For better or worse, my arrival into George Town Penang, and some old school accommodation

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ May 16th, 2011. Updated on October 5th, 2013. Published in: Travel blog » Malaysia.
Golden Statue at Air Itam in Penang, Malaysia

When I think of George Town Penang, I think of this view, and the old streets below

George Town Penang, one of those rare tourist places that grows on you

Penang is an island in northwestern peninsular Malaysia. It’s capital is Georgetown, an old colonial town that’s been made a world heritage site.

Unlike many other world heritage sites, George Town has taken the tourism rush well.

I had my doubts about the place from reading about it. Being close to the border with southern Thailand I was worried about an influx of border visa seeking backpackers, and make-believe backpacking hippies. But much like the heritage award, George Town also seems to absorb them into non-existence quite well.

A less than stellar walk into George Town Penang

Side street in Georgetown Penang

Slippery when wet: the tiled streets of George Town Penang

The not so annoying Taxi men ignored, I stared hard at my George Town map. My choice was one of three directions from the main train station.

It was blisteringly hot, and I really, for once, wanted to make the right directional choice

Thankfully Malaysia is quite good in naming streets. Well, at least at this junction. I set off, backpack in tow; already soaking with sweat and pretending I knew exactly where I was going.

Battling some hideous road traffic I glanced at the pedestrian foot bridge from the other side with mild resentment, how could I have missed it. Then a nice new air-conditioned bus passed by.

One of those days no matter how hard you try, things won’t go your way.

A few street crosses later and I was well into restaurant land. A sure sign of civilization. Looking over at one I remembered it was already late afternoon, a stop before checking in?

A lady smiled at me as she threw some water down a side lane. Then, SPLAT!

I was lying in a strange contorted mess on the main road.

Georgetown’s tiled pavements

I’d slipped on the wet tiles that made up this portion of the pavement. And, as if on ice flew into an overbalanced ballerina style flip towards the roadside. Instinct kicked in and I twisted myself so that my main backpack would take the majority of the weight.

As usual the main thing going through my mind was – Don’t land on the laptop … don’t land on the laptop

The main road was naturally strewn with nicely sun-baked bits of skin tearing gravel. And rather than lie like a beached turtle I quickly bounced back up as if hoping the whole street had not seen me. As most of the shopkeepers were now staring in my direction, I guessed my imbalanced rouse was up.

A truck braked in front of me and two Indians in the front seat peered down. They didn’t say anything. Heck, not even a head waggle. I gave them a wave. They drove on.

Looking around heads turned away too. I couldn’t help but get a flash of another side to Malaysia.

Where had the hospitality gone to?

Ego bruised, and feeling like it was indeed a day not to get out of bed, I moved on just as the rain started.

Welcome to Chulia Street George Town Penang

“You have a room booked for me?”

The girl at reception looked up sleepily. Then frowned at my forearm. It seemed I was dripping blood onto the floor.

“Oh, sorry,” I smiled. “I slipped outside.”

Georgetown comes alive in the evenings

George Town comes alive in the evenings

A dull look met my eyes, and I felt like some heroin user trying to cover up my addiction.

It was only then I felt the sting in my arm and wondered just how much I’d really managed to damage myself.

“I’m fine, just a scratch,” I said smiling as if this was a normal thing to happen upon checking in. “I called yesterday?”

The girl finally woke up a little more and nodded. Then, simply handed me a small pair of keys without saying a word.

“And I go …”

She pointed to the left.

Not bad accommodation in Penang for under $5

The room was not so small. Freshly painted, it had a fan on the wall and even a little desk.

I seemed to have company too. Standing in the middle of my room, I could hear my neighbors as if they were beside me. Apparently the two guys next door were going to a Banana Bar to cool down. They zipped up a bag and turned off the light. Yes, the walls were that thin.

In fact, the walls didn’t even end at the ceiling, instead providing a gap large enough to put ones whole arm through.

It might not have been too bad, apart from the fact the room felt like a mini sauna. Sweat was pouring into the cuts on my arm, reminding me that I need to clean myself up a bit.

Food for thought

Escaping the heat of my room I walked back down the main road in search of something to eat. Like many tourist towns George Town had a few expensive looking places to eat and a wealth of medium places. The types of places where the drinks are what really cost a lot. It was at the end of Chuila street I found what I was looking for.

A semi filled Indian tandoori house. One order later and  I was having a strange sense of nostalgia. A few years previously I’d had a far more adventuresome time getting to Quetta in Pakistan from the Iranian border. My reward at the end of this overland journey was simply the best leg of mutton I’ve ever had.

This time, I was greeted with simply the best tandoori chicken I’ve ever had.

And, yes, there will be a food from Malaysia post about it soon. But trust me as I digress in saying the tangy meat filled me with fresh hope for Penang. Moreover, it started the rest of the evening off on a much better vibe.

Old memories light the way in George Town

I gorged on two meal sets of Tandoori much to the amusement of the Indian waiters who quickly got to know me by name. Hopefully nothing to do with the loud sighs and moans of taste bud satisfaction I had been making.

A full stomach, and feeling slightly better I walked out into the cool night breeze. Hawkers were setting up stores along the road I’d previously decorated with my skin. And, for the first time I noticed Georgetown’s old colonial archways on my way back to the guest-house. I was nearly getting to the point of forgiving the little old English town for our less than stellar introduction.

Sign post for Love Lane in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Love Lane: A street with a reputation. Well, admittedly it’s very tame compared to a few years ago …

And then, a restful night

Nearly back, I narrowly avoided a rather large Indian lady offering her own version of an evening’s entertainment, and a few stray backpackers moving between bars. Georgetown, it seemed, comes alive at night.

