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Culture vultures

Part Seven: Taking the George Town Heritage Tour

Sheryl Drane and Matt Lee July 2, 2014

Binh Tay Market Ho Chi Minh City

After our night in Batu Ferringhi, we were looking forward to visiting the historic streets of George Town and learning all about its rich heritage. We all piled in the bus along with Andy, our driver and guide for the day, who was just as lovely and helpful as all our other former guides. 

It was only a 20 minute drive to George Town but architectural changes were still noticeable as you drew nearer. The architecture around George Town is an intriguing fusion of colonial-fronted residential buildings with modern, commercialised high-rises ‘added on’. We later discovered this was due to the colonial buildings being protected but, oddly enough, not the surrounding land, which led to the marriage of new and old. 
Our first was at a Tua Pek Kong temple named the Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple, which was built by Chinese immigrants almost 165 years ago as a Hokkien secret society headquarters. As we wandered around the outside, we spotted a multitude of incredible street art hidden from passers-by and just had to take a few photos. Then we were whisked away to another lavish Chinese temple named Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi. Established in 1835, its intricate carving, wood work and porcelain decoration made it unforgettable.
One of the strangest parts of the tour was arriving at Pinang Peranakan Mansions and being told how chickens are used in Minnan wedding ceremonies (it’s a long story!). The mansions themselves hold over 1000 pieces of antiques and collectible items from the Baba and Nyonyas communities.
Andy then dropped us at Chew Jetty, one of the biggest waterfront settlements in George Town. This is where, fatefully, Anne bought us some Durian Puffs (she had been wanting Durian fruit since we got here seven days ago). The Malaysian Durian fruit is notorious for its odour and forbidden in many places due to its stench. Wikipedia provides graphic descriptions of the smell, including how it compares to “sewage and stale vomit.” Three of the six of us tried one, with Anne eating four of them! Although each of us pulled a face when chomping down on it, it wasn’t unbearable. Having said this, it’s not likely any of us would eat it again!
Andy dropped us at a local street food market for lunch. We each ordered a dish called Hokkien Mee (egg noodles and rice noodles stir-fried with egg, slices of pork, prawns and squid, and served and garnished with vegetables, small pieces of lard, sambal sauce and lime) which cost just five Malaysian Ringgits (less than a pound!).
The tour culminated with a trip to the iconic Wat Chayamangkalaram, a Buddhist temple which was officially given its site by Queen Victoria in 1845. Inside is a 33 metre, beautifully gold-plated reclining Buddha statue, the third largest of its kind in the world. We all loved it here as it had such a serene vibe. We each bought a couple of ornaments from a market stall by the side of the road and gave some money to a couple of street beggars, inspired by a Buddhist monk performing the same act of kindness earlier in the day.
Overall, the George Town tour was fascinating and hugely enjoyable. We’d heartily recommend it to anyone travelling or staying nearby. If there’s only one thing on your list to do in Penang make it the George Town Tour.