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Georgetown

This UNESCO World Heritage city exemplifies the best of Eastern and Western culture.

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The city of Georgetown has often received less recognition than the island on which it is located, Penang. The island and the city are both linked so closely, especially during its early days, that many considered both to be the same thing. It was only in later years, when the population of the settlement grew and smaller townships in other parts of the island were established, that Georgetown truly came into its own as a city.

Penang City HallThe side view of the majestic Penang City Hall building. Built in 1903, it overlooks the field at the Esplanade and Fort Cornwallis.

The city today is a vibrant place, and remains the commercial and business centre of the entire island. Through providence or just sheer luck, much of the city that was built in the late 1800s and into the beginning of the 20th century still exists, having survived the devastation of World War II and the rapid development that followed Malaysia's independence. The survival of not only the buildings, but also the entire communities that live in them, have become Georgetown's biggest assets, and were instrumental in the city's successful listing as a UNESCO World Heritage City in 2008. Tours through the streets of Georgetown have become somewhat of an major attraction to visitors since then.

Most of Penang's famous attractions are located within the city limits, and the colourful festivals that the island is known for also take place there. The city was originally divided into quarters, or districts, each with a particular ethnic group in mind. The state administration is located within the KOMTAR tower, the island's sole skyscraper, in the heart of Georgetown.

Georgetown is often regarded as a part of Penang island and not a separate city on its own. As such, locals find it hard to differentiate between the city and the island proper. To an extent, this assumption is true, especially where transportation is concerned.

Air Service

All flights to Georgetown utilise the Penang International Airport in Bayan Lepas, 16 kilometres from the city. The airport handles a lot of traffic, with domestic flights between other major cities in Malaysia, and also international flights to a number of destinations worldwide.

Bus Service

Bus services to all major cities and towns in Peninsular Malaysia are offered at the city's bus terminal, Sungai Nibong Bus Station, just beside the Penang Pesta grounds in Sungai Nibong.

Ferry Service

Travellers bound for Georgetown via ferry disembark at the Raja Tun Uda ferry terminal at Weld Quay from Butterworth. The ferry terminal is at the Old English Quarter and there is a bus station for local buses that run through different parts of the city.

The city itself can be considered an attraction, as it is a UNESCO World Heritage City. Most of Penang Island's better known attractions are located along the streets of Georgetown, with the exception of the beaches in the northern region of the island, and of course, the settlement of Air Itam at the foot of Penang Hill.

Carvings in the Woodwalks of Chew JettyA carving depicting the Chew Jetty, fittingly located on the woodwalk of Chew Jetty. Chew Jetty is the largest Chinese clan jetties in Georgetown, villages built on stilts along the seafront of the city.

The city's designation as a heritage city is merited by not only an extensive collection of colonial era buildings, but also the communities that still live within the city. Georgetown's heritage extends deeper than the bricks that make up the impressive mansions that once lined the Millionaires' Row, and exists in the heart of the people that call the city their home. This can be clearly seen at the Chinese clan jetties, where entire communities live on wooden jetties that extend some 20 metres into the sea. Located just beside the ferry terminal, the residents of the jetties are some of the more colourful characters in the city. Festive celebrations see these jetties turning into hives of activity, especially during Chinese New Year.

Georgetown's roots as the first British port in the Straits of Malacca are prominently displayed in the Old English Quarter of the city. Like all British island colonies, the fledgeling settlement was protected by a fort. Named after General Cornwallis, Fort Cornwallis became a symbol of British military might in the Straits, although it did not see much action in battle. The fort occupies a lovely seafront, with a large field, which was flanked by Georgetown's city hall, built at the turn of the 20th century. The entire area, spanning from the fort to the city hall, is known as the Esplanade. The cool sea breeze and the open field make the Esplanade an ideal place for city dwellers to relax and unwind. The Esplanade also hosts a number of events throughout the year, most notably the Chap Goh Meh celebration marking the end of the Chinese New Year.

The Chinese immigrants that flocked to the city as the settlement grew became known as the Straits Chinese, and were known for their work ethic and business acumen. As the entire Malay Peninsula came under British influence, Penang Island, and by association, Georgetown, became an important entry point into the Malay states. The Chinese gained a foothold in the city, establishing a network of clanhouses and guildhouses that supported Chinese immigrants eager to find their fortune in a new land. The most prominent of these clanhouses is the Khoo Kongsi Clanhouse, a beautiful and impressive building that stands as a testament of community ties.

