Penang, the anxious tourist’s perfect gateway to South-East Asia.

I am going to make a pretty bold statement. If you have never been to South-East Asia and want an easy introduction, Malaysia in general, and Penang in particular, might just be your best bet. The very multicultural city has just enough hustle and bustle to give you a feel for the region, without being too overwhelming. Streets can be a little chaotic, but not so much so that you can’t easily walk around them. And because of the long British heritage, English is widely understood.

This is particularly useful if you want to sample the local cuisine but have food allergies. While it is reasonably easy to find, say vegetarian food anywhere in South-East Asia, relying on the limited English skills of a Cambodian or Vietnamese waitress to guard against your serious allergy to, for example, sesame, is not the wisest thing to do. So you end up, like someone I know, eating a lot of spaghetti in Vietnam. That is not generally a problem in Malaysia. Of course, you can also go to Singapore, but there you will get the food experience in a very developed, “first world” setting.


One great way to so sample the food is to go to one of the outdoors food courts. Just like in Singapore, you go to various stalls, order and pay for your food, and tell them your table number. (Excuse the bad pictures, shot with a phone in the dark).


The best is to share a few dishes, so I went with a nice French couple I met a few days before in the Cameron Highlands. The Northern Malaysia tourist trail is fairly predictable, unless you make a stop in Ipoh, like I did.


The karaoke show was very enthusiastic. Unlike in Singapore, the stalls are a very touristy affair – or at least this one was. I’m fairly certain all the Chinese men in the picture were tourists.


In multicultural Georgetown, the main city of the island of Penang, you can be in China one minute, walk a few city blocks and…


Bang! You’re in India.


Or on Armenian Street! While the Indian and Chinese populations are very alive today, others like the Armenians are more of a historical fact. There used to be a lot of Jews as well, but that is no longer the case. Minor ethnic groups have also, with time, integrated into one of the three dominant groups.


You can learn all about the local history at the Penang State Museum. I don’t know if Chinese benefactors were more interested in the idea of such a museum, or if they had more money, but it is by far the best section, complete with replica rooms of fancy colonial era houses.


Opium smokers.


The Kapitan Keling Mosque. Given the religious demographics, you will find all manners of temples, including an impressive Hindu temple which I missed.


Cathedral of the Assumption.


Hainan Temple. I don’t even know what religion this is, but obviously, it’s the best one around because it has dragons!

Being of Celtic origin, I looked for proper temples, honouring Taranis, Andraste, Cernunnos or Nantosuelta, but sadly, the local people did not seem to know anything about the real Gods and Goddesses.


If you look at a map of Georgetown, Fort Cornwallis is unmissable. But if you are planning to visit, it is very missable. The main defensive feature of the fort was not high walls, but a sea water filled moat, 5 feet deep and 27 feet wide. About a hundred years ago, it was filled because of concerns over malaria. So today the fort is basically a fence the average pro basketball player could jump over. Inside are a few lame displays not worth using electrons to photograph. Waste of time and money.


Of some interest, there is an old legendary brass cannon, the Sri Rambai cannon. It was originally presented as a gift by the Dutch East India Company to the Sultan of Johore in 1606. It changed hands many times and ended up on a ship that sunk. Apparently, it magically resurfaced on its own at some point. Some local people attribute powers of fertility to it, hence the flower offerings.


The War memorial was built at the initiative of the Penang Veterans Association to honour the dead of the Great War. Today, it also honours veterans of the Second World War, including civilians who died in the construction of the Thai-Burma railway, which I visited here. Also, conflicts which killed thousands of people on both sides but which are largely unknown in the West (except perhaps in the UK?): the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), which I wrote about when I visited Malacca, the Indonesian Confrontation (1963-1966) and the Second Malayan Emergency a.k.a. Communist Insurgency War a.k.a Re-Insurgency Period (1968-1990). These long and bloody Cold War conflicts only ended with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. China had already withdrawn support for communist rebels back in 1974.

The Western colonial history of Penang is not very long, having been founded in 1786 by Captain Francis Light, of the East India Company. Before that, the Kingdom of Kedah had been around since 630. Then Sri Paduka Maharaja Durbar Raja II rejected Hinduism for Islam in the 12th century and became known as Sultan Mudzafar Shah I. So Kedah was one of the oldest Sultanates in the World, but from my limited readings, I don’t believe it was a particularly important political or military entity compared to the big regional players like Siam or Burma. Furthermore, many Asians and Arabs had various settlements on the island at different times, possibly going back to the Neolithic Era. Today, Kedah is the name of the Malaysian state bordering the state of Penang on the northwest.


Therefore, most of the dominant architecture is fairly recent British colonial buildings. This is the 60 feet tall Jubilee Clock Tower, built in 1897 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s 60th year on the throne.


The Municipal Council HQ.


And the neighbouring Town Hall.


Georgetown also has an unusual attraction, the region’s first photography museum. It houses a large number of historical photographic equipment, including some technologies I had never heard of.


Possibly one of the world’s first selfies, taken in Georgetown in 1920. The actual selfie is also on display.


And this rare contraption, a Japanese gun camera from World War II. It was used to train pilots in gunnery, during simulated dog fights. The explanatory panel was not great, but as I understand it, the camera would take two sets of pictures simultaneously; one of what the sights were pointing at, and one of a mechanical chronometer, to determine the length of the simulated machine gun burst. Not sure exactly what it was meant to measure or train, but it seems ingenious.

And finally, a couple of funnies.


I could be wrong, but I think we have the same concept in North America. They are called “outlet stores”, which I will dare to suggest it is better marketing than “reject shop”!


And Air Asia’s ground crew uniform for female muslim staff: a veil, to hide the hair for reasons of modesty, and the tightest possible pants, to showcase the butt for reasons of marketing.


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