Mention Georgetown or Penang to anyone in Malaysia, the reply is always the same: “Ahh good food”. Surprisingly enough, with a response like that, it was firmly on our radar as somewhere to visit.
Along with Malacca and Singapore, Georgetown was a key administration centre in British Malaya – it was actually the first place that the British landed on the peninsula. Technically a British protectorate for over a hundred years, Captain Light and the East India Company cleared back the jungle and founded a town that still remains an important port for trade.
As a result, it is probably the most multicultural place we’d been to, possibly since London. Although now mainly Chinese, Georgetown is a real mix of religions and cultures, with mosques, churches and Hindu temples all in close proximity. Street signs are in English, shop fronts in Mandarin, and bus stops in Malay. And that’s before you even get into Little India…
Most of the cheap hostels and hotels centre around Love Lane, a street of historically dubious morals – wealthy businessmen bought properties here to house their mistresses. That said, it’s a nice enough place, with coffee shops, a few bars and a sprinkling of restaurants. We even found a 24hr laundrette!
It is safe to say that we dined like kings for the best part of a week, although, we must confess, not really on Malay food. Yes, the Nasr Goreng was delicious (quite how they manage to encase an entire meal in omelette is beyond me!), but I wouldn’t say it was any better than others we’d had elsewhere. No, we firmly ate ‘multicultural’, and used restaurants as staging posts for exploring different parts of town.
A stroll along the waterfront and around Fort Cornwallis, the walled British outpost, in search of the tourist information office (a treasure trove of information for once) uncovered a food fair in the park by the Town Hall. An excellent start! As Kat remarked, this part of town looked almost exactly like parts of Portsmouth – even the bricks used to make the fort were of a similar colour. Admittedly, the palm trees blowing in the wind were a bit of a clue that Southsea wasn’t just round the corner! Dinner that night was at ‘That Little Wine Bar’, where Kat continued her education in red wine. Wine has been so poor in SE Asia that we’d practically written it off, but this place was a delight and the service was excellent. Did I mention they did a cheese plate? Oh, and BAKED CAMEMBERT. Perhaps the most remarkable thing though was that neither of these things were the highlight of the evening. A glance at the specials board saw ‘Ravioli…. 35RM’, and we overheard the table next to us ask what was in them. The answer was met with stunned silence, and a double take back at the board. 35 Ringgit for Lobster, Scallops and Truffle Ravioli. The liberal sprinkling of grated Parmesan didn’t hurt either. It was, (potential over claim warning), probably the best single dish we’ve eaten on the entire trip.
Another day saw us head for Penang Hill, which at 860m, has spectacular views over the whole island, and across to the mainland. A 4km road starting from the very pleasant Botanical Gardens winds its way steeply uphill and makes for some welcome physical activity in our largely sedentary existence. It was strange to be walking up switchbacks rather than driving them! There are several footpaths through the woods as well, but in the heat of the day, wearing flip flops, and with monkeys eyeing up our rucksack with glee, we opted for the most direct route! When I say the most direct route, I mean the most direct hiking route. There is of course, the funicular, reputed to be one of the steepest in Asia, and the masses of people at the top made it clear as to which was the more popular mode of transportation! We felt slightly pleased with ourselves, and much more deserving of the inevitable coffee and cake…
The highlight of Penang Hill for us was dinner at David Brown’s. It had initially came to our attention as a possible site for afternoon tea, but a glance at the menu gave us other, more grand ideas. “Oh my God, they do Beef Wellington”. Oh yes, oh yes they do. It was sublime (and with a 30% off Groupon voucher, didn’t completely break the bank!).
A wander around Little India was an obvious choice for another evening. With a different style of music blaring into the streets (to blend in with the car horns), brighter colours and more exotic smells from the hawker stalls, it is a distinct change from other parts of town. Needless to say, we were looking forward to dinner. Kapitan’s was our choice, and it had come recommended to us. Fully 24hrs and with huge neon signs, it was a busy place, and really good. It was also probably the first Indian we have been to where neither of us got a curry! Quick, cheap, and very tasty. Perfect.
No trip to Penang would be complete without some sort of recognition of it’s importance to the Empire. What better way to do that, we reasoned, than to combine a trip to the museum with a spot of English Afternoon Tea at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel? Founded by the same Sarkie brothers who later started Raffles in Singapore, the grand buildings have a commanding view of the waterfront. We consider ourselves to be slight experts on afternoon tea, and the general consensus was that this one was ‘bloody good’. Oh, being cultured is sometimes such a hardship…