The Multicultural Melting Pot of Georgetown, Penang

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Perhaps the prime example of multicultural Malaysia in all its rich cultural diversity and fascinating history lies in historical Georgetown in Penang – an island in the north of Peninsula Malaysia, not far from Thailand.

Malaysia has a really interesting history and Penang is one of the best places to see it. Malaya was part of the British Empire and Georgetown was founded in 1786, named after Britain’s King George III.

Penang was at the heart of over 500 years of trading and cultural exchanges between East and West in the Straits of Malacca. It Georgetown is now listed as UNESCO World Heritage site, along with Melaka / Malacca which lies just a few hours away from the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.

Exploring Georgetown, Penang

Chinese shop houses in Georgetown, Penang
Chinese shop houses in Georgetown, Penang

Georgetown’s heritage architecture is amazingly well preserved and the Chinese merchant houses in the heart of the old town are one of the best examples of pre-war architecture in Asia.

In the early days Chinese and Indian labourers flocked to Penang. Through trading it grew to become one of the most successful colonies of the British Empire. The history and multicultural feeling is still really evident today.

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Georgetown is a fabulous melting pot mix of cultures, religions and people with a colourful heritage and old world charm. The colonial, Chinese, Malay and Indian influences combined to create a fascinating fusion of the East and West, and gave the town a unique and specific multicultural heritage.

A stroll through the small, atmospheric streets felt like it had taken me through multiple countries in one day! I started at the ruins of Fort Cornwallis, built in 1786 when the British East India company came to what was before a practically uninhabited island, and wandering down the Esplanade.

Colonial architecture and churches in the streets of Georgetown, Penang
Colonial architecture and churches in the streets of Georgetown, Penang

I soon came to the colonial buildings of the town halls and Christian churches that made me feel like I could have been back in London (on a rare warm and sunny day that is!)

But my favourite part of Georgetown is Harmony StreetThis is one of city’s main streets, Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling. On the ‘Street of Harmony’ it is easy to go temple hopping and visit Hindu temples, Chinese ancestral worship temples, Muslim mosques, Buddhist temples and Christian churches all on one street!

The street of harmony is home to an incredible diversity of places of worship in Georgetown Penang
The street of harmony is home to an incredible diversity of places of worship in Georgetown Penang

I spent many happy days just wandering the historic streets, looking at the interesting street art, visiting all the different places of worship and learning about different cultures and religions.

There are also plenty of boutique hotels, galleries, museums and heritage homes that you can visit and learn more about the people who created this unique and important trading city.

The Peranakans

Penang is home to a unique group of people – The Peranakans. Also called Peranakan Chinese and Baba-Nyonya – they were the descendants of the 15th- 17th-century Chinese immigrants who then mixed and married with local Malays, fusing cultures and traditions together.

The Peranakans were often wealthy, educated and powerful people involved with trade and you can get a taste of their opulent lifestyle and many unique customs and traditions at the Peranakan Mansion. You’ll also see Peranakan culture is other former trading ports like Phuket Old Town and Singapore.

The iconic bright blue of Cheong Fatt Tze's mansion
The iconic bright blue of Cheong Fatt Tze’s mansion

Now an icon of Georgetown and Penang – the bright blue Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, built in 1904 by teams of master craftsmen from China for the important Chinese politician and businessman. This is a fine example of Chinese opulence and influence at this time and one of only three of its kind left outside China

Another former resident was Sun Yat Sen. He was involved in the 1911 Chinese Revolution to end imperial rule in China and was president of the new Republic of China. You can visit his house, now a museum, in a quiet, unassuming street of Georgetown.

From China to India – in just a few streets I entered Little India, a lively, colourful district as Bollywood hits blast out of the shops selling saris, jewellery, South Indian food and DVDs while the smell of chai and sandalwood fill the air.

Exploring the rest of Penang Island

Me in Penang, Malaysia

The rest of the island of Penang offers so much to explore from natural beauty spots, interesting museums and more glorious temples.

Chill out on the beach, ride up the funicular to get amazing views from Penang’s Hill Station, visit the snake temple which is adorned with live poisonous snakes, and make sure to visit one of my favourite temples of all, the sprawling, spectacular and fascinating Kek Lok Si temple.

The sprawling Kek Lok Si temple, Penang
The sprawling Kek Lok Si temple, Penang

And if you’re hungry after all that exploring well Penang also offers a multicultural feast for the taste buds! From little boutique restaurants and cafes in restored colonial buildings, to night markets and good honest street food stalls and hawker centres – you are spoilt for choice here!

All of the meals I had in Penang, from Indian curries to Chinese dumplings, noddle soups, dim sum, roti, kebabs, seafood, spicy Thai and Malay curries, were always cheap, interesting and delicious. My favourite was the Laksa, a creamy coconut curry noodle soup dish and must try.

curry laksa penang food
Food in Penang is varied and delicious, my favourite was creamy, sour and spicy curry laksa

I hope you can see why I loved exploring Georgetown and Penang so much – it’s a great place to learn about the history of Malaysia and all the different cultures, religions, and cuisine that have influenced the region and made Malaysia a multicultural melting pot.

From historic architecture, temples and culture, to beaches and natural beauty and not forgetting the amazing street food and art – this is definitely somewhere you shouldn’t miss from your Malaysia itinerary! 

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5 comments

Karisa May 21, 2014 at 8:08 pm

Great post! I really enjoyed exploring (and eating my way around) multicultural Penang. Little India was my favorite!

Reply
Anna Phipps May 22, 2014 at 2:11 pm

Thanks! Yes I really loved Penang, the diversity and history was fascinating – and the food! I still have cravings for curry laksa and I loved Little India as I miss the sub continent. Also loved the free drinks for ladies in the Reggae Bar and Reggae Mansion! 🙂

Reply
Poisoncentral.Net September 21, 2014 at 1:08 pm

I couldn’t resist commenting. Well written!

Reply
Samantha November 24, 2014 at 10:18 am

Awesome pics! I didn’t know much about the history of Georgetown but we just loved it there. So much fun!

Reply
Anna Phipps November 24, 2014 at 7:48 pm

Thanks! Yeah I really loved Georgetown too – it was so fun to explore all the different cultures and cuisines in Penang.

Reply

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