For me the charm of Pulau Pinang lies in its' diversity and the influences of its' many cultures.
The most visible of these influences is seen in Penang's architecture and each time I visit I set aside a day for a walk around the streets of old George Town, it is always a memorable experience.
Almost in the centre of town is the Komtar building. It hasn't much architectural merit and its' construction removed a large section of vastly more interesting traditional structures but at least it now serves as a great viewing point from which to get your bearings before you set out. Wherever you walk in town you can see Komtar so it is a good navigation point; the hotel shuttle buses from Batu Ferringhi also use it as their pick-up base.
Visit the tourist information desk in the main foyer for a free copy of the Penang Island and City map and then take the elevator to the observation deck for a 360 degree view of George Town.
The oldest section of town lies to the east of Penang Road, closest to the water, and if you look carefully you can see how the winding streets and lanes radiate from the waterfront. Like the banks of streams, the white walls and russet tiled roofs meander from the docks following the original paths that lead from the old clan docks to the warehouses and trade shops of years past., this was the birthplace of George Town and the area you should visit.
Fort Cornwallis, at the very tip of the island, along Lebuh Pantai [Beach Street] marks the beginning of British settlement. A tri-shaw ride, bus or taxi from Komtar to the old fort and then a leisurely walk back is a great way to explore. You will be besieged with offers of guided tours by tri-shaw drivers. Take one, if you wish, negotiate a price, or structure your own as you walk.
Khoo Su Nin, one of Georgetown's leading authorities on the architectural and social history of the town has written an excellent book, "The Streets of Georgetown". Buy one at the Times Bookshop in the Komtar complex. Not only is it an invaluable guide book but enthralling reading as it recalls the vibrant and chaotic history of some of Georgetown's founding families.
Georgetown is a commercial city and has been involved in trade for hundreds of years, so it will be no surprise that the main buildings you will find on your walk will be shophouses and godowns.
Shophouses allowed owner-traders to literally live with their work; shop at the front, family home, coutyard and garden above and behind. These unique dwellings are preserved with great pride over generations. Often three stories high and decorated with glazed tiles, stucco relief and intricate wooden tracery screens, the finest examples can be found along Chulia Street and China Street.
Godowns are the mysterious, dark warehouses that fill many of the streets that lead away from the wharves. Through their curved arched doorways you can glimpse bales, boxes, palm and bamboo woven parcels and smell those pungent spice odours that pervade these storehouses of Oriental exotica.
The Campbell Street Market, a wet market specialising in chicken and sea food, is a great spot to visit, but it is only one of numerous street markets that flourish in the area. Early morning is the best time to visit , while the sun is low and the shadows of the shophouses sheild the produce on sale. Don't think of the shophouse as only a store for local produce. Step inside and all the international brands are waiting., The business people of George Town, like their traditional architecture, can easily accommodate the latest trends.
Shopping and walking can make you hungry and thirsty so, like the locals, take time off for a visit to the corner coffee shop or one of the numerous restaurants to be found in almost every street. There are restaurants for all tastes.
Lovers of fast food and devotees of the burger and fries will not be disappointed. But don't be put off by a lack of flashy advertising or sparkling furniture, some of the most modest establishments offer superb regional food at very minimal prices. There will be a menu in English, it might take a little while to find, but the wait will be worth it. Linger over a cup of tea and watch the world go by ,just a few steps from your table. The locals have been doing it for years.
Almost to Komtar, by the pedestrian overpass on Penang Road is the Loke Thye Kee restaurant, the oldest extant eating place in Penang. A cold Tiger beer on its cast iron balcony above the street, is a great way to watch the street life and reflect on your travels. This restaurant, in years past, was the meeting place of the matchmakers. How many weddings were arranged at your table?
A walk in the streets of George Town is an experience that should not be missed. A little preparation and a little perspiration will be rewarded with a multitude of encounters with the history and culture of a vibrant and culturally diverse city.