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...two travellers in search of the world's wildlife

12 January 2011


11th January 2011

Georgetown is the main city of Penang and was recently made a UNESCO World Heritage Site; we seem to bump into a couple of these in every country we visit. I can see why it would be, as the mixture of cultures here is fascinating and goes back a long way, influencing the architecture and cuisine in depth and breadth.

The mix seems to be Malay, Chinese, Arab and Indian communities, with the British colonial influence only remaining in some of the architecture*. It’s a contrast with Thailand, where centuries of strong independence means the culture is almost purely Thai.

* that and the electrical sockets, which are British. Oh, and they drive very sensibly on the left side of the road. English also seems to be spoken very widely, even when not talking to mono-lingual tourists like us.

We arrived here without a guidebook, which is almost unheard of for us. I’ve wondered before whether we’re becoming too dependent on Rough Guides and Lonely Planets. Are they really travel essentials? Or a convenient short-cut that banishes imagination and spontaneity from travelling? If I think back to Thailand, the only things we did in our five weeks there that weren’t mentioned in the Rough Guide were (a) our week in Hala Bala looking for otters, (b) our kayaking in Khao Sok, as the guide suggests one night in a floating bungalow is quite enough, (c) the excursion to Ko Roi, which isn’t one of the islands it mentions in Phang Nga bay. We ate at places recommended in the guide and others that aren’t, and found that of two khao soi restaurants the guide-mentioned one was far inferior to the place we found ourselves.

So here we are in Georgetown without a guidebook. I found it hugely disorienting to be in a city without any “internal map” in my head. I couldn’t even guess whether the taxi fare quoted to get to our chosen guest house was fair, or check as we went that the taxi was really taking us the right way. In the evening we didn’t know which way to strike off for the main part of town, or just an area with decent eateries (the hotel receptionist being busy when we were heading out).

Today our first mission was to get hold of some leaflets with free town maps, which at least made it possible to take a walk around the historic parts of Georgetown – all very handsome, a mixture of colonial and oriental styles, lots of faded grandeur. But of course, these leaflets are chiefly advertising; attractions, restaurants and shops. How are we to find out where the nice old neighbourhoods are, for exploring around? Or the morning food markets for wandering through?

Talk to people, spend a few days relaxing and getting to know the city. I can hear the seasoned traveller saying this, in a wise and I-need-no-Lonely-Planet tone.

To be honest, I think we did discover some nifty things by accident. Along the harbour front, sandwiched between container ports and cruise liners, are a number of old wooden jetties covered in a maze of wooden houses and alleyways. These are the “clan jetties”, each one housing a community who trace their descent from one particular village in China, and they’re fascinating to explore. Certainly no coach parties here either. And around a corner from one of the more renowned historic sites – the Khoo Kongsi Assembly Hall – we found tiny little Amelie Cafe serving wonderfully inventive drinks like longan-and-lime or orange-and-nutmeg, as well as great coffee.

But I still really miss the guidebook. We don’t know whether attractions are must-see or misery until we’ve paid the money to go in, and on our budget that inevitably means we give ‘em a miss. Still don’t know whether there are other interesting areas like the clan jetties to find. And although we’d like to try exploring the rest of Penang island by car (Georgetown is only one corner), the maps in the free leaflets become so vague as to be useless beyond the city.

4 Responses to “Unguided”

  1. Nessa says:

    I went to Georgetown about 12 years ago. Most people were surprised we weren’t going to the beach resorts on the otherside of the island. My lasting memories (now a bit cobwebbed) …. My first experience of the assault on your senses when you walk through a Market with 10s of stalls selling fresh durian…. The temples with the prayer sticks (I think) …. And a mosque that I really wanted to look around but wasn’t allowed to!

    • shortclaws says:

      Ah, durians are out of season now so we missed out on that sensory overload. The spicy food is rather overloading after a while, though – I can’t bring myself to wimp out and eat pizza, but I can’t seem to find any local food on Penang that isn’t spicy to the max. And no, we haven’t been to Taman Negara. Seems bizarre, given our love of wildlife, but (a) the best chance of otters seemed to be Penang and (b) leeeeeeeeches!

  2. Nessa says:

    Are you going to taman Negara? It was amazing!!

  3. Nessa says:

    Yes Taman Negara was where I got my leech bite, so dong blame you! Have sent an email about Flores.

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