George Town on Malaysia’s Penang Island is a place with a big heart that’s wide open to visitors. During the early days of the fabled Spice Route, the infant colony of Penang was known as a ‘sweet water’ port making it an essential stop-over for vessels sailing between China and India. Over 450 years, control of the highly lucrative spice trade brought the Portuguese, Dutch and the British to its shores. These grand builders of commercial empires have left George Town with a legacy that, along with Melaka, has been recognised as twin UNESCO World Heritage Sites as “the most complete surviving historic city centres on the Straits of Melaka”. The 2008 listing together with sensitive heritage and urban renewal is now attracting international tourists who stroll George Town’s sun-drenched streets where Straits Chinese shophouses are immaculately restored into homes, galleries, cafes, accommodation and creative spaces.
In 2009, a collection of buildings that once provided parking for horse carriages and accommodation for their drivers provided former Sydney investment banker Chris Ong with all the inspiration needed to create Muntri Mews. Chic, affordable boutique accommodation right in the heart of a gentrified George Town, Muntri Mews is surrounded by shophouses that provide an eclectic riff on classic Straits Chinese architecture. A fast, friendly check-in and we make our way to the first floor where our room is off a long stretch of verandah.
Overlooking a narrow courtyard below dressed in lush tropical greenery, we feel like we’re part of a community, much as the carriage drivers would have done at the turn of the 20th century. Interiors are simple, comfortable and authentic with a huge bed occupying one end of a spacious room adjacent to a tiled, modern bathroom.
The interior is eclectic with framed photos of early George Town and modern pieces of art; old enamel trays and Chinese tea pots. Louvred wooden windows, timber floors and handcrafted linens imbue Muntri Mews with the beauty of simple elegance set on one of George Town’s oldest streets. www.georgetownheritage.com/muntri-mews
Why re-invent the wheel when hotel proprietor Chris Ong has done the leg work for us and is happy to share. Here are some of his recommendations when visiting George Town. The Blue Mansion, once home to Mandarin Cheong Fatt Tze and Pinang Peranakan Mansion, glorious fusions of Straits Chinese and Victorian England are fabulously stuffed with antiques, furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl and both featured in the Catherine Deneuve film ‘Indochine’.
Visit Little India for samosas, gold, spices, silks and a CD of Tamil’s greatest hits. Call into some of the six remaining 19th century waterfront communities on the traditional clan jetties at Penang Weld Quay. Follow George Town’s Street Art Trail where history, heritage and humour combine through witty wall art and steel-rod sculptures that entertain and inform. Penang Free Sheet will give you a list of the latest happenings www.penangfreesheet.my
FOLLOW THE FOOD
No need to take a formal food tour of George Town – food is celebrated all around you! Hawker foods from Laksa, Wan Tan Mee, Hokkien Mee, Curry Mee and particularly Penang favourites Left Hand Noodles and Chandol can be found on Keng Kwee Street. Narelle McMurtrie’s China House consumes an entire block on Beach Street, a contemporary space housing gallery, canteen-bar, cafe filled with freshly-baked temptations and a restaurant. Don’t miss a morning breakfast of Roti Canai with chicken curry or wobbly eggs on Transfer Road, French press local coffee at Kopi Loewak on Armenian Street or dinner at Kebaya Seven Terraces, the ultimate in chic retro-heritage dining.
TRICKS AND TREATS
In addition to traditional arts and crafts, gentrification is bringing a new shopping sensibility to George Town. Precious jewellery can be found at Venessa Diamonds in Jalan Kelawai; homewares and gifts at SSF Creative Lifestyle Hub on Jalan Anson or Fuan Wong Gallery on Armenian Street. Tempting antique collections can be found at Seven Terraces Antiques Shop, Gallery 1961 and Pinang Peranakan Mansion. Looking for something a little quirkier? How about Dragon Ball Biscuits from Ghee Hiang on Jalan Burma or comb through an Aladdin’s cave of ethnic clothing and textiles at Sam’s Batik House on Penang Road. No love is more sincere than the Penangites’ love of food and nowhere is it more artfully displayed than at the original and quirky Wonderfood Museum on Beach Street. For the kids, Trick Art Museum on Penang Street creates some magical illusions through the camera lens. www.penangtrickart.com
HITTING THE HEIGHTS
Take the funicular to the top of Penang Hill for sweeping vistas over Penang Island and a dose of fresh air. It’s also where the BBC filmed the drama series Indian Summer starring Julie Walters. Ride the express to The Top at Komtar, Penang’s tallest building, and enjoy drinks at sunset with a 360 degree view. And if you’ve got a head for heights, take a short stroll on the Skywalk and peer down through the perspex floor at the city’s grid of bustling streets and narrow laneways.
With such a fascinating, head-spinning blend of heritage architecture and street art, multi-cultural diversity and kerbside cuisine, no wonder it’s easy to lose your heart to such a vibrant destination….
www.visitpenang.gov.my www.malaysia.travel www.malaysiaairlines.com
Tags: China House, George Town Heritage Hotels, Indian Summer, malaysia airlines, Muntri Mews, Penang Hill, Pinang Peranakan Mansion, Seven Terraces, Spice Route, Spice Trade, Straits of Melaka, The Blue Mansion, The Top@Komtar, Tourism Malaysia, Trick Art Museum, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Visit Penang, Wonderfood Museum