|Not pictured: knee-biting lunacy.|
George Town is the capital of the state of Penang, one of the smallest provinces in Malaysia, which not only incorporates Penang Island but also a decent wodge of the mainland, including Butterworth. It was named after King George III. That's right, folks—Crazy George, the mad king of Britain and Ireland during the American Revolutionary War.
The island was originally part of the Sultanate of Kedah, until one day in August 1786 when an enterprising young sea captain named Francis Light of the British East India Trading Company landed there. He wound up marrying the sultan's daughter and Penang Island was ceded to the British Crown as part of her wedding dowry. Captain Light promptly established George Town, Britain's first permanent colony in Southeast Asia. It initially had only four streets and a couple of jetties. A fort was built in the northeast corner of the municipality, commanding a 270-degree view of the sea. The Netherlands Trading Society, the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Company (known today as HSBC), the Chartered Bank (now called Standard Chartered), Boustead & Co., and a dozen others all set up shop here, and the town and the swampy island it sits on were the center of British trade and shipping in the area for quite a few years. There was a nasty problem with malaria in the early years of the colony, earning it the unfortunate nickname "White Man's Grave."
There were geopolitical speed bumps as well. Captain Light had promised the Sultan of Kedah that the East India Company would offer him military protection in exchange for the island. In so promising he had acted without his superiors' approval. When the Siamese attacked the sultanate a few years later, no British help was forthcoming. The enraged sultan tried to take the island back by force in 1790. In this he failed, and was not only forced to give up the island permanently but also to pay the Crown a sum of 6,000 Spanish dollars per annum. This was later upped to 10,000 Spanish dollars when Province Wellesley (now modern-day Pulau Penang) was incorporated in 1800. Even to this day the Malaysian government pays an annual honorarium of 10,000 ringgit (around $3050 American) to the state of Kedah.
In 1826, Penang (along with Malacca and Singapore) became part of the Straits Settlements under the British administration in India, and came under direct colonial rule in 1867. In 1946, it was absorbed into the Malayan Union and in 1948 was designated a state of the Federation of Malaya. This federation gained independence from Britain in 1957 and became modern-day Malaysia in 1963. The island was a free port until 1969, and even after losing its free port status became one of the world's foremost centers of electronics production in the '70s and '80s. In 2008, George Town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has seen an influx of tourists ever since.
It was one of the most multicultural places I visited in Southeast Asia, despite having a population of only 720,000 and being rather off to the left compared to more popular tourist destinations like Kuala Lumpur or Langkawi. There were bearded, robed Arabs walking around; chattering Tamils with pearly white teeth; quiet, dignified Chinese; agile, jolly, skinny Thais; bald, pale, T-shirted English expatriates; and grubby foreigners like me from America, Canada, Spain, France, Germany, Brazil, Australia, and everywhere in between.
I spent most of the morning of Tuesday, July 29 nursing my katzenjammer. (Seven beers at the Hong Kong Bar the night before, remember?) The Red Inn Court had a free breakfast of noodles in black sauce, toast and jam, coffee, and fruit. That helped a lot, as did the warm shower I took. I'd intended to sally forth and tour George Town promptly, but a thundering rain came pouring down between ten and twelve o'clock, the heaviest monsoon cloudburst I'd yet seen on this trip. The Matrix Revolutions has got nothing on Mother Nature. It kept sprinkling well past one o'clock, by which point I couldn't wait any longer, so with a poncho stuffed in my pocket I sauntered out and commenced my walking tour.
It wasn't just the Muslims who were having a holiday (Hari Raya Puasa, the end of Ramadan). For the Chinese Buddhists, there was some festival related to Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, who has one of the largest and grandest temples in George Town dedicated to her. Crowds of elderly men and women swarmed the temple forecourt, barely visible through the thick, broiling fumes of incense. Prayers flew thick and fast and I couldn't get a show, so I walked on.
Unfortunately, despite being a UNESCO site, there just wasn't that much to do or see in George Town. I saw the fort; Khoo Kongs, one of the oldest and most famous clanhouses; the jetties; a couple of temples...and, well, that was about it.
All in all, I was so disappointed by the place (my debauch the previous night notwithstanding) that I ended up taking just six pictures during my whole 48-hour stay, including that one you saw in the previous post. Disappointing, to say the least.
|Lebuh Chulia, where a lot of the bars and noodle joints are.|
|The fertility cannon at Fort Cornwallis. The largest gun with the widest range, it will also cure barrenness in women, or so the local legend goes. You just need to place some flowers on it.|
After my little walking tour of the town, I got into a cab and tried to send postcards home to the States, only to be gently reminded by the Indian driver that today was a holiday—several, actually—and the post office was shut. I sighed, thanked him, got out of the cab, went back to the hostel, and napped until 6:30.
Awaking hungrier than a horse, I strode toward what looked like the food-and-drink sector of town, determined to find me a burger and a beer. I was sixteen days into my trip and I had been a very good boy, eating local the whole way. Now I was fed up with rice and noodles and chicken and wanted nothing more than to get a thick, juicy beef patty between my teeth. I stopped off at the SoHo Free House, noting burgers on their menu and cheap beer. Seemed like a winning combo.
Well, it wasn't. That was the worst burger I've ever had in my life. What was supposed to be a rare patty turned out squishy, lumpy, and poorly seasoned; the bun was stale and soggy; the vegetables far from fresh; and the fries limp and cold. The best part about that meal was the mad specials they were having on—you guessed it—Tiger beer. Even so I could only bring myself to drink one. I laid my money down and sped out of there.
Night fell. I wandered, unwilling to give up George Town so easily. I thought vaguely of finding a historic hotel and having a cocktail, but again I felt worried by potential dress code violations, and the proliferation of foreign phonies that were sure to be in the hotel bar, boozing it up. I strode longingly past the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, trying to peer through the big casement windows and catch a glimpse of all the idiots partying inside, but my reconnaissance was for naught; I couldn't make out a thing.
|Not my photo.|