We took our first trip into Georgetown to see some of the tourist sights and eat some local cuisine. Rather than taking the 45-minute bus ride (we really are out in the suburbs) or a taxi, we opted for Uber. It worked out pretty well – our driver had good advice for what to see and eat in town – and dropped us off in front of the best mee sotong (squid and noodles) stand in Penang, which happens to be in a food court outside of Fort Cornwallis.
The British (if the names Georgetown and Cornwallis weren’t giveaways) were responsible for the construction of the fort under the direction of Captain Francis Lightfoot. Ironically, he died shortly afterward and the first recorded marriage in the fort’s chapel was his widow’s to a new husband. Fort Cornwallis isn’t overly impressive – it has a relatively low brick wall and a few sea-pointing cannons; it never saw combat, so more secure battlements were never needed.
Georgetown has an eclectic mix of architectural styles and heritages – a British-colonial style still defines the buildings of the banking core, just down the street is Little India (with saris, curries, and spices for sale in shop windows), Chinese and Buddhist traditions show up everywhere (temples are common in the Old Town, as are small, red altars at the front of businesses, and Chinese-language signs), Armenian Street betrays European character (low building with shutter-covered windows), and Islamic influences also have great significance (mosques, beautiful patterned and flowered tile work, and signs in Arabic). The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the unique blend of cultures and traditions that has shaped the city.
The area around Armenian Street is known for murals and street art, both intentional and unintentional. While we were there, some of the paintings were serving as the backdrop for a music video. I don’t think the group is overly famous yet as there was no crowd of screaming hangers-on.
The diverse types of meals that are available reflect the mixing of cultures. Chinese, Cantonese, Indian, Malay, Nyonya, Western, Portuguese, Thai, and Japanese are all often available at the same food court. Rice and noodles are still central components, as are spicy peppers and rich sauces (often too spicy for me, sometimes too spicy for Kevin).
Clay-pot-cooked meals have been my favorite discovery since arriving in Penang. Rice is already heated in a clay bowl and a choice of meat or veggie topping is added when you order. The flame is turned up and the flavors blend together for a bit. It is served piping hot with a separate plate so you can dish it out as you go and share with friends; the rest of the meal stays toasty in the insulated bowl.
One final note about humidity – the actual air temperature is only a few degrees fahrenheit warmer than Chiang Mai, and we adjusted to that fairly well. Penang averages about 88-90 degrees; we were often up to 85 in Thailand. But the humidity – 70% or higher -makes it feel much warmer and far more uncomfortable. Michelle, our Uber driver on the return trip, was amazed we had spent a few hours walking around outside in the middle of the day. She admitted even locals never get used to it, they prefer go from one air conditioned place to another. At least our apartment is higher up and near the water, meaning some parts of the day offer cooling breezes, but between about 1 and 6 p.m. and after 9:30 p.m the air stagnates and all pretense of comfort vanishes.