By Rooksana Hossenally
By Rooksana Hossenally
A cosmopolitan enclave of British colonial architecture mixed with a smattering of Indian temples, Chinese clan houses, and old shop houses that have been turned into boutique hotels, along with traditional tea houses and slick coffee shops, George Town differs greatly to the rest of predominantly Muslim Malaysia. An ideal getaway between exploring the country’s abundant jungles, the foodie capital offers a laid-back east-meets-west ambience.
George Town is situated on the island of Penang off the north-east coast of Malaysia close to the Thai border. The town fell under British rule when it was signed over to the East Indian Company at the end of the eighteenth century. One of the capitals of the Straits Settlements, Penang was a stronghold for the opium trade during which time it was a seedy place of brothels and gambling dens run by secret Chinese societies. Dark times followed when Japan invaded the island during the Second World War until 1946 when the Straits Settlements were dissolved. Penang spent the next 20 years rebuilding itself and today little remains of the neglect it saw during Japanese occupation.
In 2008, George Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has since seen a healthy influx of travellers. The foodie capital of Malaysia, George Town is mainly inhabited by Chinese and Indian communities, which serve up mouth-watering fare in the restaurants that line the old arcaded streets of the town centre , in Little India or at the New Lane street food night market. You can let yourself be guided by your instinct as a bad meal is very hard to come by here.
While much of the old British architecture like the ornate City Hall subsists, a top attraction is ‘Rockefeller of the East’, Chinese pioneering trade merchant Cheong Fatt Tze’s blue mansion. Built in the 1880s, the lavish house is renowned as a prime example of architecture where the principles of Feng Shui have been applied to perfection. It is in fact possible to feel a great concentration of energy in the house’s central courtyard. Talented guides show groups around the house and retell the merchant’s fascinating life.
When Chinese immigrants arrived in Penang, they lived in clans and some still do today. Each clan had its own house, like the magnificent Khoo Kongsi close to the small boutiques and coffee shops of the atmospheric Armenian Street (named in homage to the Sarkies brothers behind the first Raffles Hotel in Singapore). While rich clans would live in together in houses, the poorer clans set up in small rickety wooden villages over the water in the south where time seems to have stood still since they were built towards the end of the eighteenth century.
A century later in 1884, George Town saw a rise in British colonial style architecture including the gleaming white landmark Eastern and Oriental Hotel. The Armenian Sarkies brothers’ second hotel, it was, like The Raffles of Singapore, the meeting place for the elite including novelist Rudyard Kipling. In the 1990s the hotel closed down and was left abandoned until it was given a new lease of life and reopened 10 years on. Although a huge new wing has been added, the main building still embodies the hotel in all its former muted glory.
Other lodging options include the town’s several charming heritage hotels inside renovated Chinese shop houses. Although a little pricey, some of our favourites include Campbell House in the old quarter of town as well as Noordin Mews, which comes with a quaint roof-top garden and small pool. There are also a handful of highly exclusive guest rooms at the restful Cheong Fatt Tze’s mansion.
Eastern and Oriental Hotel
10, Lebuh Farquhar, 10200 George Town, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia
Phone:+60 4-222 2000
Lebuh Campbell, George Town, 10100 George Town, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia
Phone:+60 4-261 8290
53, Lebuh Noordin, 10300, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia
Phone:+60 4-263 7125
Cheong Fatt Tze’s Blue Mansion
14, Lebuh Leith, 10200 George Town, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia
Phone:+60 4-262 0006