Penang, Malaysia: Quirky tour of George Town

"You'll be fainting over the historical sight on the next corner," my guide Mr Yeap predicts as we wander through George Town's historical quarter towards a Chinese clan house laden with contorted dragons and gold leaf. "I bet you a dinner that you'll be bowled over! But dinner is only 40 ringgit here," he laughs. "Maybe you aren't that cheap?"

I'm not that cheap, as it happens. I've spent much more than 40 ringgit ($10) in hiring Yeap Peng Hoe – Mr Yeap even to his mates, I imagine – as a guide for the afternoon. The returns on my investment are spectacular, though. Entertaining utterances spurt from Mr Yeap, who is a walking Google of information on George Town's cultural heritage. The capital of Malaysia's island state of Penang has a rich history and fabulous collision of cultures, and it takes an insider like Mr Yeap to unpeel its many layers and unearth its back-street oddities.

Our first stop is St Xavier's Institution, a private boys' school near my hotel. "If you stroll past in the early morning, you'll hear the melodious sound of Scottish bagpipers," says Mr Yeap, the first of many observations to combine posh, old-fashioned wording with a reverence for colonial habits that I never quite determine is genuine or subversive.

The school stands on Farquhar Street, one of many colonial-era street names hereabouts. "It's our illustrious history," says Mr Yeap without even the suggestion of a smirk.

Mr Yeap hasn't graduated from the dry-and-dreary school of tour guiding. He knows his history and architecture but peppers his insights with roguish anecdotes and arch innuendo. Love Lane runs up the side of St Xavier's, and I wonder how it got its name. "Sure enough if you come gallivanting around here in the evenings, you'll see the Madame Butterflies of the night come out to play," explains Mr Yeap coyly.

We continue past the state museum, a crumbling plasterwork beauty that once housed Penang Free School, where Mr Yeap was educated. In its courtyard sits a bullet-riddled Rolls-Royce in which a British governor-general was assassinated.

We move on to inspect the memorial plaques inside adjacent St George's Church.

"Look at the old English, the Queen's English, all of it only glorious history now," says Mr Yeap, though in fact the Queen's English is alive and well on his lips. The plaques, though, trumpet the colonial illusions of a vanished Victorian age. Governor Bruce, one plaque announces, was a man delighting in justice. According to another, Colonel Bannerman was a bloke of spotless integrity and unshaken public character.

St George's, completed in 1818, is the oldest Anglican church in south-east Asia. George Town was founded by Sir Francis Light of the British East India Company in 1786; his son William would later found Adelaide. ("To put it in perspective, Penang is two years older than Australia," Mr Yeap proudly points out.) The town centre towards the waterfront is filled with handsome white Georgian and Victorian buildings, including the grand courthouse just across the road.


Around the corner, however, we fall into another world. The Goddess of Mercy Temple, built in 1800, is announced by guardian lions and topped with writhing dragons. Flocks of pigeons and smoke from incense burners billow at its entrance, but Mr Yeap leads me to a quiet courtyard at the rear of the complex. "You can come here for your de-stressing amid this wonderful landscaping. I like to ring the temple bell to chase the demons away."

Across a side road stands a statue of Guanyin, and almost beside it a shrine to Ganesh tucked into the embrace of a banyan tree. Some of the flower sellers who provide the Hindu worshippers with marigold garlands are Muslims, as Mr Yeap notes from the Koranic verses tacked to their stalls. George Town is a place of seemingly comfortable coexistence.

It's been 20 years since I was last in George Town. The clacking printing presses, motorcycle repair shops and rattan furniture shores that I recall have mostly vanished, replaced with shops selling souvenirs or coffee or embroidered slippers. Indians still run the jewellery and money-changing stores, and dish up murtabak pancakes at street stalls. The dishevelled charm and bustle remains too. Sequined saris glitter on mannequins, incense wafts from house altars, metal ladles clank on woks. Chinese kowtow in temples and Malays flip-flop into mosques with freshly scrubbed faces.

Mr Yeap moves ever onwards, showing me the main sights but poking into unexpected corners, too. "Here you will see a thing of beauty, a little courtyard where you can admire the falling rain coming in," he says on the way to Sri Mariamman Temple. He pauses by nipple-popping ladies prancing in green and purple on the temple's walls. ("When you see Hindus dancing, it's always very robust.")

