April 16, 2018
So, I’d just left lovely Brunei and the incredible island of Borneo, headed for yet another island, Penang, and the city of George Town. While Borneo is a huge island (third largest in the world) to the east of peninsular Malaysia, Penang is a rather small island just off Malaysia’s western coast. Penang’s most popular city and primary attraction is, by far, George Town.
George Town’s draw is evident: it features beautiful candy-colored shophouses of Sino-Portuguese design, is known throughout Southeast Asia for its food, while Western and Chinese hipsters alike flock here to see its famous street art.
Personally, to be completely honest, I found George Town to be a bit of a bore. I stayed there three full days and really should have only stayed one, two at most. It’s not that it isn’t a nice place but it was a bit too…accessible to me. I’ve found that I like a bit of a challenge when visiting a new town or city and George Town offers absolutely no challenge at all. This is great if you’re just looking to relax, stroll, eat, but there’s no real sense of discovery. Tourism is a given here, so you can enter even the tiniest shophouse restaurant, filled with local old men eating noodles and reading their newspapers, and no one will bat an eye. Again, this is wonderful if you want accessible, but I felt as though the training wheels had been put back on my bike, if you know what I mean.
Oddly, I enjoyed Sibu and Kapit far more. Neither city or town caters much to tourism (they don’t have to) and so exploring these areas is more of a challenge, but you, as a visitor, are also an anomaly, a novelty. It was in Sibu and Kapit that locals asked me to take their photo, just because the idea of having a tourist take their photo was new and different and fun. It was fun for me, too. It was also there that I was able to more fully engage with people, where they asked me questions and gladly asked me mine. Sibu and Kapit felt like a learning experience, George Town felt more like recess.
Anyway, George Town was fine. The architecture is quite nice, though Phuket Old Town offers much the same in a smaller area, and the street art was fine, but always crowded with selfie-seekers. Still, street art is always a nice addition to any city or town in my opinion.
George Town certainly does have a great selection of food, given its Indian, Malay and Chinese influences. Unfortunately (and this is clearly something I’ll have to get used to), Thai food seems to have ruined all other Southeast Asian food for me. It’s like, every dish is good…but not as good as the Thai equivalent. In fact, many Malay dishes are a slightly less tasty version of a Thai dish (or Thai dishes are a tastier version of Malay dishes?). I ate laksa on several occasions and, though I enjoyed it thoroughly, it’s really just a lesser tom yam goong. A noodle dish I had regularly in Malaysia was really just a less flavorful pad sew.
George Town can easily be explored on foot but its sidewalks are more a suggestion than a reality and the traffic is extreme. Okay, I may be giving the impression that I hated George Town. I didn’t. It was fine and I did enjoy how its neighborhoods, from Little India to Chinatown, were genuinely distinct, but I enjoyed Kuching and Sibu and Kapit far, far more. George Town is a great introduction to Malaysia and, as mentioned, it’s accessible, but I personally felt unimpressed by the hype.
Luckily, George Town did have one truly spectacular surprise in store for me. On my last night there, I was wandering the streets when I noticed a torrent of humanity headed in a single direction, filling the streets which had evidently been closed to traffic for the evening. I followed the crowds and discovered that entire blocks had been taken over by the International Street Food Festival.
Hundreds of people swarmed dozens upon dozens of food stalls selling anything and everything that can possibly be served on a paper plate or skewered on a wooden stick. I threaded my way through the masses, sampling a bit of this or that along the way, but mostly just enjoying the atmosphere. Though people were packed shoulder to shoulder, perched on plastic stools or standing around tables, everyone smiled and chatted and, of course, ate.
Though this was obviously a special event and plenty of tourists were in attendance, it was clearly a local event, one organized not simply to attract more visitors (George Town doesn’t really need to do anything at all to attract visitors) but to cater to the people who actually live and work there. It was crowded and a bit chaotic, but with children running through clouds of smoke pluming from sizzling grills, with couples sharing unidentifiable meals, with locals and tourists hunched over the same tables, it all felt neighborly and undeniably pleasant. It was a genuinely nice end to what had been a bit of a ho-hum three days.