So you’ve already read a little bit about where we stayed and what we ate in George Town in the first George Town post and now it’s time for the good stuff: what we did!
We should start with how we got to George Town from Penang International Airport. We had planned to take a Rapid Penang bus, which was right outside the terminal, but after 10 minutes of waiting, we decided to take a taxi. There was no organized system for getting a taxi, but several taxi drivers were waiting for customers and one politely approached us as we walked out of the terminal, telling us we could use the meter or go with a quoted price. We paid 40 RM (1 RM = $0.24) for the twenty-five minute ride to George Town and learned a little bit about the city on the way (yes, George Town is actually a city and the capital city of the state of Penang).
Pinang Peranakan Mansion
For such a small city, George Town has a lot to see. The first thing on my quickly compiled list was the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. I arrived a few minutes before noon, which was perfect, because a 45-minute tour was about to begin (I believe they provide tours every hour on the hour, both in English and Chinese). The ticket was 20 RM and was good for the entire day; you could even go get lunch and come back after. The website says that photography is not allowed but it is actually allowed.
The tour guide, Stanley, was fantastic and shared a lot of interesting information about the house. It was built by a Chinese man in the late 1800s who Stanley described as a mobster who wanted to control the spices and opium trade. The house remained in his family for five generations before it was bought in 2000 and restored over a four-year period by an antique collector.
In the dining room, Stanley told us that the original owner always sat at the head of the table, so that, using the mirrors on both sides of the table, he could see the the stairs on his left and the front door on the right. When we reached the kitchen at the end of the tour, Stanley said that women used silver hair clips so that they could see if their food contained poison as poison turned the clips black. The kitchen also contained a pharmacy.
The house is big and beautiful, with a large courtyard in the middle (more on courtyards in houses later) as well as lots of Chinese woodwork and English tiles. It is a reflection of Peranakan culture, Peranakan meaning a mix of Chinese and Malay, Singaporean or Indonesian. Because you’ll hear these words over and over and wonder what they mean like I did, a baba is a Peranakan male and a nyonya is a Peranakan female.
The tour of the mansion includes not only the mansion but the owner’s HUGE private collection of dishes, clothes, beaded shoes, textiles, jewelry, etc. There’s also an antique shop and 2 small gift shops.
Pinang Peranakan Mansion is open daily from 9:30 AM to 5 PM.
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion
The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, or the Blue Mansion, is also a hotel. Forty-five minute tours are offered of the mansion; you can buy tickets online or you can buy them 15 minutes before the tour starts. Tickets are 18 RM online and 17 RM at the mansion. The website says they take a limited number of people, but there must have been 50 people in our group, so they must have a high limit.
The mansion was built in in the late 1800’s by a tycoon from southern China who settled in George Town. He used the ground floor of the house for business while his immediate family lived upstairs. He later built 2 wings for his extended family. The house is symmetrical and demonstrates the concept of feng shui (feng means “wind” and shui means “water”) — the courtyard is completely open to the wind and the water because the wind brings relief from the heat and the rain (water) symbolizes wealth and success.
The house came on the market in 1990 after the death of Cheong Fatt Tze’s last son. Restoration, undertaken by local artisans and Chinese artisans, took more than six years.
There wasn’t as much to see at the mansion as at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion and I felt like this tour was more listening, while the tour of the Pinang Peranakan Mansion was more about actually looking around. It is still worth visiting because it’s beautiful and because of what you can learn. (It was here that I learned that George Town, which used to be a British trading post, was named for George III.) The mansion would be a beautiful place to stay, but I probably wouldn’t because of all the tours coming through (some of the guests didn’t seem to appreciate our presence at all, but I can’t blame them).
The mansion has a beautiful gift shop that is definitely worth visiting.
English tours are offered at 11 AM, 2 PM and 3:30 PM from Monday to Friday and at 11 AM and 2 PM on Saturday and Sunday.
Khoo Kongsi (actually Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi) is easy to miss. I walked past the entrance a couple of times without ever noticing it, so look up for the sign. When you enter Cannon Square (it looks like you’re walking through an alley), you’ll see houses on both sides, which actually make up a (beautiful!) 43-room hotel called Clans Kongsi Georgetown, which is where I would stay in George Town if it was within my budget.
Tickets to visit Khoo Kongsi are 10 RM and no tour is provided. Khoo Kongsi was a clan association that was influential in the forming of early Penang. Members of this clan immigrated from Hokkien (Fujian) province in southern China. The earliest member of this clan to be born in Penang was born in 1775.
Members of the Khoo Kongsi clan purchased land in 1850 and turned a bungalow into a clanhouse to house the deity Tua Sai Yah. I initially thought that a clanhouse was a building where the clan met, but it’s actually what I would call a temple. The clanhouse was used as a filming location for Anna and the King as the Thai government would not allow the movie to be filmed in Thailand.
I would have enjoyed visiting Khoo Kongsi a little bit more if there had been a short tour, even just 15 minutes. Some information is provided in the rooms underneath the clanshouse, but if you don’t take the time to read it, you miss out on a lot of interesting history. (The clan’s website, linked above, has lots of good stuff under its History tab and The Tour tab.)
Khoo Kongsi is open daily from 9 AM to 5 PM.
Penang Hill (not in George Town)
Worchihan’s favorite thing we saw in Penang? The view of Penang from Penang Hill. We took bus 204 from Komtar (a mall) for 2 RM each (the bus leaves every 30 minutes). The ride took around an hour and the bus stopped right outside the entrance. After buying tickets — 30 RM each — we waited only about 10 minutes before getting on the train. The ride lasted 4-5 minutes and even though the track is quite steep, it felt as though you’re on level ground.
The train runs from 6:30 AM to 11:00 PM. You can buy tickets from 6:30 AM to 9:45 PM.
After around 2 hours, we were ready to go. We left after sunset, after the line of people waiting to go back down shrank and we had to wait only 10 minutes. The 204 bus was parked right where it let us off and we waited just a few minutes before leaving. For whatever reason, the bus didn’t stop at Komtar; when we realized that, we got off and had to walk a while to figure out where we were. Good thing George Town is small!
One more George Town post is coming featuring Armenian Street and what I bought (because there’s so much great George Town memorabilia!). Until then, let us know if you’ve been to George Town and if you have any suggestions for future trips.