The pride of Malaysia when it was built, the Komtar tower is still by far the tallest building in George Town, even if it has since been surpassed in size by several others in Kuala Lumpur. Today large parts of the complex are abandoned, and the once popular observation deck has been closed indefinitely for renovations. It looks hopeful, as some of the shopping malls at ground level are now excellent.
Only a few of George Town's once plentiful stilted houses still remain, clinging desperately to the coast as if they might be torn away in a tropical storm at any moment. They are wonderfully evocative of a bygone era, but they are also living spaces so should be treated with respect. Each jetty is dominated by one of several Chinese clans, who historically worked the jetties for the trade brought in on sampans and other boats. It was a highly competitive business, and the clans would often fight each other.
Be careful not to fall in the water, as the pathways are narrow and there's little to stop you toppling over the side.
George Town's Little India manages to transport you to the streets of Mumbai or Delhi, with all the sights, sounds, smells, but without any of the hassle. It's more authentically chaotic than Little India in Singapore, but just as hot. Take time to enjoy the authentic food, shopping and the Bhangra beats.
St. George's Church
Consescrated in 1819, it cost the British as much to build as Singapore cost to buy the same year. This, the oldest Anglican church in Malaysia, became a focal point for the British community on the island. It's cold, white washed walls and austere neo-classical architecture are stand out features in this tropical climate.
Starting at Esplanade Park, near Fort Cornwallis, and stretching up along the north coast of Penang, past Eastern & Oriental then all along Gurney Promenade, is a stretch of disconnected walking paths that give outstanding views of the Penang Straits and the island as it curves around the bay. You can stop off at the some tea and sea breeze at the Eastern & Oriental, or for some air-conditioned shopping at Gurney Plaza.
Eastern & Oriental Hotel
Perfectly placed on the promenade, the Eastern & Oriental is, like its sister Raffles in Singapore, the quintessential colonial hotel. It's all whitewashed walls and cast iron verandas. It's easy to imagine some of the famous fin de siècle writers, like Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham, enjoying tea on the sea front, cooled by a breeze fresh in from the Straits of Penang. It was popular with others too, including Charlie Chaplain and Singapore's premier for life Lee Kuan Yew.
It's still a function, and very expensive, hotel today, but you can wander through and even enjoy tea on the sea front as well, imagining yourself back in the 1930s listening to Noel Coward's "Mad Dogs and Englishmen".
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion
Cheong Fatt Tze's "Blue Mansion" is a throwback to George Town's colonial years - one of the best examples of merchant houses that still exists in the city. This one stands out particularly from the often white washed mansions on the coast by being painted a bold indigo blue.
Many of the Chinese who emigrated to Penang came from the island of Hainan, but they were late arrivals and typically had a tougher time than most settling in South East Asia. The temple on Muntri Street is dedicated to the god of seafarers, their patron, Ma Chor Po.
The climate on Penang Hill, about 800 meters above sea level, is a refreshing relief after the muggy, tropical conditions in George Town. The temperature is a few degrees lower, the air is drier and there is a significant cool breeze. It's no wonder the British built their colonial retreat up here. At night the temperature can drop below 21 degrees, and might even require you to wear a jacket.
It's a pleasant spot, with wonderful views of George Town and the Straits of Penang. That's as long as it's not too cloudy which it often is. There's not much else to do on the hill, except wander some short paths and see some of the vestiges of colonial rule, like the houses. But you'll want to sit and enjoy the climate as long as you can before returning to ground level.
The only way to get up the hill, is by a funicular - the Penang Hill Railway. The hill itself costs no money, but the funicular costs 30RM for tourists and can have hour long queues at peak times.
Penang Hill Railway
The British would employ coolies to carry them up the colonial station on the hill, but at the start of the 20th century they built a funicular train system at great cost and effort. That has recently been replaced by a brand new system which rushes you up the hill at speeds reminiscent of a roller coaster. It's the longest funicular track in Asia, with the steepest tunnel, and one of the longest in the world. It's very impressive, and probably the number one attraction on Penang, along with the hill station itself.
Be warned, though - it's very popular. There are long queues. We waited about an hour to go up, but came down almost without a wait. I think the best advice is to turn up as early as possible.
Take bus 204 from the Weld Quay bus station or Komtar. It takes about 40 minutes from start to finish. You can get there in half the time in a taxi. The taxi fare is about 20-25MR, but if you are a tourist it will be more, and if it's raining even more so, and if you are coming back from Penang Hill, expect to be charged even more again, maybe 30-35MR. That'll be in the taxis marked with the bold warning "it's a crime in Penang not to use the meter".
Penang 3D Trick Art Museum
A bit of fun for the many rainy days in George Town, especially for the kids. It's a generally well executed trick art exhibition, where you need to be careful where you stand and where you take the picture in order to get it right. I made the mistake of just snapping away the first time around, until one of the friendly guides helped me out. It's fun, but you need to make sure it's not too crowded, or you'll be waiting forever to take a picture. If there's a queue at the ticket desk, it's probably not worth bothering; come back later.
Fort Cornwallis has two claims to fame: It is the biggest fort in Malaysia, and it has never been needed. Perhaps because it is so imposing it did its job. The fort was built to defend against pirates who had been using the island as a base before the British took control, and against the Sultan of Kedah to whom the island had previously belonged. The British were wary of the Sultan, after he had signed away the island on a promise of military support which never came.
Central Fire Station
Built in 1909 this was George Town's first fire station - previously the police had performed this function. It's a striking building combining Mughal and Edwardian styles of architecture, with whitewashed walls and gilded, naturally, in fire engine red.
Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower
There's 60 meters to this clock tower - one meter for every year Queen Victoria had reigned when it was commissioned for her Diamond Jubilee. The architecture is a clash of Neoclassical and Moorish that epitomizes the cultural and historical mix in the city. Another part of George Town's history that it reflects is World War 2 - there's an ever so slight lean caused by the Japanese bombs that fell all around it during their invasion of the island.
Go up the Penang hill
Next to the Komtar builiding is a bus station. Bus number 204 will take you to the train station for a few ringgits to go up the hill. Be prepared for a little fancy fair with shops, temples and restaurants and nice views. The bus is airconditioned, so very comfortable. on the hill it is a little colder then down hill. There is a big curfew waiting to buy tickets for the train up. It is not cheap 22 ringgits.
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