Little India is arguably the most colourful area of Georgetown. Filled with an assortment of shops offering a myriad of goods and products, it is quite a delightful experience for visitors, offering lovely sights, sounds and scents. Little India is also the starting point of the procession of devotees celebrating Thaipusam, a Hindu religious festival.

For a city modest in size, Georgetown certainly has many interesting areas and attractions that are bound to captivate visitors.

The city has an interesting mix of events that are spread throughout the year, from spectacles geared towards tourism, to traditional cultural and religious celebrations. More often than not, these events merge together, with commercially driven events establishing themselves as bona fide attractions, and humble celebrations developing gain world renown. It just goes to show how things rarely stick to one single rigid definition, instead evolving and growing as the years go by.

Street Festivals

The city itself holds a large number of street processions, most of which are associated with the religious festivals of its inhabitants. The Straits Chinese in Georgetown organise most of these processions, held to commemorate various deities, and these processions are often vivid spectacles of colour and acrobatics.

Thaipusam

Another major religious event that Georgetown is famous for is Thaipusam. A Hindu festival commemorating the victory of truth over evil, it is celebrated on a grand scale, second only to celebrations in Kuala Lumpur and Batu Caves. Thousands of devout worshipers make their way from Mahamariamman Temple in Little India at the heart of Georgetown to the temple network at the Penang Botanical Gardens in a colourful and vibrant procession.

Penang Chingay Parade

Arguably the oldest city parade in Malaysia, the Penang Chingay Parade is renowned for the acrobatic flag balancing display from which the parade derives its name. The parade is a true city parade, complete with marching bands, cultural dances and even a beauty queen!

The cultural side of the city comes alive during the day. Both the old and the new faces of the city exist alongside each other. Shop owners selling traditional items like handmade incense sticks ply their trade next to modern day enterprises. Visitors who are unacquainted with Georgetown's rich heritage will be surprised to see how these quiet streets come alive, like dazzling characters in a masquerade. Nothing is what it seems in the city of contrasts, and Georgetown has much to offer to those who are willing to see beyond the surface.

Georgetown Heritage

A walk through the city of Georgetown is like going on a heritage trail. Every street has a story of its own, nearly every building has been part of Georgetown's exciting past. Although times have progressed, the people still live their lives around traditional communal institutions. They maintain strong ties to clanhouses and frequent traditional places of worship even till today. One good example is the Chinese New Year celebration that goes on every year at the clan jetties, where each family living at the jetties will come together to give their offerings to the gods. Traditional businesses like rattan crafts and biscuit making are still going strong, though there are others which are slowly fading as time goes by. Read More

Georgetown Nightlife

Though the people staying in Georgetown city are surrounded by the past, they are definitely living in the present. The streets of Georgetown comes alive as dusk falls, with hawker stalls springing up like mushrooms after rainfall, restaurants and alfresco cafes getting ready to receive their nightly visitors. The people of Georgetown are the embodiment of enjoyment, often spending their evenings along Gurney Drive with their group of friends, listening to the oldies while enjoying the cool sea breeze. Others opt for a spot of live entertainment, whiling their hours away in a restaurant as they are being serenaded with songs from the past. Read More

Georgetown came into being on 11 August 1786, with the hoisting of the Union Jack on a field that is now known as the Esplanade in Penang. The first British settlement in the Straits of Malacca, Georgetown was named after King George III, while Penang Island itself was named Prince of Wales Island, after the official title of the British heir.

Georgetown would eventually grow into a cosmopolitan city and a symbol of British wealth, after overcoming problems during the early days of its founding. Tropical disease, especially malaria, the lack of manual labour, and the jungle terrain itself were some of of the obstacles faced by the early settlers. There is an entertaining local legend that relates how the founder of Penang, Captain Francis Light, managed to get the local workers to clear the jungle. The large trees that made the jungle had deep roots, and the work slowed as a result. Captain Light quickly devised a simple yet effective plan to motivate his workers. The legend states that he loaded a cannon with coins and after aiming the cannon towards the inland jungle, fired it off, filling the jungle with money. Needless to say, the workers redoubled their efforts after that incident.

While initial plans to turn the island into a major spice producer failed, Georgetown grew to become a vital trading port. Its success was said to have inspired a young but ambitious British officer by the name of Stamford Raffles, to realise his dream of establishing another British base, Singapore, in 1818. Singapore was a success, and ultimately surpassed Georgetown as the main British port in the region.

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