If you ever wanted to travel to India but weren’t so keen on all that dirt, or ever wanted to visit China but couldn’t quite get a grasp on the alphabet Georgetown in Penang, Malaysia is for you. It is an easy mix of cultures; a Hindu temple stands next to a mosque which is down the road from a Chinese temple, with a church just around the corner.
Chai and samoosa stalls line the streets of Little India while Bollywood tunes blast out from shops spilling brightly coloured saris, bindis and bangles. Down the road the street signs are painted in Chinese characters and hawkers sell dim sum and noodle soup. Yet more restaurants offer the best of Malay cuisine – noodle and rice dishes floating in sauces with strange yet enticing tastes.
Once a British colony, Georgetown’s architecture harks back to a time of tea on a shaded porch, although the decay is painted over in gaudy colours.
As part of its Unesco-listed World Cultural Heritage status the city erected wire artworks along some of the lanes explaining why the lanes were so named.
Seck Chuan Lane was a distribution centre for market produce. Many itinerant hawkers took advantage of the crowds by plying their foods here. One of the favourite foods sold is Ting Ting Thong or rock candy, a hardened mixture of sugar, ses seeds and nuts loved by kids. It has to be "chi" and "hammered" to break it into smaller biteable pieces.
The Black and white Amahs were Cantonese were domestic servants from Guangdong who did all kind of household chores and would refer to themselves with wry humour as "yat keok tet" (one leg kicks all).
Penang isn’t all city. Forever encroaching, the jungle covers the hills behind Georgetown which were once the hill station homes of British settlers who preferred the cooler climate. Those homes are still there, along with many others, and can only be the abodes of the rich. From the Botanical Gardens, a 5.2km road winds steeply up to Penang Hill and is a favourite place for locals keen to lose a few kilos by sweating their way up by foot or bicycle. I definitely sweated my way up, but was rewarded with a calm meander along a jungle trail and some spectacular views of the city below.
Further along the island, serviced by bus 101, is the lush green jungle of Penang National Park. The park comprises a jungle and marine environment and offers a few walking trails to sandy beaches, protected as turtle breeding grounds.
The best thing about Penang however, is its food. Chinese, Indian, Malay: each culture boasts a variety of delicious dishes. If you visit, go hungry and eat your way through your stay.