Georgetown or Gorgetown?

Trip Start Jan 06, 2010
Trip End Apr 20, 2013

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Where I stayed
SO Hotel Georgetown
Read my review - 5/5 stars

Flag of Malaysia  , Pinang,
Sunday, February 3, 2013

Leaving Thailand and crossing the border into Malaysia renders a pretty major difference when scanning the scenery. The first thing I noticed was the lack of garbage on the side of the roadways. The next thing I noticed was all of the new housing developments. This country has wealth and it is showing it through great strides in a housing boom and city planning. This is still a subtropical zone but other than that I see strikingly similar suburban developments to those back home in California. Like Folsom but green and lush. But these first glance similarities to the US are quite deceiving. In fact it takes a little CIA factbook research to fully understand the big deferences that behold the environmental coincidences of Malaysia.The government is like putting a cobra and a mongoose together, but instead of fighting they form a bicameral democratic monarchy with all the other snakes and mongooses (or is it mon- geese?). There are a bunch of sultans (princes) that rule their own territory while a legislature governs the non royal sectors. The kingdoms are influenced by legislation because the sultans rotate the role as the high king and he (I don't know if there can be a she) seeks advisement from the prime minister who is voted in by the high house (senate). The only way to become the prime minister is to be voted in by the high house (election every five years). The only way to get placed in to the high house is to be voted in by the low house ( House of Representatives), and the only way to get placed there is through popular vote. Got it? After my head stopped spinning from this political science humdinger I realized that this is a necessary setup for this country. Malaysia is incredibly diverse and has religiously overpowering influences that might not accept a fully democratic government, but has a proactive political presence that could not evolve without good diplomatic policies which often are not a monarchy's strong side. Though I have not studied enough to know exactly how unique Malaysia's government is I think it's important, for at least me, to appreciate this before even discussing my experiences in Georgetown, an island of Penang, Malaysia.
      Malaysia itself is a predominately Muslim country though Georgetown is especially diverse, partially because the Chinese had control over it at one time and popularized Buddhist values, and then the British took their turn and popularized Christian values. So now there is this peacefully coexisting religious stew and becomes very noticeable when I witnessed a Christian church, a Buddhist temple, and a mosque all in the same block. At the same time there is not really any tension to be noticed. In fact, during ones religious holiday there is this philosophy about opening the doors to everyone, so while those participate in ritual, all others can come and witness the festivals or appreciate the decor or design of the buildings. I feel that this attitude keeps everyone at a mutual understanding of each other. 
     As mentioned before Penang has a large British influence because of that one time when they thought everything was theirs, but now everything they built belongs to Malaysia. People love visiting colonial historical sites (I know I do) and this one was becoming lost from dilapidation. The Malay government now recognizes the touristic gold mine they are sitting on and have gone to great length to preserve the historical center of town. If traveling through Southeast Asia and your interests take you more south, like they have us, there is very little disappointing here in Penang. This is one of the only places I've been where I could appreciate a colonial historical site, hike through a jungle, hand feed a monkey, and eat at 15 different restaurants at the same stop. 

Speaking of the eating, Georgetown has good eats. I have a bit of a limited diet preference but still willing to cheat a little. Food stalls are the cheapest and every blogger will say just to eat there. I will say that they are great to have but there are alternative eating strategies that will cost a little more, but are more enjoyable and has a more catering experience. Sorry folks but I'm going to have to disagree with all who put down the Red Garden. It is said to be over touristic and expensive. Sarah and I found some tourists there but were mostly local types. The environment is amazing, being in this tropical setting with rain covers and big fans blowing. There's a stage where sometimes performers will give a mediocre but highly entertaining show. They bring beers by the buckets and are fifty to seventy five cents cheaper than most other places I was able to find. The food is the best part. There are 15 to 20 food stalls surrounding the dining area specializing in foods from China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Portugal, Italy, Japan, India, US and more. Of course it's not as cheap as the regular food stalls but for the setting, variety and entertainment I think 3 to 7 dollars for a dish is fantastic especially for a dining experience that doesn't even exist where I come from. Food stalls have there plusses but we are a married couple so standing and eating next an outdoor kitchen on a hot day smelling garbage and listening to loud traffic noise wizzing by isn't exactly a great date. But we like it okay for lunches. 

So I mentioned a jungle and some monkeys we fed and that is something of an uncommon experience in the US. The jungle is a national park in the north west corner of the Penang island. It wasn't overpopulated with tropical snakes and vampire bats like out of and Indiana Jones movie, but it was so loud we couldn't tell what was making all of these sounds, though we new that there were frogs and insects everywhere. It was as if the huge jungle trees were singing to us as we past through. The jungle dumps out to three different beaches depending on the direction we took. The beach we ended up on was Turtle Beach, but of course there were no turtles to be seen. Instead a very curious , cute, sneaky monkey. He must have heard me open my bag of dried fruit from a half a mile away. We fed this little monster for about fifteen minutes, but just like the typical monkey he is we could never give him enough and soon he started to lunge at Sarah and acting like a spoiled little brat, so we parted ways. 

