13-16 Jan '14
Mon 13 Jan 14 - Thu 16 Jan 14 30 °C
Arriving in Penang I have never felt more like a colonial - within minutes I'd seen a clocktower dedicated to Queen Victoria, a bunch of European architecture and I was staying in an old colonial house in Love Lane in George Town. Now I know George Town was founded by the British and was the very important port between West and East, but it still comes as a bit of a shock. Nowhere else are four of the dominant influences on modern Malaysia so apparent - Penang's culture of Chinese, Indian, Malay and British is intoxicating. So where to start...
Chinese clan houses (kongsi) and temples abound - you literally see one every time you turn a corner. I photographed and/or wandered into eight. Khoo Kongsi is one of the most impressive - very beautifully restored, but I really liked Tokong Han Jiang and Hock Leik Chieng Sin, which were much smaller but almost better for it, and Kuan Yin Teng, which wasn't pretty, but was so busy and exciting - a real working temple full of incense and people.
I also visited the Kapitan Keling Mosque - and after a brief guided tour, was almost forced to take a book explaining how the Qu'ran and science work together (I was too polite to refuse). It was pretty, but Ottoman mosques beat it hands down. On the second night I also saw a Muslim procession - no idea what for though.
Sri Mariamman is a massive contrast to the mosque I saw - this Hindu temple is the oldest in George Town and its pretty crazy inside and out - and seemed more alive than the mosque (even though I was at the mosque at prayer time) - with ladies meeting for a gossip, painted Hindu priests wandering around, and the preparations for Thaipusam - where devotees do such things as piercing their own tongues with a spear, or stick hooks through their skin and then carry things. Unfortunately I left Penang before the festival, and our next two stops didn't really seem to celebrate it.
One of the best things to do in Penang is walk around admiring the architecture - apart from the temples you also have Chinese jetties, colonial Raj-style buildings, churches, a fort, colonnaded walkways floored in British style Victorian tiles, and most impressively, mansions. The Penang Peranankan Mansion celebrates the Peranakan or Straits Chinese community - those Chinese who settled in Penang, Malacca and Singapore from the sixteenth century onwards, rather than later settlers from China. They used the Chinese religion, but customs, language and dress of Malays. Often very wealthy, this sumptuous mansion is covered in gold leaf and full of stunning furniture and jewellry. The mint green building is beautiful, and even includes a secret passage to the clan house next door. Similar but even more impressive is the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, or Blue Mansion (it's indigo). Not a Peranakan, Cheong Fatt Tze was a Chinese businessman who was so astoundingly rich and famous he was known as the 'Rockefeller of the East' - this mansion is just one of many he had spread around Asia. Although basically Chinese in style, it incorporates Western elements too - the tiles are Victorian patterns from Staffordshire, the iron posts are from Glasgow, the stained glass is art deco in style. It's awesome, and really came alive under the stories of the tour guide.
The other thing you notice when walking around is the street arts. Its everywhere. Some is pretty purposeful - "marking" George Town with metal cartoons with historical undertones - some is interactive - you can sit on a swing next to two kids or behind a guy on a motorbike - and some is just plain wicked.
Penang is known for its food. It should be. It's ace. Although the specialties are mostly Malay/Chinese fusion, I mostly gorged on Indian food. In three days I had Indian five times. Once I had seven vege curries at once, plus rice and poppadom for just £1. I had Rogan Josh, garlic naan and mango lassi that made me think I was in Birmingham. It rocked. And the Chinese and Malay food was pretty good too.