We are pleased to present a new Solo Travel Destination Post from Anne-Marie, a member of the Solo Travel Society on Facebook. Anne-Marie lives in Belgium and submitted the following report about George Town. Do you have a solo travel destination that you would like to recommend? Submit your description here, along with a few photos, and share it with fellow travelers!
Solo travel rating: 1.5 (1 is easiest, 3 is most difficult. Please see chart below.)
Languages spoken: Mandarin, Malay, English
Reasons to go: As a European on my very first solo trip to Southeast Asia, I went to George Town on the Isle (pulau) of Penang, lured by travel guide promises of seeing the last local tradesmen at work. I was also somewhat intrigued by its grand title of UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Little did I know I was in for a fascinating history lesson on colonialism and an encounter with a multitude of cultures.
The presence of the British in George Town’s past became quite apparent during my first evening walk, along the esplanade. The recently restored city hall, in a very grand early 20th-century Edwardian Baroque style – complete with a loggia and colossal orders – is but one of the many heritage buildings on Penang, some in a later Art Deco style. The banking district has many more fine examples, adapted for modern use, but retaining their old-world charm.
George Town was founded as a base for the East India Company (a British trading company) in 1786. Within a century, the original trading post had grown into a commercial town complete with a wharf, warehouses, a banking and a trading area. This attracted Indonesian, Indian and Chinese traders, whose wealthy descendants also left their architectural mark on Penang’s capital. There is vibrant Little India where I ate samosas for the first time. Gods and goddesses in pale blues and pink looked over my shoulder as I passed a Hindu temple. It originated as a shrine, but in 1833 was enlarged into a temple featuring the goddess Mariamman in her various incarnations. One block further, seeing I was struggling to get a decent picture from afar, a passer-by invited me to take a closer look at a mosque – Masjid Kapitan Kelin. The original section of the mosque was built around 1800 by builders brought in (as were the stones) from India. Several renovations and facelifts later the mosque stands tall in its white splendour.
The Chinese clans also brought in their artisans to produce the intricate carvings for their temples, mansions, and lecture halls. A one-hour guided tour of the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion will take you back to an era in which a Chinese tycoon harmoniously blended East and West in his Blue Mansion by combining prosperous Feng Shui elements with cast iron ordered from Europe. Some of the Chinese heirs took to the ornate style of the mansions on Millionaire’s Row (a seafront neighbourhood), originally a European enclave.
So, did I see the last local tradesmen at work?
Yes, I did see Master Lee taking a fresh batch of joss (incense) sticks out into the sun to dry. At the age of 81 he was commissioned to create a 12-foot dragon joss stick for the Chinese New Year celebrations at the Han Jiang temple where he went to school as a boy. However, this labour intensive traditional craftsmanship is disappearing and joss sticks are now mass produced in China. Yes, I did meet Mr Ong, just as a truck delivered bales of kapok, a cotton-like fiber he uses to stuff pillows and bolsters. He showed me a newspaper article featuring himself entitled “Pillow maker struggles to survive.” Yes, I did see Mr Lee, the red lantern maker working in his old shop house. There are still all kinds of craftsmen at work in Georgetown, including rattan furniture weavers, goldsmiths, and traditional biscuit makers, but tourist guides and internet sites talk about “the dying trades of Penang” or “the vanishing artisans.”
Their traditional narrow shophouses, however, still exist. As property prices have risen since George Town obtained its heritage status, and restoration costs of these often dilapidated shophouses run high, they attracted foreign investors but are rented out to local businessmen who are turning the old shophouses into art galleries, restaurants, and boutique hotels, keeping the old commercial spirit of George Town alive.
Solo Travel Destination Rating System
Safety – 1 (1 very safe, 2 safe in most areas, 3 be cautious at all times.)
Language – 2 (1 English is first language, 2 English speakers easy to find, 3 English speakers rare)
Navigation – 1 (1 easy to navigate by transit or car, 2 poor transit, car necessary, 3 not easy to get around)
Culture – 2 (1 Similar to North America or Western Europe, 2 Different from above but relaxed and easy, 3 Challenging)
Average Rating – 1.5 (1 is easiest, 3 is most difficult)