My old friend Andrew Chan looked as hale and hearty as the last time I saw him. It was in early morning when he stepped up to meet me at the lobby of the Royale Chulan Hotel, Georgetown, where I was staying.
I was in Penang for a short visit and Andrew had promised to take me around the island’s capital city (and his beloved hometown) for the remaining duration of my visit. Staying in the heart of this UNESCO World Heritage Site of George Town itself had me within arm’s reach of all of Penang’s most treasured wonders. Andrew then said that we were going on a bicycle ride; so much fun!
Cycling has become a form of regular transport since the Penang State Government initiated a move a few years back to push for greener transportation modes. As a result, there is now a bike-share system for touring and transport purposes and a 39km dedicated bike lane for visitors to sightsee the city.
I was thrilled! Plus, I hadn’t seen Penang and Andrew for 15 long years. “Come, come, let’s have breakfast first,” urged Andrew, reading my thoughts. “Let me take you to Ali Nasi Lemak Daun Pisang at the Weld Quay Food Court just down the road from here. You’ll see why this is the most famous Nasi Lemak in the whole of Penang!”
True to his prediction, I saw why. The humble stall sitting among a sea of other stalls in the old-fashioned food court had a long queue for Ali’s Nasi Lemak Bungkus ─ piping hot, banana leaf-wrapped fragrant coconut milk rice fare dolloped with sambal, fish, prawns, ikan bilis and half boiled eggs. We ate two packets each ourselves and got sufficiently revved up for a day of exploration ahead.
Picking Up Our Bicycles
The first thing we did was to walk over to the nearest LinkBike Station at OCBC on Beach Street to pick up our cheery blue bicycles. This bike sharing program uses an App to enable cyclists to pick up and return their bikes from any of the 25 stations in the city.
“Let’s go to see the Pinang Peranakan Mansion first,” Andrew suggested, and off we cycled to nearby Church Street.
Pinang Peranakan Mansion
The Pinang Peranakan Mansion is a museum designed in the architecture of a typical, rich 19th century Baba-Nonya home. Babas and Nonyas are the earliest immigrants from
China who came to Malaya to work, and in the course of it, married locals and developed their own distinctive inter-ethnic culture called Peranakan or Baba-Nonya. They are found mainly in Penang and Melaka as the Chinese first settled in these ports-of-call during the formative eras of the country.
Stepping inside, I was blown away by the sheer opulence of the Baba-Nyonya culture and lifestyle. There were over 1000 pieces of antiques and collectibles comprising intricately carved wooden screens, mirrors with ornate frames, furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl as well as displays of the signature Baba-Nonya costumes such as the baju kebaya, kerongsang, beaded slippers and ornamental belts.
Fort Cornwallis and the Queen Victoria Clock Tower
Andrew led me to Fort Cornwallis next and while on our way, we swung by the white and gold-domed Queen Victoria Clock Tower standing serenely at the junction of Light Street and Beach Street.
“The clock tower was built to commemorate Queen Victoria’s 1897 Diamond Jubilee,” he informed me, “that’s why the tower is 60ft tall. It’s one foot for each year of the queen’s reign.”
Penang, as history has it, had an illustrious past. It was a British crown colony founded by Captain Francis Light in 1786 who named it Prince of Wales Island. He also named its capital George Town after King George III who ruled the British Empire between 1760 and 1801 prior to Queen Victoria’s reign.
Fort Cornwallis, just two minutes away from the clock tower, is a throwback to this time. The star-shaped fortress named after Charles Cornwallis was built to defend Penang from pirates and French forces during the Napoleonic Wars. It is one of the oldest ruins in Penang and the largest standing fort in Malaysia. Some of the original structures that remain include a set of 10ft high outer walls, a chapel, some prison cells, an ammunition storage area and many restored bronze cannons.
Behind the fort, just a 100m away, stands the Fort Cornwallis Lighthouse. Andrew and I huffed and puffed our way up the 80-odd steps to the top of the 21m lighthouse to get some of the most breathtaking shots of Penang’s sea and city view.
The Esplande - Cenotaph War memorial
Coming down from great heights, we cycled on the Esplanade, the wide waterfront area. What a lovely bike ride it was too ─ to be surrounded by the peaceful sea breeze on the right and to see a moving vista of the hustle and bustle of inner George Town on the left. We headed towards the Cenotaph War Memorial where many tourists like to take pictures. The structure was built in 1929 to commemorate fallen commonwealth soldiers in various wars of the past.
