George Town and the Highland Way

If we found Langkawi lacking in the way of a true Malaysian experience, then George Town, on the island of Penang, was a more than just compensation for this deficiency. They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. It didn’t take much; after the first lunch I yielded my heart willingly to this beautiful old colonial gem. The British established the town as a trading post at the end of the 18th Century when the Sultan of Kedah accepted an offer of ‘protection’ against neighbouring Siamese invaders made by a Colonel Francis Light, illegitimate offspring of an unknown father, from Woodbridge, Suffolk. Light set off to earn his fortune with the East India Company and was sent to Phuket from where he travelled down the coast and recognised the strategic and trade potential of Penang. Local legend tells how, in order to clear some jungle to make a stockade for his base, he had a ships cannon fire a load of silver coins into the area. He then told the natives they could keep whatever they found and so the ground was quickly cleared for what eventually would become Fort Cornwallis. This developed into George Town, which soon became a major port and naval base serving British interests in the region right through until Malayan Independence in 1957.

Francis Light was a fascinating character. He was unusual for his time in that he mastered both Thai and Malay languages, which gave him a lot of advantage when dealing with native rulers. He had no authority to make any kind of offer on behalf of the British Government with any Sultan; this was just a ruse to get his foot on the island. When the Siamese invaded, the forces of Kedah faced them alone with no support from their ‘new’ ally. Once the dust had settled on the war with Siam the Sultan decided to teach the British a lesson and sent an invasion fleet of Sampans against the fort, which were utterly destroyed by a few broadsides from warships at anchor there. Eventually a formal treaty was drawn up whereby the British agreed to pay the Sultan a sum of 6000 Spanish Silver Dollars per annum for the island of Penang and this fee is still paid today by the government in Kuala Lumpur. Light married a Eurasian lady of Portuguese / Thai parentage called Martina Rozells and had a brood of children with her. As she was Catholic, the marriage was not recognised by the authorities of the day so when Light died in his early fifties from malaria one of his friends moved in and took over all of his property leaving Martina penniless. She soon married another gentleman of wealth so there was a reasonably happy ending. One of Light’s offspring would become the first Surveyor general of Western Australia and founder of the city of Adelaide.

Today Fort Cornwallis is still there at the tip of a low-lying headland, surrounded by a network of cosy-snug streets lined with old Chinese shop-fronts that make up the ancient quarter of a town that oozes with atmosphere, yet on arrival it looked anything but. We rode across the magnificent Penang Bridge, one of two modern constructions that join the island to the mainland, to be confronted with a modern skyline replete with a concrete jungle of skyscrapers and apartment blocks that are home to half a million people in the greater metropolitan area of modern George Town. We soon spilled off the four-lane highway into the maze of narrow old-town streets that eventually led us to the Sovereign hotel and a warm welcome from a lovely lady named simply ‘V’.  First stop was a trip to Tourist Information down by the Fort where the two lovely smiling ladies who worked there quickly had us festooned with maps and advice on how best to tackle the city delights.

George Town is an epicurean paradise and rightful food capital of Malaysia. On emerging into the street, ones nostrils are gently forked by wafts of food being cooked, demanding you follow those luscious vapors whilst mouthing the war cry of the gastronome over and over; ‘Om Nom Nom…’ The trail threads through byways choked with food vendors operating from little handcarts and motorcycle restaurants where the entire apparatus to cook and serve scrumptious food is strapped to a ‘wee’ bike, mainly the ubiquitous Honda C70. Each vendor seems to specialise in one dish only and all over the city there is an astonishing variety of rice (Nasi) and noodles (Mee). Our favourite was one of the most ‘Om Nom Nom’ breakfast dishes ever; Nasi Lemak; rice boiled in coconut milk served with a topping of cucumber all pimped with roasted peanuts and a spicy anchovy / chili paste. This is made into a little pyramid and topped with a boiled egg before wrapping in banana leaf to seal-in all those juices and flavours. It makes every breakfast like a birthday with a little present to open and, while the ingredients may be the same, the combination is different making for a new food sensation at the start of each day.

But just to wander the labyrinth of narrow streets of George Town is bliss in itself hugging the merciful shade of colonial five-foot walkways. These are a British innovation, whereby all shops had to be fronted by a covered sidewalk with a minimum width of five feet across to provide pedestrians some relief from the sweltering sun (and frequent downpours during Monsoon season). Their stylish archways and stunning tiled pavements make it a photographer’s paradise. Once suitably gorged on foody goodies you can walk the calories off by following the extensive art trail, including a number of inspiring and interactive murals by Lithuanian born artist Ernest Zacharevic (check out his ‘Boy on a Motorcycle’ in the photogallery). Small wonder this place is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were absolutely delighted therefore to secure a ‘Workaway’ place at the world famous Nazlina Cookery School providing us a great base to further explore the city and an opportunity to delve deeper into its cuisine, but that will be for the future; we met Nazlina and agreed to return here in October, when she will be back from a trip to Europe…

