Posted by: Anna | July 8, 2011

Georgetown in One Day — Seeing the Pearl of the Orient

Committed to being “in the groove” again, Tommy and I set out on a day of sightseeing in Georgetown on the island of Penang, off the West coast of Malaysia. Penang’s nickname is the “Pearl of the Orient”. I don’t know why – not that it isn’t lovely. But a pearl? At any rate, Georgetown melds many different cultures into one unique blend that intrigued me, and many others.

“Straits” Chinese, ethnic Malays, Indians, and many smaller tribes compose the population of Penang, and Malaysia overall. Each group maintains their own traditions, holidays, clothing, and even professions, although of course that’s only a generalization. Penang offers the visitor a charming introduction to Asia through its diversity. Easy to get around and inexpensive, Georgetown has enough to interest a visitor for a few days; in our one day, we only had enough time to scratch the surface and have a Georgetown sampler.

Georgetown makes it easy on the traveler by offering a free hop on – hop off bus for tourists that hits all the main high points. After a delicious plate of char kway teow (noodles) from a street vendor for breakfast, we started our morning at Penang Museum, a very well done and manageable little museum that served as a perfect introduction to the diversity of Penang culture. I especially enjoyed the rooms highlighting the wedding customs of the Chinese, Malay, and Indian communities that primarily make up Penang. It’s also a bargain at only 1 Ringgit (33 cents!).

We then decided to head to the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, the former home of a successful Chinese merchant. The home is filled with over a thousand antiques from a mixture of European and Asian craftsman, unfortunately not original to the home, but appropriate to what would have been there. When I think mansion, I think the Hearst Castle, or Monticello, but this is nothing in size compared to that. It’s probably smaller than the house I grew up in, at least the section open for tourists. The lovely furnishings – Tommy was especially partial to the mother of pearl inlaid pieces – and elegant attention to detail (imported columns from Scotland) impressed me with a sense of the Eastern exotic aesthetic. In classic Tommy and Anna style, we had a draft (snake draft, for those of you who care about such details) to pick out which pieces we would prefer to take home.

Would you like to live here?

At this point, my gimpy ankle was starting to hurt, so we decided to hop on the free bus and ride it full circle, seeing the city from the window. We passed several Hindu and Buddhist temples as well as mosques, further emphasizing the diversity of religion. Although Malaysia is an officially Muslim country, freedom of religion is guaranteed. We did not get to go in to tour any of them because I needed to rest, unfortunately.

Known for the food, I was excited to try many different Malaysian dishes in two different night hawker markets we visited. The first night, we went to one close to our hotel. With live music, beer girls serving buckets of beer, and dozens of stands, it was more an outdoor event than just a market. While eating our noodles, oyster omelettes, and fried ice cream, we were amused to watch the Malaysian band play country music, danced to by older local couples – doing the two step! People watching highly entertained me while my tastebuds feasted.

Oyster omelette - strange to think about, but actually quite delicious. More a scramble than an omelette, really.

On our second night, we got a bus to the farther away hawker market sandwiched between an elegant mall and the water. Bustling with people eating all sorts of noodles, fried things, crazy technicolor desserts, and seafood, the market delighted us with sights and smells. We strolled through the entire market, assessing our options. We decided on a plate of miscellaneous fried things with chili sauce and fresh vegetables (only okay) and delicious laksa (fish broth soup spiked with a tang from tamarind and mint). We concluded our evening with dessert: sweet corn in a cup for Tommy, and a strange neon colored concoction of coconut milk (look how far I’ve come in my coconut revulsion) with ice and weird jellied bits. It was interesting to try, but frankly, I think I’ll stick to ice cream, or corn.



  1. Even a museum is a competition for you two. I love your sense of fun. I would have loved to have been there to eat an oyster omelette and two stepped with the old folks. It just tells you that Texas plays well every where.

  2. I know this is more than a year “late,” but Penang is famous for their ‘nasi kandar’ which is a mixture of the traditional Malay rice dish ‘nasi lemak’ but with different ingredients and a curry sauce, created by the local Indian muslims. Like Singapore, the fender benders between different cultures work wonders on the food around here.

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