Perhaps one of my favorite experiences in Georgetown was when Sarah and I walked back from the Red Garden and watched as some scary looking storm clouds started to crash together. In California we get wet cold winters and hot dry summers, but here the summers are hot and wet which is a totally fresh experience to us. Soon, just as the popular Garth Brooke's song goes, "The thunder rolls and the lightning strikes" (technically he stated the process backwards, but I digress). The rain in this area is so much more fun because like Forest Gump says "there's big ol' fat rain," and it comes down hard and warm. We ran and played in the middle of this stormy night, in the middle of a street, in the middle of this very different place called Georgetown. 

P.S. the local women think I look like Nicolas Cage. I think that's high praise, but I seriously look nothing like him. I'll take it though. Another note: If you want to do what the locals do and really immerse yourself into the culture, go to the mall. -Chris.  

Sarah---Fyi- I accidentally deleted my blog entry for Georgetown on my stupid ipad notepad and had to re-write it. ugh! So, I hope I don't miss anything...
I love Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia. I love, love, love it! Our first full day in Georgetown we got lunch at a local vegan restaurant called Light Life, that serves traditional dishes like fish head soup and frog legs, as well as dishes Chris and I will actually try such as creamy lemon chicken rice,  Hong Kong Chicken and satay. We ate there several times during our stay and even though the fish head soup and frog legs were vegan I still couldn't bring myself to try it. I guess I'm not adventurous enough, but at least we could enjoy the flavors of the famous Georgetown faire without eating flesh.  After lunch we grabbed our map that points out over 30 different rod iron sculptures and murals and walked around the historic district taking pictures of almost all of them. I was in heaven walking in the UNESCO historic town, seeing all the old colonial buildings, trying to find all the beautiful and interesting artwork and seeing no other tourists until much later in the day. It seemed we had Georgetown to ourselves, and that it was put there for us to enjoy as if a dream someone created for me like in the movie inception. When we stumbled across a super cute teenage girl selling homemade soy milk across the street from a vintage bike-shop and Chinese temple, I pinched myself. Homemade soy milk?! Yes please!   We then walked to the old UNESCO pier/jetty and again, there were hardly any tourists. The jetty was pretty cool because it's a small pier with old homes and shops built right on the water.   After the jetty and art walk we went to the mall area to take archery lessons, watch a live lip-synced performance of a Chinese opera, tried delicious white coffee and then walked back to our comfy hotel. On our way back to the hotel, the intriguing sound of live rock music beckoned us to come find it. We came to a four story building and walked through the front door where the music seemed to be coming from. And there we found a dimly lit bar, but they were playing karaoke music. We asked the waitress, who came to see what we were looking for, where the music was and she advised us that the band was one floor up at a place called "Chutch" so we left the bar and made our way upstairs. We got closer to the music and through the window of the entrance door we saw people dancing and having a blast, but something was funny about this place. The fluorescent lighting was bright and there were teenagers and adults together dancing. As Chris and I stood bewildered, a woman on her way into the rock music dance fest invited us in and said it will be fun, that we should join them for church. CHURCH! Oooooohhhhhh, the bartender said this place was church, not "Chutch." Chris and I looked at each other, thanked the kind women for her invitation and made our way back to the karaoke bar below the Christian church. A taxi cab driver who saw us come down the stairs and into the bar came up to us with a smile and told us we were in Hell. He advised us that Heaven was upstairs and we chose Hell instead. I asked him what he chose and he laughed and said "Hell, I chose Hell! Hahahahaha." I didn't think we were making a choice between the two but we laughed with him anyway. Oh Malaysian locals, I love how friendly and welcoming you are.

Let me tell you some stories of how kind the locals have been to us in Georgetown. Every time we take a walk somewhere a local says hello to us, asks us where we are from, if we are enjoying Georgetown and wishes us a great holiday. Once we were walking past a political banner and a car pulled over next to us to explain that this banner was a political advertisement for the upcoming election that was happening in a couple of weeks. The driver stopped to educate us then smiled and drove on. When we went to the beautiful Dharmikarama Burmese temple a super excited Buddhist monk that saw me wide-eyed at the statues conversed with me for a while, showed me his books on Burmese temples and then gave me a pamphlet on Buddhism. Another example is when we took the bus an hour to see the stunning Kek Lok Si Monestary and it was closed. We walked all around but the entrance to the statue and temples were closed.  A monk let us come inside one of the temples right before he closed the doors to any new spectators and told us we could still walk to see the grand statue of Buddha on the hill. We were told it was closed earlier but after he told us we could walk around the building and go up the hill to see the statue, we attempted to follow his directions. As we got lost trying to find the way to the statue, we met a maintenance worker from Bangladesh who I asked for directions. The maintenance worker, in his late twenties, then stopped what he was doing and walked us all the way around the temples, then up the hill to show us the way we needed to go to find the statue. We were thankful he went so far out of his way to help us. When we got close to the statue entrance there were other tourists that told us disappointingly that it was closed. I looked at Chris and said "we will see about that!"  We got to the entrance and yes, it was closed. Out of nowhere the maintenance worker was walking up the hill and when he asked us how we liked the statue we told him it was closed. He then snuck us in to see the statue so we could take photos for a few minutes and it was beautiful. We felt so lucky! And the last example I will share of the kindness of the locals is when Chris and I were walking to dinner in the historic area of town when an energetic Malay boy of Indian decent came up behind Chris and I, grabbed our wrists and sang while he skipped happily between us, then exclaimed "I love you" before he blew me a kiss and ran back to his sisters that were laughing at him. Could I love this place more?? 

