

Batu Ferringo is the beach resort of Penang, where we decide to have a look. Unfortunately, the sea water in this village is polluted these days because of the large amounts of hotels and tourists here, so we search for a beach just outside of this village. We found one where we enjoy the sun and the sea for a while. But we are the only ones on this beach, and there are not many things to do here, se we don't stay long.

Other sights in Georgetown

As in many cities, there are many recreational spots in Georgetown, which we set out to explore. There are the botanical gardens, nice to walk around, but nothing special. Or it must have been the troop of monkeys. And there is the museum, showing interesting stuff about all the different cultures in Malaysia again. Best thing here are the videos, but most of them are yet to be made unfortunately.

Penang Island Tour

In order to fully explore the island, we book a tour on our last day here. Our guide is another Chinese, who tells a lot about the history and sights of the island. We visit many temples, a Birmese, a Thai, the snake temple (inhabited by a number of these crawling cratures), and a temple created around a huge footprint of Ho Cheng, according to the legend the first around the world explorer from China. He sailed out a century before Columbus, exploring the South Pacific.

We also stop at a fruit plantation, where we can taste all kinds of exotic fruit. There is also a batik factory, and we stop at a harbour to see the fishing boats. We pass mosques, the bright blue hospital, and the airport. In the meanwhile, our guide also points out what he calls the black ninja's. They are the tourist muslim women in burqa's. They accompany their husbands, originating from rich arab oil states, who visit another muslim country for their holidays.

The Goddess of Mercy near Kek Lok Si, Penang MalaysiaOur tour ends at Kek Lok Si. We already saw this complex, but this time we visit the huge statue of the Chinese goddess of mercy on top. The temple complex around it is still being built, but looks impressive. It is a nice end of a good tour with a knowledgeable, humorous guide. And now, we think we saw everything in Georgetown and Penang.

Georgetown and Penang have many places to visit, but none of them truly amaze us. Yet, it is an interesting place where time seems to have been standing still. And at some points, it is more Chinese then China itself. In a good guesthouse it is a good place to spend some time, enjoying the good food in the many restaurants.

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