Georgetown, Malaysia – The name Georgetown seems like it would be a smallish place, town-like even. But when the bus crossed the Penang Bridge and we could see the rows of high rises and hotel chains, it was much more city then we expected. A metropolis maybe. We joked that the name should be changed to something like Georgecity, or Georgetropolis. But then we decided people might confuse it with George Stephanopoulos.
In what was most likely billed as “progress”, the island on which Georgetown resides has been taken over by buildings. There is some green space in the middle and the more you head away from Georgetown the less crowded it gets. But for the most part, it’s pretty developed. But instead of developing over the historic parts – ala China – the new developments were built around the old neighborhoods, creating a cocoon of cement. Within this shell lies the magic Georgetown.
This protection has allowed the neighborhoods of Little India and Chinatown to remain singular and authentic. Throw in a few mosques, temples and some British Colonial architecture, and you have a most spectacular place to wander – especially along the streets where they meet. On one side of the road you have Colonial buildings; little Chinese shop houses on the other. All the while you smell curries and hear the latest hit from India pop radio.
There was also a lingual fusion created by these ethnicities remaining so pure. In Georgetown – and the rest of Malaysia it would turn out – it seemed pointless to learn any Malay because there was no way to know what language someone spoke. The Indians spoke to each other in Hindi, Chinese spoke Chinese, Malaysians spoke Malay. But sometimes Indians would talk with other Indians in English, or to a Chinese person in Chinese or English, or Chinese people would switch between Chinese and English or even use Malay.
And the food… incredible. From open-air food courts, to little Indian food stalls – this was some of the best eating we’ve done on this trip. Especially the Indian. No matter what food you were hankering for, the smell of curry spilling out to the street and into your nose would carry you along floating like in those old Disney movies. And before you know it, you’d be ordering nasi biryani with tandoori chicken and fresh mango juice.
Thankfully tourism has also been kept out by the cocoon. There are a few streets heavy with the backpackers – including the famous Love Lane – but walk a block over and it’s just you and the Indian food stalls and joss-stick makers. The only overly-touristy area was Penang Hill. After riding the funicular up the hill, you are greeted by various vendors and some sideshow animal shows.
One such act was this guy walking around with a monkey on a chain (monkey on a chain might be the universal sign for being in Asia) and making it do “tricks” by threatening it with a club, which seemed impressive to people. Now, I’m no Charles Darwin, but I’m pretty sure if I chained up that guy and threatened him with a club, I could get him to do some “tricks” too.
After dinner one night we headed over to the Pitt Street Corner bar which was billed as a little Italian bar with saloon-styled doors and Bollywood musicals blaring from the tv. Well, it seemed like word got out that musicals weren’t very manly and had no place in a bar. The saloon doors gave it a western feel, but the horses had been replaced by a herd of motorbikes.
If this was a movie, the sound of a needle screeching on a record would have sounded when we walked in. Instead, when the guy sitting near the door saw us, from over the rim of his mug, walk in, his eyes bugged out and he started coughing on his beer. The Bollywood movie had been replaced with a weird montage of soccer and motorcross, and the music was some kind of Indian heavy metal.
There were sheets of paper taped to the wall with quotes about drinking that someone had printed out from a computer. Most were dumb, but one struck us funny: “Beer doesn’t make you fat, it makes you lean. Lean against bars, tables, chairs and poles.”