I was not surprised to see Penang drawing tourists like magnet when I visited it two weeks ago. I’ve seen how well they market their tourist attractions back in Singapore. From international events like the Penang Island Jazz Festival to architectural heritage tours, their vibrant and diverse food scene. You see their ads everywhere—tourism is the economy’s mainstay.
The Penangites has successfully restored most of their English colonial buildings including the old British fortification, Fort Cornwallis, in George Town. The oldest English structure in town. These people understands what looking after heritage and promoting it can do for local business and their lives in general.
Everywhere there are hotels, restaurants serving local and international cuisines, tourist friendly bars and walking tours. If you want a do-it-yourself tour, pick up a brochure and a map at the airport and just spend a day walking (or rent a bike) around George Town. It’s not hard to do. The locals are very accommodating.
I felt secured walking the streets. I visited the brightly lit colonial shop houses at night and they were impressive. Like Macdonald’s in Dato Karamat Road; an English era building called the Birch House now leased to the fast food giant. Some of these buildings and shop houses has been around for a century. They contribute greatly to the charm of old George Town. The town is an example of why there’s more value from reusing old buildings than replacing them with bleak concrete and glass structures.
The old City Hall, the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (Singapore’s Raffle’s sister hotel, older by 2 years), the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee watch tower and Fort Cornwallis; the beautiful Georgian and Victorian colonial buildings that houses Standard Charter, Southern Bank and HSBC, you can see all of these architectural treasure on foot. They’re clustered in what is known as the heritage core of the town. The oldest Catholic church, the Assumption, in Love Lane (called as such because millionaires used to house their mistresses in the area) is not far from another heritage church, the Anglican’s St George in Lebuh Farquhar.
The local government is also promoting some of the houses that Sun Yat Sen visited when he was in Penang. Turns out that he had supporters in town and that he had an office along Jalan Macalister, not far from where I stayed in Jalan Rangoon. This Chinese revolutionary not only was contemporary to some of our country’s founders but had known them personally. He helped Filipinos acquire arms from Japan during the revolution. Mariano Ponce is a very close friend of Sun.
Like Manila, Penang was mostly abandoned after WWII. The Chinese “towkays” and Europeans moved out. Squatters from other places started to move in, occupying the old buildings of George Town. Its story reminds me of Intramuros.
But this all changed in 2008.
There was a drastic shift when their leaders started investing on infrastructure. They developed their port to accommodate large cruise ships. Tourism started booming. They improved their airport, the long bridges to the hinterlands also contributed in increasing tourism traffic. The shorter bridge was constructed in the 1980’s, the longer one, 24 km long, in 2006.
Then George Town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Town—this made the locals go full blast in restoring what’s left of their heritage. The declaration made the town even more appealing especially to those hearing about it for the first time. The rest as they say is history and a visitor seeing this entire place now would be surprise that this transformation took so fast.
But for sure, behind this remarkable achievement is unity to accomplish a common goal. Never easy but never impossible. They did it so why can’t we? Just imagine Manila drawing tourists not for its casinos, girly bars, shopping malls and fancy hotels but because people wanted to get acquainted with its history.
If you’re a foodie type, well, Penang’s food hawkers are all over the place. The best food is street food. We all know this right?
We ate char kway teow as if it was staple food. Word is Penang’s version is the best. I ate this fried flat rice noodle in Singapore and in other places in Malaysia. They all taste the same. I guess I’m not a good char kway teow judge but Singaporean friends attest that Penang’s better than those made here. Must be the water, but everything is tastier, greener, better on the other side of the fence.
The food is plentiful, remarkably good, and cheap. I have written a blog about our food experience in Penang here. What I enjoy most about George Town is that food hawkers are not that hard to find. Well, not ideal I guess if you’re trying to curve your calorie intake but in these stalls you get to taste authentic local food. Our cab guy, Ibrahim, told us to go for hawkers instead of restaurants. I told him that I always go for local market and hawker food. For me this is where the best local cuisines can be savored.
Another curious phenomenon in George Town are its graffiti. Tourists stop by them like pilgrims. I’ve never seen anything like it.
We should borrow a page from Penang’s handbook. I don’t know of any place that experienced such a rapid economic transformation without losing its important historical structures.
“When you come back, 5 years from now, there will be better infrastructure, less traffic than now,” Ibrahim said while driving us to the airport.
We can learn from these guys.