Stranger in this George Town

A post about finding a marble

I need to warn you in advance. This post is a little different. It does contain some political views, some more history than usual and it’s rather long. So if you get super bored reading it – just skip towards the end where there are a lot of pictures (more than in any other post on this blog so far). Then there is some more text, and then pictures again. Easy 🙂

And please, just play this song while you read this post. Cause I had it on repeat while writing.

Stuff happening in the world

My trip to Penang coincided with a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Gaza. This comes after Israel has been bombing the heck out of Gaza, once again. Whether it’s UN schools or hospitals or bus stops or HAMAS hiding places, it did not seem to really matter. Almost 1500 Palestinians have died in what some people described to be going after a wasp nest with a bulldozer. Why do I write about this? I don’t mean to be partisan in any way and even if the lines above sound cynical, I don’t really have a position on this conflict. Hamas are terrorists and how do you fight terrorists? Look at the civilian death toll in Yemen which the US bombed to the ground to destroy Al-Qaeda. And Yemen is mostly desert. Gaza is mostly urban. It’s easy for us to sit a million miles away and say ‘Israel is killing innocent people’ with all the history, all the attacks that have happened in the past, all the belligerence and the hate that has grown in that tiny part of the world. At the same time, how can we just sit back and watch a genocide take place? I know it bothers me. Anyhow – these are just open ended questions. The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind (yes yes, a lot of Bob Dylan lately) and I won’t deny that I don’t understand how no resolution can be possibly found for so many decades. But that’s how things are.

What I do understand is that I found a town in Malaysia, George Town on Penang island, that everyone should take as an example. Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists and Hindus have lived here peacefully together for centuries. Malay, Siamese, Chinese, Indian, Armenian, Jews, English, Dutch – they were all here and created this little marble of a town. Now it’s not so little anymore (I think Penang as a whole is Malaysia’s second largest Urban conglomeration), yet it’s still as peaceful as ever. And what better evidence is there than the fact that one of the busiest and nicest streets in the whole city is called ‘Love Lane’? Because that’s all you need, right? Love. Then again, this is most certainly a naive, overly romanticised view. The city is still poverty struck and I’m sure there are some invisible, yet very clear boundaries between all these cultures. Even so, there must be some lessons to learn.

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I only planned to spend a day here – a transit day between Phuket and Langkawi. But this is the beauty of travelling just by yourself with not fixed itinerary. You can stop in places where you feel homely and just stay. And Penang, specifically George Town, it’s quirky streets, the colourful architecture, the people from all these backgrounds and cultures – well, this place feels very homely. So I decided to stay.

 

Getting here:

Getting here can be easy. You can jump on a plane and fly. I chose the difficult route. I took a bus from Phuket. Or that’s what I agreed to do. 13 hours and 5 mini-vans later, I arrived. Don’t even get me started on how I hate this rip-off culture in Thailand and what a pain it was. I had booked a little hotel via Booking.com. When I got here it was so late that they had shut their reception. What?? Yes, you read that right. Also – it did say it was in George Town and it had a great rating. Guess what, it’s not in George Town George Town, it’s in Air Itan (a mostly residential area of the city). The taxi took 30 minutes and cost almost as much as the room. It was approaching midnight when I got here so finding it closed was terrible.

But someone outside just gave me their phone to call them. No questions asked. When I couldn’t find a taxi back to George Town, a young woman working in something called ‘Hong Kong Café’ took me to the bus stop. When no bus was coming, she offered me a sofa in her place for the night, for free. When on the way back to Hong Kong café I found a taxi, she hugged me and wished me all the best. When I offered to tip the taxi driver, he said it was too much. Yes – all these are Malaysian people. Some of the friendliest, nicest, and most welcoming folks I have ever met. Now I got into the first somewhat ok looking hotel and booked a room for a night. Towne House hotel. What a place, damn it. Took me straight back to some 1920 prohibition area mobster residence. But it was clean and the bed was amazing. When I woke up at 6:20 AM with loud bangs at the door, I did get somewhat scared. I looked through the door, and a little kid was running around banging at doors while the parents where actually checking out. All good 🙂

 

