by Ian Mackenzie
20 May 2015
by Ian Mackenzie
20 May 2015
So here’s the thing. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and has a reputation for having marvellous street food – an eclectic mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine. In fact, right up our street, you might say.
So why have we been left somewhat underwhelmed by our time here?
There’s no doubt that Georgetown has its fair share of beautiful old buildings, particularly the charismatic Chinese shophouses, clan houses, and temples. And if you’re looking for lots of cheap street food, you’re almost spoiled for choice. In some parts of town, there’s literally a mobile hawker stall on every corner specialising in some sort of local dish. So far, so good.
On the flip side, the traffic can be a nightmare and the place doesn’t seem to be set up for pedestrians. I’d say that 75% of the time we ended up walking on the road. Pavements, when you can find them, invariably finish up at dead ends. And that’s if you can make your way past the rows of parked motorbikes. Getting back out on the road typically involves stepping over open drains, too.
Now I’m not a qualified zoologist but even I know that if you combine hot weather with rotting food and open drains you’re likely to attract a certain type of rodent. And, sure enough, on at least three occasions we saw several large (and I mean LARGE) rats running around – including at a combined food market and hawker stall. It certainly made us wary of eating at some of the places we saw.
And there was the guy whose home was literally held together with sheets and rubbish – a Hilton Hotel for rats if there ever was one.
To be honest, we didn’t think the food was really that great. For every enjoyable meal or snack we had, there was another that was at best mediocre. Believe me, we really did want to love the food – we certainly walked far enough to try to eat as much variety as we could. But there really was only a certain amount of soup or noodle-based food we could eat before the cravings for something more substantial kicked in big time. Seriously, we actually felt under-nourished by the time we left!
The place lives and breathes food, though, from breakfast until late in the evening. Food stalls are everywhere – each one of them specialising in their own particular dish. So under a cluster of, say three stalls, you’ll find one cooking Char Keoy Teow, another offering Hokkien Mee and another one Penang Laksa. It’s perfectly acceptable to have a dish from one stall and then switch to a separate dish from another. Just don’t use the wrong cutlery or there’ll be trouble.
Nicky’s favourite dish was Char Koay Teow with prawns and scallops. The noodles are fried in a cast iron wok over a very high heat so they become slightly charred and smoky. They’re normally served with cockles but we found one stall that served it with scallops instead.
Mine was Curry Mee, which I amusingly ordered with the cleverly punned “I’ll have some Curry Mee”. When the laughter had subsided I was left with a lovely coconut broth filled with two types of noodles, together with prawns, tofu, vegetables and a spoonful of chilli sambal.
But there just wasn’t one outstanding dish that compared with the best food we ate in Thailand. Maybe we were simply unlucky and didn’t unearth the gems that were out there. Maybe we should have tried the frog soup or played safe with the fish stomach porridge….
Or maybe it’s just been a little bit over-hyped.
First off, Nicky armed herself with a leaflet guide on Georgetown’s famous street art. Initially introduced to celebrate the town’s UNESCO World Heritage status, it was extended in 2012 when the artist Ernest Zacharevic was commissioned to paint a number of murals, including the famous “Kids on Bicycle”. We spent a nice hot, sunny morning working our way around a route Nicky had marked out on the guide. Sadly, some of the murals are beginning to fade away – a combination of the weather and the sweaty palms of tourists no doubt.
We saw our fair share of Chinese temples – and they were mightily impressive, too. Some of them have been superbly restored and are fascinating places to just go and wander around, even if you’ve no idea what the various images and artefacts actually mean. What they do represent though is how much the Chinese have influenced Georgetown over the past 200 years.
Just wandering around the streets
And it’s not just the temples the Chinese have left their mark with. By just wandering around the streets we saw countless traditional shophouses, which continue to be homes to long-established family traders or have been converted into the many coffee shops, art galleries, and homestays.
Walking around the busy streets in the heat and humidity certainly took its toll on our feet. We’d decided that we’d keep out of the bars while we were there, mainly because of the high prices. But our bodies were literally flagging after seven days so we succumbed and decided to find out what Georgetown’s drinking establishments had to offer. And it was Saturday lunch time after all.
Pride of place went to Micke’s Place on Love Lane – Georgetown’s backpacker central. To the untrained eye, this was just a bar with a pile of graffiti scribbled on the walls. Which is not surprising as the barman hands you a tin filled with felt-tipped pens as soon as you take a seat. But we kind of liked it. And the prices were reasonable too, so we spent a very pleasant couple of hours there while our feet regained their sense of feeling.
Not wishing to be outdone by Igor from Moscow or Brad from Utah, we decided to leave our own little mark on the place, too. So do look out for it when you visit…
Away from Georgetown we also took a couple of half-day trips out by bus – once to the Tropical Spice Garden, and another time to the Botanical Gardens, where we came face-to-face with a family of Dusky Langurs. A lot cuter than the macaques to be fair.
Overall, and including a couple of museum visits, we could have covered everything in four to five days, which is what we‘d intended. But we had another four days to spare before we were due to arrive in the Cameron Highlands, so we thought we’d use the time to plan some of our adventure ahead and, in the meantime, eat our way through what Georgetown had to offer. With hindsight, we should have moved on somewhere else (probably to one of the Perhentian Islands).
So yes, we were slightly underwhelmed by Georgetown and Penang in general. Maybe our expectations had been set too high, particularly when it came to the food. We certainly overstayed by at least four days. But we’ll put that down to lack of experience – we’re still only nine weeks into our Big Trip after all.
Having said that we’re still glad that we spent some time there. The people were really friendly – in fact, so many people came up to us in the street or on a bus to either welcome us to Penang or offer their help with directions.
We’ll also be a lot more experienced when we try the street food in Kuala Lumpur and Melaka – in fact, I can almost feel my appetite returning as I write!
What did you think? Have you been to Georgetown? Please tell us that the food you had was as good as we’d hoped! Or maybe you’re planning on visiting there soon? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
Visit our Malaysia page for further posts on the country and information on where we stayed.
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Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.
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