The receptionist was still on duty as I waved a non-bloody hello to her. Only she too was a bit more animated now and insisted on showing me to the back of the guesthouse.

“You come back eleven, you open gate, this key,” she said pointing to the second key on my rooms key chain. “You no forget, lock it.”

I nodded with a thankful smile.

“You pull lock after,” she continued. “You pull hard. You lock after. Gate open 8am in morning.”

She then ended by saying, “You no have friend past 8am.”

I blinked in startled recognition of what she meant. Then quickly shook my head, “No friend, just me, I just sleep okay?”

Finally the girl cracked a smile, then repeated the whole locking procedure once more just to be sure.

Sleeping with memories

Showered, I lay back on my metal framed bed. The fan swaying on the wall above me causing a strange buzzing vibration to reverberate throughout the room. Something that was thankfully just loud enough to block out the squeaking bed springs and “other” strange noises from just two rooms away.

I smiled.

Finally, I’d ended up in a place with a bit of character.

It felt good, in a rather disturbing way.

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Coming Soon:

Yes, the best Tandoori chicken I have ever tasted …

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23 Great responses to For better or worse, my arrival into George Town Penang, and some old school accommodation

  1. Stuart says:

    This made be laugh. Not the fall, but the end. Great writing as always, wish there was more like this guy.

  2. Veenster says:

    Hi there! In all honesty, you are in food heaven. Pay a visit to Gurney Drive (if you haven’t) and try, oh do try to eat everything. And of course, do give Nasi Kandar a try. That is what Penang is all about, among others. Enjoy! :)

  3. Sofia says:

    Just wanted to say I LOVE this site. I study in France and when I finish I will travel like you, but maybe not so long :)

    Your writing inspires me, your adventures make my heart pound with anticipation, and your journey moves me.


  4. Oh the food, the food. So miss the food – glad to hear you’re enjoying Malaysia. The receptionist sounds like a character!

  5. LOVE this post! First, the image of you bloodied and lying on the street like an upside down turtle. Plus, you worked in a dig to hippie backpackers. Lastly, I have a graphic image in my head of a large Indian woman hitting on you. Did I misread that?) Sounds like Penang has a certain charm…

    • Ha ha, I avoided the large Indian woman. I think she was out for profit more than anything else! Penang is one of the better places in West Malaysia I have to say. Lots of character!

  6. Jason says:

    Some great memories flooding back after reading this post Dave. (sounds like the guest houses havent improved the thickness of their walls either).

    My memeories of Georgetown, were that is was a great place to plot for a little while. It was a place that was right for me at the time. Loading up on good food and relaxing before I pushed onwards through Sumatra and onwards towards home. A long time ago now, but I still enjoyed my time there.

    It’s good to see that it hasn’t changed to much. We don’t need another Khaosan Rd!

    • Yea, it’s a charming place alright. Certainly topping my list for West Malaysia. Guesthouses could do with a little halfway street. Something between a dump, and over the top. I stayed in the Old Penang Guesthouse one evening just for the Air Con. Nice place, but too many people in the showers … long story!

  7. Great writing Dave, hope the arm doesn’t get infecte. :)

    I regret not making it to Penang, I found out too late the the food is awesome there. Thinking it might be the kind of place I want to plant myself down for a few months maybe in the fall or next year. Yum…

    • It’s a good place to make a base Dustin. Not much of a party atmosphere though. But in terms of things to do, location, cost, and yes… food, there are few places that beat Penang from what I’ve seen so far. :)

  8. hope your arm is ok. whew! and the good food? YAY!

  9. Ivy says:

    I really enjoyed reading this … for a brief moment i thought i was in Malaysia too ;)

  10. Thanks for the tips. Noting down those helpful ones when I get to Malaysia. Am schedule to fly on July or August.

    To top it all, am learning how not to backflip on my laptop, thanks to you. :-)

    • Have you been before? I think you will enjoy it, there are some great photo opportunities in Penang :)

      • Nope I haven’t, and am gonna be exploring the place blindly and with glee (and knowing myself, without a tourist guide, since everywhere I go in Southeast Asia, I get mistaken for a local lady, especially in Indonesia). As if this helps, huh. :-))))))

  11. Sophie says:

    Nice tips! Makes my travel feet itch to go back to Malaysia.

  12. Great post on the tandoori. need to check it out. The Kashmir takes some beating mind. Nice blog, will add a link to it.

  13. It is great how it is the small pleasures that become the essence of traveling after you have been going for years on end. This entry made me smile. The food, the hotel, the blood, this is what we are all looking for haha.

  14. Sam Ang says:

    I worked and stayed in Penang before I started off trying to write a travel blog. You were right about Penang isle being hot, and that is for a Malaysian like me. Somehow the isle’s microclimate is different from the nearby mainland, raining less and hotter than the latter.

    Hospitality wise, I would like to ask you to forgive the Penangans. Penang is no longer a safe place, a sad fact for me to say to a foreigner. I have a German teacher who was robbed last year, and she commented that she never faced such encounter in her life in Germany but encountered 2 robberies during her 2 years here. Do be careful. People who try to avoid you are actually the safer ones.

    I am not sure of the guesthouse you stayed in, but if you were to revisit, you may appreciate those places more. Penang was a heritage site because of those buildings in Georgetown, which if not for the award, would have been removed a long time ago. Most probably you were staying in a refurnished building retaining the architecture and living conditions of Penangans from ages past. Hope these opinions helps.