Before that we had arranged another ‘Workaway’ up in the Cameron Highlands at a place called the De Native Guesthouse in the little mountain town of Tanah Rata. We left George Town early on a Sunday morning and rode south along the east coast of Penang to exit the island by the second of the two bridges; the grandly titled and utterly spectacular ‘Sultan Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah Bridge’. Why ‘spectacular’? Well the bridge is a whopping seventeen kilometers / ten and a half miles long, as it snakes across the sea to reach the mainland. It even has a dedicated motorcycle lane all cordoned off from the rest of the traffic. In fact Malaysia, is one of the most motorcycle friendliest places we’ve ever been. All highways are toll-free for bikes and there are purpose built shelters and pull-offs under bridges for when it is raining, so you can either wait out a heavy shower or pull in to get some wet-gear on. Rejoined with the mainland we rode south and then turned inland and east to ascend into the Cameron Highlands, reaching an altitude of around 1200m, which promised a cooler environment for sleeping than we’ve been used to of late.

The highlands themselves are full of more echoes of empire; quaint cottages with mock Tudor-beam facades, Victorian hotels festooned with wrought iron work and a number of tea plantations complete with tearooms offering afternoon tea complete with scones and strawberry jam. As with places like Darjeeling and Shimla in India, the area was a popular hill-station due to those cooler climes and the sons of empire settled here in their droves. Sadly today a lot of the landscape has been marred by the awful greyness of poly-tunnel farms. Whilst they grow a rich variety of everything from tomatoes and cabbages to tasty strawberries, in places they have despoiled entire vistas. The road network is small and winding making for our first serious congestion in a long time so it was with some relief that we spotted the sign for ‘De Native’ immediately on entering Tanah Rata.

We followed a narrow, twisting road for a short distance and then tackled the sheer drive up through densely jungled hillside to our new home. On past the gateway we passed a small shrine to Babaji with beautiful views over the town below before riding into the parking area where we disturbed a number of sleepy dogs. Off the bikes we were soon surrounded by wagging tails and friendly smiles as we shook hands with Krish, the owner, and met Steph and Daryl, a young couple from Cornwall / Fareham, our working buddies for the next few weeks. Duties were fairly easy, just keeping the place tidy and making up vacated rooms so they were ready for the next guests. De Native has three largish mixed dormitories and half a dozen fully en-suite, ‘glamping’ style, bamboo chalets. There is a bar and a fire pit where staff and incumbents gathered around the little bonfire in the cold evenings for a beer and a natter.

De Native was brilliantly placed as a jump-off point for a number of spectacular jungle trail-hikes in the area. Our first was Trail 9, the start of which was only a ten-minute walk from the guesthouse. A small path chased an old water pipe out to the quite beautiful Robinson Falls and then meandered on along the edge of a valley through dense jungle. At times the way seemed blocked by fallen trees across the path but a quick scramble up and over soon had us on our way. Eventually we found our way out of the bush into a small farm nestled along the bottom of the valley where they were growing gourd, cabbage and onions.   A few days later, Trail 1, was a much more challenging prospect as it climbed out of the nearby town of Brinchang to ascend Gunung Brinchang, a 2000m peak that overlooked the town. Again a well-marked trail through dense jungle but this time with a steep ascent most of the way, in places so steep that knotted ropes had been installed to aid climbing some of the more challenging sections. It was also very muddy due to recent rains and took around two hours to make it to the top, followed by a three-hour descent down a winding mountain road that led us through the Boh tea plantation for a deserved cuppa and mouth-watering cheesecake taken at the beautiful restaurant that overhangs the tea plants. These jungle trails were well marked and easy to follow for the most part so there was no repeat of our getting lost as happened at Khao Sok in Thailand. The foliage and form of the riotous plants with their glossy pointy leaves was soothing on the eye and here and there brilliant coloured flowers shone out from the greenery like little jewels. Running ones eye from the path to the heavens scans an ascent of monster tree-trunks reaching ever skywards, with here and there the slash of some fallen trunk propped up against his neighbours like a drunken giant, the lot draped and hung in jungle finery of vine and runner like a ghost-ships graveyard with a tattered disgrace of masts, spars and rigging.

Back at De Native in time for dinner: we generally cooked and dined with our ‘Workaway’ buddies and supped on discount beer courtesy of Krish who looked after his crew well. Then back to the fire to meet the days new arrivals followed by a round of the day’s tales and the ear of a friendly mutt to rub. We spent three weeks at De Native but looking back it seems much longer as it was one of those places where one could really unwind and watch the trickle of the grains of sand slow in their downward fall through the hourglass of life as if magically retarded by the company of good companions… So why would you leave such a place? Well, every time we sniffed the aroma of food in the pan, the haunting refrain of “Om Nom Nom” would rise and remind us we had an appointment with Nazlina in George Town. Time to go back to school…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed at George Town and the Highland Way

3 thoughts on “George Town and the Highland Way

  1. Excellent piece – it made me very nostalgic for George Town! Lovely to have met you there. Look forward to hearing about the rest of your journey!


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