Our third day in Georgetown we walked for miles around the town to the beach and to the temples, and after all the sightseeing we decided to stop at an Indian restaurant in the center of town for Happy Hour. We were the only ones at the the restaurant for the longest time and we sat on their front patio and watched the tuk tuks and people go by. Then it started to rain really hard and we could hear thunder roar and rattle the streets as we sat under the overhang alone on the front patio with our beers. After the rain calmed down, multiple beers, Indian snacks and conversing with the owner and other travelers who came in to avoid the rain, we decided to head back to the karaoke bar. At the karaoke bar, aka Hell, we found a large group of locals completely hammered and joyously singing in Mandarin. We took a table and ordered some beers and enjoyed watching them have so much fun, but it wasn't long until they saw us and came to our table to cheers with us over and over again and ask us where we were from. They made us sing and we all joined together after one of the men decided to buy us a bucket of beers. We hung out with them at the bar for hours and exchanged emails before we came back to our hotel. On our way back to the hotel it rained hard and we laughed with drunken joy as we stumbled to our hotel together. 

I truly did not want to leave Georgetown and debated it for a while. We stayed a total of 6 nights and left the day before Chinese New Year since all the hotels and hostels were booked up. It was time to go, and although we never made it to the dam and river we saw most everything we wanted to see. To fellow travelers, we have the following advice; Go if you can, to Georgetown during the week before CNY because CNY is when tourists from all over come, it's packed with people and prices go up. During the days before CNY you can see the gorgeous red Chinese lanterns stung across the city and the Kek Lok Si Monestary, you can enjoy cultural festivities including lion dances and Chinese opera performances, fireworks, excited locals and less tourists. Please know I don't mind tourists but its nice not having to wait 5-10 minutes to take a photo of a mural after other tourists have taken turns taking photos of each other in front of the attraction. I could be wrong, maybe Georgetown just isn't all that popular yet with tourists, or maybe it's just that after seeing Bangkok we feel like we have the place to ourselves.  Either way, if you ever are in Southern Thailand or in Malaysia, make a stop in Georgetown because it's worth it. 

One thing I do not take for granted is how easy it is to travel here since so many people know English. I often hear locals blend English into their sentences when talking to each other. My favorite example was when we arrived at Kek Lok Si Monastery and it was closed, a group of young Asian tourists where speaking Chinese, but in between their sentences they would say "What the hell?!" just like we do in the states. It was pretty cute and it made us laugh
Other then the kind tourists,  the gorgeous temples, art, historic sites, good food and comfortable stay at the So Hotel, this island offers fantastic hiking to different serene and vacant beaches where you can have lunch and cute and outgoing monkeys can beg for a bite. And after seeing all the sites you can hang out where all the locals love to go, the 1st Avenue Mall! Now Malaysia knows how to do malls. It's not all about clothes, it's about fun. Our last day we went to the mall and watched A Good Day to Die Hard, played miniature bowling and other games at the arcade, got massages in the mechanical massage chairs and bought Chris a new watch. 

So, yeah, Georgetown is one of my favorite places I have ever been. I could probably live here if there was a good Mexican restaurant. 

P.S.- I tried a vegan laksa, which is a popular soup with noodles and didn't like it. There were other drinks and deserts we have found in Malaysia that we will not try that are also very popular, such as kidney bean-milk and ice cream with corn, kidney beans or sweetened green beans. They also have milk shakes with beans or corn and I can't imagine it tasting good at all. Even though I drink soy milk, I eat soy ice cream on occasions and I realize soy is a bean as well, I just can't detach the nostalgic taste of my dads delicious mixed bean and corn salad when I see the same ingredients on ice cream. Sorry all you candied green bean and ice cream lovers out there, but yuk! I do however love the Malaysian style rice that has the essence of ginger, black pepper, palm oil and lemon juice. I'm not sure what's really in the rice but I'm googling it when I get home and I suggest you do the same. :-).  -Sarah

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