The frescoes are pure Las Vegas kitsch, but austere temple priests daubed in ash wear only white loincloths, mobile phones tucked into their folds.

Later we arrive at Khoo Kongsi, George Town's most elaborate clan house, draped in golden woodwork. Inside, the ancestral tablets of the Khoo family outline the educational achievements of its members, who attended universities all over the British Empire, from London to Madras and Adelaide. "Look at this, incorporating the lovely lines of history," says Mr Yeap, waving gleefully at the stone-carved morality tales that bedeck the clan house walls.

On we go down alleyways for a look at George Town's street art. An international competition in 2009 kick-started Penang's street art scene, and now the town is dotted with murals, interactive installations and metal-rod sculptures, many highlighting aspects of Penang's history.

Mr Yeap is constantly excited by other distractions, however, such as the witch doll behind the bar of the Edelweiss Cafe, which laughs and flashes red eyes when he claps his hands.

"Through the back lanes you see wonderful things, pieces of history," he cries, hurrying onwards. "Be a peeping Tom and look through here, you will see a Muslim tombstone just in the back of this shop!"

A sudden rain shower blooms and dies, adding to the battering humidity as we skulk under the arcades of Chinese shophouses. Steaming air rises from the roads, warm as a cat against my legs.

"Our skin is sweaty and slimy in this weather. But hopefully not smelly, I do have my deodorant on!" chirps Mr Yeap. He hovers on a corner, around which a breeze trickles.

"Stand here and I'm Bette Midler, I can feel the wind beneath my wings," he cries, holding his arms up. And such is the kooky enthusiasm of this expert guide that I follow suit, and almost burst into song.



​This large Thai Buddhist temple, decorated in gaudy red, blue and orange and guarded by fierce warrior statues, was founded in 1845. It houses an enormous reclining Buddha (the world's third largest) covered in gold leaf. Walls are decorated with frescoes outlining the life of Prince Siddhartha. Smaller temples and monks' quarters dot the expansive grounds.


If you haven't been to Myanmar then this is your chance to see one of the few Burmese Buddhist temples outside the country. Sculpted elephants guard the arched entrance and two gold stupas gleam. Landscaped gardens contain a fish pond, beautiful pagodas and a bell tower that provides pleasant views. Hundreds of Buddha statues run through an encyclopaedia of styles and poses.


Penang's oldest Hindu temple was built in 1883 in the heart of George Town. Its gopuram or ornamental gateway features colourful statues of animals and gods. The temple is the epicentre of George Town's most spectacular religious festival, Thaipusam, at the end of January, when penitents skewer body parts with metal hooks and parade through the streets beneath arches of peacock feathers.


Lodged at the foot of Penang Hill and commanding fine views, this Chinese temple dedicated to Kuan Yin, goddess of mercy, is garishly ornate and colourful. It was started in 1890 and is still ever expanding, with a whole complex of courtyards and temples decorated with more Buddha images than you could count in a week. Antique calligraphy scrolls decorate the walls and turtles plop in ponds.


The Temple of the Azure Cloud, as it's properly known, isn't particularly interesting for its architecture – unless you haven't seen many Chinese temples – but is a tourist attraction for its reptilian inhabitants. It lays claim to being the only snake temple in the world. Emerald-green, highly venomous (but defanged) pit vipers lurk in the shadows. Pythons are draped around visitors' necks for selfies.




Mr Yeap or other guides can be booked through Penang Heritage Trust, a non-profit NGO dedicated to the preservation of Penang. Premium heritage walks cost $60 per person (minimum of two people). Phone +60 4 264 2632. See


The carefully renovated Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion is a grand Chinese-style courtyard house with quite a history, highlighted on daily in-house tours. It sits within easy walking distance of historical George Town. The east-west fusion cuisine of its Indigo restaurant is excellent. Rooms from $140. Phone +604 262 0006. See


Malaysia Airlines flies from Adelaide, Darwin, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney to Kuala Lumpur, with onward domestic connections to Penang. Phone 13 26 27. See

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Malaysia Airlines, Tourism Malaysia and Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion but paid for his own tour.