Next, we swung by three grand buildings ─ the City Hall, Town Hall occupied by the councils and the Dewan Sri Pinang ─ an auditorium for live performances such as musicals, ballet and theatre. Andrew pointed out that the auditorium has great acoustics, and recalled watching a 75-minute show featuring a Chinese musical instrument orchestra and a 24-piece drum performance that blew him away.
Penang 3D Trick Art Museum, Penang State Museum and Churches
We whizzed past the High Court, down the road and had we turned left to Lebuh Penang, we would have gone to the Penang 3D Trick Art Museum ─ an interactive, fun-filled optical illusion museum. It’s a great place for all the family to get creative and post up photos on Instagram!
Instead, we turned right and cycled down Lebuh Farquhar to admire the architectures of cathedrals and churches. We cycled to St. George Anglican Church ─ the oldest Anglican church in Southeast Asia and one of the oldest buildings in Penang. It was built by the East India Company back in 1817 and even has a rotunda reposing serenely in its well-manicured lawn. Andrew and I couldn’t resist relaxing there for a while and taking pictures of the enchanting architectures all around.
Then, we cycled to the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery ─ a sprawling colonial-era heritage building housing all manner of artworks since 1965, and past Andrew’s alma mater ─ St Xavier’s Institution ─ an all-boys school and the oldest Catholic Lasallian school in Malaysia.
“I was in the school band playing trombone,” laughed Andrew, recalling that he spent 11 years of his childhood there, going to and from school each day by a trishaw.
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion
All too soon it was time for lunch. We cycled down to Penang Road to Kheng Pin Kopitiam to have a quick lunch of chicken rice, lobak and prawn fritters ─ “the best in Penang,” as Andrew informed me and I agree ─ before cycling up to Leith Street to see the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion.
Painted a striking indigo blue, the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion or the Blue Mansion, is another heritage building that once belonged to the rich and influential Mandarin Cheong Fatt Tze. The grand 19th century building has 38 rooms, five granite-paved courtyards, seven staircases and 220 vernacular timber louvre windows. It is a boutique hotel and dining establishment as well, making it the most lavish historical landmark that one can ever find in George Town.
Bowled over by the opulence of the mansion but having worked up an appetite during the guided tour of the place, we headed to Chowrasta Market to taste some of the most
famous authentically made foods in Penang. Top of the list is tambun biscuits ─ savoury green beans and fried onion pastries. One cannot leave Penang without buying back Ghee Hiang or Him Heang tambun biscuits. You can also get nutmeg in all forms here ─ sliced and preserved, juiced or fresh. Only two places in the world grow the best nutmegs ─ Penang and Sri Lanka, so this is why you need to grab the nutmeg while you are here.
Andrew and I also went stall-hopping. Chowrasta market sells fresh produce in the mornings but in the afternoon, you can get all kinds of clothing, shoes, souvenirs, dried foods, pickles as well as the most inimitable hot street food ever. We binged out on the 10-ingredient curry puffs served with pickled onions, Chee Cheong Fun (steamed rice rolls) and Ais Tingkap which is coconut water mixed with syrup and selasih seeds. Then, we cycled down a few lanes and ate Penang Cendol and the most unique snack in Malaysia ─ crushed peanut candy wrapped in warm and savoury popiah skin. It’s a heritage food that has its roots in the Qing Dynasty but brought to Penang by Chinese immigrants in the 1950s.
Clan Jestties and Sia Boey Urban Archaelogical Park
We didn’t have enough time to see all that George Town had to offer as I had to rush back that evening to prepare for my flight back to KL. Other places we missed were Penang’s latest attractions: Container Art which is shipping containers stacked and mural drawn outside Prangin Mall, the Sia Boey Urban Archaelogical Park ─ the first urban archaeological park in Malaysia where the Prangin canal and old shophouses have been rejuvenated as community facilities. The old Prangin monsoon drain is now teeming with carps.
There were also the Clan Jetties that we missed. These are rows of 300m wooden walkways that lead from shore to sea featuring wooden houses on stilts flanking both sides of the jetty. Belonging to the separate Chinese clans that first settled in Penang, the floating village forms part of the precious Penang Heritage Trail. Nearby would be Armenian Street ─ a narrow street filled with shophouses, art galleries, boutique hotels in restored houses, cafes, flea markets, and some of the best 3D street art ever painted in Penang.
Actually, there is so much more to see and do in George Town but Andrew and I had to cut short our tour. We will surely catch up and continue with our heritage journey!