In and around Georgetown

[This post has been published out of chronological order. See links below for followup stories.]

If you have not been in Southeast Asia much, you probably never heard of Penang. I hadn’t, until I spent some time with groups of expats living in Thailand. Many spoke well of it, so when it was time for a trip, I picked it for a destination.

Penang is an island on the Andaman coast of Malaysia, not far south of the Thai border. The main (only) city is Georgetown, noted for its varied heritage of Malay, Chinese, Indians, and traces of British colonial presence. No place else in Malaysia is so diverse; it resembles Singapore in this respect, but doesn’t have the high-price cachet of the latter. Among the architectural gems are the officially-sanctioned mosques, of course, but also Hindu and Buddhist temples, and Christian churches. The old part of town is a World Heritage site. Plus, beaches nearby.

I’ve posted separately about our beach resort (scandalously cheap, for the level of luxe it boasts), and our mountain trek. Here are some more highlights.


One of Georgetown’s claims to fame is the lively artists’ community, which freely decorates the streets of the Heritage district. Some of the images are meant for interaction: pet the cat, help the imprisoned families (how, exactly, I can’t say).

Our timing is good, because immediately after taking my picture here, a camera crew shows up with a dignified-looking man who Esso tells me is some kind of media celebrity in Thailand, to shoot the same picture! The crowds that followed the media kept us from some of the most famous paintings, but we got the T-shirt at least.

In addition to the art for art’s sake, there is commercial art, in the same spirit and of comparable quality, promoting pizza and music (for example)


Just a few blocks from the center of the Heritage district is the center of Indian culture. I was am looking for a nice meal when I suggest we come here, but again the timing is good. The streets are full of life, as people are gearing up for one of the many Hindu festivals. Bollywood music blasting from every street corner, people out shopping for whatever they need for the celebrations.

We pass a fancy curry restaurant, expensive and deserted despite a host out on the sidewalk soliciting business. A couple more blocks and we find the dive where all the locals eat. South Indian staples, nothing fancy, but good and cheap.


Out in the suburbs, on an outlying slope of Penang Hill, is Malaysia’s largest Buddhist temple complex. We approach the hard way, climbing the hill on foot. So many courtyards, halls, shrines, gardens, I cannot keep track. So much visual stimulation in all directions, no photograph can convey the sense of it. The classic Chinese passion for beauty and balance of design is everywhere, but so multiplied that the overall effect is frantic busy-ness rather than the serenity that each artist was trying to convey.7671 cieling panel

Take, for example, this hand-carved ceiling in one of the outer passageways.

7658 pagoda from below

The site is dominated by two towers: a white pagoda at the upper edge of the main complex (and mirrored by a detailed scale model at the center), and a huge statue of Quan Yin, who has her own, higher outcrop.7659 courtyard with model

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I know so little about Chinese-style Buddhism, I cannot identify most of the icons; I wish I knew more. But this is Quan Yin’s place, and Her icons are everywhere.

7674 big QY

There no stairway to her monument, which is above the rest of the complex; we have to queue for the elevator to get to the separate gardens and plaza, where the only shelter is platform for offering her flowers and incense.

Finally, we climb the many tiers of the pagoda—7 or 8, I lost track, about 250 steps. It’s not for the exercise, or even the view, but the ever-evolving perspective on the complex below, its own symbolic search for an ideal.

7707 courtyard from top

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