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Revisiting George Town

Mogens JohansenThe West Australian
George Town, Penang.
Camera IconGeorge Town, Penang. Credit: Mogens Johansen/The West Australian

Through history, the Strait of Malacca has been of great importance for maritime trade between East and West. It is the longest strait in the world and connects the South China Sea and the Andaman Sea.

I’m aboard Royal Caribbean’s Spectrum of the Seas cruise ship for a three-day return voyage along the Strait of Malacca between Singapore and the Malaysian state of Penang and today the giant ship dwarfs the historic buildings at Swettenham Pier in George Town as we dock alongside.

George Town, which is the capital of Penang, has been at the heart of the lucrative spice trade since Captain Francis Light of the British East India Company arrived in 1786. He acquired the island of Penang from the sultan of Kedah and established the port at George Town and it quickly became a vital port for the British.

Trishaw's at the Town Hall in George Town, Penang.
Camera IconTrishaw's at the Town Hall in George Town, Penang. Credit: Mogens Johansen/The West Australian

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The charming town is a melting pot of all the influences from the Chinese, Indian and Europeans traders who settled here.

George Town’s unique architectural style includes imposing British colonial buildings, attractive shophouses and a variety of religious buildings that reflect its multicultural heritage. It became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008 because of the outstanding universal value of the cultural diversity that is embodied and embedded in its living and built heritage.

I’ve visited before so I decide to reacquaint myself with the town by myself rather than joining one of the many tours offered by the Spectrum of the Seas.

George Town is not a big place and most of the interesting stuff is within easy walking distance from the port — so I’ll have plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere and poke my nose into a shop or two along the way when I see something interesting.

The entrance to Fort Cornwallis in George Town, Penang.
Camera IconThe entrance to Fort Cornwallis in George Town, Penang. Credit: Mogens Johansen/The West Australian

Right outside Swettenham Pier, the canons on top of the fortified walls of Fort Cornwallis and the many impressive colonial buildings along the esplanade hint at the wealth and importance of George Town back in its day.

At the Town Hall I discover that George Town and Adelaide are sister cities and that Captain Francis Light’s son, William, was the surveyor general who selected the site and the design of Adelaide in 1837.

As I continue towards the heritage zone in the hot and humid conditions, I cast a slightly envious glance at a few of my fellow cruisers who wave at me as they roll past in some of the many trishaws that are doing a roaring business around town today.

I briefly entertain the idea of hiring one myself but decide to stick to my original plan. I find some respite from the heat by sticking to the shady side of the streets.

Along the way I admire the colourful shophouses and the interesting street art and soak up the colours, sounds and smells of Little India.

During my previous visit to George Town in 2013 I admired two unique artworks called Boy on a Motorbike and Little Children on a Bicycle, which were made for the 2012 George Town Festival by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic. The artworks were very popular at the time and I’m keen to see how they have fared in the tough tropical conditions.

I’m delighted to find that they are not only in good condition, but also as popular as ever. Dozens of people wait patiently to have their photo taken with the artworks.

Boy on a Motorbike street art in George Town, Penang.
Camera IconBoy on a Motorbike street art in George Town, Penang. Credit: Mogens Johansen/The West Australian

The architecture and the street art may be among George Town’s major attractions, but the food is right up there as well judging by the popularity of the street food stalls.

I’m very tempted to try some out but having just come of a cruise ship — my stomach is still processing the breakfast buffet.

I am however in need of a drink, so I have my eyes peeled to see if I can find a refreshing drink called cendol which I tried last time I was here. And it is not long before I spot a stall with a queue of people waiting to purchase the yummy and refreshing concoction which is made with rice flour jelly, coconut milk, palm sugar syrup and shaved ice.

Just what I need to recharge my depleted energy.

Time is however flying by and much as I’d like to explore more and revisit the Chinese clan jetties, I must make my way back to the luxury and air-conditioning of the Spectrum of the Seas in time for the return trip to Singapore.

Until next time George Town.

Chinese temple in George Town, Penang.
Camera IconChinese temple in George Town, Penang. Credit: Mogens Johansen/The West Australian
Little India in George Town, Penang.
Camera IconLittle India in George Town, Penang. Credit: Mogens Johansen/The West Australian
Street art in George Town, Penang.
Camera IconStreet art in George Town, Penang. Credit: Mogens Johansen/The West Australian
George Town, Penang.
Camera IconGeorge Town, Penang. Credit: Mogens Johansen/The West Australian
Street art in George Town, Penang.
Camera IconStreet art in George Town, Penang. Credit: Mogens Johansen/The West Australian
Street art in George Town, Penang.
Camera IconStreet art in George Town, Penang. Credit: Mogens Johansen/The West Australian
T-shirts for sale in George Town, Penang.
Camera IconT-shirts for sale in George Town, Penang. Credit: Mogens Johansen/The West Australian
A Chinese clan house in George Town, Penang.
Camera IconA Chinese clan house in George Town, Penang. Credit: Mogens Johansen/The West Australian

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