A hint of colonial history

Walking around, I discovered some of the history of this place and it’s a very exciting history, closely tied together with one name – Francis Light. What a name. Surely, with that name you need to be very very special. Francis Light was an English adventurer who made his way here towards the end of the 18th century. He seems to have been quite the playboy and a big-shot in the East India company (you know, those bad-boys whose greed is partly to blame for America’s independence). Our good friend Francis Light got here in a time of unrest when the island was part of a Malay kingdom called Kedah and was ruled by Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Shah. The Sultan was being attacked by Burmese and Siamese armies, and negotiated a deal with Mr. Light (remember, that’s what did, he was a tradesman and fluent in most important languages spoken in the area). Penang would be ceased to the East India company in exchange for military protection. Mr. Light told the Sultan he’d get the protection and he told the East India company they’d get the island – for free or for some minor monthly payment. When the Sultan needed some military assistance, nothing came, but it was too late. Mr. Light had set up a solid base in the region, trying to pre-empt French expansion/ put a halt on French hegemony of the Indo-Chinese space. Interesting, no?

Statue of Captain Francis Light in Penang (Picture taken from ‘Perspective of Penang’ Blog)

Some more or less accurate information on Captain Light in the Penang Heritage Museum

Again, don’t take this information too literarily. Just like my political views, these might be just my close-minded interpretation of historic facts. They make for a good story though. But since it was established, Penang and George Town more specifically has been a trade capital. It evolved further attracting all these different people, from Armenian hoteliers to Chinese merchandisers. And guess what, that’s exactly how this place struck me. Like a place where people from all kinds of cultures meet to do business. I imagine a lot of big cities looked like this in the mid 1920s and 1930s when global trade was booming after World War I and just before the Great Depression struck properly. It also gave me a feeling of what I call ‘nostalgic jealousy’ of an era that I know only from hearsay and reading books. Lisbon was such a place. Bucharest was such a place. Once upon a time.

Things to do:

Walk around George Town! Walk and walk and walk until you drop. You’ll never cease to be surprised. Next to an Indian temple there is a mosque and then there is a church and then another mosque or church or brothel or museum. Like the Camera museum. Or the Penang heritage museum. Or the chocolate museum. A dear friend who I love very much said to me the other day, ‘I had no idea that you can take such beautiful pictures’. It put a massive smile on my face. Of course, I have no idea what you think, but here you go – pics I’ve taken and played with trying to reproduce the vibe of George Town. There’s more than what I have usually posted. So – just re-play that Edith Piaf song, and get a feel for yourself. And more importantly, if you’re ever in the area, go visit!

Some quirky building – Art Nouveau?

And another one?

More roofs

Windows

And some buildings

Road view

Armenian Street

Caricature of Armenians on Armenian Street

A blueish building on Armenian Street

Reggae Mansion! Oh yeah 🙂

Some Black and White pics of George Town Streets:

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Religions in George Town

A white Church

Roof of a small Chinese Temple Down Town

A mosque

Another church

And my favourite of all pics, statue of a priest with two little children behind barbed wire. Cough cough!

Picture of some ethnic groups in George Town, shot in the Heritage Museum

Air Itan

Air Itan is a district of George Town. Get bus 203 (I think was the magic number) and head straight to the Kek Lok Si Temple.  This is the largest Buddhist temple in Pacific Asia, I was told by my wonderful local guide Carmen. I never asked her if I was allowed to share any of her stories actually, so I won’t say much more other than the fact that some people have had very different lives and it’s amazing to see and compare what Europeans complain about. Anyhow – as I promised at the beginning of this post, more pictures:

Kek Lok Si Temple from Inside

Kek Lok Si Temple and surrounding hills

Door inside the temple

Pink Buddha with Swastika

Close-up of 30.2m high statue of Kuan Yin, Goddess of Mercy. Notice the hand gesture? Very similar to depictions of Jesus. Also – this statue is just massive

Gatekeepers of the Kuan Yin statue

View of Penang from the Temple

 

Selfie in a mirror

And after all the temple sights, it was time for some street food. We had this Laska soup and boy, it looked dangerous. I won’t deny though, it actually tasted pretty good. However, after 3-4 spoons, I decided it was a better idea to stop. My stomach was already giving me some cramps and it took about an hour until it stopped. Later, I went to a Subway and had a proper meal but shhh! Don’t tell anyone!

A Street Laksa

Penang Hill

We then took the train and went up on Penang Hill. Great place, great views – about 800m tall. The train ride in itself is quite the journey. Highly recommend.

View of George Town from top of Penang Hill Train Station

View of Rail Track and Tunnel from Penang Hill Train Station

Indian Temple on top of Penang Hill

Indian Temple on top of Penang Hill – Side View

 Right. And I think this is it. Such a mess of a post, a bit like blowing in the wind.

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Categories: Places, Thoughts

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