I first discovered Georgetown in 1992 during a year long trip to Asia. I fell in love with it then and I’ve been coming back regularly ever since. It’s an absolute gem of a place, full of history, fantastic food & a rich mix of cultures. As a regular visitor I’m no longer on the tourist treadmill of having to tick off the ‘sights’. Instead, I come here to savour the atmosphere, relax & enjoy the food. OK, there’s a little bit of work involved too but when the sun’s blazing down & its 32 degrees in the shade I don’t mind retreating to the cool of my hotel for a spell of writing & picture editing.
Much of the character of Georgetown is centred in the old town around the harbour and the serried streets of old Chinese shop-houses & colonial era buildings which still dominate this quarter of the city. Leavening the commercial world is a multitude of Chinese & Indian temples, mosques & churches, along with many ornate Chinese clan houses. Then there’s the bewildering variety of eateries, from humble street food stalls to fancy restaurants. It’s such a fascinating mix that in 2008 UNESCO designated it a world heritage site. Whilst the rest of Georgetown & the beach villages have expanded with skyscrapers mushrooming upwards all over the place, the roads around Little India and the backpackers’ area of Lebuh Chulia have remained substantially intact. Yet the feel of the place is slowly changing as more & more locals are priced out of the area & their former homes & shops are converted into boutique hotels, antique shops and the inevitable fancy coffee shops. I’m still not sure what I make of it as, on the plus side, it’s meant more derelict or decaying shop-houses have been restored (some splendidly so) to create jobs and employment. On the down side, some of the age old local character & community is being lost.
Of course, it’s not all been swept away. Sitting outside a bar on Lebuh Chulia with a cold beer is still a great way to pass the time & indulge in people watching, observing the melange of nationalities & income brackets that pass through. There are rich tourists from Europe & Asia, backpackers from all corners of the globe. There’s retired folks who’ve settled in Thailand who’re doing their visa runs and sun seekers who’ve come into town from the holiday hotels in Batu Ferrenghi. All rub shoulders with the local Chinese; Indians & Malays who’ve make Georgetown such a melting pot. Of course, this pot is spiced up by the near universal human vices of alcohol, gambling & sex! This may be an Islamic country but alcohol is easily available – if pricy. A big 660ml bottle of Tiger been will set you back around £3.00 on Chulia (and decidedly more in the swankier bars & restaurants). Muslims are banned from gambling but non-Muslims take a flutter on the lotteries & the Chinese (who are inveterate gamblers) frequent back street games. As for drugs, that’s a big no-no in Malaysia & seems to have disappeared completely from the early 90s when you’d still see hotel staff sitting round smoking dope with daring Westerners. No, the most common illicit activity around here is prostitution. The streets around Chulia have always had a reputation for ‘ladies of the night’ – although more than a few man have had an unexpected surprise when they discovered the attractive Asian girl they’d paid to dally with was no lady, but a man…
Most nights there’s still a few dozen ‘girls’ hanging around the street corners. Most are Chinese & Thai, whilst many of the genuine women are Indian. The staff at our hotel (where we had 3 Thai ‘ladyboys’ as guests) told us that prostitution is tolerated as long as it doesn’t get out of hand & become a nuisance. Somehow I can’t see that side of Georgetown changing for quite some time.
Exotic nightlife aside, one of the greatest reasons to come to Georgetown is to enjoy an activity that’s both legal & sublime: Eating. You’ll hear about that in part 2. Right now it’s time for us to shower & change before heading out to a family run restaurant to try Nyonya cuisine.
If you’d like to browse a selection of pictures from my various trips to Georgetown, click on this link to my website, where i’ve set up a gallery: