“Embrace the unexpected. The things we never saw coming often take us to the places we never imagined we could go.”
Leaving Thailand behind us, the next stop on our Asian Road Trip was the island state of Penang, more specifically, the beautiful George Town.
When I first got my itinerary and noticed the name of the city in Penang, I’m not going to lie, I was kind of disappointed. Not because I didn’t want to go, but going on the opinions I had heard from those I worked with who had visited George Town and select others, it seemed as though I wasn’t really in for a treat.
I want to thank these people. If it wasn’t for them, my hopes would have been elevated, I probably would have done a lot more research on the place and not been so blown away by it. So thank you Haters of George Town, you made it my favourite city in Malaysia by far.
For those wondering what George Town is like, wishing for some good visual description, creating a perfect picture in your head. Well, I would describe George Town as the Melbourne of Malaysia.
From the moment we arrived in George Town, I instantly knew this was going to be a city I would love. We arrived by bus and our hotel was on a main street at the beginning of ‘Old Town George Town.’ It was a basic hotel but so comfortable—with a decent shower, yippee—and it was a walk away from almost everything we wanted to see.
Although it was on the ‘main street’ there was nothing busy about this place. It was pretty chilled out and relaxed—as far as Asian cities go—people were relatively friendly and getting around with the prospect of getting lost really didn’t scare me, it was more of an adventure.
We had two days in this beautiful town—definitely not enough, I recommend more—and I couldn’t wait to explore.
So what did I get up to in George Town? Well as much as I possibly could!
Getting Lost down Side Streets and Decorated Alleyways
If you have read my blog for a while—if not, get reading!—you’ll hear me preach about my love affair with being completely and utterly lost. 9/10 of the time when I’m travelling, exploring streets with my camera and a map—which I have no idea how to use, in fact I’ve probably folded it into a fan—I’m lost.
I have a terrible sense of direction. I like it though, thank god I’m laid back. I love the feeling of following my curiosity, smiling at people—who are often wondering how I strayed so far off the path in the first place to end up here—laughing at myself when I hit dead ends and have to make it look like I came this way on purpose, finding the best coffee shops and stumbling across a find that is mine and only mine—something that is not surrounded and shared by the flocks of tourists.
George Town, Old George Town is the most wondrous place to get lost. With its forever-changing side streets winding in ways you didn’t expect, streets leading to multiple forks in the road, no knowing whether you took the first or second left—this choice will take you in two different directions—it is a curiosity and exploring gold mine.
Wandering the streets you are met with beautiful old colonial styled buildings. Now protected by UNESCO, the Old Town of George Town is to remain untouched. You are walking through an old town out of the movies, old carts and art work in any form is evident all around the city. There are beautiful quaint coffee shops, bars with hilarious enticing slogans written on chalk boards out front, bikes for rent EVERYWHERE, beautiful mosques, Buddhist temples and other religious sites, interesting people selling handcrafted jewellery and art goods for one day only—don’t think about it and come back the next day, I can guarantee you they won’t be there. Want it, Buy it.—I was so disappointed when I couldn’t find that seller again.
Head down that Alleyway.
The beautiful street Art is what has really kept George Town a ‘place to visit’ on the map. Wandering down alleyways you’ll stumble upon incredible works of art—lots of cat art for those crazy cat ladies—sometimes the height of the building, sometimes as small as your hand. Each piece is beautiful. Each piece is unique.
If you don’t wander to get lost, at least wander to find the art work.
One of the only ‘Cities’ in the world where I enjoyed
cycling around more than walking around.
One of the most underrated things to do in George Town is to hire a bicycle. Throughout my South East Asian trip so far, I had passed up the opportunity to do this in Thailand which I regretted. So I wasn’t about to pass it up again.
After travelling so much by car to get here, the last thing I wanted to do was to sit in another—too hot, no air con—van and be driven around the city, acting interested at the cities’ sights that didn’t particular bother me—Temple Overdosing is a real thing.
It was a beautiful day and a little too hot to explore by foot, so bicycle was the next best option. Wandering to find the bike shop of choice from the day before—spending an hour lost again—which had the cutest classic bikes with baskets. We rented the bikes for a ridiculously low price, from a lovely old couple who couldn’t really speak much English, we promised to return the bikes in an hour (as advertised on the sign) only to met with ‘no, no, you take all day it’s ok for 1 hour’—not entirely sure whether we were gifted with the bikes for a day for the price of an hour, or warned not to take the bikes all day we headed off.
Exploring George Town on bikes is probably my favourite memory of Malaysia. If you thought getting lost on foot was bad, getting lost on the bikes was hilarious.
The map was useful, for all of about two minutes. I mean, I get lost using Google Maps, which has a little dot showing you proof you’re walking the wrong direction.
The main reason for us hiring bikes was to track down some of the best street art at a faster pace. Instead, we found new streets, chocolate cafes, cat cafes and accidentally cycled onto the freeway and then went the wrong way down one-way streets.
While it sounds like chaos, it was actually incredible! We saw so much of the city and it was just so much fun. It really made me appreciate the city’s diversity from Little India to traditional Malay. The side streets were quiet and when we accidentally cycled onto the freeway cars actually helped us to find out way off—yes, we had car escorts.
We stopped on the side of one of the streets to try to find where we were on the map and my favourite story happened.
A lovely man stopped to ask if we knew where we wanted to go, he showed us where (he thought we were) on the map and where we needed to go. Left, Right, Second Left and then diagonal—sweet, that’s good direction right?
We cycled around and bumped into him again! (not literally) We all couldn’t stop laughing, he apologised for showing us the wrong direction then tried again—thankfully successfully, but we still saw him one more time!—Maybe direction isn’t important in this city.
Exploring the city by foot is fun.
But seeing it from a height is even more incredible.
Taking the funicular up to Kek Lok Si Temple is incredible and was my first experience, safe to say I went for the window stance(?).
One of the most popular places to go in Penang/George Town to witness the incredible panoramic views of the Mountains, City and Ocean. Thankfully on the day we decided to head up there was no queue—sometimes queues can be 30 minutes wait time—and we bought our ticket to the top.
After the incredibly enjoyable scenic ride up the hill there were captivating views, incredible statues and insane temples. Of course there are little trinket shops—which are kind of hypocritical because it’s monks selling minute Buddhas but advertising not to buy and disrespect them, hmm.—decorated beautifully with hundreds of hanging lanterns.
The view is incredible—I promise, part of George Town/Penang is not always on fire when you reach the top.
George Town Is An Old Place Trapped within the Creeping Closer Presence of Modernisation… Thank God for UNESCO.
As I previously mentioned this wanderlust goldmine is protected by UNESCO and is classed as a World Heritage Site, which makes me smile with all my being.
Places like these are so hard to find within an ever-changing, modern world, where new metallic buildings are deemed beautiful. It’s almost as if you have stepped back in time, people are friendly, the pace slows down, while you can stand at the water’s edge and see the modern city you’ll also see a traditional fisherman, balancing on his boat and throwing his circular net into the water, hoping for a catch.
It is also a non-smoking city—pretty incredible huh? So while you may feel like you’ve stepped back in time, the city is making some pretty ‘out there’ changes for the better.
If you want to go back in time in Malaysia, experience history, classic culture and fulfill your wanderlust gene, I can’t recommend George Town enough.
I will be back, to get lost, cycle some more and chase the street art.