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A Splash of Colour in Georgetown copyright J West Hardin

Aging Gets a Pink Slip in Georgetown, Penang

By J West Hardin

Ready to Ride with a Cyclo © j west hardin
Ready to Ride with a Cyclo © J West Hardin

Georgetown, Penang has always inspired me as an artist. There is an incredibly rich pastiche here boiling away in the tropical heat, the flavour of which is expressed uniquely on every palette. Colour, culture, weather and history combine to turn even mundane experiences into Kodak moments to cherish. Overall, it's a grand old pile, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site, where time was stopped by shifting global politics and economic circumstance in the early years of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The rich texture of the place inspired me to begin to write poetry. Today I stopped to spontaneously dance in the street, without alcohol or guilt. Joy came welling up from deep within my soul and I did nothing to suppress its fountain.

My lover/wife/best friend of 24 years and I spend our days here wondering aloud and wandering the streets as if we are discovering ourselves and each other like a couple who have come to explore the mysteries of the world for the first time. Turning every corner is a delight as there is virtually no repetition in the visual landscape. Age and nature are constantly retouching the colour scheme of ancient and contoured plaster that holds up tired and sagging walls of sun-dried brick and failing mortar. The colour separation in the magic hours of dawn and sunset are a photographer's wet dream. Every time I come here, aging gets a pink slip. For some reason this place gives me the feeling that I am unfettered and alive. There are innumerable reasons why I love this place and why I think that Georgetown a hidden gem in Asia that remains delightfully under visited by tourists.

One reason we come is to consume as much fantastic Malaysian cuisine as we can in the three days we budget to visit. From our perch at the Oriental Hotel on Penang Street, we have a bird's eye view of the surrounding city and can easily reconnoiter the neighbourhoods where we want to eat that day. The cozy streets are a haven of family-run restaurants and cart vendors serving up delicious Malay, Indian, Hokkien, Cantonese and Nonya dishes that are abundant and cheap. Let me restate for the record that for a gastronomic vacation Georgetown is the least expensive and most underrated destination in all of South East Asia. The food here is famous around Asia, and Georgetown is a well-known haunt of sophisticated foodies from the region.

Mornings and evenings are the best time to prowl the streets for food. You're going to find that the combination of heat and humidity are quite oppressive during the midday hours. If you do want to get around and sight see during the day, try the easy-access hill destinations such as Penang Hill or Butterfly Farm and get away from it all. Cyclos (a sort of tri-shaw gone Bollywood) are very inexpensive and a great way to see the tiny streets in relative comfort with an eccentric commentary from your driver about the highlights and history of the “Old Town.” For early morning starters I choose the Nonya and Hokkien restaurants that line Penang Street, such as the 77 Café. The 77 is a mini hawker-stall arena in a simplified area that serves up popular dishes from a half dozen regions. My favourite is the four-century congee, a rice soup that is to die for.

At night the streets come alive with hawker stands serving up delicious fried noodles and satay with peanut sauce “the way it used to taste.” Stroll along Chulia Street at sunset where the backpackers haven is located and where fast food carts break out a dizzying array of famous dishes. The two other wildly popular areas for dining al fresco, Gurney Drive and New World Plaza Food Court, open to enthusiastic fanfare by adoring food fans from around the Asian region as evening breaks. Dozens of individual stalls in each location dish out age-old favorites. You will not be alone in the eateries and stalls of Georgetown in the evenings. Tourists and locals alike pour into these open-air restaurants to take advantage of the cuisine, cool evening breezes and raucous camaraderie.

Little India, which intersects with the ancient Goddess of Mercy Temple, offers up some of the best Indian-Tamil cuisine outside of sub-continental Chennai. Our favourites are the Biryani rice dishes with Tandoori chicken served with fresh creamy yogurt and coconut condiments. I admit to indulgence here and make sure that at least once a day we have a sweet mango lassi and a masala dosa, the massive Indian crepe stuffed with potato and onion curry. Washed down with an India-style chai tea in a sparkling glass and I'm in heaven.

J West Hardin is a prolific West Coast Canadian author whose range of work spans multiple genres from psychological fantasy, human drama, to science fiction, action thrillers and romance. The author's various works wrap fiction in a literary style while examining the human condition.

All images © J West Hardin