Penang, say the guidebooks, is the Pearl of the Orient. Never mind that the tourist boards of every other city (or country, for that matter) east of the Suez say the same -- Hong Kong, Philippines, Goa, Sri Lanka. But this is the real McCoy. Penang, exotica at its best. Chinese, Malay, Brit; colourful, effervescent, immensely likeable.
Our arrival at Penang didn’t really endear us to the city: we got off, puffy-eyed and exhausted, from the Kuala Lumpur train at 6am at the distinctly seedy port town of Butterworth, where a sharp-eyed taxi driver volunteered the information that the next ferry to Penang would leave after an hour and a half, and ferry tickets would cost us 47 ringgit -- whereas he could get us to Penang in 57 ringgit. Just 10 ringgit more, and in comfort -- and right now, too. Our guardian angel must’ve given us a silent warning because we decided to ask someone else too, and learned from a local railway official that the ferry would in fact be leaving in 15 minutes and cost just 30 sens a ticket.
To discover that we’d narrowly escaped being duped well and proper was hardly a good start to the two-day stopover we were planning at Penang. Surprisingly enough, though, Penang turned out to be the high point of our vacation. We had already seen glittery, fun-filled Singapore, with its spanking clean streets, its delightful Jurong Bird Park and its Night Safari; we had been on the somewhat weather-beaten rides at the amusement park at Genting Highlands; and we would be going on to Bangkok, ultimate in exotica. . . but Penang, even now, remains the best part of that trip. Vivid, delightful, and straight out of the pages of a history book, Penang will probably always be one of my favourite cities in the Far East- all that greenery, the grass verge, the palms and the bilimbi trees beside the road- and of course the fabulously historic aura which envelops so much of Penang. The very Indian colour of Little India; the irresistibly Oriental charm of Khoo Kongsi and the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion; and of course the very colonial feel of so many parts of Georgetown. Just driving down Lebuh Light on our way from the YMCA to the ferry terminal brought that back to me very forcibly -- so much of Lebuh Light is lined with pretty houses (almost mansions, really) -- with white columns, gravel driveways, pretty lawns with conifers framing the gate, tiled roofs and tall windows -- so many of those buildings actually look as if they belong in an 18th- or 19th-century English novel rather than a green island in the tropics! Anyway, all part of the irresistible charm of Penang.
Penang, or Pulau Pinang, as it’s known in Malay, is the island; its main town and capital is Georgetown. Captain Francis Light, who named it after King George III, established Georgetown sometime in the 1780s mainly as a trading centre for the East India Company. A major trading and mercantile centre, Penang attracted thousands of people- Malays, Chinese, Indians, Eurasians, Armenians, Javanese, Japanese, Europeans, Indonesians and apparently anybody else who happened to be in the vicinity -- and all of them came and settled here. The city, till today, retains a very eclectic feel and is much more exotic, interesting and old-fashioned than, say, Kuala Lumpur. Chinatown is delightfully Chinese (more so, I think, than Singapore’s); Little India is really very Indian and the area around Fort Cornwallis is amazingly colonial -- even the streets here have beautifully Brit names: Jalan Farquhar (Farquhar was an associate of Lights’), Lebuh Light, Lebuh Cannon, Jalan Argyll, Jalan Scotland, Jalan Hutton, Lebuh Kimberley, Lebuh Carnarvon, and Jalan Magazine. . . delightful!
The buildings, too, with their colonnaded facades, their elegant columns, curving balconies, verandahs and wooden shutter-windows look straight out of The Jewel in the Crown. Many, like the lovely white St George’s Church and the white clock tower (near Fort Cornwallis and built to commemorate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign, although it was completed only in 1902, after she was dead) are really striking. Incidentally, in this list too it’s worth adding the lovely white-and-dark-blue Customs department building; the blue police department building; the HSBC building (HSBC, in fact, set up shop here more than a century ago -- a truly historic bank. Their building’s a yellowish-white one, quite nice) and plenty of other old colonial edifices, nearly all in very good shape.
We spent only two days in Penang and then we caught the ferry back to Butterworth, from where we were to board the train north to Bangkok. Everybody back home had told us how colourful Bangkok was, how vibrant and vivid, but we at least were sorry to be leaving Penang. The fact that we’d narrowly escaped being swindled on the way to Penang was forgotten. All we remembered was the smiling face of the stewardess who returned the tip, saying, "You’ve forgotten your money"; the sight of the bright orange flowers on the tree outside the YMCA; the serene face of the golden Buddha in the Burmese wat of Dhammikarma. The kindly guide, clad in a mauve skirt and jacket, her hair tied in a tiny pigtail with a minute gold ribbon, who took us around the Cheong Fatt tze mansion; the impressive Penang Museum; the breeze blowing along Jalan Macalister as we walked along it to the town center. . . yes, Penang is it. The real McCoy, the true Pearl of the Orient.