Where in the world can you find contemporary skyscrapers rising from the jungle, Swiss style Chalets, colorful marbled mosques, Chinese temples, remote isolated tribes, immense Indian god and goddess statues, Buddhist retreats tucked away in flowery pockets of country side, forbidding granite peaks and some of the world’s liveliest jungles?
Malaysia of course! Malaysia stands out as a truly unique blend of cultures, foods, architecture and landscapes—a country teeming with the chaotic fusion of all things different, but unified. At the cultural heart of this fusion stands Georgetown, Penang, located on the Island of Penang just South of Thailand in Peninsular Malaysia. Georgetown is historically a fascinating city that has stood at the center of an east-west trade root for half a century, resulting in a profuse blending of cultures and peoples.
Georgetown is a whirlwind of sights sounds and smells. One moment you will be eating the best naan you have ever had while Indian music blares from speakers set up in the streets and the smell of incense fills your lungs, the next you are marveling at the sloping towers of a mosque, and then slurping Chinese street noodles while the deep throughty sounds of the call to prayer resonate through the streets.
The most remarkable thing about this colonial yet contemporary, multicultural city is the fact that while there are so many different cultures living, thriving and being in one place, all have managed to maintain their authenticity and cultural preservation, but have accepted one another. As Anas Zubedy, a native of Georgetown explains,
Isaac and I immersed fully in the melting pot of culture, indulging in hawker stalls, drinking coconuts in the humid southeast sun and zigzagging the colorful streets by bicycle, taking in the plethora of senses. As fate would have it we bumped into two fellow travelers, a woman from Argentina and a man from Uruguay, who we had met in Kuala Lumpur earlier in the month. After several unplanned, serendipitous encounters where we would spot them throughout the country, we decided it was best to just start planning our encounters and we quickly came to love them in the unique way that travel has of bringing people together.
The rest of our time in Penang was spent with our new friends in a whirlwind of eating deliciously weird foreign foods, drinking over priced beers, marveling at extremely odd Chinese karaoke performances, wandering the villages perched on the docks, and running around the city in the middle of the night to photograph street art without the crowds of monopod, selfie stick toting tourists in trishaws clogging the narrow streets.
As we left the docks in Penang and the Titanic began to play for the second time on the big screen TV of the boat (I’m not sure if they didn’t get the irony, or if it was a cruel joke), I had time to reflect and contemplate what I have come to think of as The Penang Story—the story of one flourishing city that can attract people from all walks of life, where each community can take pride in their heritage without demoralizing their neighbors, and where history is alive and tangible in the streets.